Spooky, always magical and occasionally downright scary dramas are the bedrock of kids’ television. For me, the pinnacle of this sort of programme was reached in the 1980s. The decade saw a new approach to both traditional and contemporary drama by both UK broadcasters: ITV committed itself to regular seasons of children’s plays with Dramarama (1983-89), a kind of youth version of the venerable BBC Play For Today (1970-84), which saw the 1988 television debut of one David Tennant. The BBC, building upon an impressive body of work from the early 70s onwards, produced some of its very best family drama in this era, embracing cutting edge technology to bring treats like The Box Of Delights (1984) and The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (1988) to the screen.
To put things in context, children’s television in general was buoyant in this period thanks in part to the very successful BBC ‘mini schedule’ which steered the child audience through the afternoon. Drama was screened at 5.10pm after John Craven’s Newsround. On Tuesdays and Fridays this generally meant contemporary school drama Grange Hill (1978-2008) with Wednesdays reserved for the classic adaptations. The long-running magazine Blue Peter (1958 – ) was transmitted on Mondays and Thursdays – a slot it had occupied since going twice weekly in1964.
The BBC used Blue Peter along with Swap Shop and later Saturday Superstore and Going Live to promote their new drama series. Throughout the 70s and 80s, ITV promoted its shows in the magazine Look-In (1971-94). The BBC, by way of a belated response, licenced Polystyle to produce BEEB magazine. It lasted just 20 issues in 1985. By contrast, BBC Magazines launched Fast Forward in 1989, utilising the 5.35pm junction between Children’s BBC and Neighbours to advertise it. So successful was the magazine, it outsold and eventually spelt the death knell for Look-In. however, Fast Forward itself succumbed to falling circulation just eighteen months later in 1995.
In 1981 ITV created a new strand called Watch It! intended to better link their children’s output. Programmes such as Danger Mouse and Murphy’s Mob were now networked, finding a bigger audience as ITV sought parity with the BBC’s nationwide reach. Children’s drama began on ITV around 4.45pm, stealing a march on the BBC, necessitated in part by their output for kids being curtailed at 5.15pm for Crossroads, Mr & Mrs etc depending on your region.
1983 saw Watch it! become Children’s ITV with various star presenters (eventually Tommy Boyd became the regular host) acting as a kind of inter-programme VJ. ITV slowly began to win the pre-5pm ratings war. In September 1985 the BBC countered with a return to in-vision continuity and gave a debut to an unknown presenter who, heavily influenced by Swap Shop, had plied his trade in New Zealand before the call came to be the face of Children’s BBC – Philip Schofield. The Broom Cupboard allowed better interaction with the child audience and further promotion opportunities. Hitherto, BBC1 afternoons were anchored by a continuity announcer, often the avuncular tones of the late Andy Cartledge, linking programmes with series of slides to advertise forthcoming shows.
Behind the scenes, the BBC Children’s department in the early part of the decade was headed by Edward Barnes, a steady hand who had produced Blue Peter in the 60s and 70s acting as mentor to the formidable Editor, Biddy Baxter. He created Newsround (1972) with John Craven and instigated Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (1976-81) with Rosemary Gill. The children’s drama department had been reformed in the early 70s under the auspicious of Anna Home, who became an instrumental figure in 80s and 90s Children’s TV.
Over at ITV, a number of people held the purse strings: Lewis Rudd at Thames had developed Magpie and Freetime and commissioned several drama series in the late 70s and early 80s. HTV continued to be a major player in children’s programming. It was joined by Tyne Tees, Yorkshire and Southern which produced Worzel Gummidge (1979-81) before losing its franchise to TVS; the latter recruited Anne Home from the BBC to improve its drama output. Home had several major dramas to her name – most notably Grange Hill and the powerful science fiction serial The Changes (1975). At TVS she initiated Dramarama. With the anthology series’ success assured, Home returned to the corporation and became head of BBC TV Children’s department in 1986.
Our journey through the best spooky and magical kids TV dramas of the 80s begins just before Christmas 1980:
The Bells Of Astercote (BBC 1980)
The BBC has something of a tradition of transmitting ghost stories at Christmas. True to form, two days before Yuletide 1980 saw an adaptation which would resonate with a generation. The Bells Of Astercote was based on Penelope Lively’s superb ghostly children’s novel Astercote, which had been published a decade earlier. It’s the story of youngsters Mair (Siobhan Brooks) and Peter (Ifor Williams), investigating the secrets of a sinister wood and discovering a long lost Plague Village. Their escapades are being watched by the suspicious and slightly naive Goacher (John Branwell) who fiercely protects the area talks about fearing “the sickness” and seems obsessed with a mediaeval chalice. The story was given a hauntingly claustrophobic atmosphere by experienced director Marilyn Fox. Repeated only once, on Good Friday 1982, the one-off drama is fondly if somewhat sketchily recalled these days on many a TV nostalgia forum.
Echoes Of Louisa (ITV 1981)
Echoes Of Louisa was a six part ghost story come mystery made by ATV. The conceit was a familiar one: The serial is reminiscent of the 1976 HTV serial The Clifton House Mystery; the BBC’s 1978 adaptation of A Traveller In Time and ATV’s own recent serial Come Back Lucy. Echoes Of Louisa examines the idea that events conspire to affect both past and present – in this case the conduit is an old house, Thornaby Hall in contemporary 1981 where the Barr family are spending an Easter excursion and in 1876, where the hall is home to the Hallam family. A story of petty jealousy and bitter rivalries surround the eponymous Louisa Hallam, forced to share her education and leisure with a female companion, Allegra. It soon transpires Allie Barr resembles Allegra and their lives are somehow linked across the years. Louisa sees her companion as a do-gooder who harbours evil intentions to get rid of her at any cost. This in turn has a devastating affect on the life of Eighties teenager Allie.
John Diamond (BBC1 1981), The Ghost Downstairs (BBC2 1982), Ghost In The Water (BBC1 1982)
The 1970s and 80s saw several adaptations of historical drama from Leon Garfield. The December Rose (1986) about a rebellious young chimney sweep, being perhaps the finest example. Garfield’s The Strange Affair Of Adelaide Harris, a colourful Regency romp in the style of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones: The History Of A Foundling, had been produced by the BBC in 1979. However, he also penned a number of ghost stories, some of which were dramatised for Christmas fare in the early 80s: 1981 saw James Andrew Hall’s dramatisation of John Diamond, starring a young Tom (Rev/Thick Of It) Hollander. The story follows William Jones, who runs away from home, haunted by the memory of his embezzler father. To lay the ghost to rest, he must search the grimy back streets of London for a shadowy figure known as John Diamond (Dominic Guard).
A year later, BBC2 dramatised Garfield’s equally powerful The Ghost Downstairs. Starring Cyril Cusack as the wizard-like Fishbane and Mike Gwilym as a mean Victorian lawyer called Fast, a character name Garfield readily admitted was based on Faust. The production was particularly notable for its extensive use of colour separation overlay (CSO) wherein a drawing can be utilised as a full scale background. The technique was beloved by erstwhile Doctor Who producer Barry Letts, not least for its economic advantages. In this case the illustration work of Errol Le Cain, described as “creepy and macabre” was used to very good effect. Impressed by the CSO, Garfield told the Radio Times he felt it was “a very literary technique… you can show a person’s viewpoint – what he actually sees”
On New Year’s Eve 1982 another more contemporary tale called Ghost In The Water was transmitted on BBC1. This somewhat experimental (the main cast were largely amateur actors) supernatural drama, was based on a book by Edward Chitham. A young woman accidentally drowned herself in 1860, yet her death was recorded as suicide, then a sin and consequently her spirit lives on in torment. A teenage girl Tess (Judith Allchurch) experiences the woman’s memories which eventually become too real for comfort. Convincing her friend David (Ian Stevens) to help her investigate the circumstances surrounding the girl’s demise, the teenagers realise they must prove the death was an accident to free Tess of her nightmarish visions.
Dramarama (ITV 1983-1989)
ITV’s children’s drama anthology series Dramarama launched with Spooky!, an engaging series of seven supernatural stories, which I reviewed elsewhere on Den of Geek. The series proper would also develop a good catalogue of ghost stories. The most notable entry in the early days being the episode Josephine Jo, wherein Jo Wilson, a teenage girl on a contemporary outward-bound field trip to a convent, encounters and is possessed by long-dead Josephine Webb, who steps out of a mirror from 1914.
The Witches And The Grinnygog (ITV 1983)
A pre-EastEnders Anna Wing and Adam Woodyatt featured in this light drama about time-travelling witches. Falling off the back of a lorry, a small stone statue known as the Grinnygog is discovered by a woman on her way home from the village store. She gives the weird looking artefact to her elderly father as a potential ornament for his rockery. Suddenly, a frightened and unusual looking child is seen around the town. Meanwhile another ordinarily timid boy starts to act strangely and seems keen to perform a rustic folk dance.
The eponymous witches, played by Wing, Patricia Hayes, Sheila Grint and Eva Griffith, have been living in a nearby marsh, having escaped a mediaeval witch-hunt and thanks to the power inherent in the Grinnygog are awoken and begin to cause mayhem in the normally sleepy village. The witches bring with them a “daughter” later revealed to be nothing more than a shop mannequin, yet one that appears somehow to be walking by itself. A group of village children: Woodyatt, Paul Curtis, Zoe Loftin, Giles Harper and Heidi Mayo, investigate the area’s history and discover, through an ancient manuscript, the village – by now at the mercy of the eccentric witches and the mischievous Grinnygog – must make amends for its over zealous approach to witch-burning, which was a commonplace practice a few hundred years before.
Chocky (ITV 1984)
Chocky, based on John Wyndham’s final novel completed in 1968, was broadcast on ITV in early 1984. Wyndham was the author behind The Day Of The Triffids, which BBC had dramatised to great acclaim in 1981, and The Midwich Cuckoos which was filmed in 1957 as The Village Of The Damned.
Matthew (Andrew Ellams) seems to be a well-adjusted middle class boy but he is being manipulated by Chocky, a voice in his head, unseen in the book but visualised in the TV series. At first his mother Mary (Carol Drinkwater) assumes he has an imaginary friend but later his father David (James Hazeldine) asks a psychologist friend to look into Matthew’s behaviour. The adaptation updates the 1968 story. the action is brought into the 80s with a scene in which Matthew does his best mate Colin’s Rubik’s Cube in record time and another showing his effective if novel approach to killing aliens on an Atari games console – resulting in the machine overheating and exploding.
Eventually Chocky feels able to show herself to Matthew and explain her environmentally sound reasoning for possessing his mind. However, much of the knowledge Chocky passed onto Matthew is lost when he is hypnotised to reveal his inner thoughts and consequently Chocky moves on to a different host child. Adapted by erstwhile Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read and produced by Thames. Chocky proved very popular with its young audience. So successful was the series in fact, it was bought by Spain and Czechoslovakia, where it became equally popular. There were two sequels: Chocky’s Children (ITV 1985) and Chocky’s Challenge (ITV 1986). Incidentally, Matthew’s friend Colin was played by Devin Stanfield who would go onto further acclaim as young Kay Harker in…
The Box Of Delights (BBC1 1984)
Based on John Masefield’s classic fantasy written in 1934, The Box Of Delights was originally adapted for broadcast as a radio play in 1948 on the BBC Home Service, again in 1966 and yet again for Radio 4 in 1977. However, the most famous adaptation was by Alan Seymour and transmitted on Wednesday afternoons on BBC1 in the six weeks leading up to Christmas 1984.
The serial is exceptionally well cast and the acting talent really give it their all. Former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton is perfect as Cole Hawlings, a mysterious and magical Punch and Judy man who looms large in the life of Kay Harker, experiencing magical adventures during the Christmas holidays with his cousins in Tatchester. Of Harker’s cousins Joanna Dukes puts in a particularly memorable and mischievous performance – full of appetite and welcome cynicism – as Maria. Robert Stephens is terrific as the theatrical villain of the piece Abner Brown. Patricia Quinn plays his moll, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer with heightened pantomimic aplomb, yet it’s entirely appropriate to the season. Bill Wallis, later familiar to viewers of Blackadder, does a sterling job in the thankless task as the grimy disgusting Rat. Devin Stanfield acquits himself very well as the constantly surprised, adventure-seeking Kay Harker. Stanfield practically carries the middle section of the serial and overcomes Patrick Troughton’s scripted absence.
The Box Of Delights employed state-of-the-art special effects to bring the more fanciful elements of Masefield’s magical work to the small screen. As cutting-edge technology goes, it is inevitable the series would become dated over time. Parts of it still stand up well, other parts not so much to modern day viewing. Arguably, whilst the crew certainly get their money’s worth the effects tend to overpower things to the slight detriment of the serial overall. There are perhaps just too many ‘moments of wonder’. Devin Stanfield does well to continue his ‘constantly surprised’ schtick and it’s to his credit he is able to give such a consistent performance to mask the minor flaws as the serial unfolds.
Director Renny Rye, a former Blue Peter man was behind the camera. The serial was produced by Paul Stone, who deserves a special mention as the man responsible for so much of the excellent output in children’s drama in this era. At one time Stone was sought after as a potential future producer of Doctor Who.
The Box Of Delights remained a benchmark for quality children’s drama for the next decade and even today is remembered fondly by the generation of children who watched it on its first run. Indeed, DoG’s Editor, Simon Brew, is a huge fan and each Christmas re-watches the serial.
Edward Barnes described the show at its launch as “a feast”. However, despite being a co-production, the lavish serial was made at the expense of most other weekday afternoon children’s drama on BBC1. A rather worthy version of J.Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet in February 1984 had been the last adapted drama to air before Box. Aside from the returning Grange Hill and contemporary chase drama Running Scared, drama meant imports as classic 60s adventure series Gentle Ben and a New Zealand based drama Into The Creek filled the slots. The Box Of Delights was subsequently repeated on BBC1 in three 50-minute compilations (the edit in which it was sold abroad to over 200 TV stations) in 1986 and revived some sixteen years later on the CBBC channel in its first Christmas schedule in 2002.
Next time: We conclude the series with a look at the late 80s, including amongst many others: Return Of The Antelope, The Children Of Greene Knowe, Moondial, The Chronicles Of Narnia and Tom’s Midnight Garden.