Terror at Teatime
Scaring children is easy, you might think. A rubber mask, a creaking floorboard, Eamonn Holmes on a settee – kids’ll scream at anything. But really getting under their skin, beyond the knee-jerk shock – that’s tricky. Nevertheless, during the 1970s and 1980s, British children’s television, strapped for cash as it was, tapped into juvenile terror with uncanny success, exploiting a handful of primal (and luckily cost-effective) underage fears.
The spiritual home of children’s horror was the wild, mysterious countryside. 1975 BBC epic The Changes was a case in point, despite casting city life as the evil menace. This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s sprawling literary trilogy saw British citizens driven by an ominous noise to attack consumer durables in a hysterical anti-technological uprising. The non-epic budget meant this was represented by a couple of headscarved housewives putting the boot into a Moulinex blender, but the scene was saved from silliness, as was so much TV horror, by the Radiophonic Workshop deploying dissonant doom chords at points of maximum chilling effect. Picture and sound were matched perfectly later on, when the low hum in an overhead power line wreaked its fearsome effects. A generation of kids felt apprehensive around electricity pylons for years afterwards. Rule one: if you can make the commonplace terrifying, immortality (not to mention budget-tightening kudos) is yours for the taking.
Standing stones weren’t exactly household objects, but on TV they were two a penny. HTV’s Children of the Stones provided a fun-size version of The Wicker Man’s pagan sacrificial nightmare, in between IBA-mollifying chunks of the O-level physics syllabus doled out by tweedy professor Gareth Hunt. An eerie choir peppered the soundtrack with otherworldly wails and shouts as Hunt and his precocious son delved into a feudal world of celestial mind control. Crucially, the script was full of empty space. In between a few violent shocks, there were plenty of shots of a rolling landscape with nothing much happening on it. These audio-visual punctuation points let viewers catch their breath and scare themselves witless. Rule two: if the kitty’s empty, let the audience do the work.
Not all TV’s young heroes were RADA-trained longhairs. Phil Daniels’s borstal graduate Raven cut a refreshingly rough dash through mystical caverns, battling authorities intent on stuffing them full of nuclear waste. Earthfasts, a 1993 revival of the genre, pitted Yorkshire comprehensive pupils against standing stones that wouldn’t stand still. You can’t keep a good monolith down.
Teatime trepidation’s golden age began in 1969 with Alan Garner’s ambiguous The Owl Service, a dense web of love and class rivalry between a posh family holidaying in a remote Welsh farmhouse and the working class locals who grudgingly ‘do’ for them. The relationship between the house’s three teenagers raises ghosts from the past of both sets of parents, as an ancient Welsh myth returns to curse their generation.
What could have become a straight teenage drama with fantasy deelyboppers cynically plonked on top is brilliantly crafted to be all of a piece. The kids, especially the sensitive Alison, unearth the past through their obsession with seemingly insignificant details, particularly a floral patterned dinner service Alison manically transforms into baroque paper owls. The camera follows suit, with a parade of feverish close-ups. Before long, everything under its scrutiny seems significant, from a standing stone to a stuffed badger to a strained lettuce, and the stifling atmosphere of impending catastrophe builds along with the plot’s domestic powder keg. Ancient fears leap out from behind modern concerns. This was new territory, and kids loved it.
Another barnstorming ITV chiller was a mind game from start to finish. King of the Castle followed the hapless Roland Wright, red-haired choirboy son of a saxophonist living at the top of a run-down council block and getting aggro from choirmaster Fulton Mackay and the hard lads on the stairwells alike. Knocked cold by a trip in a plummeting lift, he dreams a Gormenghast-ly subterranean fantasy world populated by warped versions of his real life foes. Blessed with a massive budget by ‘70s children’s TV standards, the production went all-out with huge dungeon sets and layer upon layer of jaunty camera angles, weird sound effects and disorientating psychedelic visual trickery. This was prog horror, and grand stuff it was too. It came close to pantomime at times, but the unrelenting weirdness of the comatose netherworld struck an uneasy chord with many viewers.
Perhaps the ultimate children’s television nightmare was Escape Into Night, Timeslip co-creator Ruth Boswell’s adaptation of Catherine Storr’s claustrophobically surreal book Marianne Dreams. Marianne, confined to bed, draws pictures of Mark, a similarly bedridden boy in a bleak mansion. In her fitful dreams boy and house become real, Mark a helpless captive of her ever more threateningly crude scribbles. Everything Marianne draws materialises in the dream house – but always slightly, queasily wrong, eerily out of scale and kilter. It’s a deft reversal of the ‘child in peril’ format – Marianne creates all the horror herself, which comes to a head after an argument leads her to surround the house with grotesque, one-eyed stone monsters, whose slow, relentless advance on the house and distorted cries of ‘We are coming!’ seared the programme into the bad dream memory bank of a generation.
Escape Into Night’s ‘watchers’ wouldn’t have won many design awards, but the skewiff, rough-hewn nature of low budget TV latex work was an almost accidental source of added visual terror. The rubbery end of Doctor Who’s monstrous canon, for instance, often upped its terror ante with sheer clumsiness. Sober logic dictates that a club-footed plastic surgery disaster, shambling slowly down a concrete corridor with its outsize head lolling about like an It’s a Knockout regional finalist, shouldn’t present too much of a threat to a fleet-footed hero. But that misshapen rubbery grotesqueness, helped as ever by the Radiophonic workshoppers atonally stabbing and throbbing away, went a long way to help suspend the average child’s disbelief.
Fantasy boasted similar armies of freaks for deployment under the over-imaginative child’s bed. The BBC’s 1976 adaptation of James and the Giant Peach outstripped even the most fevered child’s mental images of Roald Dahl’s insectoid weirdness. The outsize, lurid costumes of spiders and caterpillars were, if anything, made even more disturbing by being inhabited by such familiar, hitherto cosy faces as Pat Coombs and Bernard Cribbins. What had they done to our Jackanory chums?
The rubber homunculus stood at the outer limits of horrible fantasy. One step closer to home was that sinister presence children were continually warned about by public information films and red-faced visiting coppers: the Strange Man. Gimlet-eyed, thin of lip and concave of cheek, the archetypal dangerous stranger cropped up everywhere, even at school. Look and Read was a jolly junior literacy programme that leavened all the dull stuff about verbs and full stops with educational adventure serials. The Boy from Space was its attempt at sci-fi, in which children defended a sickly-looking alien boy from the clutches of the malevolent, trenchcoated ‘Thin Man’. OK, this wasn’t the most accomplished drama, but in the middle of a long school day, with children’s guards temporarily down, it provided an unexpected dose of shock therapy that even today causes many to shudder at the mere mention of apostrophes.
Taciturn, beetle-browed and in dire need of a pie, emaciated villains lurked in all corners of children’s TV. Sunday teatimes, usually a haven of tranquil period larks, were infiltrated by the gaunt John Woodvine and his fascistic Knights of God. Future war, black jackboots and violent death on remote Welsh hillsides was an unsettling enough violation of television’s genteel Sunday code to prompt dozens of complaints. Even more recent, semi-comic excursions into underfed male malevolence such as Terrence Hardiman’s panto Nazi turn as The Demon Headmaster have separated plenty of tots from their regular sleep patterns.
More creepily familiar still than the Strange Man was the Odd Boy. When ITV adapted John Wyndham’s Chocky, they took pains to keep the novel’s tense edge-of-madness atmosphere as quiet, distant, adopted Matthew Gore falls even further out of step with the world when he’s ‘befriended’ by the alternately childlike and malevolent alien of the title. Taking the concept of the weird kid and his ‘invisible friend’ to its dangerous limit, Chocky scored highly enough to spawn two TV sequels, though its attempts to update the ‘60s original now look dated themselves: Matthew’s alien-assisted mental development manifests itself in doing the Rubik Cube really quickly, and Chocky herself is embodied by a dry ice and laser light tunnel combo straight out of Stroller’s nightclub.
The 1970s was the time to be different, with the likes of David Bowie making teenage awkwardness sexy. A chat with Dame David inspired maverick producer Roger Price to create The Tomorrow People, a gung-ho cross between Doctor Who and The Famous Five chronicling the adventures of the homo superior, telepathically endowed uberkinder channelling their surging adolescent hormones into a spate of ripping interplanetary adventures. All good fun, but after the early episodes nothing really scary remained in the formula, save the reliably blood-curdling synthesised theme tune from ‘Deadly’ Dudley Simpson.
For proper, spooky junior Bowie, try Sky. Bob Baker and Dave Martin, veterans of many a Doctor Who rubberfest and creators of King of the Castle, made a hapless west country brother and sister reluctant wards of the eponymous boy who fell to Earth. Played by the chiselled Marc Harrison, Sky would cinch Look-In dreamboat status were it not for his flour-whitened countenance and solid blue eyeballs. Sky’s tale of telepathy, future catastrophe and untameable forces of nature is complex, nebulous and doubtless proved beyond most kids’ grasp, but the building atmosphere of dread needed no deciphering. All the elements are there: rural unease, a creepy thin man and standing stones aplenty. Effects are kept as minimal as Sky’s spaced out dialogue, and the odd period relic aside (Sky is truly the boy with the bluescreen eyes) the only dated element is the omnipresent ‘plinky plonky’ xylophone to signify suspense.
Has this brand of shoestring creepiness really vanished? There’s a danger in comparing one generation of horror with another. Veteran viewers of the 1970s are quick to rubbish modern CGI-stuffed fare, complaining with some justification that slick does not equal scary. But then their own parents were wont to lament that those daft-looking Sea Devils weren’t fit to polish Boris Karloff’s neck bolts. We’re all perversely proud of the stuff that used to scare us rigid: no other generation had it as terrifying as us. But with children’s TV taking knocks from all sides, and small screen fantasy fixated on cinema slickness, it’s hard to see a return to the days when the nation’s youth could be petrified weekly by an empty field, an inscrutable child and a farting analogue synth.
This article originally appeared in SFX magazine issue 187.