•May 13, 2012 • 1 Comment

Children’s TV is often overrated.  Tangled up as it is with nostalgia and associations with a more innocent time it can be disappointing when revisited.  Typically produced with lower budgets than adult television it can often be unconvincing, particularly where special effects are involved.  Usually starring children, inexperienced and over earnest acting can be awkward to watch and can contribute to an overall feeling of being patronised, a trap that drama for children produced by adults frequently falls into.  So when you come across something that has not only stood the test of time, but also has evidence of high production values, good acting and a genuinely captivating story, well it’s nothing short of a joy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Earthfasts was one of these for me.  It was all I could do not to gobble up the whole of this five part 1994 BBC series up in one go.  I believe this is how other people feel about Star Trek the Next Generation or the Wire or something.  In retrospect it was always going to tick the boxes for me, anything featuring stone circles or ancient monoliths always gets me going for some reason, chuck in an uncanny village and good dollop of folklore and I’m a very happy lady.  So anyway, if your brain works anything like mine you’ll have read the previous sentence and now be thinking “so how much like Children of the Stones is it then?”, well the answer is, just enough.

When I watched the first episode of Earthfasts I stopped it and went back to check  I hadn’t clicked on the wrong link.   Unusual for a children’s drama there’s no cosy preamble or scene setting, it really does hit the ground running, pricking up the hairs of the back of your neck as it does.  Earthfasts is essentially the story of  three boys brought together by  an irregularity in time.  David and Keith are from the present time, two boys passing the last days of summer wandering in the North Yorkshire countryside when they chance upon  Nellie Jack John emerging from the hillside, unknown to him having spend the previous 200 years underground.

Those familiar with all things Arthurian might recognise this as the basis of the Drummer Boy legend.  Richmond, where Earthfasts is set is said to be the final resting place of King Arthur and his knights who sleep beneath the castle with their riches waiting until a time when Britain needs them again.  Local legend has it that in the 1700s visiting soldiers came across the entrance to a tunnel beneath the castle and sent the smallest of their entourage down to investigate ordering him to drum as he went so he could be followed above ground, which he did for three miles, until the drumming ceased and the boy was never seen again.  Earthfasts is the  imagining of how this single event could contrive to disturb the continuum of time.

I mentioned before how Earthfasts has similarities with Children of the Stones.  Though the stories are very different the biggest parallel for me is the way in which there is no letup in the barrage of mysterious phenomenon that is thrown at the viewer.  Just as in the Children of the Stones where in a few short episodes we are introduced to astrophysics, electromagnetism, mind control and prehistoric religion, not to mention temporal paradoxes, in Earthfasts timeslips, standing stones, boggarts, giants, extra sensory perception and Yorkshire folklore all compete for our attention.  The effect of this is the creation of a children’s mystery drama that is actually mysterious, the ending of which you haven’t second guessed within the first 15 minutes.

The way the characters use science to attempt to explain the phenomena they encounter is very like Children of the Stones too.  Central to the story is a strange cold burning candle that Nellie Jack John brought out of the hillside with him which the boys approach with a natural scientific curiosity, albeit with a more highly developed knowledge of measuring radioactivity than I did at their age.  Of the two boys David, played by Paul Nicholls (who I now realise has exactly the same hairstyle for 20 years),  is the ringleader, the more inquisitive boy.  Like Mathew in Children of the Stones he is a sensitive lad who lives with his Doctor father since his mother has died – checking two supernatural kids drama tropes in one.  Keith is the more cautious boy and the narrator, in a lovely thick timeless Yorkshire accent.  No middle class, cut glass accents here.

There is a slight timeless quality to the production as a whole.  There are few indicators of 1994, the time it is supposed to be set in.  Partly because the majority of the filming takes place in and around the North Yorkshire countryside and partly because of the ‘anytime’ style in which it’s written.  The village in which it’s set is uncanny in the sense that it has a quiet reverence for the past and a respect for the folklore that fuels the story.   Based on William Mayne’s 1966 book little attempt has been made to update it, which is no bad thing.  Mayne himself is probably half the reason why Earthfasts is so underrated, I won’t go into details here, you’re on the internet, you’re more than capable of finding out for yourself.  Lets just say there’s nothing like a conviction for paedophilia to kill the career of a children’s author.

On a side note I particularly like the one star review of the book I found on Good Reads which simply reads “I checked this for the children’s library I operate, and decided it was too mystical for our collection“.


Commercial unreleased and rarely repeated if your curiosity is piqued you’ll have to head to YouTube for this one.

The Boy From Space

•May 7, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The Boy From Space is not a supernatural drama, so technically does not fall within my own hastily defined remit.  However due to it’s exemplary record of scaring the living daylights out of  three decades worth of children I’m making an exception just this once.  I myself I should add remain psychologically undamaged by this 1971 BBC broadcast for schools as I never saw it at school.  Not for me the rare treat of sitting cross-legged on a gym mat in the Art Room (where they kept the big TV) that usually accompanied  Look and Read  broadcasts.  No, we had to listen to it on tape, with only a pupils pamphlet between three (it was the ’80s) to hint at the unsettling visuals that accompanied the television version.

It’s actually the audio of the Boy From Space that re-piqued my interest in it, having recently managed to track myself down a rather lovely mint condition copy of the accompanying Boy From Space LP which came out on BBC Records as part of their Study Series (pictured below with one of the Ghost Box Study Series 7”, for obvious reasons).  It will have been a copy of this LP that my teacher lovingly, albeit illegally, recorded onto a  Dolby  cassette for our education and enjoyment.  Only I’m not sure he had the patience to record both sides of the record as for some reason we only got half way through  the series before it was abandoned.  Perhaps he thought being easily distracted children we wouldn‘t notice.  I can assure you I did notice and exactly how it ended troubled me for years, so perhaps that bit about me not being psychologically damaged by the Boy  From Space was a lie after all.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It is, even by Look and Read standards, almost unbearably slow.  The events unfold through the dry well spoken monologue of Helen, who despite being well into her teens chooses to spend the summer holidays hanging out with her younger brother Dan in their makeshift observatory in a hut in the woods.  Yes, they’re those sort of kids.  Helen is played by Sylvestra Le Touzel, probably most fondly remembered for the ’water in Majorca’ Heineken advert.   One day after witnessing  an astral anomaly Helen and Dan go to investigate with the aid of Dan’s compass (which he wears round his neck like a medallion for the course of the next nine episodes).  Suddenly they notice no birds are singing and the compass has started spinning furiously.  Helen thought something frightening would happen at any minute.  Helen doesn’t specify exactly what the frightening thing would be, but it’s unlikely that she could have guessed it would be Andy Warhol from space coming out of a sandpit.

For  is not the title character, or ‘Peep Peep’ as Tom and Helen dub him upon finding him, that caused anxiety amongst  those that were treated to this at school, but the Andy Warhol character or ‘thin man’.  I have heard from more than one source of  Boy From Space induced nightmares, or children having to be ushered from classrooms in fear.  Whilst this seems a little silly now, it’s worth remembering that TBFS was initially pitched at the 7-8 year age group which may be a bit young to deal with the sight of a sweaty albino man in a tracksuit looming at you unexpectedly, Jimmy Saville excluded.  Just Google ‘boy from space nightmare’ if you don’t believe me.

One thing that sets the Boy From Space apart from some children’s drama is the ease with which the children manage to convince the adults that something is afoot.  Mr Bunting who runs the local observatory with his assistant Tom can’t believe his luck when presented with an alien boy, spaceship-wrecked whilst collecting meteorites from Mars.  Peep Peep goes on to astound him by writing in a cryptic code (like English, but back to front) and making computer noises out of his mouth, though the afternoon goes down hill after the thin man erases his car and then imprisons him on a spaceship underwater.  It’s the BBC though, so we know everything will turn out alright in the end.

And  so it does.  A bit of cunning subterfuge and the thin man is captured and revealed to be a crazed coveter of meteorites who hijacked the family spaceship.  The rightful order of command is restored, Peep Peep and co go back to space and the story concludes with a wry chuckle.  Not really worth waiting  25 years for, but still, revisiting children’s tv programmes can be a bit hot or miss.  Some are an absolute delight, others amusingly aged and sometimes there’s a form of catharsis involved as you piece together remnants from your memory.  I’m afraid the Boy From Space may be none of these, so be warned before you rush off to YouTube, this might be one that lives on more happily as a few fragmented images in the back of your mind., though the fight scene in the last episode to is something pretty special indeed.

The Clifton House Mystery

•February 26, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The haunted house… where to begin?  Two seconds ago you read the words ‘haunted house’ and already your brain has processed the thousands of cultural references to haunted houses you’ve absorbed in your lifetime.  Every story you’ve read, every horror film or spooky TV programme you’ve ever seen, every ghost story you’ve ever been told.  And right now I suspect the image you have in your mind looks a lot like the one I have in mine, I’d be willing to put money on it.  That is the beauty of the haunted house story, so oft repeated in popular culture it combines a comforting familiarity with a frisson of the unknown. This is perhaps the root of it’s enduring charm, because you kind of know what’s coming the tension and suspense is there from the start.  If you have a spare ten minutes this extract from the Culture Show puts it much better than I ever could.

Mark Kermode on haunted houses and the thrill of being scared

The haunted house has become such a pervasive motif in popular culture that it has reached the point where it’s become separated from it’s origins in horror and leeched into day to day life.  Growing up you might not have seen a  real horror film until your teens, but you sure as hell knew what a haunted house was a lot earlier than that.  Sanitised versions of the haunted house story popped up all over the children’s schedules when I was a kid from the silly Rent-a-ghost to the educational Dark Towers.  It was a reoccurring theme in children’s fiction and they even attempted to flog us haunted house themed foodstuff  from ice lollies to pasta shapes.  But of course, none of this was scary.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Clifton House Mystery on the other hand… I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that this could be the only haunted house drama for kids that just might give you the willies. Co-written by horror film fanatic Daniel Farsden (with Harry Moore) the clichés of the genre are here in abundance.  You can’t really better the description in the Hill and Beyond (Alistair D. McGown & Mark J. Doherty, 2003, BFI Publishing) of the Clifton House Mystery as “a horror movie for those who would never be allowed to stay up late to see them on TV”.  Set in Clifton in Bristol, an area that not only was mentioned in the doomsday book, but one that is packed with imposing Georgian abodes, we know we’re in good haunted house territory from the start.  The house in question has come up on the market suspiciously affordably and it’s owner just can’t wait to get out.  I should also mention here that the house comes complete with a menacing portrait, so all we really need now is Bach’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor to start playing and we’re away.

As it happens we don’t get any Bach, but we do get a really creepy music box.  In terms of sound the Clifton House Mystery really plays to the suspense by being unafraid of silence. Shot almost entirely inside and very dimly lit there is a brooding quality to the Clifton House Mystery that you don’t find in many supernatural stories for kids which tend to err towards the jolly ghost jape.  Not that the ghosts are themselves are particularly scary, it’s the general atmosphere of malevolence that will get you.  That and the dishes flying out of people’s hands, the blood dripping from the ceiling and the exorcism.  Yeah, the exorcism.

It’s not unusual in children’s supernatural drama for there to be some form of  cleansing, in fact it’s pretty standard.  To prevent long standing psychological trauma it’s almost required to insert some form of ritual or purge that restores the status quo, essentially dispelling the uncanny elements and returning safety and normality.  However resolutions do not usually take the form of full on exorcisms and watching this one as an adult I can safely say it would have scared the bejesus out of me as a child.  I am actually quite relieved that I didn’t see this as a kid.  Having grown up reading spooky stories I used to spend rainy days when I wasn’t in school absent minded wandering round the house tapping on the walls in the hope of discovering a secret room.  Seeing what the children in the Clifton House Mystery discover in their secret room would probably have put me off that pastime rather quickly.

This is not to say that the Clifton House Mystery does not sit comfortably within the genre of kids supernatural TV drama.  At it’s heart there are some quite earnest educational lessons about the history of Bristol, and the three children central to the story are all very nice well brought up kids.  Produced by HTV West in 1978 it follows in the tradition of Sky and Children of the Stones in the way it explores supernatural or mystical themes without being overly patronising, though at times the message is slightly confused.  This is particularly the case in terms of the final episode which sits a little awkwardly, almost as if – in true horror film style – the door is being left open for a sequel.

The Clifton House Mystery is available on DVD from Network.


•February 19, 2012 • 1 Comment

From time to time I ask people if they were a BBC kid or an ITV kid.  I’m sure that it can sometimes come across as an affectation, perhaps an attempt to turn the conversation onto children’s TV so we can all sit and  talk about Bagpuss or whatever and feel comfy and cosy.  There are people that do that, I’ve met them.  However, that is not a conversation I particularly want to have.  I don’t do fuzzy reminiscence and in in terms of the feelings one might  associate with nostalgia – familiarity, warmth, safety – these are not things I look for in television I enjoy.  I firmly believe that children’s TV is more than a distraction, that it serves a social function beyond entertainment.  So when I ask people whether they grew up watching BBC or ITV it’s because I think it’s as an important an aspect  in determining the kind of person that they turned out to be as the structure of their family, their educational background or any of the other key factors in childhood development.  I should probably admit it, I’m always suspicious of ITV kids.  There was never (and still isn’t) much that could lure me over to channel 3.  BBC was where it was at for me, and dramas like Moondial were why.

The biggest criticism of BBC kids TV from my ITV loving friends was that it was too middle class.  Araminta ‘Minty’ Cane the central character in Moondial sadly does little to dispel this.  I remember watching it at the time and thinking “I’d like you a lot more if you were just a bit less posh”.  We have to cut Minty some slack though, after all she has befallen the classic kids drama fate and had one of her parents die.  In the parallel universe of the supernatural drama the sensible way to deal with a significant childhood bereavement is to rip the child away from all that is safe and familiar, hence Minty is packed off to stay with ‘Aunt’ Mary in Belton.  Belton is apparently a very happening place, happening in a ghostly sense, so obviously ideal for a child dealing with existential issues.  Aunt Mary is not very happening, in any sense.  When Minty’s other parent is injured in a car accident she relays her condition most reassuringly by telling her “the head injury’s the main trouble”.  Aunt Mary also thinks headphones are a form of sorcery.

Moondial is based on the 1987 book of the same name by the prolific children’s author Helen Cresswell which she adapted herself the following year for the BBC.  This six parter was filmed on location in the real village of Belton in Lincolnshire and makes extensive use of Belton House and it’s gardens.  The ‘Moondial’ at the centre of the story is the actual sundial found in the Dutch Garden at Belton House sculpted by Caius Gabriel Cibber.  Christened the Moondial because it tells “the only true form of time”, moontime, it’s utilised in the drama as a portal device to transcend eras.  Minty discovers this by accident whilst wandering in the grounds after a conversation with Mr World (old man that knows more than he’s letting on) who has identified her as having ‘the key’ and is pretty soon is zipping backwards and forwards between the 18th, 19th and 20th century at will.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

While dubbed a ghost story, it’s more accurate to call Moondial a timeslip drama as really the only ghost Minty sees is Victorian kitchen boy Tom who uses the Moondial to travel to the future.  The rest of the time Minty actually is the ghost because she has travelled to the past.  Get your head round that one.   The theme of Moondial is time and love, the story of three children from three different periods of history trying to deal with cruelties unique to their time.  For Tom the kitchen boy it’s a classic tale of Victorian hardship – orphaned, uprooted from London and sent to work, he’s mistreated, overworked, misses his sister and probably has TB.  Sarah is the second child from the past, she bears ‘the mark of the devil’ and is vilified by all around her to the point where she only  dare go out at night.  The only human contact lonely Sarah has is with her cruel governess and via a quite persistent and extensive campaign of persecution from the local children who frequently chase her round the garden with pillow cases on their heads calling her the devil child, which is a lot less fun than it sounds.  Back in the 1980s the local children also harass Minty, mainly because she wears really awful waistcoats.

Moondial is the classic BBC escapist drama.  With a heavy emphasis on making the most of the period setting it’s surprisingly light on history as they could easily have upped the educational factor given the story takes place over three centuries.  It’s not any the worse for this, though the mystical elements of the story could certainly use some bulking out.  If you’re looking for explanations of the how’s and why’s you’ll be scrabbling around with lots of vague notions of alternate forms of time, liberation from invisible forces of evil and the central theme that all life’s cruelties can be overcome with time and love.  Hopefully the same can be said for Minty’s dress sense.

Tracking down a physical copy of Moondial could be a bit of a labour of love.  Unbroadcast since 1990, mysteriously it has only been released once in it’s episodic format and is currently out of circulation.  There are a few VHS copies of the edited film version to be tracked down, but as ever YouTube is your best bet.

The Witches and The Grinnygog

•February 15, 2012 • 3 Comments

The Witches and the Grinnygog can’t really be described as a classic children’s television series, not even in a cult sense so perhaps seems a strange one to start with.  However it is in essence the archetypical spooky British tea time TV.  While the big hitters of children’s supernatural drama from Children of the Stones to Moondial are pretty well known, it’s quite often the more readily forgotten also-rans such as this that will contain a scene or two with the potential to remain troublingly lodged in your mind for decades.  Lest forget that throughout the 70s and 80s there was a steady stream of children’s books being turned into short TV drama heavy on the ghosts and olde English folklore.

The Witches and The Grinnygog is based  on an early eighties children’s book of the same name by Dorothy Edwards which was picked up very quickly for this 1983 serialisation.  I’ve not read the book, but the televisation is essentially a time-slip drama hidden within an Enid Blyton story.  These are very nice kids who live in a very nice village, where everyone knows each other and is yeah, just really nice.  Not that they’ve always been nice, back along the village had a bit of a dark witch burning history and it’s the process of unravelling this history that forms the basis for the six 25 minute episodes.  Just in case you’re in any doubt, burning witches is a bad thing, especially as we later find out they’re really nice witches.  Well they would be wouldn’t they?

What makes the Witches and the Grinnygog such a good example of this type of  television is that it’s packed full of the tropes that characterise kids supernatural drama.  A reoccurring motif in television for children around this time was the single parent, in likeliness a well meaning attempt to reflect the fragmentation of the family, but when you really think about it not very reassuring at all . A very high proportion of the kids in these type of dramas have at least one dead parent or have had to move away to the back of beyond due to a messy divorce that has left the family penniless.   In the Witches and the Grinnygog  we have two main families, the Sogoods  complete with widowed Reverend father and the Firkettles – single mum, not much money.  Consider that the first cliché checked, then.

If there was such a thing as a spooky children’s drama drinking game, and lets face it, if I can imagine it there probably is,  then quite possibly you’d be on your way to hospital to get your stomach pumped before you’d got through three episodes of  the Witches and the Grinnygog.  Young boy  overly sensitive to supernatural  occurrences?  Drink!  Everyone ignores young boys over sensitivity to supernatural occurrences?  Drink!  Backwards workmen with strong regional accents that get spooked on the job?  Drink!  Old man that clearly knows more than he’s letting on.  Drink!  You get the picture.  And did I mention that all the children are really nice, and sensible and don’t seem to have a problem hanging out with their siblings?  Even the lad played by Adam Woodyatt (Ian Beale) manages to be likable.

At the root of almost  all kids supernatural drama is a secret.  A lot of the time it’s a house with a secret, but if it’s not a house then you can pretty much guess it’s going to be a village, as is the case with the Witches and the Grinnygog.  What separates this from a lot of comparable programs however is that the secret  is never threatening and for a story jam packed with witches, telepathic communication, ghostly figures and general trappings of the occult  it’s really not scary at all.  This is reflected in the theme music by James Harpham which starts promisingly with some disconcerting crowd noise, but quickly passes into more traditional English folk territory, complete with bird song.  A Southern Television production, while on paper it ticks all the boxes, sadly it lacks the menace of it’s HTV counterparts.

The Witches and the Grinnygog was originally broadcast in November and December 1983.  It hasn’t yet been made commercially available, but if you have a burning desire to check it out there are some pretty good quality versions to be found on YouTube and the book on which it‘s based is widely available.

Hello, I’m Hazel and I like scaring children…

•February 14, 2012 • 2 Comments

…or to put in in a slightly less sociopathic way, I’m really interested in the  televisual history of fear in children‘s programming, probably because I enjoyed being frightened so much myself as a child.  Though intriguing and often amusing, I’m not so interested in the aspects of television that unintentionally scare children or make them uneasy, so as confusing and uncomfortable as Jeannette Krankie may have made many of us feel when we were growing up that‘s not what I intend to focus on.  What really fascinates me is the supernatural and folk horror influenced output of the 1970s and 1980s particularly because it ties in with an interest in the construction of childhood through television and changing conceptions of citizenship and responsibility towards children.  By this what I really mean is that I think television in the 1970s and 80s not only reflected children better, but patronised them less.

A week ago while absent minded wandering around the internet I came across a post of the title sequence of an unbroadcast children programme from the mid 70s called the Number Lady, ostentatiously a supernatural drama about number stations.  By the end of the sequence those heightened feelings of excitement you get upon discovering something new, which surely the Germans must have a word for, had dissolved into giggles as it was apparent that it was a (very good) spoof.  The involvement of Les Waters being the ultimate giveaway for anyone that’s seen the Pelican Book mock-up for An Introduction to Hauntology.  Not everyone had got the joke though and from the original post you could see the ripples of overexcited cult tv fans disappearing into the furthest reaches of the internet to try to dredge up more information about the mysterious find.

Strangely I wasn’t disappointed to discover that the Number Lady had never existed.  It was so beautifully put together it perfectly illustrates what I love about this particular genre of television.  The ominous musique concrète soundtrack,  designed to make you feel uneasy before it’s even begun, a theme that not only combines a suspicion of technology that perfectly characterises the futureshock of the 1970s, but also an organic timeless supernatural aspect.  All combined with the obligatory child (or small group of children) who are the only ones open minded enough to truly acknowledge or understand what is really happening.  It’s perfect!