Monday, 1 September 2014


The Boy from Space was a science fiction drama serial made in 1971, originally directed and shot on film by the enticingly named ex-BBC Radiophonic Workshop musician Maddalena Fagandini, and specifically intended to be watched by children between the ages of seven and nine upwards. Unlike most fondly remembered children’s series that have eventually found their way onto DVD in subsequent decades, this one was not a product of the usual drama outlets then in existence at the Corporation, such as the BBC’s Children’s Drama Department or the more generally focused series and serials sections of that august broadcasting giant. Instead it emerged out of a distinctly British telly phenomenon that has particular resonance for anyone who grew up in the 1970s or early-to-mid 1980s – educational programmes for schools. Seeing again serials such as The Boy from Space all these years later, if you happen to be between the ages of thirty and forty-five and even if you don’t remember watching this specific programme at the time, strongly invoke a whole era and its associated sociological and cultural baggage, mixed with a hazy nostalgia for a way of experiencing childhood that, without making any value judgements on its worth, seems necessarily lost to the generation growing up today.

Because this is the type of TV experience that takes us deep into the realm of what has since been given the name Hauntology as part of the fad of retromania: that modern trend for reliving, and at the same time inevitably reinterpreting, our memories of the now-redundant ways we experienced childhood in the past through the conscious reprocessing of the often half-remembered cultural ephemera which surrounded it: the long since cancelled TV programmes and vaguely recalled children’s films, the Fisher-Price toys and contemporary advertising of the day; as well as, of course, the music of the times and particular quirks of the age such as the trend in the ‘70s and ‘80s for the screening of terrifying public information films directed squarely at us primary school-aged kids. This kind of engagement with the past is a practice that, ironically enough, modern technology has been particularly responsible for promoting thanks to the now near-universal and instant availability of any cultural memory you care to call up from the virtual ether of the internet via Google or countless other search options with the power seemingly to dredge for the ghost of any transient socio-cultural moment you might’ve once dimly recalled from a misty juvenile past, but which now turns out to have been preserved, perhaps forever (or at least until the current platforms expire), somewhere in digital aspic.
This modern phenomenon, in which our memories of the past seem always to have a continued life in the present and continue to permeate through our current culture, is particularly of relevance to those of us who grew up in the video age when the home video revolution first made possible the personal archiving of individual obsessions (a few hours on YouTube makes it abundantly apparent how there was a great deal more of this going on than one would have imagined at the time) which can now be uploaded, stored and disseminated to all who may wish to access them. But perhaps still the most evocative, spectral and shadowy experience of the Hauntological moment belongs to those of us whose formative memories reside in that hinterland from just before home video recording became so ubiquitous, wherein many moments of our childhood cultural heritage were often only partially preserved in fragmented form in the records, due to the BBC’s past policy of wiping and re-using its videotaped programming to save money and storage space. The heyday of Children’s programming for schools represents this era perhaps most acutely of all. Today’s schools and educational establishments have a whole host of media outlets available to them on tap twenty-four-hours a day, from DVDs to a host of digital services dependent on the Web, like podcasts which can be accessed at any time. Back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s it was of course an entirely different story. To begin with, throughout most of this period there were only three terrestrial television stations in operation, and the only thing you could watch on them during the day most of the time was little eight-year-old Carol and her clown Bubbles playing noughts and crosses, via the Test Card F …

‘Proper’ broadcasting only really began in earnest during the early afternoon. Before that, any downtime on BBC1 and BBC2 would be made use of, for several hours each day during the week, for programming that was intended specifically to be viewed by classrooms full of schoolchildren or as accompaniment to courses on the Open University. The BBC first became involved in programming for schoolchildren through its radio service, which began airing programmes for schools in 1927. A Central Council for School Broadcasting (CCSB) was set up in 1928 with a Director overseeing subject committees staffed by teachers; but the Second World War later played a vital role in cementing its importance when regional variations were consolidated into an all-encompassing Home Service channel for children, set up with the aim of explaining the confusing events of the war to a young, captive audience. The CCSB was replaced by the School Broadcasting Council for the United Kingdom in 1947, and although BBC Radio for schools continued from then on until relatively recently, its schools’ television output (which began in 1957) went on to produce some of what has become its most memorable content. The first decade of its existence was devoted largely to programmes aimed at secondary school level abilities, but in the late-1960s more inventive and challenging demands began to be made of the medium as a means of educating children with reading difficulties or who had problems with word recognition; this in turn led to more programmes being made for primary- and junior-school aged children.

With educational experts and reading consultants engaging on the design and implementation of its format, Look and Read emerged as the BBC’s flagship, nationally broadcast programme for schools in the UK after it began airing in 1967 with its first serial -- an adventure yarn titled The Lost Treasure, originally made for the Merry-Go-Round series. At the time regularly broadcast in black-and-white, Look and Learn was an inspired attempt to utilise the power of a fundamentally visual medium as a means to nurture and encourage the reading skills of juniors of both sexes through the creation of enjoyable serial adventures broadcast alongside special reading pamphlets, also produced by the BBC and issued to participating schools, featuring the same story in a text format simple enough that it could be re-read by the class after viewing. Every episode of the serial was broadcast in two discrete chunks separated during each twenty-minute edition of Look and Learn by appropriate teaching modules (or teaching ‘middles’ as they were known) which would use what had just been seen on screen during that week’s episode to facilitate lessons on word use or on the basic principles of grammar. The vocabulary used to tell these stories was necessarily limited, and restricted to one deemed appropriate for the young age-group the show had been designed for, and the stories themselves were never excessively complicated, although they often contained additional educational content primed to spark the curiosity of young viewers. There was no video recording in the early decades of the series, so it was impossible to watch these episodes again. Once they had been screened the only way to access the content was by reading through the appropriate chapter in the booklet issued to schools for a small fee, or, if the school had also purchased the accompanying Long Playing vinyl record version produced by BBC Records, to listen back to it in the format of presenter Charles Collingwood’s reading from the revised pamphlet text, with dialogue inserted from the soundtrack of the original film version at appropriate moments.

The Boy from Space was one of the first Look and Read serials to be accompanied by these educational sections, and these developed in sophistication over time and as fashion in educational theory changed. It was written by John Carpenter, the former actor who created the series Catweazle and went on to have an extremely productive career as a writer in television aimed at a young audience, contributing to much loved series such as Black Beauty, The Famous Five, and Robin of Sherwood. Carpenter also wrote the accompanying BBC booklet for the series -- priced 10p – which featured illustrations by Jackanory illustrator Bernard Blatch.

Look and Read was also one of those series that, in its original 1971 black-and-white format, ended up being wiped from the archive so that the two-inch videotapes could be reused. This happened to The Boy from Space just after the last time the episodes were repeated in 1973, just before the BBC made the decision to start actively preserving its library rather than destroying it completely without keeping a record. The eerie science fiction story at the heart of these episodes remained popular though, and, after many requests for a repeat, it was decided in 1980 to re-make the entire programme. Luckily, although the original black-and-white tapes of the full Look and Learn broadcasts had been wiped, the original colour 16mm episodes of The Boy from Space shot by Maddalena Fagandini in 1971, still remained intact in the BBC archives. These were re-used and re-edited into the 1980 remake, relatively unchanged apart from minor adjustments but with new musical synth-based cues by Paddy Kingsland replacing the original much darker score of the Radiophonic Workshop’s John Baker. The new music was commissioned by newly appointed director Jill Glindon Reed in order to make the serial feel a little more ‘up-to-date’. Perhaps mindful that there was still a certain aura of the 1970s surrounding the now ten-year-old film segments, a new prologue was shot for it as well, in which the older, now adolescent brother and sister protagonists of the original film return to the observatory setting that was the site of many of the events they experienced as children ten years before. Being in the same environment once again prompts Helen (played by Sylvestra Le Touzel – who would become widely known for a famous Heineken commercial she shot in the early-eighties), the older of the two children, to relive the whole story in memory, perhaps echoing the thoughts of many of the audience members who might’ve seen the original 1971 serial and were now watching this one with younger brothers or sisters beside them?

Helen’s voice-over was one of the new elements added by the production team that now overtly signposts the original story as being something that takes place in a distant past belonging to a half-forgotten realm of childhood that now feels rather like a dream to this older more worldly narrator. It also brings in a new narrative voice that can be made use of in the educational material surrounding the drama. This tweak of the 1971 material makes our position as viewers in relation to this thirty-five year old children’s educational series from 1980 even more apposite. The serial repositions, reprocesses and appropriates its own past in much the same manner as we often do when we re-watch archive TV like this Look and Read series from our own childhoods, enjoying it for the memories and feelings it evokes but also using it to contribute to the idealised patchwork of our own sense of the past. 

When we watch The Boy from Space today, its 1980-ness feels as retro as its unmistakable origins in 1970s children’s TV. The way Paddy Kingsland approaches his inclusion of ‘modern’ synth-based music in the serial remains in line with the policy on incidental music which was now becoming evident in John Nathan-Turner’s 80s revamp of Doctor Who; and I swear a few of the cues Kingsland essays here ended up cropping up again virtually unchanged in some of his Peter Davison era incidental music for that series, alongside some of his work on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! The result is very much a hybrid of two distinct eras wherein the much more Spartan approach of the 1970s in which many long periods were allowed to elapse without any incidental music occurring on the soundtrack at all, is replaced by a then up-to-date contemporary attitude which preferred to see every scene plastered in jaunty upbeat synth-based riffs.  This sense of the story dredging memories from a receding past also adds an extra level of eeriness to certain sequences already imbued with an uncanny strangeness.

Meanwhile, the new educational material that surrounds the episodes, shot on videotape in a BBC studio, and which uses the filmed material as its ‘context cues’ to help children learn how to read and remember spelling and grammar rules, had developed in sophistication over the years. The single presenter of the 1960s had been joined by an orange floating CSO puppet head called Wordy during the ‘70s, voiced by Charles Collingwood (later a performer on the long-running BBC Radio 4 soap opera The Archers). This 1980 version, though, embodies the character, literally bringing Collingwood into the studio and placing him beneath a large foam rubber ‘Wordy’ head while dressed in a black leotard! Wordy and his various human assistants would be seen in a different context according to the subject matter of the relevant adventure they were required to introduce and explain. In The Boy from Space they occupy a space station called Word Lab, and Wordy is seated before a bank of controls from where he welcomes the viewers, or ‘Word Watchers’, just before a human astronaut companion also arrives, called Cosmo (Phil Cheney). Together, they introduce each episode of the series  and then read through the same events from the story that week using the text in the accompanying booklet as inspiration for a series of word games and puzzles which demonstrate certain grammatical rules or spelling conventions.

There are also short documentary film interludes and tutorials relating to many of the astronomical and scientific concepts encountered during the story and -- perhaps the best and most nostalgically remembered aspect of the series – songs that were imaginatively animated by Richard Taylor, featuring recurring characters such as Professor Grab, Rip Van Twinkle and the Space Moles; their amusing lyrics illustrating the English language concepts explained elsewhere in the show. Paddy Kingsland worked with lyricist Gordon Snell to come up with several memorable songs such as I’m an Apostrophe and Magic E the latter written to demonstrate how a silent ‘e’ at the end of a word signals a change in the pronunciation of the preceding vowel letter in the English language, but which took on an entirely different meaning later thanks to its unfortunate use of the phrase drop that E!, which led to it becoming extremely popular during the club scene of the late-80s!  

Perhaps the most evocative musical element of the series was the show’s title theme. Kingsland came up with a lilting, wistful synth lullaby which is sung by Derek Griffiths who, as an actor, singer and multi-instrumentalist known for his continuing association with children’s television (starting in the 1970s with his involvement in Playschool as a presenter, and leading into the 1980s with voice-over work on the animated Super Ted cartoon) and one who is currently still active as a voice actor on the CBeebies series The Little Red Tractor, made for a perfect choice when introducing a serial that feels as aware of its relationship with its own past as The Boy from Space. This theme perfectly complements the air of mystery and the sense of the uncanny which accrues around these episodes despite what, necessarily, is its pretty straightforward narrative line. Although I personally never saw this drama at the time, in either of its broadcast forms, it does induce Proustian recollections of similar televisual encounters. Also, its tale of two primary school-aged children who encounter strange, silver-skinned humanoids in a deserted quarry pit behind a wood near the field where they observe what they think is a meteorite fall during a testing of a home-built telescope in their shed, evokes the UFO craze that happened to be in vogue at the time (such crazes still appear to occur at regular ten year intervals) and conjures my one-time fascination and boyhood unease at famous extra-terrestrial-based “mysteries” such as the Solway Firth Spaceman photograph.

The sort of imagery which comes about as the result of the combining of the prosaic with the seemingly uncanny and which the above picture still invokes for me (despite the most likely rational solution for it having long since been suggested) pervades the mise-en-scene of The Boy from Space, ensuring its continued resonance when seen today. The early episodes slot in seamlessly with the surrounding educational format as we watch brother and sister Helen and Dan (Stephen Garlick) learning about reflecting telescopes, constellations, meteorites, and how mirrors and compasses work. The two adult participants in the drama consist variously of someone described in the story only as the children’s friend, the rather vaguely scripted Tom (Loftus Burton) who works for the older and tweedily avuncular Mr Bunting (Anthony Woodruff) at the remote observatory which is the site of the older children’s reminiscences when they’re seen returning to the site of their childhood adventure during the prologue.

Despite the simple naivety of Carpenter’s narrative, Fagandini creates unease and a sense of strangeness when the two children encounter a malevolent ‘tall thin man’ (a perfectly cast John Woodnutt of Doctor Who:  The Terror of the Zygons) while looking for the crash site of their meteorite, and the figure proceeds to chases them through a deserted sandpit. Later, their encounter with a much friendlier space-boy (Colin Mayes – Scum, 1977), who wears the same costume as the adult humanoid but is apparently being pursued by him, is marked by the unsettlingly weird electronic burbling noise he makes during his attempts to communicate with his earthly peers. The rest of the episodes revolve around the two children attempting to protect their extra-terrestrial friend from capture (whom they name Peep-Peep, because of his bizarre vocalisations), and to decipher his attempts to communicate via a strange form of script that turns out to be a sort of mirror writing which Peep-Peep and his father (who turns up later as a prisoner on-board the aliens’ spacecraft, which is hid conveniently beneath a lake on the edge of the woods) developed by copying the lettering from a discarded plastic bag that had unwittingly been turned inside out! Naturally, the story is resolved with explanations being provided and order being restored in the final episode, when we learn how meteorites are considered valuable commodities by this race of silver-skinned alien humanoids, and that the older, thinner alien had been attempting to take over the craft belonging to Peep-Peep and his father in an effort to steal their on-board collection, gathered during a field trip to Mars! It’s a simple story told with clarity and brevity, with likable performances from the company concerned.

The BFI’s two-disc release of The Boy from Space is also an introduction to its up-coming celebration of the science fiction genre, Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder - in which a three-month October to December programme of screenings at the BFI Southbank and across the country will occur alongside other events and publications, as well as DVD releases of other long-sought-after vintage TV science fiction classics. Disc one features all ten episodes of the 1980 series of Look and Read while disc two edits all of the episodes of The Boy from Space into one feature-length presentation, running at 70 minutes, and created especially for this release. The 1977 audio LP version of the story read by Charles Collingwood is also included and can be listened to on its own or in a format which combines the audio from the LP with film and video footage from the 1980 broadcast. All nineteen of the song sequences from the educational portions of the Look and Read series, animated by Dick Taylor & Gary Blatchford and written by Paddy Kingsland and Gordon Snell, are also collected together here under the heading of ‘Wordy’s Think-Ups’. Downloadable PDFs of the original 1971 and 1980 versions of the pupil’s pamphlets can be accessed from a computer, and an informative collection of essays appear in an accompanying booklet with contributions from Ben Clark (an expert in programmes for schools), TV historian and archivist Chris Perry, and composer Paddy Kingsland. Full credits for all versions of the material are included along with reprints of teacher’s notes sent out by the BBC to schools at the time to guide lessons; as well as sleeve notes from the audio LP version of the story, with its accompanying illustrations.

This thorough and thoughtful release includes everything necessary to be able to relive this sci-fi serial and the Look and Read  broadcasts which hosted it from almost any perspective one might choose; as a historical document detailing changing approaches to children’s television and teaching methods, or simply as a piece of re-lived nostalgia, re-purposed in whichever way one might prefer. The Boy from Space has survived the gloomy 1970s and the upbeat 1980s to live once more in times still-more-than-usually haunted by their past.

Postscript: On Saturday 6 December, to celebrate this DVD release, BFI Southbank will present the specially-created 70 minute version of the series, directed by Maddalena Fagandini, followed by a panel discussion of key figures in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who provided the original music for this and so many other series. Following this the BFI's regular Sonic Cinema strand will provide a chance to hear the group play a specially selected set of Sci-Fi music from Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Quatermass to Doctor Who!


  1. Great post, consider yourself followed! Small nitpick: I'm not sure Hauntology should be described as part of the fad for retromania. Hauntology is an aesthetic that - amongst other things - shines a light on the passage of time. Retromania does the opposite.

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  3. A cover of the theme tune!