Supernatural & Scary Dramas: Part Three

Alex concludes his retrospective look at the chilling side of kids' TV, with a dark note for the future...

Read part two of this series here…

The BBC continued to produce great drama for children throughout the seventies. 1978 was arguably the pinnacle of the supernatural and scary trend with three BBC drama serials exploring these themes.

A TRAVELLER IN TIME(1978)A mix of period drama and time travel, this aptly titled Sunday serial was written in the 1930s by Alison Uttley. Edwardian girl Penelope Taberner played by Sophie Thompson, travels back to Tudor times whilst staying with her Uncle Barnabas and Aunt Tissie on their Derbyshire farm. At first the girl has visions of the Elizabethan Babbington family. Of course the Tudor phantoms are invisible to her Uncle and Aunt. Eventually, however, she uncovers a plot to overthrow Elizabeth I in favour of Mary Queen of Scots. Aware she can’t let the Babbington’s change History, Penelope sets about stopping them.

Although relatively tame by the standards of the serials I’ve outlined thus far, this does have one particularly chilling scene. The cliffhanger to episode 4 has the evil Arabella burning a wax voodoo doll of Penelope. The scene is enhanced by the serial’s theme Greensleeves being somewhat inappropriate to the visuals.

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The serial is also notable for its location. The farm used was in Dethyk, Derbyshire and owned by the parents of Simon Groom. Veteran producer Dorothea Brooking was impressed by Groom’s technique and general naive charm when he interviewed her. Brooking recommended the young farmer’s son to Blue Peter Editor Biddy Baxter who was looking for a replacement for the long-serving Peter Purves.

TOUCH AND GO (1978)This above average serial begins as a psychological drama in which a girl called Emily wakes up in hospital after a car crash. Her grasp on reality is particularly unsettling to watch especially when she’s convinced to have seen something she’s not supposed to. The serial then turns into a runaround with Emily and her friend Charles mixed up with a right-wing pressure group of villains called the Dedicated Few, intent on blowing up an African delegation.

Unusually for the times the group is headed by a woman, Chairmaine played by future Eastender Sandy Ratcliff with a bitchy finesse.The seaside village and craggy cliffs backdrop invite comparisons with traditional kids adventure serials. Two particularly memorable aspects for are the blue van the gang drive with a large white bone on top which seemed to turn up when one least expected it and the face of Willy, a repulsive tramp, played with disturbing relish by Aubrey MorrisTHE MOON STALLION (1978)The Moon Stallion, Brian Hayles’ last work for television was a west country gothic mystery. It featured a pre-Doctor Who Sarah Sutton as Diana Purvis, a young blind girl who finds herself able to communicate with a white stallion. There is a nice link to the famous pagan hillside chalk drawing of a white horse.

The idea of being blind (literally) to all the horror going on around you was particularly effective. Sarah Sutton conveys the subtle terror of the situation very well indeed. The end of the serial is of particular note as it has a similarity to that of The Changes. The story is linked back to legend and a mythical character, The Green King, delivers a stark warning to modern man’s expansion and its toll on the environment.

The Eighties had it’s fair share of well made Children’s drama with scary, memorable or weird moments aplenty: 1980’s The Bells Of Astercote was particularly effective as two children try to track down a plague village and are menaced by a creepy poacher along the way and 1984’s The Machine Gunners has young hero Chas McGill discover a shot down German pilot with his eye missing, making the young lad and no doubt the watching audience gasp in horror…

Key to all the best Children’s programmes is that they were made at a time before TV had expanded to the current level of choice and variety. In the seventies BBC and ITV producers simply got on and made programmes, unhindered by the obsession with ratings which now seems to beset the industry.

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Any assessment of this strand of programming must end on a pessimistic note. Where are today’s examples of memorable drama for children? The demise of Grange Hill is a bad sign for the future of the Children”s department as a whole. How long before the fifty-year old Blue Peter is brought to an end for not connecting with a modern audience? The fact is, there is no longer TV for Children on ITV1 and BBC1’s output has been shunted to an earlier slot to accommodate The Weakest Link. This in turn has eroded the traditional 5pm drama slot. In retrospect it seems that the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties were a true golden age. Since the late Nineties, budgets have been reduced as TV increasingly is forced to compete for attention with the internet. Today the digital channels for children seem doomed to churn out more and more American cartoon franchises. One hopes ultimately this won’t be at the expense of the rich drama output previous generations were lucky enough to enjoy.