Good news for fans of the horror-comedy anthology series this month: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are working on a new series for BBC2, and In The Gloaming is returning with a new episode to the Leicester Square Theatre at the end of October. Admittedly, those two pieces of news might not have quite the same impact, but with the success of last year’s Black Mirror, it’s a hopeful sign that the horror-comedy anthology series might be on the way back.
It’s a format that, just a couple of years ago, seemed irretrievably lost. In the arc-heavy, densely-plotted world of television of the 2000s, the idea that you wouldn’t continue a story from week to week seemed like a quaint anachronism, one of things you were able to do in television’s infancy, but that had been superseded, like a clock to count you down to the programme’s start or actors who hadn’t eaten worms in a jungle.
Shows that were held up as the epitome of the new storytelling – 24, Lost, Heroes – had taken the twist ending to beloved of anthology shows, but used it to drive you into next week’s episode, rather than nastily rounding things off for the audience and trusting they’d come back for more. The showrunner who seemed to be the most direct descendant of Rod Serling – J.J. Abrams – was held up as an example of why shows like The Twilight Zone just weren’t feasible any more.
The 1990s saw revivals of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and the creation of Tales From The Crypt in the US. In Britain we had Murder Most Horrid, which ran for four series and won a British Comedy Award, but it pretty much stood alone*. Hammer House Of Horror and Tales Of The Unexpected had given up the ghost, and there was nothing to fill their shoes.
There were a couple of attempts to revive the format in the early 2000s. It’s diffiocult to know whether or not to count Dr Terrible’s House Of Horrible as a proper horror-comedy anthology series because it’s a spoof. The jokes come mainly from the way in which they parody actual anthology series (and lots of knob gags), rather than from the stories themselves.
It’s difficult not to drift into spoof sometimes, though. Particularly in its titles, Murder Most Horrid often made fun of the conventions of the murder-mystery. The League Of Gentlemen Christmas Special (much like The Simpsons‘ Treehouse Of Horror series) are all the more effective for having a stock bag of horror cliches to play with.
In In The Gloaming we made a conscious effort to avoid spoof, but sometimes the comedy relies on your awareness of the genre, and your audience’s awareness of the genre. Even so, listening back, there’s one joke in ‘Dead Skinny’ that only works as a take on the old ‘disappearing shop’ bit (and which, in retrospect, The Simpsons also mocked in their ‘Monkey’s Paw’ episode.)
The third series of The League of Gentlemen was a comedy-horror anthology series, tied together with the motif of the crashing van, and it was an interesting development from the more sketchy format of the first two series. BBC Three also had a go at the format with Spine Chillers, which I never saw (2003 was something of a ‘lost year’ for me. I am reasonably reliably informed that it was much like 2002 and 2004).
And that was pretty much it for a decade. Not only was it not attempted, but it was thought of as impossible.
I first developed In the Gloaming as a series of shorts for Comedybox in 2007/8. When that inevitably went the way of all sites that were producing internet comedy (and not allowing you to embed the videos) during 2008 that was one of the projects that sank with it.
After doing Tonightly I reworked it as a television pitch, and took it to a few TV production companies in the autumn of 2008. Everyone thought it would be far too expensive (which may well have been a nice way of saying, “We saw Tonightly. No thank you.”) and it wasn’t the sort of thing anyone was looking for.
At around the same time I went to a BAFTA screening of Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, which had a Q&A after it. At that, he mentioned that he was working in something like Tales Of The Unexpected. I gave a grim chuckle. Horror anthology series seemed dead in the water. (Which would be an episode where a businessman in a yacht rescues a drowning man far out at sea, only to discover that he’s his exact doppleganger…)
There was a place, of course, for the anthology series. On the radio. BBC Radio Seven (what is now Four Extra) had revived The Man In Black with none other than Mark Gatiss in the titular role. So, in 2009, we decided to do In The Gloaming as a series of audio podcasts. We had great casts (Michael Greco, Lizzie Roper, Darren Strange, Ruth Bratt, John Voce, Rachel Stubbings), and we won some awards, but, for too many reasons to list here, we only managed to do four episodes.
Fast forward two years: Black Mirror is filming its second series, Happy Endings will be coming out next year, and there are brand new episode of In The Gloaming live in London.
It’s a great time to be a horror-comedy fan.
And I can finally use the sign-off line I never dared use on any of the podcasts:
“You won’t know whether to piss yourself or shit yourself.”
Good night. Mhwah ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaa!
* Incidentally, my father-in-law played a Chinnery-esque butcher in an episode of Murder Most Horrid. You can see him here:
- Halloween Season For Horror Writers: The List Of Who’s Accepting (aknifeandaquill.wordpress.com)
- Matt Reeves Passes on Directing ‘The Twilight Zone’ (screenrant.com)
- New In The Gloaming! Live at the Leicester Square Theatre! (inthegloamingpodcasts.wordpress.com)