If you listen closely, every year around October 1st you’ll start to hear things go bump in the night… but don’t worry, instead of g-g-g-ghoooosts it’s mostly just the sound of props department interns who have been made to stay late and dig out boxes of bat bunting, dry ice machines and facepaint ready for another round of Halloween TV specials.
Halloween episodes are now a spooky season staple on both sides of the pond, but while the US has been producing Halloween hits like It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and The Flintstones’ ‘A Haunted House is Not A Home’ since the early 1960s, the American tradition didn’t properly catch on in the UK until the 1970s.
Dig through the archives, and – while a couple of spooky stories were read out on Jackanory in the late 1960s, including Doctor Who’s own Jon Pertwee’s memorable reading of Ghoulies, Ghosties and Long Legged Beasties – this 1974 Steptoe and Son episode might be the first proper Halloween edition of a British TV show:
Cleverly titled ‘Seance in a Wet Rag and Bone Yard’ as a riff on Richard Attenborough’s horror movie Seance on a Wet Afternoon, the episode was first shown in October 1974, and features an early TV appearance for comedy legend Patricia Routledge (Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances). She plays spiritual medium Madame Fontana who comes to the house to give a seance. Albert is convinced she’s legit, but Harold doesn’t buy it, and it’s soon revealed that the whole thing’s a con by Madame Fontana trying to offload her mother on Albert by convincing him that his late wife wants him to remarry.
There are earlier spooky episodes of British TV shows, but not ones that aired at Halloween.
‘Lost Hearts’ was a 1973 episode of what became the BBC’s annual festive series A Ghost Story for Christmas, which adapted an 1895 ghost story by M.R. James about a boy sent to stay in the country manor of a mysterious elderly relative with a wicked past. You can watch the full episode below, if you dare (we’ll stick with The Muppet Christmas Carol, thanks):
Going back even further, early 1960s BBC sitcom Sykes and A… starred Eric Sykes and Carry On star Hattie Jacques, and featured a 1962 episode called ‘Sykes and a Haunting’ where the pair become convinced they’re being visited by an angry dead relative. The episode – which is available to watch online – aired in a very un-Halloweeny March rather than October.
Another notably early showing is from 1970s kids’ TV gameshow Runaround:
Presented by the late Mike Reid, who sounds slightly more respectable here than his legendary portrayal of Frank ‘you’re gonna get a dry slap’ Butcher in Eastenders, it also features Carry On film star Charles Hawtrey as a delightfully camp Dracula. Worth watching for the psychedelic graphics alone.
These early Halloween specials walked so that the likes of Only Fools and Horses, Midsomer Murders and Strictly Come Dancing could run. They’re well worth remembering (and enjoying) this spooky season.