Created by Brian Clemens – ‘Thriller’

Brian Clemens 1976

Brian Clemens died on January 10th at the age of 83.  His name is inextricably linked with television action-adventure and crime series of the 60s and 70s from Danger Man and Adam Adamant Lives to The Professionals.  Surely his most notable achievement remains The Avengers, a series so innovative and original it almost defines 60s cool.  Clemens himself was responsible for casting Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.

But for me, the name Brian Clemens is most closely associated with the 1973-76 ATV series Thriller.  Clemens created Thriller, wrote the majority of its 43 episodes and storyboarded the others, adding to his already prolific output.

Thriller had a number of good things going for it.  Each episode lasted seventy-five broadcast minutes (typically 65 minutes without commercial breaks), a very specific and unusual length for a British TV drama series.  That schedule-stretching extra twenty minutes seemed to symbolise the import of the series and, when well used, allowed room for a mood of mystery or menace to slowly develop.

Harpsichord stings

Even the shrill blasts of the ATV ident seemed to announce a deliciously terrifying seventy-five minutes was in store.

ThrillerThen there was Laurie Johnson’s doom laden opening music – creepy woodwind and those dreaded dissonant ‘ker-drrrrmmm!’ harpsichord stings accompanying a blood red framed, fish-eyed view of the locations to come – a forbidding old house (often with pillars) or bare trees clawing at a wintry sky.

The anthology format of self-contained episodes had the advantage of providing fresh actors in a new story each week.  It’s a shame that this flexible but reliable format has virtually vanished from television screens today.

Casts were stuffed with well known names – Dinsdale Landen, Peter Vaughan, Hayley Mills, Jenny Agutter, Jeremy Brett, Nyree Dawn Porter, Patrick Allen, Richard Todd, Patrick Troughton, Diana Dors, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Denholm Elliott to name but a handful.  To help sales to the States, American actors were planted in some episodes which could make for a slightly contrived feel.

Having seen the entire Thriller series on DVD forty years later, it’s a largely positive experience.  Unfortunately the series lacks the charm of The Avengers and there is a sense that the gin-and-jag world it portrays is a pretty corrupt place where seemingly anyone is prepared to kill, usually for money.

Some of the characters feel interchangeable but that could be down to box-set syndrome.

I don’t have a problem with the studio-bound sets which are actually pretty lavish by 1970s’ TV standards and were something of a hallmark of ATV.

Experiments with supernatural-themed stories work rather less well and the series feels on a firmer footing when these are phased out though Diana Dors is creepily enjoyable as evil nurse Bessie in Nurse Will Make It Better (1975).

I feel a little uneasy that a prevalent theme is a female menaced by a male (Clemens claimed audiences identify more closely with the vulnerability of a female lead) but my favourite Thriller, A Coffin for the Bride  (1974), turns the tables magnificently.

The series can descend into schlock, sometimes nerve-rackingly so as in A Killer in Every Corner (1975) with Max Wall’s first straight role as an obsessive shoe-polishing psychopath much talked about at the time.

When Thriller was sold to the States as a collection of standalone made for TV movies, the atmospheric original titles and music were excised to be replaced by truly terrible garishly coloured openers with generic music plastered over the top and some episodes renamed.  British TV viewers got to see these cheap and nasty versions when Thriller surfaced sporadically across the ITV regions around 1981 though many viewers would have missed these repeats altogether as there was little indication they belonged to the 70s Brian Clemens series.  Thankfully the Network DVD release restores the original fish-eye credits though the export versions are included as extras if you can stomach them.

Several Thrillers do stand out. Here are my two favourites.

The Eyes Have It

I missed the majority of Thrillers first time round.  Nine year olds were not the target audience (although, surprisingly, some episodes began as early as 8.15, well before the 9pm watershed).

But I did get to see one of the best stories, 1973’s The Eyes Have It on a 1975 repeat.   The sense of excitement at being allowed to stay up to watch this adult drama – and it felt exceedingly ‘adult’ – was immense and, that night, Thriller certainly did not disappoint.  A certain aura surrounded the series, handed down from parents and passed around in gossip at school and it felt great to at last be inducted into this exclusive club.

In 1975, ‘The Eyes Have It’ thrilled and terrified me in equal measure.  The clichés of ‘glued to my seat’ and ‘unable to look away from the screen’ could not be more apt. My childhood favourite, Dr Who, was moving into its Gothic period at this time which meant more realistic portrayals of the darker side of human nature in stories like ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (Sarah being sadistically dangled high over the edge of a rocket’s scaffolding, Nyder’s cruelly complicit smile as the Daleks’ slaughter commences).  In many ways ‘Thriller’ felt like a natural step-up and satisfied a need in me to be both chilled and excited in greater measures.

The Eyes Have It pre-credits teaser (a key aspect of the series) shows us a doctor murdered by strangers as a young woman stands by apparently unconcerned.  The killer waves his hand across her line of vision as she continues to smile.  Only then, after this unnerving opening does the camera pan to ‘Clinical Training Centre for the Blind’ and we’re into the title sequence.

A group of terrorists have infiltrated the school because its location offers an ideal vantage point from which to carry out an assassination.  The story is of how the blind students gradually become aware of what is happening and, despite the odds being severely against them, seek to overcome the terrorists.

The acting (Peter Vaughan, Sinead Cusack, William Marlowe, Denis Waterman) is very good and there are some wonderfully poignant scenes which stick in the memory, such as the students continuing life as usual while, unbeknown to them, the body of the doctor lies only feet away.  In another nail-biting scene, one of the students seeks help from a stranger only to realise from the familiar feel of his ring that he is one of the terrorists.  The precision of the storytelling and the sense of menace is almost palpable.

A Coffin for the Bride

Once you get over the slightly tacky double murder scenes at the start, this opens out into a thoroughly original mystery.  Michael Jayston plays Mark Walker, a charmer who makes a living out of marrying and then murdering wealthy women.  But his well oiled schemes fall apart when he meets the beautiful Stella Mackenzie (there’s a clue in her being a set designer…)

A Coffin for the Bride relies hugely for its effectiveness on a strong performance from its female lead and a young Helen Mirren is terrific.  I can’t say too much here for fear of spoiling your enjoyment if you’ve not seen it.  Suffice it to say that the ending is as devastating as it is completely unforeseen (well, by me, anyway though I do think Mark might have noticed those dentures before they are pulled out on him).

I played this story a second time and noticed a crucially placed lookalike figure in the background at the health resort.  Whether this passer-by is a purely incidental inclusion or a deliberate one, her presence acts as a subliminal decoy, steering you off the scent of what’s really happening and making the outcome all the more shocking. Subtle and clever.   I got as much enjoyment seeing ‘A Coffin for the Bride’ for a second time just to enjoy the careful setting up of the story at each stage.

‘A Coffin for the Bride’ is reputedly Brian Clemens’ own favourite from the series.

The wrap-up

In some ways, Thriller reminds me of a traditional ‘good night out,’ at a provincial theatre where thrillers have long been a production mainstay and always seem to star Gerald Harper or Christopher Cazenove.  The mood would be one of deadly melodrama threatening to burst through English middle-class self-restraint.

It’s quite rare to see anything approaching genuine psychological motivation in thrillers (Psycho, is a notable exception) and to an extent you have to accept the limitations of the genre to enjoy this collection too.  The thrills are indeed psychological but they stem from imposed plot devices rather than from characters of subtlety and complexity. Thriller takes a premise, setups a scenario which implies a certain endgame and then deliberately subverts that or, in some cases such as I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill (1974), simply plays it out relentlessly.

Thriller Box setYou can enjoy the sense of manipulation when it’s in the name of suspense – and suspense, Thriller delivers in spade-loads.

For all the thrills you could ever want, visit the Thriller website.

The entire series is available on DVD box set.

The Changes DVD Review

Original TV series: 10 episodes, tx. Jan-Mar 1975, 5.20-5.45pm, BBC-1
DVD: 2-disc set, BFI, August 2014 


Changes

It sounds grumpy to begin a review by saying ‘Why has it taken so long?’ The Changes is a well remembered, ground-breaking piece of television, first transmitted almost forty years ago.  There was a re-showing on UK Gold in 1994 (imagine that now) and pirated copies have been in circulation for a while but the series seems little regarded by the BBC itself and has been allowed to quietly rest in semi-obscurity.

So it falls to the BFI to release The Changes on DVD which means it comes with a minimum of fuss and commercial blah and we are treated to a thirty page booklet which is thorough and informative (justifying the slightly higher than the norm asking price).

Picture quality is perfectly watchable considering no restoration work has taken place and, sadly, is unlikely to do so as this is not regarded as a major league release.   Sound is fine throughout, thanks in part to actors not mumbling their lines beneath frenetic soundtracks as is so often the case today, though the closing theme does sound a trifle wobbly on its sustained notes.

Peter Wright’s opening essay sets The Changes within the socio-economic context of the times though perhaps not everyone will agree with his analysis. He also examines the series set against developments in BBC children’s television in the early-mid 70s.  Interviews with cast members and particularly with director John Prowse and producer/adaptor Anna Home would have been the icing on the cake but Wright’s essay, in reviewing documentation from the time, rightly pays tribute to Home and BBC Head of Children’s Television, Monica Sims, as major forces in seeing The Changes through to completion.

The booklet also features composer Paddy Kingsland’s recollections and useful biographical pieces on Kingsland, Peter Dickinson and Anna Home.

Apart from the obligatory stills gallery, the sole DVD extra is an only mildly interesting 1983 government film consisting entirely of stills, At Home in Britain, about the lives of Asian residents living in Britain.

The Changes: bad wires, good faith and a question of balance

The Changes: bad wires, good faith and a question of balance

10 episodes, Original tx. Jan-Mar 1975, 5.20-5.45pm, BBC-1

A well remembered and ground-breaking children’s drama series emerges from the  mists of the mid-70s into 2014 and onto DVD.  This is what ‘The Changes’ means to me now and what it meant back then.  


World’s End Housing Estate, January 1975


1975

I was nearly eleven when The Changes was first broadcast in January 1975. It was a pertinent age to view the series as it prefigured major changes in my life that year.

1975 was the year I moved from a cosy village school to a huge comprehensive.  Almost simultaneously, my parents left the comfortable, airy 60s detached house of my childhood and bought an older building which needed a lot of repair, making it feel exposed, unhomely and, crucially, pre-modern.

The series unfolds not just as Nicky’s search for the origin of The Changes but as her own journey from child to adolescent. It was a journey I was not yet ready to make in January 1975.  But as the year advanced, I had a sense of stepping into a harsher, less sheltered world, underscored by my growing awareness of the sort of issues tackled by The Changes.  By the end of 1975 I was forced to leave childish things behind as a premature adolescence began.  The sombre feel of The Changes prefigures the depressive mood of my teenage years and their search for meaning and identity.

‘A series for older viewers’

I am sure I recall the pre and post-John Craven’s Newsround warning of unusually adult content in the forthcoming programme at 5.20, as that sort of message would definitely have made me prick up my ears. I couldn’t have guessed at how visceral and violent that content was to be.

Episode One’s opening scene is one of domestic familiarity – schoolgirl Nicky Gore does her homework with the television on in the background while her mother sits knitting and father reads the paper.  Then, from nowhere and everywhere, the angry ‘noise’ begins, prompting Nicky’s father, involuntarily, to smash the television.  It is hard to express how shocking, how terrifying was that sudden and inexplicable act of savagery in a suburban living room, witnessed in my own suburban living room back in 1975.

This single act leads into an orgy of mass destruction taking place across Britain, apparently caused by the noise compelling people to destroy machinery. The scenes of electrical appliances and even bicycles dragged onto streets and smashed up alongside burning cars, were – and still are – incredibly disturbing.  The series talks openly about many people left to die and we see Nicky forced to leave an old man in a doorway to fend for himself.  A thin veneer of civilisation is stripped away literally overnight as Britain is cast back into a pre-industrial age.

I don’t think I had seen anything so unsettling on television, carrying such an air of urgent threat perhaps since the apocalyptic Dr Who story Inferno almost five years earlier. The sense of dislocation, panic and utter fear is palpable.

Parallel worlds

What was depicted in that first episode built upon my semi-conscious awareness of growing discontent in the adult world around me, a world of sudden power-cuts, energy conservation campaigns (‘Save It!’) and constant scenes of industrial conflict on the television news.  What I was experiencing was a child’s view of the breakdown of the post-war consensus and the very uncertainty of society itself.  The Changes also bore disturbing parallels with the notion of a post holocaust Britain, at a time when I was becoming aware of the cold war and nuclear threats.

Seen now, it is as if what we are looking at is an alternative view of Britain, an extreme form of what might have come about if industrial decline had continued apace and instead of being propelled into a world of Thatcherite conspicuous consumption and an economy driven by global financial services, Britain reverted to a kind of isolated communitarian/agrarian republic, overall poorer yet potentially more egalitarian and with a distinctly land-based local identify, too fragmented to be called patriotic.  In other words, a wholesale rejection of consumer capitalism and all that has come to be seen as ‘modernity’.  This perhaps seems fanciful in an age of 24/7 electronic media saturation and near global capitalism but would not have seemed so to Britain ‘managing decline’ in the mid-70s.

When Anna Home came to adapt Peter Dickinson’s trilogy – The Weathermonger, Heartsease, The Devil’s Children – she inserted this pre-Changes opening episode to allow the full force of what follows to have maximum impact.

‘Devil’s Children’

Nicky and her parents try to escape to France but she becomes separated from them amidst the chaos of the city streets. Compelled to make her own way, she chances across a small band of travelling Sikhs and joins them.

It took me a while to accept this turn of the story as a child, as, at first, it seemed insufficiently connected to what had gone before.   In retrospect, as a ten year old, I was probably a little young for the programme’s target audience and wanted episode one’s explicit sense of drama and threat to continue, if not heighten.  I can appreciate the subsequent episodes more now than then.

The sensitive and overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the Sikhs – the contrast between Nicky’s can-do feminist individualism and the Sikh’s deferential traditionalism – is an unusually forward-thinking aspect of the series at a time when British television sitcoms were awash with crude cultural stereotypes.  The series shows how genuine understanding, respect and affection can be established across racial, cultural and religious divides.  But The Changes never wears its liberal, feminist, multiethnic and environmentalist credentials on its sleeve and does not feel patronising in its portrayal of race and culture.  Nicky encounters and adjusts to this new world and we do so with her.

It seems extraordinary that it took a series for children to ask whether a minority community can thrive in a ‘host’ country (the debate was still framed in this way then) and show how this might look.

‘Wicked and dangerous’

Racism, misogyny and suspicion rear their ugly heads as a kind of neo-feudalism takes over the land. Machines become synonymous with ‘wickedness’, outsiders and dissenters branded as ‘evil.’  Nicky herself is put on trial as a witch and faces death by stoning.  The series seems to be making a critique of dangerously inward-looking tribal religiosity, one which is entirely white and male dominated.

As The Changes is shot entirely on film and on location, it benefits from an immediacy which studiobound drama of the time often lacks. It is essential that what we are seeing looks and feels like ‘the real world’ and indeed it does.  Only occasionally do we drift slightly into children’s drama cliché – the choreographed fight sequences in episode five and the exaggerated baddie acting of the black bearded robber chief, are cases in point.  Other characters, such as Arthur Barnard, the bigoted farmer turned quasi-squire, impart a genuine sense of brutish ignorance and menace.

There are very few special effects overall, bar a mind-bending, colour saturated sequence and kaleidoscopic review of key scenes in Episode Ten and the series doesn’t demand them.  Its unflashiness is one of its great virtues.  I like the fact that it is not afraid to adopt a lighter tone and a leisurely pace at times.  This gives a greater sense of ‘real time’ unfolding and of the slower feel to life following The Changes.  It accentuates the role that the land itself plays in the drama – the changing landscape of river, farmland, woodland and forest.  It’s possible to see the middle episodes of The Changes as some kind of English, ruralist road movie with Vicky’s journey becoming less and less connected with the modern and the urban and more and more with the past, the land and, eventually, a mythical England.

The Noise

Bad wires: The noise seems to travel along power-lines

 

Paddy Kingsland’s synth/electric guitar dominated incidental music (with sitar and tabla for the episodes featuring the Sikhs) gives the series a great deal of ruralist medievalist/70s atmosphere. There is perhaps a little too much music at times, particularly in some of the earlier episodes (the overuse of the same theme in different keys at the start of Episode Four grates a little) but there are also some lovely and most evocative passages such as Episode Nine’s horseback ride (which is beautifully shot too).

In the DVD booklet, Paddy Kingsland’s recalls almost smashing up his Delaware synthesiser to create the noise.  The result is chillingly effective, a little like running a pencil over piano strings with the sustain pedal held down whilst holding your head in the instrument’s cavity so that you are both surrounded by the swirling sound and feeling its resonance inside your head  – only ten times as terrifying.

The unusual option to include different music for start and end titles works very well, underlying the before and after worlds and with an apt musical amalgam of the two at the story’s conclusion. The opening theme uses tabla and synth to convey – in a 70s funk kind of way – the fast pace of modern, urban life, then giving way to the noise and a sense of disintegration.  The trumpet/horns dominated end theme hints at something medieval and magisterial, yet timeless.  It has a kind of foreboding, understated grandeur.

I also like the device of actually showing the scene of the story’s climax – the mysterious standing stone in a quarry cavern – as the closing titles’ backdrop to all ten episodes, so that as each episode advances we have the sense of moving another step closer towards this ending, the source of The Changes. The imagery forms a totally unexpected end to Episode One, intrigues us by Episode Seven, and begins to make sense by episode Eight or Nine.

The voice of the ‘thing’ is masterfully realised – the sound of something ancient, unknown and unknowable, hidden from us yet conveying a sense of great latent power and elemental emotion which threatens to burst forth in full fury at any moment – infinitely more effective than standard alien monotone sci-fi voices.

Merlin myth

I am not sure how I feel about the eventual resolution lying in myth and legend. In some ways, the largely unexplained magical ending seems like a kind of retreat from the hard-edged nature of what has gone before.  On the other hand, it embeds the series’ radical social/political agenda in wider, deeper notions of time, place, continuity, freedom and change as well as myth, legend and the unexplained.

Nicky’s confronting the thing has echoes of 1971 Doctor Who story The Dæmons, in which another spirited but defenceless female (Jo Grant) risks all to confront an immense source of power in mythological form and in so doing, a threat to the world is averted.  Another parallel with The Dæmons is Nicky’s conversation with Jonathan as the industrial world returns, in which she reflects that human-beings must be free to make their own mistakes, decide their own futures, even if those decisions may seem dangerous and wrong.

This ending seems to express an optimism that an innate balance can be found. Perhaps that is ultimately what The Changes is about – balance and equanimity.

Over time

Such has been the rapid pace of technological change over the last forty years that a pre-Changes world of 1975 probably feels to us, or certainly our children, almost medieval in its crudeness.   It’s strange to think that I lived through that ‘medievalism’.

The Changes remains an ambitious, challenging and highly original piece of television. The further away we move from the mid-70s, the more clearly I can see how The Changes draws upon many themes of the time, themes I was only dimly aware of as a ten year old.  Those same themes – environmentalism, multiculturalism, racism – and The Changes itself, remain as pertinent today as nearly forty years ago.

Don’t be put off by the early-web appearance of Tony Gosling’s Bilderberg.com as this site as it is an excellent resource on The Changes.  In fact, its primitivism seems oddly fitting.

Robin Carmody’s essay is a passionate and insightful appreciation of The Changes.  

The Changes DVD Review

New on Lightspots

When I began Lightspots, the focus was always going to be on 60s music but I had it in mind to move beyond that over time into related areas such as film and television, still with a retro slant.  I’ve updated my  About page to say a bit more about this.

Regulars will have already noticed a couple of recent television reviews.  Now I’d like to widen the scope to look at two overlooked 70s television series which, I hope you’ll agree, deserve a wider audience.  Hopefully you may have seen them just recently as both were released on DVD last month.  They are The Boy from Space and The Changes.

The Boy from Space

The Boy from Space is a well remembered, chilling drama from the BBC’s Look and Read series.  Although created for schools’ television, I think it stands up well as an effective piece of drama in its own right.  I’ve tried to show how some of the educational aspects, rather than detracting from the drama, actually serve it rather well.

The Changes

The Changes has been released to quite cool reviews in some quarters and clearly disappoints some who saw it in 1975 or those wanting a more action-oriented thriller.  But I think it deserves to be remembered as an ambitious piece of children’s television which resonates strongly with many key aspects of Britain in the mid-70s.

I’ve reviewed The Boy from Space this week.  The Changes will follow next Friday.  There will be two pieces on each series – one covering the DVD release and a second, much fuller article discussing each series and offering a personal perspective from this child turned adult viewer.

Rest assured that music remains the mainstay here so the next music post is just two weeks away!  There is a new page, My 60s to maintain the musical strand until then.

Have a good weekend
David

The Boy from Space on DVD

DVD: 2-disc set, BFI, August 2014
Original TV series: 
10 Episodes, tx. 21.09.71 – 30.11.71 [10×20 mins] BBC-1 



Out there in space
Do we have friends?
Is there a place where the universe ends?
When shall we find it?
Never, never,
Space goes on forever.

 

 

What is it about a low budget drama last shown as part of schools’ television over three decades ago that left such an impact on many of those who viewed it?  This welcome DVD release gives us the chance to find out.

The Boy from Space was originally shown in 1971 as part of Look and Read (1967-2004), the BBC Schools series for 7-9 year old ’backward readers.’

Look and Read featured a dramatised story told over a number of weeks, alongside educational material on reading which would relate in some way to the drama.  The Boy from Space was perhaps the most memorable of these stories for at least two generations of school children.

This BFI DVD release includes almost all that you could ever want from the series in its various permutations – all that still exists anyway (ie. unfortunately not the 1971 series as broadcast).  So we have the complete 1980 series in episodic format plus a feature-length ‘omnibus’ version lasting about seventy minutes (an ideal way of seeing the filmed drama without the interruptions and repetitions), the BBC Records audio version from 1972 (though sadly not including John Baker‘s original incidental music) and a BBC Records film version which combines the 1972 record audio with the 1980 visuals to create a new presentation.  Finally, there is 1980’s Wordy’s Think-ups, the spirited songs and delightful animations which are like a kind of very English take on Sesame Street.  Sheila Steafel in particular does sterling work on the songs.

The accompanying 20 page booklet includes context setting essays from Ben Clarke on The Boy from Space and television historian Chris Perry on Look and Read.  The only ‘essential information’ missing is the film locations.  There are recollections on the soundtrack from Paddy Kingsland, several b/w stills and a cover featuring artwork from the accompanying pupils’ pamphlet.  There is even a reproduction of 1972 teachers’ notes.  Finishing touches would have been contributions from producer Claire Chovil, film director Maddalena Fagandini and some of the cast members but I’m not quibbling about that.

It is great to have this series back in the public domain.  As a mere ‘schools programme’ I didn’t dare hope that it would ever be afforded a decent DVD release, let alone one as comprehensive and carefully produced as this.

Thanks BFI.

The Boy from Space and the Boy from Guildford

The Boy from Space and the Boy from Guildford

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.

Hallo Spaceboy

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?)

INGENIUS Orange

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!).

Changes  

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.

Thanks to Ben Clarke’s BroadcastforSchools for supplying 1971 transmission dates.  The site has plenty of interesting information on the 1971 and 1980 series.

The Boy from Space on DVD