When you look back at what passed for kid’s TV in the UK back in the day, it’s a wonder we aren’t all in therapy. Oh sure, the 80s and 90s might have looked all innocent with its Art Attack and Pingu, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find some frankly harrowing children’s television output, quite literally the stuff of nightmares.
If you’re feeling brave, let’s take a quick nostalgia trip and revisit some of Britain’s most terrifying kids’ TV moments:
The Demon Headmaster
Even the theme tune to this BBC children’s TV classic was scary, with its ominous beat and whispering voices, but the reason The Demon Headmaster shook 90s kids to the core lies in Terrence Hardiman’s truly sinister performance as the headmaster himself. The deep menace to his voice was only intensified by his billowing black cloak and the creepy tinted glasses he wore, the taking off of which signified he was about to hypnotise the children for whatever that episode’s evil plan may be. That includes, in one particularly horrid episode, setting the stupefied class on some misbehaving children and instructing them to ‘pull them to pieces’.
If you’re feeling braver than you were back in 1998, The Demon Headmaster got a reboot in 2019 (including an appearance from Hardiman himself), and there are 10 episodes available on BBC iPlayer.
Even though the 1960s was in the time before child welfare was really a thing (seatbelts? What seatbelts?) the BBC still decided to re-air sixties puppet horrorfest Captain Scarlet in the 1990s as a children’s show. And even though parents knew better by then, they still let their kids watch it. Even the episode where Captain Scarlet offs a gun-wielding bad guy by electrocuting him, in a scene which included the man screaming as he fries to death, body jerking against the deadly current, which is zapping so fiercely it causes bursts of flames around him, before eventually we see his smoking, open-eyed corpse. Sleep tight, children.
A show about a team of Scottish kids heading to the Australian outback to search for UFOs, recording their experience on handheld camcorders, Jeopardy was basically The Blair Witch Project for children. The use of jerky ‘found’ footage was particularly unsettling, as well as various children going missing, seemingly being abducted by malevolent aliens. The show took a further dark turn when the children began suffering from ‘red-eye virus’, a demonic condition that turned out to be a side-effect of getting abducted. Still, kids appeared to enjoy being scared half to death, because CBBC gave viewers the chance to vote for whether to have a ‘happy’ or ‘spooky’ ending, and as you can see from the video above, they chose the latter.
Animals of Farthing Wood
You’d be forgiven for having erased Animals of Farthing Wood from your memory entirely, it was that horrific. From the outside, it looks like a cutesy cartoon about adorable woodland creatures, which have been made even more relatable and cuddly by having human-style families – spouses, children, the lot. But just when the children watching got really attached to their furry friends, the show kills them off, often in shockingly brutal fashion. The farmer’s shotgun creeps into the frame and points at a tearful pheasant before the sound of gunshots ring out, a husband-and-wife pair of hedgehogs choose to die together by being obliterated under a lorry’s wheels on the motorway, some tiny mice get impaled bloodily on spikes. Yes, all of these are real examples. Yes, it was a legitimate kids’ TV show. Yes, we know.
The Pink Windmill
Ok this isn’t a horror show, but seriously, the Pink Windmill was a particularly indelible slice of hell. For anyone too young to remember this utter monstrosity, it was a spin-off show for Rod Hull and Emu – a wackily dressed bloke with an emu puppet on his arm whose schtick was to bite people with the puppet. Pink Windmill was a live show which had different elements to it. Hull and his arm-emu lived in said pink windmill with some brightly dressed children who would chant “there’s somebody at the door!” when visitors arrived – visitors who would often turn out to be the dreaded Grotbags and a tin man called Robot Redford and latterly a man in a crocodile costume. Grotbags wanted to kidnap Emu. Everyone would hide when she arrived. It was weird and anxiety inducing. It also involved a ‘take your pick’ style game show called Grotbags’ Grotto where children had their hearts broken live. Never again.
Orm and Cheep
To be fair this puppet show, narrated by the late Richard Briars, probably wouldn’t cause too many sleepless nights for anyone over about ten, but for little ones it was all a bit too real. It followed a baby bird (Cheep) who had fallen out of the nest before he learned how to fly, and Orm, a worm Cheep befriends. Their limited adventures largely involved trying not to get eaten by a rat and a crow, the serial killers of this puppet world. Simple but effective.
Jigsaw (Mr Noseybonk)
Jigsaw was a weird enough show on its own, but the standout star is definitely Mr Noseybonk. A man in a tux wearing a hideous white mask with a terrifying fixed grin and an enormous protruding nose, Noseybonk was maniac, unpredictable and the stuff of nightmares. So much so in fact, that an X-Files episode was inspired by the character. Season eleven episode ‘Familiar’ featured a demonic character called Mr Chuckleteeth, a life-sized version of a children’s TV character who leads kids into the woods to their death.
The most modern show on this list, this CBBC spooky anthology proves that there’s still an appetite for shivers and uncanny stories among kids today. A kind of Twilight Zone for children, Creeped Out introduces each of its tales with overarching character The Curious, a mask-wearing traveller who collects strange tales, “if you ever hear his whistle, you know something creepy is about to unfold.” I’ll say. How about seaside puppet Mr Blackteeth, or young Stu’s sinister old lady neighbour, or the girl scout camping trip that encounters some highly unusual bugs? An added bonus for film geek parents is spotting the show’s many Easter Egg references to retro sci-fi classics, from Spielberg to Joe Dante to Robert Zemeckis and more. Is that a whistle on the wind?
Children of the Stones
Are you a Happy one? Here’s a test: say the words “Happy Day” to a person of a certain age and watch their eyes. If they were one of the 1970s kids subjected to this chilling ITV serial, you’ll see a flicker of fear to this day. Children of the Stones was about a young boy named Matthew and his professor father – newcomers to the mysterious, quaint English village of Milbury and its druidic stone circle. As Matthew unravels the secret of Milbury’s standing stones, we learn the terrible truth of the village and its puppet-like inhabitants. With a cursed painting, a dark conspiracy, an evil magus and an eerie choral soundtrack that’d put the willies up even the toughest scary movie fan, this was classic 1970s children’s horror.
Look and Read: Dark Towers
The BBC’s educational Look and Read segment should be ashamed of itself. Or maybe very proud of itself, considering how indelible so many of its 1970s and 1980s creations have proven in the minds of grown-ups subjected to them as kids. Designed to be shown in schools and to provide helpful literacy prompts in story and song form, Look and Read was responsible for more childhood nightmares than Freddie Krueger. (Okay, Geordie Racer and Badger on the Barge weren’t exactly scary, but they were the exceptions.) Ghost story Dark Towers, with its imposing Tall Knight, was a haunted house story about a girl named Tracey who saves an ancient manor from baddies while teaching us about diphthongs, plurals and alliteration. Dark Towers was the ninth in a series that included Through the Dragon’s Eye, about a skeletal bird man with knife-like fingers who could turn people into gunge, and The Boy From Space, which gave us the dubious gift of The Thin Man. Shudder. As soon as the teacher wheeled in the big TV, we knew we were cursed.
Written by British children’s TV drama legend Helen Cresswell (Lizzie Dripping, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Demon Headmaster – see above, to name just a few) Moondial is a beautifully creepy BBC six-parter. It’s the story of Minty, who’s torn from everything she knows when her mother is injured in a car accident, and who finds herself drawn to the grounds of a local manor house while staying with her aunt. There, she stumbles upon the titular moondial, which has the power to transport her back in time. In the Victorian era, Minty befriends two children with sad stories and sets about trying to make them right. With eerie imagery and a hugely atmospheric setting, Moondial stayed with you long after the children’s programming had ended for the evening. Find yourself in the grounds of a stately home decades later and it’s impossible not to look for that distinctive statue…