Looking back at Dramarama: series 1-2

80s nostalgia ahoy: Alex looks back at the spooky origins and influential spin-offs of ITV's Dramarama

Dramarama was an anthology series on Children’s ITV from 1983 to 1989. A unique production, being a collaboration of the various ITV franchises, Dramarama enjoyed a separate cast and crew for each edition. The main players were London-based Thames; TVS, which had recently replaced Southern TV (the makers of successful Jon Pertwee-vehicle Worzel Gummidge) and which oversaw the administration and general direction of the programme; Tyne Tees had a good track record in children’s drama with The Paper Lads, Nobody’s House and Andy Robson amongst its output. Indeed, as Dramarama was being developed, Tyne Tees acquired the rights to produce a series based on a book called Super Gran; newly-created Central had recently wrested control of the Midlands region from Sir Lew Grade’s ATV, itself no stranger to kids television having produced The Muppet Show

The first season of Dramarama was transmitted in two parts. Dramarama: Spooky was broadcast in April 1983 and produced by Thames Television. The programme was a direct descendant of a series called Theatre Box (screened in 1981), which had given children their first glimpse of the bubblegum-blowing tomboy, Marmalade Atkins. This led to the series Educating Marmalade which starred the much-missed Charlotte Coleman. The series also included 2-part story School for Clowns which starred Ken Campbell as a beleaguered tutor.

 

Dramarama was  created and developed by the head of children’s drama at TVS, Anna Home. Before defecting to ITV in 1981, Home had spent a hugely successful decade and a half in children’s drama for the BBC. She rebuilt the children’s drama department which had been savaged in the mid-sixties. An overspend on the classic serial Rob Roy saw the head of drama, Owen Reed, removed from his post and the department axed. The overthrow of the old guard had begun, as Biddy Baxter and Edward Barnes observed in their book Blue Peter: The Inside Story, “The chaps in tweed jackets with donnish manners were being vanquished by thrusting young men in crumpled grey suits, who called each other boy and slammed the swing doors in the face of anyone unlucky enough to be in their wake down the BBC corridors” 

Ad – content continues below

The shake-up, which was ordered to redress the audience balance (70% in favour of ITV in 1963) resulted in a new science-fiction serial (being developed by Canadian head of drama, Sydney Newman and a bright, tenacious young female producer, Verity Lambert) being made by the drama department rather the defunct children’s department. Had Doctor Who debuted a year earlier, the now familiar defence to accusations that it’s “merely a children’s show”, couldn’t have been made. 

Anna Home restored many of the BBC’s great drama directors, notably Dorothea Brooking, a former actress who specialised in adaptations of classic serials. Brooking was responsible for the first colour adaptation of Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s The Secret Garden in 1975; next Brooking directed Kizzy, a memorable 1976 production of Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi about the isolation of a young half-gypsy girl, and A Traveller in Time, Alison Uttley’s 1930s-set tale of a young girl (played by Sophie Thompson) staying on her Uncle and Aunt’s Tudor farmhouse, drawn back in time to a household trying to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I in favour of Mary Queen of Scots. 

Anna Home would often produce projects herself, if she couldn’t find or afford the requisite talent. She produced the ambitious drama serial, The Changes, a shocking, post-apocalyptic thriller set in Bristol, which, even today, is vividly recalled by the generation of children who were scared out of their wits by it in 1975. Home adapted a trilogy of books by Peter Dickinson into ten half-hour filmed episodes. It represented the biggest commitment to children’s drama ever seen pre-Box Of Delights. By the late seventies, Rocky O’ Rourke and King Cinder (which starred a young Peter Duncan) were stealing away the traditional audience for ITV’s kids’ drama. Seeking to further redress the balance, Anna Home developed a gritty new serial about a London comprehensive school with its creator Phil Redmond. Debuting in February 1978, Grange Hill enjoyed phenomenal success throughout its thirty-season run and eventually bowed out in 2008.

Once at TVS, Anna Home was keen to develop ITV’s approach to contemporary children’s drama. She instigated a series of seven plays on a theme: Spooky. The umbrella title for the series was Dramarama, the idea being to develop further seasons on other subjects. The first series began on Monday April 18th 1983 at 4.45pm on ITV. The opener War Games with Caroline was a hauntingly effective drama about a girl from the Blitz in need of help from contemporary schoolboy, Kevin, to avert the death of her school choir in a doodle-bug attack. Creepy and enjoyable in equal measure, this well-acted debut set the template for the next six years.

Perhaps the best episode of the spooky series was The Danny Roberts Show. An all-adult cast provided chills aplenty as Nicholas Ball starred as Danny Roberts, a smarmy late night radio host, haunted by a particularly unforgiving poltergeist. Ball gives a remarkably affecting unhinged performance, ensuring the play was etched into the minds of its young audience for years to come. Equally terrifying was The Exorcism of Amy in which Amy’s malevolent imaginary friend Amelia’s mischievous behaviour can only be curbed by an exorcism. However, something goes wrong and Amy’s cousin Elizabeth suddenly begins to behave erratically…

Ad – content continues below

In a Dark, Dark, Box… explores the intriguing idea of a poem written about a seemingly innocuous place only for the young protagonist to gradually realise it’s the very room he currently occupies. If so, what lies in the dark, dark box in the dark, dark trunk at the end of his bed? Then came the rather charming The Ghostly Earl in which a young girl befriends a benign spirit to help her stand up to developers of a theme park intent on destroying her stately home. Wilfrid Brambell appeared as a gravedigger (a truly inspired bit of casting) in a particularly effective play called The Restless Ghost, a period piece wherein two young boys set out to scare an old Sexton and manage to invoke a real ghost in the process. The last play of the series proper was The Keeper, about would-be ghost hunters who get more than they bargain for when they visit an allegedly “haunted” house. Five Theatre Box episodes (re-titled Dramarama) were repeated directly afterwards.

 

A mixed-genre Dramarama was a very successful part of the new-look Children’s ITV which began in the autumn of 1983, fronted by a host of child-friendly celebrities (most notably Tommy Boyd), and which replaced the Watch It! strand. The BBC (still two years away from Philip Schofield and the broom cupboard) countered with “cutting edge” BBC Micro graphics. Notable fantasy plays in this continuation of the first season were Jack and the Computer in which a boy’s computer comes to life embodying a malevolent power with sinister results and Sweet Revenge which was enjoyable but lacked the supernatural edge of its stable-mate. A group of boffins use their school computer to make bulk orders of bubblegum for a local shopkeeper. This follows an antagonistic confrontation between the shopkeeper and the whizzkids over confectionery.

A second 12-part season of Dramarama followed in the spring and summer of 1984. This season’s plays of a supernatural and sci-fi bent were Josephine Jo and Mr Stabs. The former was about a contemporary girl, Jo Wilson, visiting a former convent, only to be confronted by Edwardian girl Josephine Webb – essentially a mirror image that comes to life. A clever play, somewhat reminiscent of The Clifton House Mystery and Come Back Lucy (both ITV children’s dramas from 1978). 

Mr Stabs starred Davids Jason and Rappaport as Stabs and Luko, with Patrick Malahide as Stabs adversary The Visitor. Mr Stabs was created by author Trevor Preston for the (oc)cult Ace Of Wands back in 1970, although he makes no reference to the former series here. Portrayed originally and in the 1975 anthology series Shadows by Russell Hunter. Mr Stabs has potential for a spin-off series. David Jason relishes every syllable of Stabs’ evil utterances. He’s not a stranger to the sci-fi genre, having appeared as the eccentric, permanently-bathing Captain in the late Geoffrey Perkin’s influential BBC Radio production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

Ad – content continues below

David Jason confessed to a “keen interest in sci-fi” around the time the likes of Tony Robinson and Dermot Crowley were in the frame for the part of the Seventh Doctor in Doctor Who. It’s perhaps significant that the 1986 series of Only Fools and Horses was potentially going to be the last, with Delboy possibly emigrating to Australia. David Jason branched out into drama with Porterhouse Blue around this time. However, after two successful Christmas specials, he was eventually lured back to Peckham and filmed the ultimate pratfall in a yuppie wine bar … 

Night of The Narrow Boats featured the then unknown Leslie Grantham. His very next role would be as “Dirty Den” Watts in Eastenders. Hitherto this performance, Grantham appeared in Doctor Who as a henchman to Davros. Grantham’s soon-to-be Eastenders co-star Nick Berry turned up in The Purple People Eater about a rock ‘n’ roll band. He would then have a costumed role as a pirate rat in the prestigious drama The Box Of Delights before arriving in Albert Square.

 

The most striking play from season 2 was Dodger, Bonzo and the Rest about life in a children’s home facing potential closure. It featured Pam Ferris, Cheryl Hall and a young Joanne Bell (later seen in Grange Hill and the Doctor Who serial The Curse of Fenric). A direct antecedent of the Tracy Beaker stories, Jacqueline Wilson may well have been inspired to some extent by this play and subsequent series. Dodger, Bonzo and the Rest announced its conceit from the outset with the clever use of the Madness hit Our House over a shot of the various protagonists stood outside their home, which is then revealed to be a postcard on a busy noticeboard. ITV was impressed by the success of the play and rewarded it with its own series. Dodger, Bonzo and the Rest ran for two series from February 1985 to Christmas 1986.

Next time: A Doctor Who satire and a future Time Lord makes his TV debut…

Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Ad – content continues below