Looking back at Through The Dragon’s Eye

Follow us through the mural on a trip to Pelamar, to look back at BBC Look And Read fantasy adventure, Through The Dragon’s Eye…

If you attended a UK primary school in the last forty years, then the sight of two white, animated eyes on a black screen turning into the heart of the word ‘Look’ is likely to trigger all sorts of pink custard and plimsoll memories. Those moving eyes signalled the start of an adventure (albeit one delivered in twenty minute instalments designed to teach you about literacy, apostrophe usage and the joys of magic, magic E).

The first Look And Read television programme, Bob And Carol Look For Treasure was broadcast in 1967, a ten-part story about two children’s clue-filled search for swag and eventual capture of a thief. Each episode was divided in two by an educational section, the material for which – puzzles, songs and reading challenges, was later integrated into the stories. The most recent Look And Read series, Shadow Play, about a young boy who discovers the diary of a Victorian girl, aired in 2004. In between were the likes of Geordie Racer, the tale of plucky young Spuggy thwarting a pigeon-racing crime syndicate, and Badger Girl, about a group of kids stopping a pony-rustling gang on the moors.

Mixed in with Look And Read’s Famous Five-ish earthbound adventures – most concerning something close to all kids’ hearts: the theft of cattle and wild bird eggs – were a handful of more escapist tales. From alien visitations to comic-book characters coming to life, magical portals to other worlds, and that Tron rip-off… Look And Read gave young fantasy and sci-fi fans the chance to watch some pretty exciting television in school hours.

The theme song to one series in particular also gave our later years the nostalgic, badly sung soundtrack to any number of walks home from the pub. Join in with me now if you know the words, “North or South, East or West, the quest…”.

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“…To save the life of Pelamar”

Through The Dragon’s Eye was written by screenwriting and children’s author husband and wife team Christopher and Christine Russell, with songs and music composed by the Radiophonic Workshop’s Roger Limb (who also worked extensively on classic Doctor Who), and was accompanied by a Granny’s Garden-style BBC Micro computer game. The ten-part series first aired on BBC Two from September to November 1989, and has been regularly repeated on CBBC and in children’s waking nightmares ever since.

We’ll come to the nightmares later. The story saw three children from “the other world” guided through a playground mural waterfall into the mysterious land of Pelamar after being winked at by a dragon named Gorwen (a sort of grumpy, scaly Aslan who sporadically breathes smoke out of his nostrils like an extra in a Cheech and Chong movie).

Gorwen (voiced by Sean Barrett) had a hunch that the kids would be able to save Pelamar from the threat of nuclear winter it was facing since the unexpected explosion of the magical, glowing object that provided its life force – the Veetacore. (Like the rest of the curriculum for eight year olds during the 1980s, Through The Dragon’s Eye was a loosely disguised nuclear apocalypse allegory. With songs about spelling).

The Keepers of the Veetacore, a colourful trio of Pelamots named Boris, Morris and Doris (Timothy Lyn, Michael Heath, and Carolyn Pickles) had the instructions for rebuilding the life-giving doo-dah in a book, but, like all Pelamots, had lost the ability to read. Enter Jenny, Scott and Amanda, three children who, like actors the world over, would become heroes by knowing how to read out loud.

“The Veetacore is everything. Without its rays we cannot exist”

The ten-part story combined elements of all kinds of children’s fantasy fiction, from The Chronicles Of Narnia to The Dark Crystal to Lord Of The Rings and The Never-Ending Story. Like the land of Fantasia, Pelamar was dying and its lands fading away, requiring the help of an Earth child to save it. Like The Dark Crystal, the lands would be forever lost to darkness if a shattered magical object was not reassembled. And like The Chronicles Of Narnia, an agent of evil was plotting to usurp power and leave Pelamar in an eternal winter. That agent (played by long-time Look And Read actor, David Collings) was Charn, almost-certainly-not-coincidentally sharing the same name as Narnia’s White Witch’s homeland.

With the spine narrative in place, off went Amanda, Scott, Gorwen, Rodey (a massive talking mouse who wears nail varnish) and Boris (a cricket-loving simpleton the colour of Amy Childs) to recover the remaining three Veetons, while Jenny, Doris (a purple nag with a stick up her bum) and Morris (the green one, he liked knitting and snails) attempted to rebuild the Veetacore.

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As well as providing song-based help with spelling words starting with the letter Q, the quest for the Veetons was a genuinely exciting one. The gang flew to the neighbouring land of Widge (Gorwen using his wings, Boris using his extendible-length cricket bat, and Rodey using a sort of upright scrabbling movement that makes it look as though his harness didn’t fit very well. The whole thing provided about as much magic as can reasonably be expected for £4.80 and some Plasticine, but it was plenty). Boris almost immediately fell into a quagmire (thanks, Q-song!), a creepy book tree set them a riddle, and there was a song about compound nouns so good it could win us Eurovision. A post-Iraq Eurovision if it were to be performed by Through The Dragon’s Eye talented theme singer Derek Griffiths, aka the voice of Super Ted.

“Widgets will be Widgets”

According to Gorwen, the land of Widge is “nothing but tricks and traps and widgets”, and even though he acts a bit like a racist Nan on a foreign holiday the whole time they’re in Widge, he’s basically right. The Widgets – small furry, shameless Ewok rip-offs – are kind of jerks.

When they’re not doing acrobatics, scrapping or falling asleep, the Widgets spend their time sabotaging Scott and Amanda’s quest. They deliberately hide the first Veeton, then they steal it, then things get a bit Blair Witch when they destroy the gang’s only map. It only adds insult to injury when we find out that the Widgets, unlike the Pelamots, actually know how to read. With Rodey translating, one of those little furry guys could have read the Veetacore Keepers’ book without having abducted those kids from that playground, saving everyone a lot of bother. Ultimately though, the Widgets do save Scott’s life with an improvised parachute which kind of wipes the slate clean.

The Widgets are quite a technologically advanced people. Well, they have a telescope. It doesn’t quite match up to the Pelamots’ tech capability though. In addition to the Veetacore, those guys have customised portable videophones that get reception up mountains and inside trees. It’s on just one of these devices that Through The Dragon’s Eye pulls off a particularly chilling cliff-hanger at the end of episode four, showing Doris, frozen in terror with a long shadow cast on her face…

“No-one else can face Charn and live. Only Gorwen has a chance”

The caster of that shadow is Charn, a skeletal bird-man with Freddy Krueger-ish fingers who was scarier than the Skeksis. Charn fought only a bald, beaked Anjelica Huston from The Witches for object-of-terror pole position in my eight-year-old subconscious. His long, clacking, knife-like claws, used to poke at and gag young Jenny, and once – memorably – to creep around the edge of an open door in a scene indelibly inked on the brains of wimpy children everywhere, emitted lightning-like electricity that would reduce Pelamots to puddles of paint. Aside from those times we were all gathered in the big hall for a special assembly when another category A prisoner had escaped (I grew up on the Isle of Wight. They like putting prisons on islands), school didn’t get more terrifying than Charn.

Revisiting the character as an adult, Charn’s campier qualities preclude any real terror. When you realise that a scarf pattern led to his downfall, it’s hard to take him all that seriously as a villain. 

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Watch the fight between Charn and Gorwen nowadays – imagine Harry Potter and Voldemort’s last battle made entirely out of crepe paper and old Doctor Who episodes – and Charn’s pretty much all cloak and no trousers. He plays dirty, chucking a rock at his dragon opponent and taking the mick out of him for being “too noble”, but is soon bested by a power move from Gorwen, who swipes Charn with his tail, sends him to the carpet and turns him into black smoke. Good riddance.

“Power of good, spread near and far, power of good, give life to Pelamar”

The fight with Charn, and the use of his special fiery breath to bring Doris and Morris back from Puddle town, took its toll on Gorwen, who started to go all Marty McFly in Back To The Future. Luckily, the gang returned with the final pieces of the 3D jigsaw just in time to stop Gorwen fading away and to restore Pelamar to its former glory. After obeying all the rules of great kids’ TV – have a scary villain, invent proper peril, and make sure the children solve all the problems – Through The Dragon’s Eye concluded with everyone celebrating over a glass of special Pelamade.

What of Jenny, Scott and Amanda (Nicola Stewart, Simon Fenton and Marlaine Gordon)? They’re zapped back to the playground mural in time to hear the dinner bell ring, and find miniature Veetons in their hands to prove that it was real and they weren’t all just tripping their nuts off on paint fumes. Hurray.

It was a properly fun, immersive story with memorable characters and songs. Where else would you hear a ballad sung from the first-person perspective of a swamp? You can see why none of us has forgotten it. It helped us with our reading, and let us watch a dragon snowball fighting with an Ewok when we were supposed to be in a lesson. For that, Look And Read, kids of the eighties are eternally grateful.

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