It’s Friday the 13th, so let’s check out an entry that’s a bit more trick than treat.
When I first encountered Beyond Midnight, I got rather perky. It was great to find a “classic” radio horror drama (however obscure) made in South Africa. The show was produced by Michael McCabe through Springbok Radio (1950-85). It aired on Friday nights at 9:30 from 1968 through 1970 and succeeded his science fiction show, SF68. Note that McCabe was not South African. He was born in England.
For such an obscure show, Beyond Midnight has enjoyed a miraculous survival, with 71 of its original 78 episodes surviving and 56 generally available online (though other sources give other numbers). There’s a lot of tape hiss and any horror host there might have been in the original was cut out – though I suspect there wasn’t any, due to the “credits” appearing embedded in the story with a commercial, immediately after the teaser.
Kudos to Springbok Radio for keeping all those old tapes, unlike the BBC with its more famous series. Just goes to show that fame and archival responsibility in an institution don’t automatically go together.
Episodes were 30 minutes long and consisted of narration, mixed with dialogue and sound effects. McCabe’s general method was to take old stories from the 19th or early 20th century and rewrite them to suit. This pre-Pulp, inoffensive source material drags the show down a bit, making the show sound creaky and twee, prim and proper in a way that usually distances the audience from the horror, reducing it to mere melodrama. Not helping is that the pacing is on the slow side.
There are some effective episodes, the most disturbing probably being “The Upper Berth” (which, like other episodes on the show, goes by other names, so be cautious when buying them). However, a lot of them have cliched premises and uninspired delivery. There are a lot more “Dear Ghost”s than “The Upper Berth”s in this show’s lineup.
More distressing in terms of the time and place is that these stories are set in some fantasy England and other parts of Europe, or on Ye Olde Open Sea, but not in Apartheid Era South Africa – or any other period of South Africa, no matter how inoffensive, romanticized, or uncritical. Even the voice actors used have “proper” English voices – or Australian, reflecting the station’s tendency early on to use imported Australian programming. This makes the stories feel unoriginal and inauthentic.
Was this an effect of McCabe (who wrote several shows for Springbok) being the main impetus behind the show? Government or station censorship? The audience’s desire to hear something “proper” and English rather than their own backyard (considering Springbok Radio’s main audience was suburban housewives)? Hard to say. Either way, the effect is of low-rent WWII BBC. I can’t help feeling an opportunity was missed here.
If you are jonesing for some new classic period radio horror, you could do worse than Beyond Midnight. Yes, you’re getting warmed-over Gothic hash, but there are still times when McCabe does bring the creep and those moments are always worth it, even in an otherwise-mediocre production. Check out any of the above links in the article for some episodes.