Starring Edward De Souza as The Man in Black. 30 minute episodes

There can’t be many people not familiar with the BBC Radio 4’s long running anthology of scares and frights presented by the Man in Black. Originally titled Appointment With Fear and presented by Valentine Dyall in the late 1940’s, the series was warmly received by audiences in the UK. Many famous writers of the day such as Edgar Allen Poe had episodes based on their stories, but the series also focussed on new writers, producers and directors to keep the fresh ideas coming.

The series returned a few years later, renamed The Man in Black, acknowledging for the first time the immense popularity of the now eponymous narrator who must surely be the original framing device for this type of series (copied from a similar show in the US titled Suspense). The idea has been resurrected several times over the decades and successfully travelled the world. At various times in the 1950’s and 60’s North America, Canada and Australia each had their own ‘Man in Black’. Mark Gatiss can now be heard on BBC Radio as the latest actor to assume the mantle, presenting new tales of evil and suspense. The framing device may be out of fashion at the moment but it’s an idea too simple and too malleable to ever truly disappear. On radio at least the great legacy continues on.

Today I’m reviewing three instalments made by the BBC in 1988, after the strand was renamed Fear on 4. It ran for about twelve years and continued the excellent standard set by it’s forebears. Edward De Souza provides his silky, deep voice greeting us genially before presenting chilling tales from the darkest depths, starting with


The ‘disembodied hand returned to life’ shtick has long been a stable of horror, but this is one of the better examples.

When a slightly pompous scientist finds he is the only one who can care for his elderly uncle, he’s troubled by one of the old man’s hands as it twitches and clenches, even when he’s asleep. Later, while the old boy sleeps, his hand picks up a pen and begins to write! At first the words are nonsense, but then the hand writes the scientist’s name, over and over again.

Sometime after his uncle’s death the scientist takes delivery of a package containing a wooden box, but something scuttling about inside. At first he think it’s something that will help with his studies, so he can hardly believe what he sees, or the strength and ferocity of the disembodied hand that escapes from the box.

Whether this was based on the pulp horror movie of the same name, and how this compares I can’t say because I’m not familiar with it, however I can tell you this is by far one of the strongest and best remembered of all the many stories presented by the Man in Black, thanks to the taught, frantic performances and a economic script. The sound design works hard, to fine effect providing dread sounds of the hand crawling , knocking things over, and at one point playing the piano.

By the 30 minute mark I think you’ll agree this episode definitely deserves a thumbs up!

MIND WELL THE TREE by William Ingram

When a man unexpectedly inherits a manor house and accompanying grounds, he finds the fractious relationship with his wife deteriorates further following his insistence she stay in the isolated country house, whilst he’s away on business. At first she’s reluctant but after warming to her new housekeeper and gardener, the idea of taking on the estate becomes appealing. But her attempts to enjoy the idyll is spoiled by the worried and confused note scribbled frantically on the bottom of the deceased’s last will and testament. Just four words – “mind well the tree”. It becomes apparent the note refers to an aged and dead elm tree which stands rotten and alone on the outskirts of the garden.

This is an edgy piece and the tension begins very early on, however I found this difficult to enjoy. There is a whispering voice that was so quiet I couldn’t make out what it was saying, and the revelations about the tree seem to come in one unmanageable splurge of information. It’s an evocative play, but I felt it somewhat lacking, not helped by a fairly abrupt ending.


Anne’s son is having night terrors, always calling out the same things – relating to a snowman. The boy’s older brother is little comfort as he seems to take delight in terrifying his mother by claiming he can see a snowman in the garden. Even when it’s not snowing.

Predictably, the boy’s father puts it all down to growing pains, and dismisses his wife’s claim’s that something strange and uneasy is going on, simply telling her to get out of the house more. Eventually she takes his advice and for the first time in months meets a friend for lunch. Conversation turns to the family’s new home, which is revealed to have a tragic history involving the death of a young boy – and a snowman.

That’s as much plot as I’m going to reveal because this is excellent, and revealing the end will spoil it for you. I’m no great horror fan, so to me this a thoroughly creepy tale. I’m not in any way an authority on the genre so, to me, this feels like a really original story. It’s eerily engaging, thick with unsettling images and a fine turn from Imelda Staunton as Anne. The plot is direct and functional, as you’d expect for the Fear on 4 strand and satisfies the listener with an unexpected, if slightly overwrought, ending. This has to be the high water mark for this series, and one of the best from this incarnation of The Man in Black.

That’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed this review and I hope you’ll check back here tomorrow for more.

We love audios here on NoScriptForLife and you can hear some quick and fun audios read by the author HERE. Each is less than 5 minutes, just perfect for your coffee break.

These episodes of Fear on 4 can be streamed or downloaded from Radioechoes.com and can also be found by typing in the episode titles on Youtube.

Thanks to http://www.otrplotspot.com/fearOn4.html for providing factual information about this series.

Copyright Martin Gregory 2020


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