Created by Brian Clemens – ‘Thriller’

Brian Clemens 1976

Brian Clemens died on January 10th at the age of 83.  His name is inextricably linked with television action-adventure and crime series of the 60s and 70s from Danger Man and Adam Adamant Lives to The Professionals.  Surely his most notable achievement remains The Avengers, a series so innovative and original it almost defines 60s cool.  Clemens himself was responsible for casting Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.

But for me, the name Brian Clemens is most closely associated with the 1973-76 ATV series Thriller.  Clemens created Thriller, wrote the majority of its 43 episodes and storyboarded the others, adding to his already prolific output.

Thriller had a number of good things going for it.  Each episode lasted seventy-five broadcast minutes (typically 65 minutes without commercial breaks), a very specific and unusual length for a British TV drama series.  That schedule-stretching extra twenty minutes seemed to symbolise the import of the series and, when well used, allowed room for a mood of mystery or menace to slowly develop.

Harpsichord stings

Even the shrill blasts of the ATV ident seemed to announce a deliciously terrifying seventy-five minutes was in store.

ThrillerThen there was Laurie Johnson’s doom laden opening music – creepy woodwind and those dreaded dissonant ‘ker-drrrrmmm!’ harpsichord stings accompanying a blood red framed, fish-eyed view of the locations to come – a forbidding old house (often with pillars) or bare trees clawing at a wintry sky.

The anthology format of self-contained episodes had the advantage of providing fresh actors in a new story each week.  It’s a shame that this flexible but reliable format has virtually vanished from television screens today.

Casts were stuffed with well known names – Dinsdale Landen, Peter Vaughan, Hayley Mills, Jenny Agutter, Jeremy Brett, Nyree Dawn Porter, Patrick Allen, Richard Todd, Patrick Troughton, Diana Dors, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Denholm Elliott to name but a handful.  To help sales to the States, American actors were planted in some episodes which could make for a slightly contrived feel.

Having seen the entire Thriller series on DVD forty years later, it’s a largely positive experience.  Unfortunately the series lacks the charm of The Avengers and there is a sense that the gin-and-jag world it portrays is a pretty corrupt place where seemingly anyone is prepared to kill, usually for money.

Some of the characters feel interchangeable but that could be down to box-set syndrome.

I don’t have a problem with the studio-bound sets which are actually pretty lavish by 1970s’ TV standards and were something of a hallmark of ATV.

Experiments with supernatural-themed stories work rather less well and the series feels on a firmer footing when these are phased out though Diana Dors is creepily enjoyable as evil nurse Bessie in Nurse Will Make It Better (1975).

I feel a little uneasy that a prevalent theme is a female menaced by a male (Clemens claimed audiences identify more closely with the vulnerability of a female lead) but my favourite Thriller, A Coffin for the Bride  (1974), turns the tables magnificently.

The series can descend into schlock, sometimes nerve-rackingly so as in A Killer in Every Corner (1975) with Max Wall’s first straight role as an obsessive shoe-polishing psychopath much talked about at the time.

When Thriller was sold to the States as a collection of standalone made for TV movies, the atmospheric original titles and music were excised to be replaced by truly terrible garishly coloured openers with generic music plastered over the top and some episodes renamed.  British TV viewers got to see these cheap and nasty versions when Thriller surfaced sporadically across the ITV regions around 1981 though many viewers would have missed these repeats altogether as there was little indication they belonged to the 70s Brian Clemens series.  Thankfully the Network DVD release restores the original fish-eye credits though the export versions are included as extras if you can stomach them.

Several Thrillers do stand out. Here are my two favourites.

The Eyes Have It

I missed the majority of Thrillers first time round.  Nine year olds were not the target audience (although, surprisingly, some episodes began as early as 8.15, well before the 9pm watershed).

But I did get to see one of the best stories, 1973’s The Eyes Have It on a 1975 repeat.   The sense of excitement at being allowed to stay up to watch this adult drama – and it felt exceedingly ‘adult’ – was immense and, that night, Thriller certainly did not disappoint.  A certain aura surrounded the series, handed down from parents and passed around in gossip at school and it felt great to at last be inducted into this exclusive club.

In 1975, The Eyes Have It thrilled and terrified me in equal measure.  The clichés of ‘glued to my seat’ and ‘unable to look away from the screen’ could not be more apt.  My childhood favourite, Dr Who, was moving into its Gothic period at this time which meant more realistic portrayals of the darker side of human nature in stories like ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (Sarah being sadistically dangled high over the edge of a rocket’s scaffolding, Nyder’s cruelly complicit smile as the Daleks’ slaughter commences).  In many ways Thriller felt like a natural step-up and satisfied a need in me to be both chilled and excited in greater measures.

The Eyes Have It pre-credits teaser (a key aspect of the series) shows us a doctor murdered by strangers as a young woman stands by apparently unconcerned.  The killer waves his hand across her line of vision as she continues to smile.  Only then, after this unnerving opening does the camera pan to ‘Clinical Training Centre for the Blind’ and we’re into the title sequence.

A group of terrorists have infiltrated the school because its location offers an ideal vantage point from which to carry out an assassination.  The story is of how the blind students gradually become aware of what is happening and, despite the odds being severely against them, seek to overcome the terrorists.

The acting (Peter Vaughan, Sinead Cusack, William Marlowe, Denis Waterman) is very good and there are some wonderfully poignant scenes which stick in the memory, such as the students continuing life as usual while, unbeknown to them, the body of the doctor lies only feet away.  In another nail-biting scene, one of the students seeks help from a stranger only to realise from the familiar feel of his ring that he is one of the terrorists.  The precision of the storytelling and the sense of menace is almost palpable.

A Coffin for the Bride

Once you get over the slightly tacky double murder scenes at the start, this opens out into a thoroughly original mystery.  Michael Jayston plays Mark Walker, a charmer who makes a living out of marrying and then murdering wealthy women.  But his well oiled schemes fall apart when he meets the beautiful Stella Mackenzie (there’s a clue in her being a set designer…)

A Coffin for the Bride relies hugely for its effectiveness on a strong performance from its female lead and a young Helen Mirren is terrific.  I can’t say too much here for fear of spoiling your enjoyment if you’ve not seen it.  Suffice it to say that the ending is as devastating as it is completely unforeseen (well, by me, anyway though I do think Mark might have noticed those dentures before they are pulled out on him).

I played this story a second time and noticed a crucially placed lookalike figure in the background at the health resort.  Whether this passer-by is a purely incidental inclusion or a deliberate one, her presence acts as a subliminal decoy, steering you off the scent of what’s really happening and making the outcome all the more shocking. Subtle and clever.  I got as much enjoyment seeing A Coffin for the Bride for a second time just to enjoy the careful setting up of the story at each stage.

A Coffin for the Bride is reputedly Brian Clemens’ own favourite from the series.

The wrap-up

In some ways, Thriller reminds me of a traditional ‘good night out,’ at a provincial theatre where thrillers have long been a production mainstay and always seem to star Gerald Harper or Christopher Cazenove.  The mood would be one of deadly melodrama threatening to burst through English middle-class self-restraint.

It’s quite rare to see anything approaching genuine psychological motivation in thrillers (Psycho, is a notable exception) and to an extent you have to accept the limitations of the genre to enjoy this collection too.  The thrills are indeed psychological but they stem from imposed plot devices rather than from characters of subtlety and complexity. Thriller takes a premise, setups a scenario which implies a certain endgame and then deliberately subverts that or, in some cases such as I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill (1974), simply plays it out relentlessly.

Thriller Box setYou can enjoy the sense of manipulation when it’s in the name of suspense – and suspense, Thriller delivers in spade-loads.

For all the thrills you could ever want, visit the Thriller website.

The entire series is available on DVD box set.