By Angus Hall
Adapted by Brian Hayles
Angus Hall was not impressed with the BBC adaptation of his 1969 novel. Nearly twenty years later during a correspondence in the letters page of the BBC’s cultural magazine The Listener, about the recent BBC2 25th anniversary programming, the author wrote in about the absence of any mention of Out of the Unknown in the celebrations. “I still shudder at how my perfectly respectable ‘psychological thriller’ Deathday was turned into a grotesque ‘other-worldly’ travesty by the programme-makers. I trust that Out of the Unknown remains unknown to all present and future television viewers.” Now I have never read his novel so I cannot directly compare, but I can certainly sympathise with with his disappointment because this was a poor instalment. Hall incidentally wrote over twenty books in the crime and horror genre, amongst them Crime Busters, and Devilday, which was adapted into the cult Vincent Price/ Peter Cushing movie Madhouse.
Adam Crosse is a failure. Stuck in a dead-end reporter job for the local paper. Popping pills. Married to the bitter condescending Lydia. When he discovers his wife has taken a lover and that she does not really care that he knows, his frustrations murderously boil over. Afterwards he begins an elaborate cover-up, trying to cast suspicion onto a current serial killer known in the papers as The Kitchen Killer.
I’ve deliberately kept the synopsis short this time because if I told you much more you could probably guess the ‘twist’ a mile off, just as I did. That is one of the problems with this story. The other is that as a study of a mentally ill murderer, this episode comes off a parody of Dennis Potter as its inadequate middle-aged protagonist.
Actually thinking about it that is one of the problems with the whole ‘psychological thriller’ genre that the Seventies and early Eighties used to love so much – it demonises and trivialises mental health issues. Not to mention providing an excuse for some lazy writing. Whilst the story gives us a few motivations for Crosse’s actions, his wife’s infidelity, his sexual inadequacy, the conflict between his desire to be an alpha man and his essentially passive subservient personality, too often the reason for what happens comes down – he’s a nutter.The other big annoyance I have with the genre ever since Les Diaboliques is that the question – is it real or is the protagonist imagining it? – is actually a pretty boring one that often drains the story of tension rather than creating it.
One later section I had assumed must be happening in his mind, is where Crosse goes driving at night and picks up a sexy blonde woman. Or rather she just jumps into his car at the traffic lights. I thought she might be a prostitute but its soon established she isn’t. Apparently she is just a spirited party girl who does things on a whim and for some reason decides a one night stand with a portly creepy older man would be fun, which stretches credibility to breaking point. In fact it would have only made sense if she was a fantasy but she was real. There is also an unexpected bit of gratuitous nudity as she undresses and explores his bathroom on her own, which felt oddly out of place.
The appalling decor could be a clever reflection of unhappiness in the Crosse and Gregory households, but I suspect is just a case of hideous BBC Seventies set design. Everything seems so brown. Even the dream sequence looked ugly.
It is another episode where thirty minutes would have been more than enough. Ultimately Crosse is not a particularly interesting murderer and his mental unravelling has no sense of tragedy, since he did have much going for him in the first place. Again this overall tawdriness may be the point of the story, but if you want to see a drama about a hollow man who finds that even murder cannot free him from a modern hell of mediocrity and poor taste, catch American Psycho instead.