This Creepy TV Villain Taught 1980s British Schoolkids How to Read

Illiteracy might have saved on the therapy bills?

Charn from Through the Dragon's Eye (BBC Look and Read)
Photo: CBBC

If you attended a UK primary school in the last 50 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, shown on the big TV wheeled by teachers into classrooms every so often, signalled the start of an adventure.

The eyes were part of the Look and Read logo, a schools TV series designed to teach literacy, apostrophe usage and the joys of magic, magic E. The first Look And Read programme was 1967’s Bob And Carol Look For Treasure, a 10-part story about two kids’ clue-filled search for swag and eventual capture of a thief. The most recent, 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 who stop a pony-rustling gang.

Mixed in with Look And Read’s Famous Five-ish earthbound adventures – most of which concerned something close to children’s hearts: the theft of cattle and wild bird eggs – were a handful of escapist tales. From alien visitations to comic-book characters coming to life and magical portals to other worlds… Look And Read gave young fantasy and sci-fi fans the chance to watch some pretty exciting television in lesson time.

The theme song to one series in particular also gave some of us the badly sung soundtrack to any number of walks home from the pub. Join in 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 (which came with its own Granny’s Garden BBC Micro computer game) was written by husband and wife team Christopher and Christine Russell, with songs and music by the Radiophonic Workshop and Doctor Who composer Roger Limb. The 10-part series first aired on BBC Two between September and 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 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 breathes smoke out of his nostrils like an extra from a Cheech and Chong movie).

Gorwen (voiced by Sean Barrett) theorised that the kids would be able to save Pelamar from the encroaching nothingness that had spread 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 post-Chernobyl 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 Veetacore in a book, but, like all Pelamots, they’d lost the ability to read. Enter: Jenny, Scott and Amanda, three children who, like actors the world over, would become heroes thanks to being able to read out loud.

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

The ten-part series combined elements of all kinds of children’s fantasy fiction, from The Chronicles Of Narnia to The Dark Crystal to The 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 realm 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, aka the scariest character on TV, who shared his name with the homeland of Narnia’s White Witch.

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

As well as providing song-based help with spelling words starting with the letter Q, the quest for the Veetons was a genuinely exciting time. 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 that turned out to be 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 that it could win the United Kingdom Eurovision – maybe even a post-Brexit 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 wipes the slate clean.

The Widgets are 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 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 shadow cast on her face…

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“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.

Charn’s 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 the 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 put the most hardcore prisons on islands), school didn’t get more terrifying than Charn.

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

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 scenery – 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 were 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. Hooray.

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Through the Dragon’s Eye was a triumph. A fun, immersive story with memorable characters and songs (where else would you hear a ballad sung from the first-person perspective of a swamp?), it did much more than taught kids to read. It thrilled us, gave us a nightmare-fuel villain, and let us watch a dragon snowball fighting with an Ewok when we were technically supposed to be in a lesson. The Charn-related therapy bills are forgiven.