Supernatural & Scary Dramas: Part One

Remember in the 1970s, when children's television happily scared the life out of the nation's anklebiters? Alex certainly does - especially The Changes...

The Singing Ringing Tree. Be afraid...

Some of the most vivid memories are ones we experience early in life. By the late 20th century Television had given us many a shared experience and consequently rich collective memories good, bad and frankly downright strange. Television’s good and bad moments are well documented. So let’s concentrate on the strange, the weird and the unusual.

For a generation of children growing up in the 1970s British televison provided a large number of such moments, despite only having three channels. Children’s TV is the first touchstone with the medium and often the richest source of collective nightmarish visions.

Doctor Who, arguably at its height in this era, saw Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s timelord fighting evil of all kinds and in turn provided some vivid nightmare moments. Today’s 30 and 40-somethings can recall the scary moments with such clarity they could have been broadcast last week. Celebrated Who scribe Robert Holmes once said “if the show is doing its job properly… it should scare the little buggers to death.”

Today’s Doctor Who writers have revived this tradition with some effective results most notably in the work of Steven Moffat, whether it be the gas mask clad The Empty Child in the 2005 season or more recently the stunningly scary Weeping Angels in 2007’s superlative Blink.

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Doctor Who aside, however, few programmes today could claim to send the kids running behind the sofa with such ease. A trend for supernatural and scary drama can be observed, however, in the 70s, specifically the period 1972-1978. This was an era when BBC Children’s televison, under the stewardship of Monica Sims, challenged the accepted opinion that children should never be exposed to anything which could harm their cosy world view.

Progressive producer Anna Home, who went on to establish Grange Hill with writer Phil Redmond in 1978, saw it as her mission to bring the children’s department into the 70s, creating challenging and well-realised serials to fire children’s imaginations. For the first time the children’s department had a realistic budget at its disposal, a far cry from the mid-60s when it was all but closed down with only Blue Peter and Jackanory surviving the cutbacks.

By 1970 there was a demand for home-produced drama serials to replace the bought in Euro tales such as the fondly remembered Singing Ringing Tree. Classic serials such as The Children Of The New Forest or The Prince and the Pauper filled the Sunday afternoon slot. On weekdays however, more radical dramas were encouraged. 70s drama serials mixed the old staple – “kids get the better of a gang up to no good” – with a genre dubbed “thick ear”. Out Of Bounds (1976) about a young gymnast who gets mixed up in the theft of a valuable watch was a clever mix of the two conceits. This tense drama was heightened by the creative use of an electronic soundtrack.

Two much-underrated dramas of the period which reflected the kind of social issues soon to be centre-stage in Grange Hill were Rocky O’Rourke and King Cinder. Pre-dating the Phil Redmond soap’s much vaunted “gritty realism”, Rocky O’Rourke (1976) was about a would-be thief learning the hard way that crime doesn’t pay. No less controversial King Cinder (1977) saw a young motorbike-mad teenager (Peter Duncan) getting mixed up in blackmail. Both serials drew complaints from parents and the moral guardians.

The mid-70s in particular, saw a number of real stand-out serials in the fantasy genre. Often thought-provoking tales concerned with environmental issues (before it was trendy) but with a supernatural edge. In this period it was the mid-week 5.15pm slot on BBC1 which provided the best platform for a series of superior supernatural dramas

THE CHANGES (1975)

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Anna Home produced the 1972 serial Mandog by writer Peter Dickinson. This proved to be such a popular serial, Home returned to Dickinson’s work and specifically The Changes Trilogy. With the help of the author she adapted the books for televison as an exciting, powerfully acted and above-all scary ten-part serial. First broadcast between January and March 1975, this drama was strong stuff for its timeslot. So much so in fact the BBC felt compelled to warn viewers it wasn’t suitable for very young children.The intended audience of older children and teenagers were treated to extensive location filming and high production values more in keeping with an adult drama.

The serial starred Vicky Williams as Nicky Gore, who remains unaffected whilst everyone around her, including her own family, begin to destroy all the electronic and electrical devices in their homes. Some strange force, said to be transmitted by the sinister pylon wires, has made city dwellers smash up their environment and resort to feudal ways. This act of wanton destruction is unsettling to watch and remains a vivid TV moment for a generation.

Nicky refuses to leave her home and is abandoned by her family. She joins a band of travelling Sikhs in a bid to find out the truth. At first she is suspicious of the Sikhs (reflecting perhaps the naive racism common to the period) however, it should be noted the serial was one of the first to portray a relatively positive image of ethnic minorities.

Evil Davy Gordon, a menacing and intimidating performance from David Garfield, is the villian of the piece. A would-be feudal ruler, he attacks the Sikhs and accuses Nicky of being a witch. Nicky manages to escape Gordon’s clutches and teams up with a barge family and in particular their son Jonathan. Davy Gordon drowns in a disturbing scene, after a fight on the barge. The strange vibes draw the children to a cavern where they meet Mr Furbelow, an eccentric inventor who has inadvertently woken The Necromancer. Unhappy with the world as it now is The Necromancer sent out the signals which in turn caused the changes. Film of cars and lorries once more on the streets and motorways provide an open-ended conclusion. Despite the disappointing ending (especially after a ten week run!) the earlier more powerful episodes really etched themselves in the mind.

Repeated in the summer of 1976, The Changes remains a potent memory for those who saw it. Cult forums discussing classic kids TV often describe it as “a half-recalled drama”. This perception is not without foundation, a couple of reruns on UK Gold in the mid-90s aside, The Changes has remained in TV limbo. Never released on video and unlikely to see the light of day on DVD. Pirated copies of the UK Gold transmissions now fetch high prices on Ebay. The Changes legacy is perhaps best summed up by the sheer volume of great supernatural and scary dramas put into production directly afterwards.

ITV also produced some memorable supernatural dramas in the seventies. Next time a look at four of the best. Sky, Star Maidens, King Of The Castle and perhaps the best known of all dramas of this ilk, The Children Of The Stones

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Stay tuned for Part II of this article – and in the meantime, check out Alex’s series on Clement and La Frenais, part one of which is here