10 Episodes, Original tx. 21.09.71. – 30.11.71. [10×20 mins] BBC-1
This post gathers my memories, impressions and sometimes misconceptions of this classic series as a viewer across more than forty years, as the most fondly remembered of the Look and Read dramas makes it onto DVD: ‘The Boy from Space.’
“Episode 6… it’s always Episode 6!”
Memory is a strange and notoriously unreliable thing.
I don’t think I saw The Boy from Space when it was first shown in 1971. I would have been seven, the right age, but the series wasn’t viewed at my primary on its archetypal schools’ television (wooden shutters, towering metal frame on casters). I might possibly have seen one episode at home that year. It would definitely have been episode six – Mr Bunting is driving Peep Peep to hospital but the thin man reaches out his arm from behind a tree and points a gun towards Mr Bunting’s car to make it stop. The thin man walks purposefully towards the car much to the boy’s great panic. And there – unbelievably – the episode ends.
The Boy from Space was repeated in 1972 and again in 1973. I reckon I saw not more than one episode each year and it was the same episode on both occasions, again episode six, one of the scariest -though perhaps not the scariest – of the ten.
So I grew up haunted by this memory of something frightening replicated three times in my early childhood. That same episode ending, just stuck there. No resolution, only a blank. Although frustrating, the replication made the series all the more fascinating. Why was it always this same episode and what happened to Peep-Peep, Mr Bunting and the children?
But it wasn’t just the unresolved events of that sequence which haunted me. It was the air of strangeness and gathering fear which pervaded much of the episode. Is fear a good motivator to get children to learn to read? Perhaps when it translates into excitement and eager anticipation. The producers clearly thought so.
“It always ends just as it’s getting exciting!”
‘Radio Times’ printed each episode title and I used these to try to piece together the story and work out how ‘my’ episode fitted in. One episode title was The Man in the Sand-pit which translated into my mind as Helen and Dan finding the thin man in their garden’s sand-pit. I never thought of it in any other way. I was so certain of this, or perhaps so impressed by the image it conjured up, that my imaginative speculation became a cast iron piece of memory until I discovered, upon watching the DVD last month, that I had totally imagined it. There was no sand-pit in a garden. The setting was vast sandy terrain in the countryside. How memory deceives… except that the memory itself wasn’t wrong because imagination cannot be. My mistake was in confusing my own imaginative speculation for something I had actually seen on television.
To my delight, The Boy from Space was reshown in 1980, now with different music and accompanied by entirely new educational material (and for the first time in colour though I wasn’t aware of that as we remained black-and-white until ’83). These changes made some of my original memories feel even more elusive but, at last, here was a chance to fill in some gaps to the story. I got to see at least another couple of episodes as, in the lead-up to 1980’s ‘O’ levels, I had ‘home study’ time away from school.
As well as correcting my false memory over the sand pit, last month’s DVD release also cleared up the mystery around the repeated episode six. It turns out my experience was shared by thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of children: Look and Read was repeated to allow for different half-term holiday weeks across the country and episode six always fell squarely into mine.
Seen all these years later, the series remains a delight in many ways. The Boy from Space recalls a time when children were free to roam and play outside, enjoying such simple but challenging activities as making a telescope from a cardboard tube in a country shed (‘observatory’). It showcases the effectiveness of well-crafted storytelling and classic lo-fi spine-tingling inducements such as footsteps and a shadow advancing slowly up a stairway.
The clearly signposted aspects of the drama mark it out unmistakably as schools’ television. But some of these necessarily restrictive aspects serve (albeit unintentionally) to give The Boy from Space its uniquely thrilling quality.
Writer Richard Carpenter had to work with a controlled vocabulary of only 386 words. This could almost be an extreme example of the kind of exercise a writer might set themselves. Here, it is an imposed requirement of the writer’s remit, one which Richard Carpenter later admitted finding very difficult to fulfill. The result is a pared down simplicity which adds a directness and curious significance to the spoken word, especially where it is, as here, pronounced spoken and clearly enunciated.
Helen’s commentary adds a further layer of apparent artifice to the 1980 revision which, in its recall of classic children’s fiction, actually accentuates the scary aspects. Here is her commentary for the chase sequence:
“I had the same feeling I had in the wood, as if someone was watching us”.
“He came towards us. He was tall and thin”.
“He looked very pale and strange”.
“Dan got up and we ran off and hid. We were very scared”.
There is sometimes a slowness and deliberateness to the filming too which might have been lost had The Boy from Space been written as a fully-fledged children’s drama. Episode Two and Three’s chilling sequences in which the thin man chases after the children – the way in which the chase is not just a conventional action-packed runaround but almost seems to borrow from silent film in its jerky stop-start deliberateness, the starkly exaggerated actions of the thin man, the way he is framed against the bare terrain like a figure of expressionist horror, his weirdly projecting ‘feeling’ arm – all of this adds hugely to the tension and strangeness of the serial (John Woodnutt as the thin man is particularly good here). Director Maddalena Fagandini had previously worked with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and perhaps some of that outfit’s experimentalism found its way into her direction.
The child catcher
Of course, it is impossible viewing this 2014 ‘post-Savile’ to escape entirely the idea that what you are seeing is two defenceless children menaced by a predatory paedophile complete with staring eyes and a dirty mac. It is indeed surprising that Dan initially extends a friendly greeting to the man – a cheery “Hello!” – given ‘don’t talk to strangers’ advice to children was ubiquitous even in 1971. Producer Claire Chovil must have discussed the implications of showing these scenes to infant children within the context of educational television. Perhaps it was felt that such material was justified precisely because it graphically shows the threats open to children who fail to heed sound parental advice. Which child would dare to say hello to a stranger after viewing episode two?
Seen now, the chase remains disturbing not just because of the staccato qualities I mentioned but the thin man’s extraordinary appearance. With his wide-brimmed floppy hat, modish large-lapelled cream trench coat, space trousers like bright blue jeans and oversized moon boots, he embodies a kind of 1971 boutique chic where the dirtied-up high fashion elements are what unsettle, not the prototype BBC alien uniform semi-visible underneath. The sandpit location, although something of a cliché in BBC sci-fi of the 60s and 70s, works really well here because it is (or was) a safe play place for the children yet its barrenness and remoteness starkly contrasts with the striking familiar-yet-strange appearance of the thin man. Helen’s voiceover tells us that she recognises his clothes but cannot remember where from. In fact, the thin man has taken them from Tom along with his car, all with connotations of an alien stealing aspects of human identity.
Tom Tom Turnaround
The fact that the children’s adult friend, Tom, is played by a black actor at a time when there were very few roles for black people on television, is interesting. There is nothing at all in the part of Tom which requires that he be black so I can only assume that either Loftus Burton was considered simply the right man for the part or that the producer made a laudable decision to use a diverse cast.
Another less liberal reading of Burton’s casting is possible. Tom acts as a bridge between the children and the old, white, traditionally establishment figure of Mr Bunting. It might be said that there is a kind of subtly implicit racism in this – Tom, as a black man, is seen as closer to the world of the children, able to share in their innocence.
There is still a third reading which is rather more benevolent. Tom represents qualities of trustworthiness and reliability and his being black – in contrast to the blond silver-skinned aliens – makes this contrast visible to a child audience. He is the good guy, whereas the fair-skinned ones are, at best, unreliable. (What is it with aliens being represented as Aryan blonds – the Thals from Dr Who, Sky?)
In its educational remit as in its drama, The Boy from Space is incredibly well crafted. You can’t remove the educational side of the narrative because the story would fall apart without the mirror-writing.
The story also utilises subtler elements of Reithian paternalism in promoting virtues such as scientific curiosity, resourcefulness, courage, a willingness to accept and understand others, the virtues of trust and friendship across divides.
It is not surprising that The Boy from Space was written by television writer Richard Carpenter who presumably created the wonderful Catweazle at around the same time. Claire Chovil must have quickly realised what a mini-masterpiece she had in The Boy from Space, as it lends itself so easily to the demands of the programme’s ‘educational middle’. There was also probably gratitude that what could have been a budget-breaking spaceship is parked under the lake, its exterior remaining unseen (although a flying saucer features in the 1980 opening title sequence and a rocket-type ship in the pamphlet, presumably from different versions of the show!).
Before The Boy from Space came to be re-shown in 1980, it was given something of a makeover. The educational middles were entirely redone to feature the popular Wordy, a constant in Look and Read since 1974. My memory of the 1971 inserts with single male presenter Charles Collingwood (who went on to voice Wordy) is somewhat hazy but I recall a rather more sober, instructional tone than 1980’s Wordy and Cosmo version.
Some changes were made to the drama as well. A short sequence was filmed to open the series featuring original actors Sylvestra Le Touzel and Stephen Garlick as Helen and Dan re-visiting the observatory as teenagers. Helen’s recall of their adventures serves as a lead-in to the rerun drama. Helen also provides a necessary commentary throughout.
The original theme music by John Baker was replaced with the endearing and memorable synthesiser accompanied ‘Up there in space, do we have friends?’ sung to perfection by Derek Griffiths. The song evokes a quiet sense of wonder which is just right for The Boy from Space but does couch the series in more comforting terms than John Baker’s original coldly spacey sounds (you can just make out a remnant of these at the end of episode ten before the new theme takes over).
Baker’s original incidental music for the 1971 series was also replaced with Paddy Kingsland’s updated 1980 version. Kingsland recalls being impressed with both the original ‘very strong’ film and Baker’s music which ‘gave the whole film a dark atmosphere that perfectly suited the tone of the original Fagandini film.’ His brief was to ‘lighten it up a bit’, highlighting the action side of the script. Overall there is more music than in the 1971 original, in keeping with changes to television production over the intervening eight years (and since). This tallies with my slightly disappointed sense in 1980 that The Boy from Space wasn’t quite as frightening as I had recalled it. I was unsure whether this was due to my being fifteen years old rather than seven or eight or was it that the series itself actually felt a little different? A little of its sense of unease – there in those original silences – had slipped away. Sadly the DVD release does not feature Baker’s original music and, neither is it included on 2008’s The Baker Tapes Volumes 1 and 2 compilations. It is likely that none survives.
Overall then, the changes made from 1971 to 1980 versions were about adding pace and a kind of all round accessibility and user-friendliness. My impression is that something otherworldly was sacrificed in the process but as the 1971 original no longer exists, we shall probably never know. Certainly the changes were in keeping with the climate of the times as notions of child-centredness and accessibility moved centre-stage throughout the 70s. It’s interesting that presenter Cosmo’s bright track-suit in 1980 is more ‘childish’ than the children’s clothes in 1971.
Lost in Space
So I have followed The Boy from Space over more than forty years, through viewings as child, adolescent and adult. Just as this DVD has revived memories of the 1980 viewing and allowed me to complete the full story, it has perhaps locked away my 1971 memories of that long lost original for all time.