Humour In -Thriller

Written by Martin Marshall
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Whilst compiling the material for ‘A THRILLER in Every Corner’, a major appeal of the project involved studying the multifaceted elements so judiciously placed in the storylines to make up each complete programme. In many episodes, a highlight was the blend of knowing homage, sly reference, wit, and outright black humour.

‘Comedy and horror are closer than we think’ was a not uncommonly quoted opinion heartily endorsed by the 'Master of Suspense’ – the thriller maestro film director Alfred Hitchcock. In 1964 whilst discussing one of his landmark films on the BBC-TV show ‘Monitor’, he declared: “I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called 'Psycho'. A lot of people looked at this and said what a dreadful thing to do, how awful. The content as such was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find that some people took it seriously.” Hitchcock’s sardonic approach whilst hosting the trailer for the movie would seem to bear this out!

psyhco norman bates

Mitigating the danger of audiences being overwhelmed when exposed to constantly bleak material, Hitchcock felt that humour provided the ideal ‘release valve’ to break the carefully built tension. Given Brian Clemens’ input into ‘The Avengers’ as chief writer and producer during the late-1960s, culminating in the creation of ‘Mother’ (played by Patrick Newell) for its final run, it was hardly surprising that he wholeheartedly agreed with such sentiments.

Compared to the off-kilter world created for the seminal 60s series, ‘Thriller’ painted its stories with a far darker pallet. Nonetheless, closely following Hitchcock’s edict, levity would still play its part, as I elicited from Clemens whilst chatting with him about his mid-70s suspense anthology … “I always try to get a bit of humour in there. You learn from the best and the best (in this genre) was Hitchcock. Even 'Psycho' is funny the second time you see it … like when the policeman says: ‘Why are you sleeping in your car?’ There are plenty of good Motels around here!' [Given what is to come] That's a pretty ironic line!”

If the buffoonery of characters like practical joker Tom Manners in ‘Only a Scream Away’ could fall on the tiresome side of fun, when individuals of a witty (if self-centered) disposition was given their head the resulting machinations proved far more diverting. Dinsdale Landen’s Matthew (no relation to Wyatt) Earp provides the most glorious example of this ‘archetype’, delivering the most delicious final line in the first of two appearances in the worldwide premiere installment ‘An Echo of Theresa’. His (unique) return in ‘The Next Scram You Here’ saw Earp in even more caustic form, a handy platform to caustically comment on the flat-footedness of authority in general and police investigations in particular. In a similar vein, Charles Gray as bon vivant secret agent Hillary Vance (and his double!) in ‘Night is the Time for Killing’ took great pleasure in the baiting of a British Rail dining car steward, ringing bells as to the perceived quality of railway catering. As the pipe-smoking Satan’s disciple Bessie in ‘Nurse Will Make It Better’, ex-Blonde Bombshell of the silver screen Diana Dors trod a narrow tightrope between evil intent and impishness … “Devil’s foot? Not a bit like it”.

Dinsdale Landen as Matthew Earp in Thriller

One noticeable aspect of the casting policy for ‘Thriller’ was the number of times an actor most familiar in comedic parts, then or later, appeared in key dramatic roles in many installments. A veritable library of four such instances - John Le Mesurier, Maureen Lipman, Jan Francis, and Rose Hill – took their collective bow in ‘File It Under Fear’, all bar the latter ‘Fanny le Fan’ playing it ‘straight’. And in one of the tensest narratives - ‘I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill’ - ever-jocular Ken Jones plied his humorous persona in many sequences, from guiding the old lady visitor to the lift; arranging the ‘salute’ for the departure of the company boss; through to the outright levity of his exchange with wedding anniversary-forgetting relief deskman Patrick Connor! ‘ I’m the Girl’ also saw the opportunity for a Hollywood staple - the running gag - as Colin Haig’s word-free Messenger Boy made his repeated appearances throughout the Parker Industries building.

Not all attempts at injecting humour into proceedings were quite so potent. As regards the few series’ contributions that emphasised an unapologetically ‘outright’ approach to comic effect, the most contentious script (originally devised by Terry Nation for another project) is without a doubt ‘K is for Killing’, its singularly frivolous tone pejoratively at odds with the general aura of the show. Consequently, this offering is a bête noire for many enthusiasts. Seemingly an attempt at a ‘1940's screwball comedy’, onscreen delivery (particularly in terms of performance) is regrettably suspect. Despite a level of wittiness in much of the dialogue e.g. “I’ve been divorced four times and trench coats moving into bedrooms with cameras have become a way of life”, delivered by the elegant and teasingly named ‘Mrs Gale’ (who could so easily have been portrayed by Honor Blackman rather than the cast Frances Bennett), the level of flippancy works heavily against any build-up of atmosphere, killing any tension and jarring with a handful of more typical ‘scenes of unease’ therein, most notably those featuring veteran actress Jean Kent as a deranged crone.

K is for Killing

Serving the jovial mood to far better effect was the casting of an actor named Bates in ‘Murder Motel’! This is but one of many roguish ‘winks’ perpetrated within a darkly humour-laced ‘Thriller’. For example, following the knifing to death of an exceedingly greasy private eye, a rather moving if mordantly witty sequence sees the camera roving enquiringly around the detective’s office before finally settling upon a filing cabinet drawer appositely labelled ‘Discontinued Cases’! As motel proprietor Sam had so fitting told his criminal cohorts after plunging a knife into Lee … “He called himself an opportunist; unfortunately he arrived at a most inopportune moment!”

A further desolately-themed episode ‘The Colour of Blood’, the very first into production, was yet another script where strands of comedy leavened the brooding menace. Arthur Page’s pronouncements are frequently loaded with double entendre to the increasing consternation of his female companion whilst, aboard a stationary train, a ‘seen it all before’ British Rail guard laconically reassures a nervously delayed Peter in pursuit of his nefarious financial gain … “don’t worry, soon be on the way, they haven’t found a single murderer yet!” However, the most outrageously comedic contribution of all in this debut story lies with the hapless Constable Forbes. To criticise his complete lack of police savvy as totally unrealistic clearly misses the point. His purpose is unquestionably that of comic relief, to be taken at face value only as a wry comment as to the (lack of) quality of the police work on display.

To 21st Century audience sensibilities, the most contentious ‘comedic’ aside of the whole run materialised at the start of the Series 4 opener ‘Screamer’. Veteran Ambrosine Phillpotts’ remark as to her potential rape makes uncomfortable viewing, the precedence (as so often in Clemens’ work) lies in the recent Hitchcock film made on a trip back to Britain - ‘Frenzy’(1972) where a very similar discourse featured early on in that piece.

alfred hitchcock frenzy thriller london

More comfortably acceptable (if equally ‘dated’) attitudes obviously intended as light relief shine through the words given to various chat-up merchants or as Edward Judd’s old roué Bill Lewis self-proclaimed in ‘Sign It Death’ … “bird fanciers”. Further examples include the innuendo (“we’ll come to terms later”) and physical pawing of his client by Alan McClelland’s ‘private dick’ Lee in ‘Murder Motel and, more innocuously, the patter that emanated from the lips of Martin Read’s Tim Bryant at the door to his sister’s erstwhile flat in the outlandish ‘Good Salary - Prospects - Free Coffin’. Maybe significantly, the latter pair both ‘bite the dust’ long before the conclusion of their respective episodes.

In spite of the dark tone set for ‘Thriller’ from its outset, all the above examples (amongst many others) indicate that solemnness was not to be allowed to dominate proceedings, with many a ‘nod’ to those viewing!

For further exploration of comedic themes featured alongside many other aspects of the series, its production, and spectacular worldwide success, please check out the 700+ pages of ‘A THRILLER in Every Corner’, available worldwide exclusively from lulu books, at the following link…

a thriller in every corner martin marshall book 1

Read 4124 times Last modified on Saturday, 06 March 2021 14:59
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Martin Marshall

Martin Marshall

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