When the survivor of a brutal sexual assault is told that her attacker has been caught, she has reason to think he is still at large and takes action. RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES embarks on series four of Thriller and its opening story, Screamer.
TITLE: Thriller – Screamer
BROADCAST: 4 January 1975
STARRING: Pamela Franklin, Donal McCann, Frances White, Jim Norton
WRITER: Brian Clemens
DIRECTOR: Shaun O’Riordan
It’s night time, and Nicola (Franklin) is making her way from the train station to the home of her friends Jeff and Virna (McCann and White respectively). Finding it empty, she lets herself in, but realises she has been followed back by a man who was travelling in the same train compartment. As he approaches her, Nicola screams.
Come the morning, Jeff and Virna return to find their home trashed, blood caked on the walls and a traumatised and badly beaten Nicola, apparently the victim of a brutal rape.
After a convalescent stay at a psychiatric facility, the police assure Nicola that her attacker has been arrested but she is not convinced, not when she is certain that she has seen him at work in a nearby village.
Nicola decides to exact revenge on her assailant, but any closure she might have hoped for is short lived when she sees him again, seemingly alive and well…
On the surface, Screamer might appear to be a slightly problematic episode of Thriller in today’s climate, employing as it does a rape victim as a plot device, and it’s somewhat cringe inducing when an elderly lady, discussing the rapist on the loose opines to Nicola: “I suppose if it happened to me at my age, I could take it as a compliment”. However, it must be considered that what is now thought to be politically incorrect was not always so.
Let’s look at the story in the context of mid-1970’s Britain: This was a time when it was considered acceptable to use the term “rape” in a comedy context on television (I kid you not), and the word was casually bandied about by laddish blokes as something they might like to do to a lady they found attractive (again, and somewhat despairingly I kid you not).
Unsurprisingly, there was growing concern that sexual violence was not being treated seriously enough by the criminal justice system, with rape being cited as the most under-reported violent crime in Britain and successful convictions falling from 33% to 24% over a 15-year period.
Against that background, Screamer raises its head above the parapet with much in its favour: The character of Nicola is presented sympathetically (Pamela Franklin gives an admirably strong performance), and her case is taken seriously by the local police, even if the manner of Inspector Holt (Derek Smith) seems inappropriately cheery.
It’s also refreshing in a show of this vintage to see a strong female police officer who is able to apprehend a sexual assault suspect single-handedly (and indeed with force) and is entrusted by her superiors to go undercover alone, although it might well be argued that sending her into action without recourse to any back-up is extremely irresponsible.
Victim Support seems to be an alien concept in this neck of the woods, but the same might have been said then for Britain as a whole and whilst one might wonder why Nicola’s doctors don’t insist on the clearly unready Nicola staying in their care (or why she would be encouraged to go driving alone after having a screaming fit), it should be equally considered that our attitudes to mental health have evolved greatly in the intervening years.
If Screamer makes for occasionally uncomfortable viewing today, it is because it holds up a mirror to society as it was then. We may not like what we see, but nor should we pretend that things were never that way and if taken in the spirit in which it was intended (as a good mystery story, nothing more or less) Screamer actually emerges with substantially more credit than some other shows of the period depicting victims of sexual assault whilst its denouement, if not a total surprise to mystery TV fans (see trivia note) is bold enough to challenge the viewer’s preconceptions of the events they have just witnessed.
Meanwhile, its fourth series now underway, Thriller would make a welcome return to supernatural territory for its next tale.
TRIVIA NOTES: Pamela Franklin had previously starred in the Clemens-penned film And Soon The Darkness (1970), something of a dry run for the Thriller series’ house-style.
The later new titles produced for the re-cut US TV-movie version undo any good intentions by providing a lurid depiction of the rapist attacking an earlier victim. Tacky, unnecessary and unwelcome, one can only wonder what those responsible were thinking.
Finally (potential spoiler alert here), I mentioned that the denouement may not be a total surprise to TV mystery fans: There are interesting parallels to be drawn between Screamer and Revenge, a story by Samuel Blas which formed the basis of the classic, very first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, directed by Hitchcock himself in 1955. Clemens was a massive admirer of Hitchcock, and Screamer might be considered one of his nods to his hero.