Leave Anubis Alone: Ancient Egypt and the Horror Genre

It occurred to me recently – as these things often do – that there aren’t many horror films which use the ancient world as a setting or plot device. Of those which do, the vast majority are based on the mythology of ancient Egypt (or, at least, our modern assumptions about ancient Egypt – we’ll chat more about that later). It struck me as interesting that, although I could name quite a number of Egyptian-themed horror films off the top of my head, I could count the horror films (that I knew of) inspired by ancient Rome and Greece on one hand. We seem comfortable with a good sword-and-sandals epic, but a horror film? By Jove, no.

In this post, I want to examine why ancient Egypt is such prime fodder for the horror genre. Where does the perception of Egypt as “spooky” come from? Why don’t we feel the same about any other culture from antiquity? And, finally, just what is our problem with Anubis?

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In order to find the root of the squeamish fascination we feel for ancient Egypt, we need to look back at Western culture’s first foray into the land of the pharaohs. Although explorers from Europe – along with those from the Middle East – were travelling to Egypt from as early as the 13th century, the birth of modern Egyptology came with the French invasion of Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, artefacts were uncovered and writings were translated, and it was easier than ever before for Europeans to engage with the mysteries of Egypt.

That said, Egypt was still a land of mystery and, in the popular imagination, of threat. In 1892, 30 years before Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale of terror Lot No. 249 was published. In it, an Oxford student reanimates a mummy he has bought at an auction and uses the undead fiend to attack his enemies. This marks the first example in literature of a malevolent, resurrected mummy and the story has had a significant influence both on later horror fiction and film. Doyle had previously employed a mummy as a plot device in the short story The Ring of Thoth (1890) in which a young Egyptologist meets an Egyptian man who discovered the secret to eternal life over 3000 years ago. The love of his life died before he could administer the elixir to her, and he has been searching for her sarcophagus and the ring of Thoth – which contains the antidote which will allow him to join her in the afterlife – ever since.

By the time Carter cracked open Tut’s tomb to reveal the treasures within, the public were all too ready to accept the possibility that a curse might strike those who dared enter the tomb. There were eleven deaths in the decade following the tomb’s opening which were popularly attributed to the so-called “curse of the pharaohs”; the most famous of these was undoubtedly that of Lord Carnarvon, who had financed the trip. The burial chamber was opened on 16th February 1923 and Carnarvon died of an infected mosquito bite, sustained while in Egypt, on 5th April. Despite the mania in the press over the curse, Howard Carter never believed in it.

The mummy had all the makings of a movie monster and, in 1932, Universal Studios’ The Mummy was a smash hit. The rest is movie history, enabling the success of the rebooted Mummy franchise in 1999 as well as spawning shelves upon shelves of low-budget offerings.

The curses, resurrected corpses and strange rituals are all part of a narrative which casts ancient Egypt as completely foreign. There’s certainly an element of racism there – we see Greece and Rome as “more like us” and Egypt as distinctly “other”. However, I think an important factor in the continued popularity of Egypt as a setting or plot device in the horror genre is the Egyptian attitude to death. I don’t believe the “hands-on” approach that the Egyptians took to caring for their dead is a concept we’ve ever quite got over and it has potentially become even more alien to us as we’ve dissociated ourselves from death and the handling of our dead. With our aversion to corpses and all that is associated with them, mummification is an invasive, morbid idea to us. Even an ordinary Egyptian person who couldn’t afford to be mummified upon their death would be wrapped in cloth and buried in the desert with food and useful everyday items by their relatives. We pay people to do that on our behalf.

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The Romans buried their dead outside the city walls and the Greeks seemed to define the separation between the living and the dead very clearly. The Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles, written circa 441BCE, concerns this separation. Polyneices, considered a traitor by his city, is refused burial – thereby disrupting the natural order and keeping the dead among the living (i.e. above ground). His sister Antigone defies the ruling and buries him herself, and she is sentenced to be buried alive. Again, this disrupts the natural order; a living girl is given the treatment of the dead. My point here is not to say that the people of ancient Greece and Rome were averse to seeing the dead or that they did not have their own set of complex funerary rites, but we seem to fixate less on these than we do on mummification and the beliefs the Egyptians held about what happened to the soul after death.

Speaking of ancient Greece and Rome, I did some digging of my own for horror films set in either. I had seen two flicks which fitted the bill: the first being Minotaur (2006) and the other, Cyclops (2008). Cyclops is the only Roman-themed horror film I could find. Set during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14ACE to 37ACE), Cyclops is the story of the last surviving cyclops, which is captured and displayed at the Circus Maximus. It’s a TV movie and truly looks like one; the cyclops is possibly the biggest waste of CGI I’ve ever witnessed. Minotaur has been described as “highly forgettable”, which is unfair – I’m sure Tom Hardy, a far more talented actor than this film deserves, wishes he could erase it from his memory. It’s a film marred by racism – it’s very Xerxes in 300 – and none of it really makes any sense. Despite being set in Crete, nearly everybody has an ambiguously Celtic, or otherwise non-Cretan, name. It’s one of only two horror films set in ancient Greece that I was able to find, both of which deal with the myth of the Minotaur. The second is Land of the Minotaur (1976). Like the other two films mentioned, it’s not brilliant, but it does have Peter Cushing which is always an advantage.

I noted that, when it comes to horror films set in or inspired by ancient Greece or Rome, there’s a tendency for filmmakers to stick to what they know and make a straight-up creature feature. The Minotaur just happens to be the closest thing to a classic movie monster – in the vein of Frankenstein, Dracula or, indeed, the Mummy – that Greek mythology has to offer.

It could be argued that the mythological figures and deities of ancient Egypt simply lend themselves to the horror genre, although I believe it has more to do with our modern misinterpretations. Finally, ladies and gents, it’s time to talk about Anubis.

Anubis – or Anpu, Anubis is the Greek rendering of the name – was associated with mummification and embalming. He acted as a psychopomp, guiding souls into the afterlife, and presided over a ceremony called the Weighing of the Heart in which the heart of the deceased would be weighed against Ma’at (the physical representation of truth, symbolised by an ostrich feather). If the heart was lighter, the dead person could continue on their journey into the afterlife. If heavier, the heart would be eaten by the demon Ammut.

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The Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead of Hunefer (c) Jon Bodsworth.

Anubis wasn’t an evil or malevolent figure in the mythology, so there’s no real basis for his portrayal in many films as a monstrous entity – I think it’s the jackal head thing that freaks modern moviegoers out a bit. Yes, he took part in the judgement of the dead and might seem unsympathetic to us, but he was an important deity. A post on WritingRaider described him thus: “[In Hollywood films, Anubis] has been the main antagonist, killing and sending curses to the heroes… manipulating battles like some evil Bond villain… In truth, the Egyptians didn’t think so.  He was a protector and a caretaker… It is easy to interpret Anubis as evil in today’s culture because of his connection to the dead in Egyptian religion.  But we must keep in mind, that today’s view of the dead is very different from the ancient Egyptian view.  The Egyptians believed in a happy afterlife and there were trials to get to paradise, but once you had proved yourself worthy… there was nothing but peace and happiness.”

My concerns are twofold. As somebody who studied Classics and is a massive horror fan, it makes me rather sad that nobody seems to have thought to tap into the sheer wealth of weird in Greek and Roman mythology. We seem to live in a time of sequels and reboots, and this is just something different I’d love to see. My other issue likewise stems from my appreciation for the rich history and mythology of ancient Egypt, which has fascinated me since I was a little girl. As much as I love The Mummy (1999), I can’t help but feel put off by the portrayal of Egypt as a strange and scary society.

Further Reading

Miscellaneous

Richard Cavendish (editor) (1992) Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Principal Myths and Religions of the World. Little, Brown and Company. (An excellent guide to the basics. Useful for comparing key myths and traditions from various religions.)

Egyptian Religion

dollingch (2014) Egyptian Culture – Anubis In Egyptian Religion. WritingRaider.

Lucia Gahlin (2001) Egypt: Gods, Myths and Religion. Anness Publishing. (A book I read and re-read like a child possessed. It’s a brilliant, comprehensive look at religion in Egypt, from the mythology to the priesthood to worship by ordinary people.)

Peter Piccione (1997) What Life Was Like On The Banks Of The Nile. Time Life UK. (Another one I read obsessively as a child.)

Ancient Egypt in Popular Culture

Christian-Georges Schwentzel (2017) Why we love (and fear) mummies. The Conversation.

Films mentioned

The Mummy (1932)

Land of the Minotaur (1976)

The Mummy (1999)

The Mummy Returns (2001)

Minotaur (2006)

300 (2006)

Cyclops (2008)

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What Is “Ravenous” (1999) Actually About?

Warning: spoilers for the film Ravenous. You don’t need to have seen Ravenous to read this review, but I’d recommend it and I think you should watch it anyway (I’m biased, but whatever).

I suppose you could consider this a spiritual successor to an article I wrote last year entitled “Why Viy (1967) Is Criminally Underrated”. Viy doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, nor does Ravenous. This is just about the only quality they share, which is why this blog post is only tangentially related to that one. After all, one is the very first Soviet horror film ever made, based on Eastern Europe’s rich oral traditions and folklore; the other is about, well, cannibalism. Neither that article nor this one are, in actual fact, reviews. Instead, they’re both think-pieces of a kind. I just fancied having a chat about Ravenous.

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You might not expect interesting philosophical analysis from a late 90s horror film, but, with this particular film, that’s what you get. Call me deluded – I’m sniffing Jinkx Monsoon’s perfume, clearly – but I remain absolutely convinced that Ravenous is an incredibly clever film disguised as a stupid slasher flick.

On paper, it sounds ridiculous. During the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is shipped off to serve at an outpost in California called Fort Spencer and, whilst there, he meets a motley crew of characters. They encounter Mr Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who tells them the strange tale of how his party became stranded in the Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism. It transpires that Colqhoun is the real danger, having killed and eaten his fellow travellers, and he does the same to most of the soldiers by luring them out to his former hunting ground. In the world of Ravenous, eating human flesh or drinking human blood causes you to become a Wendigo (a real creature from Algonquian myth, if you’re wondering) and imbues the cannibal with renewed strength. This sets the scene for the central moral dilemma of the film: is it alright to eat people if it saves you from dying? (Again, if you’re wondering, the answer is a resounding “NO”.)

Of course, this is only the “central moral dilemma”, to quote myself, on the surface. Cannibalism being wrong is a blindingly obvious moral to have at the centre of your film and I wouldn’t blame you if that was the main thing you took away from it, but, if one takes the time to pick away the bland Hollywood veneer, there’s a frankly astonishing amount going on. So let’s start with the cannibalism – what does it actually mean?

The way I see it, cannibalism in Ravenous is a vehicle, of sorts, for two main ideas. The first has to do with colonialism; to put it simply, both cannibalism and colonialism are about consumption. One is personal and one is political, but at their core they are both about stripping the resources out of another entity, be it a person or an entire population. In the latter third of the film, Colqhoun makes a little speech to Boyd in an attempt to persuade him to give in to his cannibalistic desires. It’s a fascinating monologue to dissect. He sees the westward journeys of “thousands of gold-hungry Americans” into California as a prime opportunity to satisfy his appetite. While discussing his not-so-secret cannibal plans, Colqhoun mentions “manifest destiny” – a philosophy, popular in the 19th century, which dictated that Americans had a duty to conquer and expand territory. The film’s events take place in 1847, a pivotal moment in American history: the following year would see the loss of Mexican territory and the absorption of Texas into the US. Although Colqhoun never sees his scheme realised, American expansion in the late 1840s was a significant concern for the nations of Latin America and especially for the people already living on American soil before the white settlers got there. If I wanted to be really blunt, the insatiable appetite which characterises the Wendigo – punishment for transgressing social norms – is the most visceral, exaggerated depiction possible of the white man’s greed.

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The second theme that the film’s cannibalism helps to convey is homosexuality, specifically repressed homosexuality. This repression is obviously period-typical (no gay pride in 1840s California, unfortunately) but it lends such an interesting dimension to the film. Nobody is ever described as homosexual and no overt homosexual acts occur, yet the unresolved sexual tension is simmering away throughout. During the “manifest destiny” monologue, Colqhoun attempts to persuade Boyd to “just give in”. There’s plenty of talk about “acquiescence” and, truth be told, it all comes off as rather seductive. If you look at this scene in context, there are quite plainly layers to it – at this point in the film, these two men have had multiple conversations about the “certain virility” which comes with the consumption of human flesh, and Colqhoun has licked Boyd’s blood off his fingers and had what I can only describe as a literal orgasm. Robert Carlyle has openly acknowledged the homoeroticism.* Floating round YouTube, there are some great bits of commentary from him and, at 9:52 in this video, he even says: “Go on, kiss him!” when Boyd is gazing down at Colqhoun in the final scene. He talked about it in more depth in this interview from 4:48 onwards and put it absolutely perfectly: “[Colqhoun] doesn’t just want to eat Guy Pearce, he’s going to have Guy Pearce at the same time.” Taboo as it may be, cannibalism is perhaps the most intimate act we can imagine, so it’s no surprise that a film with a single female character (incidentally the only main character to escape unscathed – you go, Martha!) and otherwise populated by men trying to eat each other is more than a little homoerotic.

This could probably be an article in and of itself, but isn’t it weird that all the greatest fiction involving cannibals is wildly homoerotic? Watch NBC’s Hannibal (2013 – 2015) for an obvious example or even Red Dragon (2002), which is still homoerotic AF. Regardless of what the straight boys say, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham have got a lot going on in every single adaptation.

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But back to Ravenous. Spirituality and religion crop up enough in this film that the issue warrants mentioning. Although it isn’t explored to its fullest potential, there’s a scene early on in the film which delves into cultural relativity, especially where religion and mythology are concerned. The soldiers prepare to go and assist Colqhoun’s party, who are stranded in the mountains, but before they leave, George (Joseph Running Fox) shows Boyd and Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) a painting of the Wendigo and describes the myth – how the Wendigo steals the strength of others by eating them. Hart remarks that “people don’t still do that”, to which George replies: “The white man eats the body of Christ every Sunday.” Not only is that a pretty chilling line, there’s something damning about it. It’s a brief but smart comment on our perceptions of primitivism and “savagery”; what we consider to be macabre is relative and subjective.

One of the soldiers, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), is described by commanding officer Colonel Hart as being Fort Spencer’s “personal emissary from the Lord”. Although God is invoked at various points throughout the movie and we see crucifixes up on the walls, Toffler is the only character who is explicitly shown to be religious. And, boy, is it hammered home how pious he is. The first thing we see Toffler do on screen is erect a large wooden cross on the roof of a building. Later, he is called upon to say grace at dinner and pray for Colqhoun’s recovery after the soldiers find him near-comatose in the snow. Toffler is really only a minor character, but he plays a crucial role in the portrayal of spirituality here. It wasn’t until I watched the film again that I realised quite how insidious and deceptive Colqhoun manages to be before the big reveal. During the montage of the soldiers making their way through the mountains to rescue Colqhoun’s party, there’s a short scene between Toffler and Colqhoun. Toffler is working on a hymn one night and is struggling to find a rhyme for “servant”. Colqhoun is shown to be listening and he supplies a word, “fervent”. It’s heartbreaking to watch the second time around, seeing how pleased Toffler is and knowing what happens to him. Within the first half of the film, Toffler is murdered (in fact, pretty efficiently eviscerated) by Colqhoun.

Religion’s tangible presence in the plot and in the visuals dies with Toffler, but morality is a near-constant topic of discussion. Colqhoun calls it “the last bastion of the coward” – it becomes clear very quickly that he sees Boyd’s resistance to cannibalism as a mark of inferiority. That’s an interesting little twist which isn’t particularly common. If I’m being honest, I can’t think of another cannibal-themed film in which the cannibal perceives those who don’t partake to be “less than” and is actively encouraging others to join in rather than hunting them down. We could take the Hannibal Lecter franchise, for example. Hannibal deceives people into consuming human flesh, but there’s never a sense in any of his incarnations that he’s trying to indoctrinate them; it just amuses him to trick people. It’s a rare thing that the horror in a cannibal film comes not from the cannibal attempting to kill and eat the protagonist, but from the cannibal attempting to make the protagonist a cannibal too. It’s a very specific kind of horror, a kind which deals with threats to moral integrity moreso than physical safety.

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The last thing I want to discuss is not the film’s plot or its message but its tone. There are some glaring discrepancies between the marketing and the finished product. The trailer seems like it was intended for a different film, conveying the film’s violence but not its wit and philosophy. What’s being sold is something in the style of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe The Hills Have Eyes, when Ravenous is instead a far more intellectual piece. It reminds me a lot of The Grey (2012), another film woefully misrepresented by its marketing. What we were told to expect was an action-packed movie full of manly men doing manly things and Liam Neeson punching a wolf , yet The Grey is a quiet, thoughtful film about bereavement, masculinity and the natural order.

Ravenous was a bit of a car crash behind the scenes, from what I’ve read, changing directors mid-shoot** (twice, actually) and suffering due to some wacky budgeting and scheduling. Antonia Bird, the final director hired and ultimately the one who would see the project through to the end, stated that several elements were introduced to the film without her consent during post-production, such as the quotes which appear on screen at the start of the film. In a 1999 interview for The Independent, Bird said: “There’s this disease of thinking your audience is stupid – and they’re not.” I agree with her regarding the quotes; they cheapen the message as a whole and it’s probably the only part of the film I have any real problem with. Bird was interested in recutting the film and I think that was a good shout too. The film would have benefited from a re-edit, although I don’t think that should happen now. No-one should touch it except for Antonia Bird and she sadly passed away in 2013. She also made the comment that Americans didn’t “get” the film, struggling to parse its odd blend of horror and humour. I like that it veers back and forth between high camp, gallows humour and balls-to-the-wall gore. It does a bit of everything and I really enjoy that.

Thank you if you’ve stuck with me for the duration of this article. You can probably tell how passionate I am about this film from the fact that I’ve written over 2,000 words about it. I’ve been working on this since 28th January of this year, gradually editing it. In the interim, I’ve watched Ravenous multiple times and, after each viewing, I’ve come back to this article and added or changed something. That’s the magic of this film. I could watch it a thousand times and always feel that I was watching something innovative and, in my opinion, beautiful.

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*It brings me so much joy that Robert Carlyle is 100% on board the “Ravenous is homoerotica with cannibalism” train. He gets it.

**They were going to hire the guy who directed such masterpieces as Home Alone 3, Big Momma’s House and Scooby-Doo. No, really, they were. I’m not kidding. The actors went on strike and Robert Carlyle gave Antonia Bird a call, thank Goddess.

I have no doubt that I’ll write more about Ravenous in the future, because there’s so much to unpack. But this will do as a starting point.

 

The Scooby-Doo Direct-to-Video Movies (1998 – 2008), Definitively Ranked

I’ve compiled a playlist of bangin’ Scooby-Doo tunes to listen to while you read (here).

I love the Scooby-Doo movies and I’m not ashamed of it. The direct-to-video movies almost singlehandedly resurrected the franchise. Sounds dramatic? Time for a history lesson, then.

By the mid-1990s, Scooby-Doo had changed hands several times. Turner Entertainment bought Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1991 and Hanna-Barbera became a subsidiary of Warner Bros. after Time Warner and Turner Entertainment merged in 1996. When the TV series A Pup Named Scooby-Doo ended in 1991, a TV movie, Scooby-Doo in: Arabian Nights, followed in 1994, but no new Scooby-Doo episodes were being produced. Instead, the franchise’s popularity (and profits) relied upon reruns on Cartoon Network and Boomerang.

Enter the first direct-to-video movie.

Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. teamed up, aiming to create one new Scooby-Doo movie every year. Their strategy was simple: advertise on other VHS tapes and get the kids excited, keep costs low by releasing the film straight onto video and, crucially, reinvent the gang without losing its nostalgic value.

It worked. 29 direct-to-video movies have been made so far, with a 30th addition to the canon due for release this year. These films were an integral part of my childhood, to the extent that I partially credit them with my passion for the paranormal.

In tribute, today I’m ranking the first 12 direct-to-video movies. I may one day rank all 30, but these are the 12 films which I vividly remember watching as a child.

Spoilers are in yellow parentheses like [this]. Highlight it with your cursor to read the spoiler.

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12) Chill Out, Scooby-Doo! (2007)

While certainly not the worst of the series, Chill Out somewhat spelled the end of the “classic” era for me. They clawed it back a bit with Goblin King (which we’ll discuss in a few entries’ time); however, Chill Out just wasn’t quite as strong as the earlier films.

It works just fine as a kids’ movie and it’s entertaining enough, but the humour is a bit more inane and it doesn’t transcend the label of “kids’ movie” in the same way as some of the others on this list. I didn’t personally care for it that much, even when I was younger.

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11) Aloha, Scooby-Doo! (2005)

Aloha is another one that never really appealed to me. I liked it well enough the first time I saw it, but it didn’t draw me in like some of the others. I’d watch it if it was on TV, yet I never found myself desperate to see it again. It’s an interesting choice of setting and the plot is a bit different, which is always welcome. Even the monster design is distinct and spooky, although it never scared me as a kid.

10) Scooby-Doo and the Monster of Mexico (2003)

I had a real internal debate about whether to put Monster of Mexico or Goblin King in tenth place. In the end, Goblin King is a better film on a technical level, even if Monster of Mexico is my favourite out of the two. I have to at least appear to be objective.

Massive pro of this film: the music is really good. And even if el Chupacabra isn’t quite depicted the way it is in Latin American folklore, there’s an attempt to be culturally accurate and capture a sense of setting. You can’t really expect culturally sensitive analysis of mythology from a Scooby-Doo movie, but nothing in Monster of Mexico is outrageously offensive. It’s a lot of fun.

9) Scooby-Doo and the Goblin King (2008)

Goblin King surprised me. After seven films which utilised the age-old formula of the bad guy in a mask, Goblin King incorporated supernatural elements and there’s real threat throughout, which I didn’t expect from it. Tim Curry portrays the eponymous foe and he’s always amazing, so that completely elevates the film.

It also reminds me a lot of the TV movies from the 1980s, like Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf  (1988) or Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School (also 1988). Scooby and Shaggy kind of do their own thing in those TV specials; you don’t see the rest of the gang. Fred, Daphne and Velma are in Goblin King, but the focus is very much on Scooby and Shaggy. I think that can be quite refreshing; it scales things down a bit.

8) Scooby-Doo in: Where’s My Mummy? (2005)

Where’s My Mummy? essentially borrows its entire plot from the 1999 film The Mummy, to the point that one of the minor characters is voiced by Oded Fehr, who played the Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay in The Mummy. I adore The Mummy, so I was never mad about it. We also get some cool scenes of Velma doing… archaeology, I guess? She’s helping reconstruct the Sphinx and wearing ancient jewellery round the camp, which I don’t believe is considered to be best practice among historians. Anyway, what do I know? It’s pointless trying to critique this film for playing fast and loose with history.

It’s a legitimately exciting film though, which is why I ranked it eighth. I feel like I’ve mentioned the soundtracks to these movies a lot, but this is another one with a fabulous score. The key chase scene is accompanied by this bizarre jazz song called Mummy’s Rags and Riches. It’s kooky and I love it.

7) Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster (2004)

Oh boy, Loch Ness Monster is one hell of a Scooby-Doo flick. It captures all sides of the cryptozoology debate, in that the gang are investigating the case, but so are an amateur cryptozoologist and a professor of natural history.

It’s painfully Scottish (or, at least, Scottish as seen from an American perspective). It’s set during a Highland games event, for goodness’ sake, and the main chase scene is accompanied by a lively tune that features some prominent fiddle-playing. There’s plenty of bagpipe interludes too. We also get to meet Daphne’s Scottish cousin who, for whatever reason, bears the distinctly Irish name Shannon. Couldn’t they find anything more obviously Scottish? Mhairi, maybe? Iona?

Despite its cringeworthy Scottish cultural references, the plot is better than many of the films previous mentioned on this list. It also has a really fun ending [– Velma notes that she’s glad they never proved or disproved the monster’s existence, because “Some mysteries are better left unsolved.” The film ends with Scooby spotting what could just be the Loch Ness Monster swimming past them.]

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6) Scooby-Doo: Pirates Ahoy! (2006)

Pirates Ahoy! is another one that surprised me. I saw it again more recently and I was shocked by how enjoyable and “watchable” it was. Ron Perlman and Dan Castellaneta are in this one, something I never noticed as a child but was delighted to realise upon rewatching.

It takes place in the Bermuda Triangle; the gang are on a mystery cruise with Fred’s parents. An eerie fog engulfs the ship and the gang are kidnapped by ghost pirates, who are seeking a golden meteor which fell into the ocean years ago. It all culminates in an enormous maelstrom, so it’s sort of like a low-budget, animated Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

Yes, it’s a bit silly, but aren’t all of the films on this list kind of daft? I look pretty ridiculous reviewing these as an adult woman.

5) Scooby-Doo and the Legend of the Vampire (2003)

This was the first of the direct-to-video movies to return to the franchise’s original format: the villain is a crook in a suit rather than a supernatural foe. Despite this, Legend of the Vampire scared me the most as a child (I had a real phobia of vampires as a kid – it took a while for me to get to the stage where I understood that they’re not real). This isn’t an excuse, but the character designs for the vampires in this film are legitimately quite a lot to handle for a kid, particularly the “head” vampire, the Yowie-Yahoo (allegedly an ancient Aboriginal myth…).

This was the second outing for The Hex Girls – we’ll chat more about them later – and the music in this film is fantastic. It’s super catchy; be warned that you won’t be able to get Woah, Get Away, Yeah! out of your head once you see the chase scene. Props to Holland Greco for that song. It was a perfect choice, even though I couldn’t watch that chase scene as a kid without my hands over my face.

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4) Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase (2001)

It’s entertaining to watch this now, knowing how much of a crazy notion it was at the time that you could transport yourself into a video game. As a kid who only used the computer to play literacy puzzles on a CD-ROM (imagine that) and never dreamed that I might one day own a computer that could fit in my hand, it blew me away. In a modern world where you only need to slip on a pair of goggles to venture into virtual reality, Cyber Chase seems so quaint and nostalgic, but I think it has retained its magic.

Out of all the Scooby-Doo movies, Cyber Chase is the one which was most obviously influenced by pop culture. There’s a touch of Jumanji in there, a dash of The Matrix, more than a hint of Tron. It’s a really great adventure movie. I don’t think it was ever the best of these direct-to-video movies, but there are a lot of good things about it. The plot makes sense (mostly), the soundtrack is cool and we get loads of references to past eras of Scooby-Doo – the video game that the gang are sucked into is based on all their adventures, after all. Cyber Chase is the film that most expertly handles the fickle friend that is nostalgia.

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3) Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost (1999)

Most folks look fondly upon Witch’s Ghost and I’m one of them. It introduced the musical phenomenon we mortals call The Hex Girls, who “play” some incredible songs throughout the movie. I’m still a bit peeved that no marketing team ever thought to produce a Hex Girls CD, because you can bet your butt I’d have had that on my Christmas list. I think The Hex Girls probably inspired my interest in Wicca and witchcraft. Thorn, the lead singer, is “part Wiccan” and has “Wiccan blood” (although that doesn’t make any sense because Wicca isn’t an ethnicity). By and large, it isn’t a bad portrayal of Wiccans or witches, just a flawed and cliched one.

Witch’s Ghost also features the majestic Tim Curry (his first outing in a Scooby-Doo movie) as Ben Ravencroft, the descendant of the falsely-accused witch Sarah [spoiler: she wasn’t actually falsely accused]. That’s another thing that I’m always surprised to recall about these movies – they starred actual big-name actors. Then again, Tim was in that Worst Witch adaptation from the 80s that looked like it had a budget of roughly £10, so maybe this isn’t saying a lot.

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2) Scooby-Doo and the Alien Invaders (2000)

I know, I know – ranking Alien Invaders above Witch’s Ghost is a controversial move, but I feel it’s one I have to make. Alien Invaders is silly and fun, yet there’s a beautiful sentiment about friendship and solidarity at the heart of it which I don’t think Witch’s Ghost quite captures. Shaggy falls in love with Crystal, who shares his hippy outlook on life, but at the end of the movie, they are forced to part ways [spoiler alert: Crystal is revealed to be the real alien of the film and must go home]. Instead of being a dick about it, Shaggy realises he was lucky to spend time with her and they’ve cultivated a beautiful friendship, and he accepts that she has to leave. Damn, wouldn’t it be nice if all men were like that. Alien Invaders even manages to have a genuinely surprising twist [: initially, the aliens are proved to be a hoax. But the film concludes with the revelation that Shaggy and Scooby’s love interests, Crystal and Amber, were the real aliens all along].

It’s snarky in a really fun way too. For example, in one scene, one of the main antagonists (Steve, voiced by Mark Hamill) tells the gang: “It’s nothing personal, you just know too much.”

Fred responds: “Yeah, that’s always our problem.” If that exchange doesn’t sum up everything that’s good about the Scooby-Doo franchise, I don’t know what does.

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And the best direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movie is…

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998)

God, what can I say about Zombie Island? It’s not just the best Scooby-Doo film; it’s a great film in its own right. If it wasn’t an animated film and the humour was pitched to a slightly older audience, it could pass for a solid horror movie. That’s not to say it’s inappropriate for kids, because I know for a fact that I loved this film when I was a child. It’s just a little more mature in its themes and its plot than the Scooby-Doo series of the 1970s and 1980s.

It was also the first of the direct-to-video films to be made. It introduced a relatively new twist to the franchise: the idea that, this time, the monsters are real. It’s cynical – at the start, the gang have given up solving mysteries and they all have jobs – but not so cynical that you feel uncomfortable. It’s still a nostalgic riot that treats the original series with affection. Without Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, I don’t think What’s New, Scooby-Doo? (the 2002 – 2006 updated TV series) could have ever existed. Zombie Island was successful enough that it kicked off the movie canon and it made a new TV series commercially viable. It also opened the door for darker interpretations of the franchise, like Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013). There was even a Scooby-Doo parody of The Blair Witch Project, which aired on Cartoon Network in 1999 and has never been broadcast on the channel since. No, that isn’t a joke; you can watch it right here.

I especially appreciate it (speaking as a feminist) for its wonderful portrayal of Daphne. She was always a little bit ditzy in the original series, often fulfilling the “damsel in distress” role, but Zombie Island gave us a career woman Daphne who is still her fun, fashionable self. It was practically inspirational for a weird child like me to see a popular female character who travels around the country for her ghost-hunting TV show. That has been lost in the more recent films – I watched Scooby-Doo: Wrestlemania Mystery (2014) and Scooby-Doo and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery (2015) a little while ago in preparation for this article and it was disappointing to see Daphne depicted as boy-mad, tactless and superfluous to the investigation. Her portrayal seems to have regressed rather than progressed, which is a real shame.

So there you have it! All 12 of the Scooby-Doo movies released between 1998 and 2008, ranked for your entertainment.

Please like and share if you enjoyed this, and feel free to argue with me in the comments if you think a different film deserved first place.

“The Sarah Jane Adventures” now available on iPlayer!

Great news if you watched CBBC religiously in the early 2000s – The Sarah Jane Adventures is available on BBC iPlayer for the next two months! All 53 episodes of the sci-fi series are free to watch if you’re in the UK and have a TV license.

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For those who missed out the first time around, The Sarah Jane Adventures was a spin-off of Doctor Who, aimed at a younger audience (not to suggest that kids don’t watch Doctor Who; there’s just less pressure on Who to be child-friendly). I loved it as a kid and it’s so nostalgic – it started in 2007 and it looks it, seriously. All the Nokia phones, the televisions covered in stickers, the outfits. It’s everything I remember and more.

Sarah-Jane Smith has been a major influence on me. I definitely wanted to be like her when I was little and still do. I loved SJA for lots of reasons, but a big one for me was that this was the first depiction of a character with divorced parents that I ever saw in a kids’ programme. I never saw a family that was anything like mine and seeing that Maria – one of the main characters – had a similar home life to me was pretty revolutionary. It’s obviously the norm now, but at the time, I was used to only seeing children who lived with both parents on TV so it was hugely significant. I also think it’s lovely that Elisabeth Sladen has left behind this truly brilliant series, part of a wonderful legacy. It seems a fitting tribute to give a new generation the opportunity to watch it.

Now all the BBC have to do is release every episode of Young Dracula and my life will be complete. Do that challenge.

Start with the first episode Invasion of the Bane here.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E6 – “Tempting Fate”

Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed the hare in the room in every episode of Inside No. 9. The hare had never been the focus of the story… until Tempting Fate.

Tempting Fate is, undoubtedly, my favourite episode of Series 4, with Once Removed and To Have and To Hold close runners-up. It dealt with a lot of themes and techniques in fiction and film which I find really interesting. The “magical object which grants wishes” is a very old trope, but the episode felt anything but generic and obvious. We’ve grown accustomed to the inevitable twist at the end of each episode; however, Tempting Fate manages to pull off twist after twist after twist, one after another, and it’s absolutely sublime to watch. This was one of those episodes, along with the likes of To Have and To Hold, that genuinely made me gasp. Again, I’d like to apologise to my flatmates for shouting “OH NO!” at the final scene.

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There were lots of fun inter-textual references: Shearsmith’s character Nick has a PhD in ethnology and folklore – cue “useless degree” jokes – and there was a particularly great name-drop of The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs (which I’ve actually studied, ha). The website American Literature* describes the story thus: “The Monkey’s Paw is a classic “three wishes” story that doubles as a horror story and a cautionary tale; reminding us that unintended consequences often accompany the best intentions.” The same could be said of this episode. It draws on many literary and cultural influences, including folk horror  – a genre of which Shearsmith and Pemberton are fond, and I am too. The supernatural is often present in Inside No. 9, but it’s made very apparent to us that curses and magic are front and centre in this narrative, as Nick states fairly early on: “Hares are associated with witchcraft and trickery in almost every culture in the world.” If you’ve seen the 2015 horror film The Witch, you’ll remember the eerie hare in the woods and this episode made me think of that (as though I need an excuse to think about The Witch).

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Out of all the episodes broadcast so far, it stood out to me. It truly shows off what our favourite screenwriting duo can do; it’s the epitome of “less is more”. I hesitate to say any piece of art – and I do consider horror, whether on the big screen or small, to be an artistic form – is perfect, but this was pretty damn close.

This was a fantastic conclusion to Series 4 and this series in general has been a worthy successor to the previous set, which was when I started watching (I started with The Devil of Christmas, watched Series 3 and then went back to catch up). Inside No. 9 has secured its place as the best thing on television.

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So as we wave off this series, I must also bid farewell to thee, dear reader. You’re welcome to stick around if you like my other stuff, but rest assured that, when the time comes, I’ll review Series 5 with just as much love and enthusiasm.

No more episodes, unfortunately, but fear not! The BBC have commissioned another series, so Series 5 will be broadcast (potentially next year).


*Note on The Monkey’s Paw:
I’m not sure why it has an entry on americanliterature.com, because it was published in England in 1902…

 

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E5 – “And The Winner Is…”

Right off the bat, And The Winner Is… is probably my least favourite episode this series. It had a lot of the components I would ordinarily enjoy, but I’ll try to explain to you why this one didn’t work for me. I suppose it’s largely because I guessed the twist considerably early on in the episode, which I don’t think has ever happened before. I’m not someone who particularly takes pleasure in figuring out the plot twist before it happens, because I genuinely like being surprised. That’s not to say it was bad, not at all; Inside No. 9 never is. But I could see the wheels turning throughout and therefore I picked up what was happening well before the big reveal. Maybe it was just a bit less subtle than usual.

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To Have and To Hold was always going to be a hard act to follow – the twist was upsetting and brutal, and it culminated in an even more unsettling resolution. And The Winner Is… is a much “quieter” episode. The humour comes from the recognisable, familiar archetypes in the room and the searing satire of the film industry. It’s still good fun and it’s full of fantastic actors (I was especially pumped to see Noel Clarke – Mickey from Doctor Who if you’re my age – and Zoë Wanamaker), but it’s a very different kind of episode. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed had it fallen in the middle of the series – say, just after Zanzibar and Bernie Clifton‘s Dressing Room – and preceded Once Removed and To Have and To Hold.

Finally: another episode, another wig. How would I describe Reece’s wig in And The Winner Is…? Suspicious, in a word. Again, I didn’t dislike it, but it was a… choice.

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It’s the last episode next week! I’m really excited to see what it will be, but I’m gutted that this series is nearly over. Reece published a distressing tweet that had us all panicking that this might be the end for good, so I’m hopeful that Series 5 will be with us at some point.

Episode 6, Tempting Fate, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 6th February, BBC2.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E4 – “To Have and To Hold”

Sorry this is so late! Spoilers are in yellow parentheses like [this]

And here we have the darkest episode of Series 4, at least so far.

I was really thrown by this one, I won’t lie to you. Once Removed was dark – lots of murder, lots of splatter – but it was in a fairly campy, semi-lighthearted way. I laughed a lot at it. I laughed at some of the dialogue at the start of To Have and To Hold as well, but, as the episode wore on, I started to get more and more uncomfortable. I felt guilty for having laughed at the awkwardness of the early scenes; I suppose that’s the mark of good television. A good episode should make you feel one way or another for the characters.

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This was fucking horrifying. It was, as always, brilliantly written and performed, but I think this might have scared me more than The Harrowing (Episode 6 of Series 1). The Harrowing is scary in a more straightforward way. It has the big spooky house, the creepy unseen entity upstairs and the brave protagonist who ultimately just can’t get away. To Have and To Hold is unsettling in a very insidious, mundane way. I can’t explain why without spoiling it, but it doesn’t possess any of the attributes I listed in The Harrowing.

I think what frightened me most was the plausibility of the plot. Of course it’s exaggerated – that’s the magic of television – but what happens in this episode has more or less happened in the real world, on multiple occasions. [This was obviously not intentional, but it was an interesting coincidence that this episode was broadcast not long after the Turpin children were rescued (their parents were convicted of multiple counts of torture and false imprisonment yesterday).] I don’t know if “suburban horror” is a real genre; however, it’s the term I’d apply to this episode.

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This review series might as well just focus on Reece Shearsmith’s wigs, because I can think of little else at the moment, in all honesty. He had another bizarre pileous arrangement going on in this episode. I wasn’t quite as taken with it as I was with the one from Once Removed, but, still, I approved.

Episode 5, And The Winner Is…, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 30th January, BBC2.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E3 – “Once Removed”

Warning: this review doesn’t contain any major plot points, but I do talk a little bit about the storytelling style and narrative techniques. If you want to watch it totally cold with no prior knowledge, I’d suggest coming back to this review once you’ve seen the episode.

Well, so far in Series 4, Steve Pemberton has ended up on Reece Shearsmith’s lap twice… so there’s that. Just wanted to open with that. I’m not complaining.

We’re halfway through the series! I’m trying not to feel sad about the inevitable end to Series 4; there’s still three more episodes to go, after all. There’s not much to feel sad about, really, because we’ve been blessed with three fantastic episodes already.

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We’ve had such interesting narrative techniques this series – Zanzibar with its iambic pentameter, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room with its pathos-filled slow burner of a story, and now Once Removed with its storytelling in reverse. The episode starts with the story’s end and concludes with its beginning (“reverse chronology” is the correct term for this). I love some quirky chronology – I’ve submitted an essay this week dealing partially with unconventional temporality in a poem by Jorge Luis Borges – so I was hyped when I clocked what was happening. Inside No. 9 never fails to surprise me and this episode was no exception.

Seeing Emilia Fox in Inside No. 9 was a thrilling moment, I won’t lie. I’ve loved her since she played Morgause in BBC’s Merlin and she was wonderful in this (as always). My only complaint would be that she isn’t in it enough, but that’s not really a concrete thing you could fix (it would just have made me personally happy).

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Reece’s wig in this episode was a choice, but not one I entirely disapproved of. It entertained me. I liked it. Miss Thing worked that lacefront and I wasn’t even that mad about it.

This was my favourite episode of this series (so far). It had all the elements that first drew me to Inside No. 9 – it was hysterically funny, genuinely shocking and it had a good bit of blood splattering around, which I’m always here for. Don’t skimp on the blood, ever. I had tons of fun watching it, to the point that I sort of felt bad for my flatmates and neighbours because I was laughing so hard.

 

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Episode 4, To Have and To Hold, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 23rd January, BBC2.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E2 – “Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room”

Brief note: I’m tagging my Inside No. 9 reviews under “horror” because some of the previous episodes have strong horror elements. I don’t really have a “hilarious, heartbreaking, sometimes horrifying comedy anthology” tag, so, unfortunately, episodes like this one which aren’t horror-related are going under the tag just to keep the reviews together.

The single spoiler (or semi-spoiler) in this review is in yellow parentheses like [this]. Highlight it with your cursor to read it.

Wow. So this was… upsetting.

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I remember watching 12 Days of Christine (the second episode of the second series) for the first time and just being blown away by how profoundly tragic and well-written it was. I feel similarly about Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. The episodes with stronger horror influences give me chills of a different kind; the twist can be pretty brutal. But episodes like this one have a different sort of twist. It’s a bit slower, a bit gentler. It gives you chance to really appreciate the pathos of the piece.

It’s more of an “Ohhhh. Oh, that’s sad.” rather than an “OH SHIT WHAT THE FUCK” (I’m looking at you, The Harrowing/Seance Time/The Devil of Christmas).

The plot, very briefly put to avoid spoilers, is that Len Shelby and Tommy Drake, a comedy double-act, have reunited after 30 years for one last gig. Len (Steve Pemberton) is eager to revive their act, but Tommy (Reece Shearsmith) has moved on. And so has the rest of the world: there’s a particularly brilliant scene with “the interview sketch”, culminating in a bit of commentary on political correctness. There’s so much going on in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room – commentary on stardom [(Len’s alcoholism is revealed to be what ultimately drove them apart)], lots of fun nostalgia for a bygone era of comedy and a desperately bittersweet ending.

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My mom and I laughed throughout the episode. My mom cried at the end. (I didn’t quite get that far, but I’m heartless so please don’t gauge anything by my emotions, really.) I think that’s the mark of a good piece of television; it makes you feel something without being gratuitous or taking the easy route.

This review is a bit shorter than the first, mostly because I wanted to establish in that review why I’ve specifically chosen to write about this series. I also simply have less to say about this one. I started watching Inside No. 9 because I love dark humour, so the episodes that appeal to me the most are the ones with something grotesque, something nasty. That doesn’t mean I don’t deeply enjoy episodes like Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. It was sweet, funny and beautifully crafted. A strong episode overall.

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Episode 3, Once Removed, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 16th January, BBC2.

 

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E1 – “Zanzibar”

I know, I know – I promised to stop writing so many reviews, but I just couldn’t resist sharing a few thoughts about Inside No. 9. So here’s what we’ll do. I’ll review this series and nothing else. I promise. No other film, TV show nor book shall be reviewed in this place until further notice.

Zanzibar takes place along a corridor on Floor 9 of the Hotel Zanzibar. The story plays out like a Shakespearean farce, a comedy of errors. As a big ol’ Shakespeare nerd, I was VERY happy indeed. This episode was written entirely in iambic pentameter and, to be honest, I might start a petition for more TV to be written that way. It was immensely cool to have that on my screen and, whatever you thought of the plot, the actual writing was a great technical achievement in and of itself. Both Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (Pemberton being the guy in the t-shirt at the front and Shearsmith being the dude in the suit behind him, below) are fantastic writers. (Yes, they’re often in the episodes too. They write and sing da feem toon, leave ’em alone.) It sounds silly for me, a lowly blogger, to say that, but Inside No. 9 just pushes all the buttons for what interests me. Quasi-horror anthology? On it. Ghosts? Bang on the money. Witch trials? They’ve done an episode on that. An episode with dialogue solely in iambic pentameter? They’re reading my goddamn mind.

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This was the first episode of Inside No. 9 that I watched with my parents. It’s always been something I watched on my own (except for the time I traumatised my brother with The Riddle of the Sphinx, the third episode of Series 3). Inside No. 9 is a strange beast to try and explain to people, mostly because it’s a comedy that isn’t overly concerned with being conventionally funny. When I laugh at it, it’s normally more of a hysterical exclamation of “Oh my god, did that really just happen?!” As is always the case with Inside No. 9, I had no clue what to expect and I wasn’t sure my parents would enjoy it.

Zanzibar happened to be one of the lighter episodes, perhaps even the lightest out of all of them. Just to clarify: “light” in this context does not mean “cheerful and innocent”. It’s still as darkly humorous as ever; often, it’s simply dark. I appreciated that it was a touch more lighthearted – not least because an episode in the vein of The Harrowing (my personal favourite episode, Episode 6 of the first series) would have been a very hard sell to my mother, who hates horror films. If you also want to get your squeamish friend or relative into Inside No. 9, Zanzibar would be an excellent place to start.

 

Overall, I really enjoyed the first episode. It probably won’t ever rank among my favourite episodes (although not classing every episode as your favourite is sort of the point of having favourites) but it was definitely up to their usual standards.

Episode 2, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 9th January, BBC2.