‘Ghosts, Daemons, Yeti and Witches: The Folk Horror Stories of Reeltime Pictures’

Between the final Quatermass serial in 1979 and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List in 2011 were years in which dramas in the Folk Horror genre were somewhat thin on the unhallowed ground. However they could still be found and sometimes in the most unexpected places.

In 1989 the original run of the BBC’s classic series Doctor Who came to an end. Before its triumphant return in 2005, several independent companies began making their own productions, telling the ongoing stories of  the various Doctors and other characters from their adventures. Several of these companies still continue to provide output that runs alongside the main narrative of the revived program. One of these is Reeltime Pictures.

Established by Keith Barnfather, Reeltime Pictures initially released filmed interviews with various actors and production staff involved with Doctor Who. However, from 1987 onward they began to release dramas on video (and later on DVD/Blu Ray). None of these featured the Doctor, but they did features characters from the Time Lord’s adventures and many of them had strong Folk Horror elements.

Their first dramatic release, Wartime, features UNIT operative Benton played by John Levine, encountering the ghosts of his past in a strange area of countryside while on a routine mission. The Folk Horror aspects are apparent straight away. Zones cut off from the rest of the world are something of a staple of the genre as are military figures returning from the past – in this case a gas masked soldier. The notion of ‘past guilt’ also makes its presence felt as Benton tries to work through the death of his brother when they were both children. There seem to be some elements of Alan Garner’s Red Shift in the narrative, which, like much Folk Horror, is deliberately ambiguous. Benton himself – an establishment military figure – is just the sort unwitting victim that pops up in many tales of the rural wyrd, though happily his fate is less grim than that of Sergeant Howie. As several commentators have noted, as Benton John Levine is enthusiastic rather than commanding but his somewhat mannered performance matches the strangeness of the story.

At the time Wartime was intended as Reeltime’s reaction against the direction Doctor Who had taken in 1987 and yet it’s curious how much of it anticipates what would happen in the classic series final years. The all location look, the ambient electro music and dreamlike plot seem to place it in much the same world as the Seventh Doctor’s Folk Horror infused tales Battlefield and Silver Nemesis.

In 1995, the classic series was over, the Paul McGann movie was still a year away and the Time Lord’s future was very uncertain. Reeltime however were still producing interviews tapes and were now ready to release a bigger and more ambitious dramatic production.

Downtime featured the return of the popular 1960’s monsters the Yeti. Straight away this placed the story within the Folk Horror genre as the two Who Yeti stories took inspiration from Hamner Horror’s The Creature and Quatermass and the Pit, both from the legendary pen of Nigel Kneale. The drama also featured the return of several well-loved characters, including the Brigadier, Sarah Jane Smith and Victoria Waterfield. Pretty much of all these characters it got completely right – quite impressive if you’ve ever heard how badly wrong the Radio 4 ‘Official’ Doctor Who radio series got Sarah and the Brig at around about the same time. Once again, it anticipates the direction of its parent series. Like the revived Doctor Who, Downtime has the Great Intelligence which controls the Yeti taking up residence in the internet and the Brigadier’s daughter makes her first appearance. Victoria at times resembles a villain from Sarah Jane Adventures and quite honestly is more interesting than she was allowed to be in the 1960’s.

The Great Intelligence, like any good Folk Horror monster, exerts a powerful influence over those around it and is happy to resurrect the images of the dead. It has to be said, Downtime requires a good working knowledge of the programme to properly enjoy it and the Yeti re-design is something of a misfire. All the same, what they achieve on a limited budget is astonishing.

In 2004, on the eve of the series return, Reeltime released Daemos Rising a sequel to both Downtime and the mostFolk Horror themed Doctor Who story of all time, 1971’s The Daemons.

The improvement in production standards are immediately apparently. There’s a very impressive stone gargoyle that mysteriously changes position – a couple of years before the Weeping Angels – some terrific location work and a CGI Devil which, if not state of the art, still boasts a nice design. The cast is smaller this time which allows for an especially strong performance from Miles Richardson as a broken, alcoholic ex-soldier (another Folk Horror staple). Daemos Rising manages a genuinely spooky atmosphere and it feels like a lot of thought went into getting everything right. The only problem is the need to tie it into the Time Hunter book series that was going at the same time, as this necessitates a rather clumsy info dump half way through what was an enjoyably mysterious story.

With Doctor Who back on our screens, there might seem no market for productions such as these. However in 2017, Reeltime released The White Witch of Devil’s End. This was a series of five monologues features a popular character from The Daemons, the benevolent witch Olive Hawthorne, played by the delightful Damaris Hayman. These were filmed in an appealingly old fashioned, Jackanory style which somehow seemed entirely appropriate. The previous dramas had been ambiguous on the subject of magic, but here we meet all manner of vampires, elves and witches as well a nice nod back to The Daemons itself. The budget is clearly low and yet it really is very charming and would also have worked as an audiobook. It is perhaps the one which  stands most strongly away from the parent series, happy in its own white and black magic filled identity.

All in all then, Reeltime made a worthwhile contribution both to Doctor Who and Folk Horror, especially during what might have been termed the wilderness years for both. It’s also interesting to note that the creations they turned to – the Yeti, UNIT, the Brigadier, Benton, the Daemons and Olive Hawthorn all made their first appearances between 1968 and 1972 – the years when the legendary ‘Folk Horror Chain’ of The Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw  and The Wicker Man were laying the groundwork for the genre.

Damian Mark Whittle

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