Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Nightmare Man

A remote Scottish island is quietly settling down for the winter, but amidst the fog that envelopes the island, something horrific is on the prowl. A slavering, monstrous 'creature' has killed twice, leaving just a trace of radiation, gruesome dismembered corpses and a baffled local police force.

A flickery film of one of the murders seems to show a terrifying, shadowy monster. But could this brutal killer really br from another world? And can it be stopped before it inflicts more carnage on this lonely island?

So says the blurb on the back of the 2005 DVD release of the 4 part 1981 BBC serial The Nightmare Man, an adaptation of David Wiltshire's 1978 novel Child Of Vodyanoi.

Being in a classic TV and sci fi horror mood of late, I returned to this DVD having not watched it in a number of years.

I know it's a cliche to say 'they don't make them like this anymore' but they really don't in this case. When did you last see a horror series on BBC1 in four 30 minute parts? That type of TV just doesn't exist now, it would be two one hour parts. And shot on film. This series is done entirely on videotape which at the time was quite rare in that most serials were shot on both film and video; video for interiors, usually recorded on set at BBC Television Centre, Pebble Mill or some such place, and film for exterior scenes on location. Videotape was rather naively, in the 1980s, thought to be the future of TV, so this was quite a bold modernistic shoot. Of course now everything - barring soap operas -  is either shot on film or, on tape still, but given a film effect.

I'd also imagine this adaptation to be filmed nowadays in the exact location, with the BBC sending cast and crew up to the Outer Hebrides for realism but here, Cornwall's Port Isaac and its surrounding areas doubled for the fictional isle of Inverdee. 

Wiltshire's novel places a dentist in the leading role. Amusingly, this is because Wiltshire himself was actually a dentist and, because he had always felt the occupation to have a bad rep, he would often make his heroes dentists! The role here is taken by James Warwick, a typical lantern jawed smoothie with a military bearing who cropped up in a lot of television of that era but does much less on these shores now, seemingly having emigrated Stateside primarily to teach I think. He's joined here by a very young and very busty Celia Imrie as his girlfriend (much is made of her cleavage in a revealing little black dress in the debut episode) Fiona, the redoubtable island girl and chemist. Maurice Roeves plays the island's chief of police, Inspector Inskip and he's ably assisted by renowned Scottish heavy James Cosmo as his sergeant. Another Scottish great, and a favourite of mine, Tom Watson plays the pathologist Doctor Goudry and Jonathan Newth plays holidaying military man Col Howard who arouses suspicion wherever he goes. In smaller spit and cough roles as coastguards you'll see Ronald Forfar (Bread's Freddie Boswell) and a young Jeff Stewart (Reg Hollis from The Bill)

The adaptation was written by Doctor Who veteran Robert Holmes. Before becoming a fine scriptwriter, Holmes had been in the army, the police force and a journalist. He was regarded as distinctly unflappable and a safe pair of hands, with a penchant for dark humour and double acts in his fiction. The double act flavour appears here care of Roeves and Cosmo, who also get the best cynically funny one liners. It was directed by another Who luminary Douglas Camfield, a man who treated all his shoots like a military exercise. As such the use of soldiers in this piece is spot on.

Watching it back over the last couple of days has been quite enjoyable. At half hour instalments the show never outstays its welcome, but I can't help feeling the slightly anemic tale is stretched out a little too thinly. There's a clear pacing issue which means all the twists and turns - and there are quite a few - appear alongside the big reveal in the last episode, making it all feel a bit rushed and pat sadly. It's the opening episodes that are the most satisfying, taking time to establish the claustrophobic remote setting and puzzling story. At first it resembles at a typical murder mystery before, come episode two, the audience begins to realise there's a stranger aspect to the violence being played out. 

Shown over four Fridays at 8:20pm, BBC1 from 1st May to 22nd May 1981, the serial averaged around 6 million viewers and a strong appreciation index. It sold well internationally but for some reason the beeb kept it locked away for decades, never repeating it. It didn't resurface until the aforementioned DVD release (alongside other sci fi classic serials like Quatermass, A For Andromeda, The Flip Side Of Dominick Hide and Day Of The Triffids - all excellent) eight years ago. Nevertheless it's a serial fondly remembered by those who saw it, the overriding memory being the killer's POV shots during the murders; the screen drenched in haemorrhage red.

And if you don't want to know the score, look away now

Was it an alien? Nah. The killer (played by legendary extra Pat Gorman) was in fact a Russian pilot testing a new sea/air nuclear craft 'The Vodyanoi' (Russian for fabled marine inhabitants) who had crashed ashore and sustaining injuries and severe radiation, gone mad. Col Howard, the ever so British officer who just mysteriously happened to be on the island, steps in at the start of episode 4 to show his true khaki colours and place everyone under martial law as they track down the killer. He then goes on to show his real true colours; he may seem ever so British but he's actually Russian, as are the troops he brings to shore. They're all trying to recapture their top secret Vodyanoi and return it back to the USSR. The killer reappears and slays his superior officer, 'Howard', leaving James Warwick's dentist (and, handily, former soldier) to pump a round of bullets into the killer thus ending his campaign of terror and bringing the island back to normal. The end.


  1. Yes, the denouement was a bit pat, but the setup/setting very good. I was fifteen when it aired and the (admittedly stilted) capture of the beast's attack on the ornithologist, and its later reviewing by the principals, freaked me.

    1. That's a brilliant scene where they join up the audio with the slides. Good actors though, makes all the difference.