Spooky and magical kids’ TV dramas of the 1980s: 1985-89

We revisit Tom's Midnight Garden, Moondial, The Chronicles Of Narnia and a few lesser-known UK children's TV series...

Read our look-back at UK kids’ fantasy dramas 1980 – 1984 here.

By 1985 British TV’s children’s drama had really hit its stride, achieving “a balanced diet of programmes” as Edward Barnes, the head of the BBC children’s department observed. The late 80s, arguably, saw a new golden age for spooky and magical kids drama. Excellent production values, improved significantly by well-honed special effects work using Quantel, Paintbox and Harry, and moreover some interesting casting – often of very talented newcomers – produced some of the most memorable dramas of the era.

The second half of the decade saw the BBC riding high on the back of the success of their state-of-the-art adaptation of John Masefield’s Box Of Delights. Meanwhile, anthology series Dramarama was going from strength to strength on ITV. No stranger to supernatural or magical stories, Dramarama produced some excellent examples in this era: Flashback, written by Dennis Spooner, in one of his last contributions to television before his untimely death in 1986, was a particularly memorable drama. A boy is trapped by the inventor of a special camera in 1940 – in a piece of old film. The Halt featured football hooligans terrorising a train full of passengers. On going through a tunnel they emerge as the only occupants of the carriage and alighting at an eerily deserted station; they struggle make contact as the place has suffered vandalism and the only timetable is torn and unusable.

Also worth mentioning is The Secret Of Croftmore, a powerful story from 1988, which incidentally sees David Tennant, then a 17 year old, make his TV debut. A Ghost Story saw strange things happen to a group of army cadets lost on a foggy moor, and Anthony Horowitz gave us Back To Front, the story of a boy trapped inside a mirror. The final season is notable for the episode Rosie The Great, which featured one Peter Capaldi…

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Return Of The Antelope (ITV 1986)

Miniaturisation has long been a staple in cult television. Indeed, miniaturisation sequences are major elements of The Box Of Delights and Alice In Wonderland – two versions of which were made within 18 months of each other. ITV got in first with its 1985 adaptation by Anglia TV and Barry Letts’ classic serials department tackled it for the BBC in 1986 – as one might expect from Letts, a CSO-heavy production featuring several Doctor Who alumni. Doctor Who itself miniaturised the TARDIS crew – essentially by creating oversized props – in the 1964 William Hartnell serial Planet Of Giants, and revisited the concept in parts of Carnival Of Monsters (1973), The Invisible Enemy (1977) and most recently Into The Dalek (2014). In the US, Irwin Allen’s colour series Land Of The Giants (ABC 1968-70 and a popular Channel 4 re-run in 1989/90) seemed for many to be the last word on the subject in the late 60s. The Borrowers would be a huge hit for the BBC in the early 90s, that series successfully picking up the baton from Return Of The Antelope. Willis Hall, who had co-adapted the 1979-81 Southern TV version of Worzel Gummidge, wrote this imaginative sequel to Gulliver’s Travels.

Set in 1899, two hundred years after Gulliver’s visit to Lilliput, three adventurous Lilliputians set sail in a boat named ‘the Antelope’ in tribute to Gulliver’s original ship, only to be shipwrecked. Seeking refuge in a picnic hamper, the Lilliputians are rescued by a couple of children holidaying at a nearby guest house. The children provide a home for the Lilliputians in the doll’s house they find in their room. The guest house owner, however, the improbably named Harwell Mincing, shows a malevolent interest in the diminutive explorers and the story becomes a deadly game of cat and mouse as the Lilliputians attempt to avoid Mincing’s clutches. Over subsequent episodes the children go home and new guardians arrive to discover and protect the Lilliputians.

Return Of The Antelope, first screened on Sunday afternoons on ITV in early 1986, was very well received: The drama ran to 27 episodes across four seasons. A Christmas special appeared in the style of a musical. Stephanie Cole was amongst a cast that also included The Bells Of Astercote‘s John Branwell. ITV appeared to have been testing the water with the Sunday afternoon placing of Return Of The Antelope, the programme’s success helping to schedule the dystopian fantasy The Knights Of God in the autumn of 1987. Recorded in 1985, it is probably best remembered these days for Patrick Troughton’s last transmitted TV role, sadly, it failed to ignite the viewers’ interest. Subsequent runs of Return Of The Antelope showed the broadcaster was prepared to invest in fantasy at a time when budgets were especially tight and the cost of such a venture usually required a co-production with a foreign investor.

The Children Of Green Knowe (BBC1 1986)

Transmitted in late November and early December 1986 and appearing exactly midway between The Box Of Delights (BBC 1984) and The Chronicles Of Narnia (BBC 1988-90). Green Knowe is a proverbial halfway house: its four episodes – made on a comparative shoestring – successfully fulfilled the required spooky and magical serial for the month before Christmas.

All the familiar tropes are present and correct: a public schoolboy, the unfortunately-named Toseland, is neglected by his father and his mother is dead. So, our young protagonist, fortunately nick-named Tolly (played with infectious wide-eyed wonder by Alec Christie, later seen in the film East Is East and the Christmas special of The Office), is sent away from his boarding school to spend Christmas in in a creaky old country manor house – the eponymous Green Knowe – with his maternal great grandmother, whom he addresses as Granny Oldknow. Daphne Oxenford, who played Granny Oldknow, was an experienced character actress and for over twenty years, was the reassuring voice of Listen With Mother (“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”) on the BBC Home service and then Radio 4 (1950-82). Her next job after Green Knowe was the 1987 Doctor Who serial Dragonfire, and she returned to Who for her final acting credit in 2008’s The Unicorn And The Wasp.

In a tradition made familiar by Blackadder and Baldrick, the Oldknows were always accompanied by successive generations of manservants called Boggis (George Malpas, also seen in The Witches And The Grinnygog). This particular Boggis was a likeable old man with many a humorous aside, such as eating an onion like an apple. Surrounded by such aged retainers, Tolly longs for companionship of his own age. As luck would have it, the garden of Green Knowe is haunted by the spirits of three Restoration-era children, Toby, Alexander and Linnet. The spirit children, dressed in Cavalier finery are keen on music and drama – both long suppressed in the Puritan era before the accession of their King, Charles II (Ian Rattray), who, given his nickname ‘the merry monarch’, makes a decidedly disgruntled cameo appearance.

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This is a faithful adaptation of the 1954 novel by Lucy M. Boston, the first of a series of six books, based on her experiences living in an ancient manor house full of history: Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon. Boston gave gramophone record recitals at the Manor to the RAF during the Second World War. These days the Manor covers its running costs as a setting for horror and ghost story events.

The Children Of Green Knowe has little plot; to be frank the book is essentially a three-hander. John Stadleman’s adaptation perhaps misses a chance to add any real jeopardy for Tolly, with the green man ‘Green Noah’ providing most of the chills. The Children Of Green Knowe was shown on Wednesday afternoons with a (then popular) catch-up ‘narrative repeat’ on Sunday mornings. Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop provided an accomplished and very pleasant pastoral score with some wonderful Restoration period flourishes.

Moondial (BBC1 1988)

Moondial, Helen Cresswell’s powerful, supernatural tale was adapted for BBC1 and first broadcast in February 1988. Cresswell’s books had been a rich source material for 70s and 80s children’s television drama: Lizzie Dripping, the story of a well-meaning fantasist, who was memorably accompanied by a witch (only she could see), was adapted by the BBC in 1973 with Tina Heath, later of Blue Peter fame, in the title role of Penelope. ‘Lizzie Dripping’ is Nottinghamshire slang for a day dreamer. The Bagthorpe Saga, a comedy about a dysfunctional family (several years before The Simpsons made such a notion an art form) followed in 1981. The comparatively less well-known The Secret World Of Polly Flint was adapted and broadcast by ITV in 1987. Polly Flint, an adolescent girl finding solace and closure from a turbulent teenage life, shared much in common with Minty, the heroine of Moondial.

Minty Cane, at her own suggestion (“post me off somewhere”), is taken by her mother to stay with her great Aunt Mary in Belton, in the Lincolnshire countryside. Minty’s mother has a car accident on her return journey and ends up in a coma. Minty, filling her days between hospital visits, is intrigued by a sundial in the grounds of the rather imposing local mansion. Under moonlight, the magical sundial seems to latch onto Minty’s highly developed mental powers and transports her back in time; she comes to know it as the “moondial”. Minty encounters two rather pallid Victorian children: a cheeky but sickly servant boy, Tom (“short for Edward”) and the unfortunately disfigured Sarah, whose facial birthmark has drawn revulsion and suspicion from the surrounding area where she is known as “the Devil’s child”. There is a creepily effective nocturnal scene wherein Sarah, Minty and Tom are taunted by masked children chanting “devil’s child!” and carrying pumpkin lanterns. Minty observes them creating a crude effigy, which they burn.

Talented young actress Siri Neal is very watchable as ‘Minty’ – a nickname the character prefers to her rather grand Victorian sounding full name – Araminta and not as some may think because she enjoys eating Polo mints. The serial’s main special effect transports the viewer through time, this is achieved via a spinning top view of the moondial, itself reminiscent of the polygon top view of the TARDIS console. Aunt Mary takes in a lodger – a self-styled “ghost hunter”, the icy Miss Raven. She is investigating paranormal activity for a book, and Minty notices her striking resemblance to Sarah’s stern governess, Miss Augusta Vole. Perhaps Miss Raven can help Minty rescue the Victorian children from their fate? The two domineering women are a very effective dual role played with just the right amount of eccentricity and restrained menace by Jacqueline Pearce, forever the crew cut ‘ice queen’ antagonist Servalan in Blake’s 7. Pearce would work with the Director, Colin Cant once more on 1991’s Dark Season at the suggestion of its writer – a certain “promising newcomer” called Russell T. Davies.

Filmed at the atmospheric Belton House in Lincolnshire, as envisaged by Helen Cresswell in her writing, the iconic lichen-covered stone sundial supported by the figures of Eros and Kronos (representing the supposed healers – love and time) is actually in the grounds and not a prop. The serial provided quite a challenge for Colin Cant. Despite being an experienced director, having worked on a variety of children’s drama including the early years of Grange Hill, Cant found the book perplexing and unable to get a handle on it, took the unusual step, at the suggestion of producer Paul Stone, of meeting Cresswell to work out exactly what she intended the serial to be about. The author was developing her book in tandem with the serial. Consequently, between them they created one of the finest and most memorable children’s dramas of the decade.

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The Watch House (BBC1 1988)

Based on the 1977 ghost story by Robert Westall, The Watch House appeared on BBC1 on three successive Wednesdays leading up to Christmas 1988. It shares much in common with Moondial; like Helen Cresswell’s tale, the story features an adolescent heroine. Anne is a far spikier character than Moondial‘s Minty. She is contacted by a ghost haunting the local lifeboat station. Westall’s novel appears to draw inspiration from the story of Grace Darling, the legendary lass who saved several drowning sailors on the rugged Bamburgh coast in the 19th century. Like Moondial, the production was the work of the talented Paul Stone, who by 1988 had developed something of a reputation for spooky drama of quality.

The three-part serial was made by BBC North East, at a time when BBC children’s programmes were based and made almost exclusively in the Newcastle area. The Watch House was set in the fictional Garmouth, in reality Tynemouth on the North East coast. Like Helen Cresswell, Westall wrote the book with a particular location in mind. In scenes also redolent of Moondial, Anne must lay to rest the Watch House ghosts to achieve closure for her personal emotional upheavals. There are many twists and scares along the way. The serial is visually very striking in spite of its relatively small budget. There is a particularly chilling moment featuring a dusty skull which may have given many youngsters nightmares at the time. The gothic ruins of Tynemouth Priory are used very effectively, as is the eponymous Watch House of the First Volunteer Life Brigade.

Garmouth had also been the setting for the memorable 1983 BBC Children’s drama The Machine Gunners, Westall’s visceral tale of a resilient Tyneside battered by bombings during the Second World War. The main protagonist was Chas MacGill (Shaun Taylor) an anti-hero, collecting would-be relics from dead Germans to impress his mates. The series was especially memorable for a savant character called John Brownlee who could only ask “where ya goin’ now?”. There is a graphic scene in which we get a close-up of a dead German pilot suddenly falling forward out of his cockpit – quite disturbing in the context of a 5pm kids drama. The Watch House features a minor character called Charles MacGill, which some have deduced is young Chas grown-up.

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (BBC1 1988)

November 1988 saw the first of several adaptations of CS Lewis’ Narnia books. The Chronicles Of Narnia was the BBC biggest family drama undertaking yet. Made as part of a multi-million pound co-production, it reinvigorated the classic serial slot on Sunday afternoons, achieving both high praise and high ratings. It replaced the now four year old Box Of Delights as the new benchmark in effects work and was deemed the kind of showpiece drama the BBC ‘should be doing’. It was a show of which the Corporation was undoubtedly very proud. Like Box, it kick-started a new generation’s love of fantasy and magical spooky dramas.

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie are evacuated from London at the beginning of the Second World War. They stay with the eccentric Professor Digory Kirke. On a rainy day, Lucy – rummaging in an enormous old wardrobe – discovers herself in the Land of Narnia. She encounters a fawn called Mr Tumnus, who warns Lucy about the malevolent White Witch, who has made it “always Winter in Narnia but never Christmas”. Returning back to the Professor’s house (a lamp post marking the portal) Lucy’s siblings don’t believe her, questioning the Professor about her sanity. Some time later, Edmund follows Lucy through the wardrobe, where he comes face to face with the evil White Witch. She bribes him to do her bidding with Turkish delight. When the Professor suggests Lucy may be telling the truth, a curious Peter and Susan join their younger siblings in the wardrobe and find their way into Narnia too, only to discover that Mr Tumnus has vanished, arrested and charged with treason by the Chief of Police, working for the White Witch. Edmund’s greed for Turkish delight leads him to betray his brother and sisters but they are about to set out on a journey to meet Aslan, a Lion with special powers, whom the children believe will help them defeat the White Witch.

The serial had been previously attempted by ABC Television for ITV in 1967, however, by 1988 the budget (a co-production with Wonderworks) and moreover the technology (Paintbox) finally existed to do it justice. The story had been read on Jackanory in 1967 by Marian Diamond and heard on radio as long ago as 1959, as part of Children’s Hour on the BBC Home Service. Adapted for Story time in 1967, in the month before the Home Service became Radio 4, it was even revamped again for Radio 4 Schools in early 1988. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe was the first of four novels the BBC adapted from CS Lewis’ seven novel Chronicles Of Narnia. Boasting a terrific cast lead by Michael Aldridge, who indulged his wonderfully bumbling eccentric persona as Digory Kirke and Barbara Kellermann, spellbinding as the icy, evil White Witch. The rich tones of Ronald Pickup gave voice to Aslan the Lion. Of the younger thespians, Richard Dempsey (Peter) continued acting and was later seen in The Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes: The Last Vampyre, the underrated Crime Traveller and more recently took a role in Downtown Abbey; Sophie Cook (Susan) and Jonathan R. Scott (Edmund) left the profession soon afterwards; Sophie Wilcox (Lucy) has continued to act, with intermittent film and TV roles over the last few years.

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Tom’s Midnight Garden (BBC1 1989)

Early 1989 saw Children’s BBC attempt a new version of Tom’s Midnight Garden. Philiipa Pearce’s exciting supernatural/time travel story, in which the clock strikes thirteen, had previously been told on Jackanory by Martin Jarvis in 1967. It was then produced as a short, part dramatised version by the BBC Schools stalwart Merry Go Round in 1968. More recently a colour version set in contemporary times had been made for BBC1 in 1974. However, for my money, the 1989 version, dramatised by Julia Jones, is much the better of the two colour entries, not least because by the end of the Eighties, TV had the special effects arsenal to pull off such a demanding serial as this in a satisfying manner and also this version sticks more closely to the book.

When his brother catches measles, Tom Long is packed off to stay in quarantine with his uncle and aunt in their small flat. Tom is awoken one night by a grandfather clock which seems to strike thirteen. Investigating this, Tom discovers a garden where there is normally a backyard. There he meets a young girl, Hatty. Tom makes several nocturnal visits to the garden, each time meeting Hatty at a different stage in her life; the garden too seems to change its pattern. Realising they share a love of skating, Tom, who doesn’t possess a pair of skates, arranges with Hatty to leave her skates in a particular place, where Tom is later able to find them. Sharing the same pair of skates across time, Hatty and Tom plan their greatest adventure – skating all the way to Ely. On a further visit Hatty becomes distant, eventually preferring the company of her fiancé, Barty. Tom begins to wonder about Hatty’s identity and whether she is still alive. Can his neighbour, old Mrs Bartholemew, provide an answer?

Set in the 1950s, it is more believable that there’s a 50 year gap between Tom’s time and Hatty, the Victorian girl he meets in the garden. Tom Long was played by Jeremy Rampling with Caroline Waldron as Hatty, and the excellent Renee Asherson, who in real life lived to be 99, was perfectly cast as old Mrs Bartholomew.

By the end of the decade, as Satellite began to exert influence, children’s television drama was in surprisingly rude health: ITV began Steven Moffat’s Press Gang and Paul Abbot and Kay Mellor’s Children’s Ward, which would continue into the 21st century. At the BBC, the evergreen Grange Hill was joined by Byker Grove, both of which would comfortably see out the next decade. The Chronicles Of Narnia would continue into the 90s and three further books: Prince Caspian, Voyage Of The Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair would be adapted. The BBC’s Sunday serials in the 90s would include Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Joan Aitken’s Blackhearts In Battersea and robust modern takes on old favourites such as Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Prince And The PauperThe Phoenix And The Carpe and The Children Of The New Forest as well as fresh approaches to the genre such as William Collet’s The Magician’s House and weekday treats in Dark Season, Century Falls, Elidor, The Queen’s Nose and The Demon Headmaster.

The 80s saw spooky and magical drama take centre stage and this would be consolidated in the 90s, but aside from a handful of shows in the 00s such as The Sarah Jane Adventures there has little been little of the scope or spectacle of The Box Of Delights or The Chronicles Of Narnia in many years. The recent Sparticle Mystery, excellent Wolfblood and Hetty Feather are encouraging signs the pendulum has begun to swing back a little, but all the major broadcasters need to make more drama for children – Edward Barnes’ idea of “a balanced diet of programmes” seems long gone.