‘Spine Chillers: A BBC Radio 4 Horror Collection’ audiobook review

In the run-up to Hallowe’en, BBC Audio has published some timely classic radio dramas from a 1984 anthology series called ‘Spine Chillers’ for you to enjoy. The four creepy tales are ideal for a dark and rainy autumnal night. Listen from the safety of your home or through your earphones to truly immerse yourself!

Each drama runs to around three quarters of an hour, ensuring that ‘Spine Chillers’ provides three hours worth of spooky entertainment. Each story is united by a theme of ‘home’ or the search for a sense of place and belonging.

First up is ‘Figures’, in which Anna Massey (‘Frenzy’) takes the lead role. She plays the unhappy Ann, escaping from a failed marriage with her daughter Rebecca. Moving house to start a new life for herself, little does she realise that she will be haunted by her past – or is it her future? This outing succeeds by creating and sustaining an uncomfortable atmosphere. Measured in its effectiveness in providing scares, is perhaps the strongest story in the collection. A performer of Anna Massey’s talent is able to bring a lot of vulnerability to the part of Ann.

The second story, ‘Mrs M’, offers the most comic relief, and even, unusually for the time, some regional accents. It leans into the popular horror cliche of a lost driver finding a place to stay off the beaten track (most effectively pulled off by Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Psycho’). Rather than a creepy motel, the remote lodging in this one is a country guesthouse. All of the guests appear to be content. The landlady, Mrs Meadowsweet, is as delightful as her name suggests. Or is she? Just what is going on at the guesthouse, and why are the visitors’ memories suddenly so unreliable? Rosemary Leach (‘The Jewel in the Crown’) plays Mrs Meadowsweet and switches perfectly between sincere and sinister.

‘Origami’ also finds a stranger coming to town. Mr Shimojo, an affable Japanese man, comes to stay with Mrs Bestall and befriends her daughter, teaching the child the art of paper folding. But events from a war diary start to cloud the present. This story finds actor Sean Barrett delivering an authentic Japanese accent that may nevertheless be frowned upon in these more culturally sensitive times. The premise of the story, by Jill Hyem, is strong, but the exposition is confusing in parts and the resolution weakens the overall impact.

The fourth and final instalment, ‘Witch Water Green’, finds young mother Barbara Tate (played by ‘The Darling Buds of May’s Pam Ferris) attempting to have a stagnant pond on her property drained of water. This move meets with local opposition that results in the parish’s vicar getting involved. Things take a sinister turn when a pagan doll is left in the shallows. Is there a rational explanation for some seemingly supernatural happenings? And why are the villagers so superstitious?

The four stories in this ‘Spine Chillers’ collection are the product of a period when the BBC still sometimes made drama that was unapologetically middle class. This will be an attraction or a turn-off, to taste. Personally, I love British drama from the era when actors had excellent diction, and there are some terrific performances to be enjoyed here. The series should also be commended for presenting dramas with leading female characters, and the talents of Anna Massey, Rosemary Leach, Pam Ferris and Helen Worth are all given the opportunity to shine.

It has to be said that the horror genre has taken a darker and more visceral turn since these audio dramas were recorded. ‘Spine Chillers’ is undoubtedly the product of a more innocent age. Although the dramas are diverting and entertaining, they are unlikely to lead to any sleepless nights. But if you’re up for a trip into the BBC Audio archives, they have enough originality and charm to recommend them.

Credit: BBC Audio

Publisher: BBC Audio Publication date: 5th October 2023 Buy ‘Spine Chillers’

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