Saturday, 3 December 2016

EURO GOTHIC: Classics of Continental Horror Cinema - by Jonathan Rigby

Jonathan Rigby has previously published two of the most comprehensive and therefore essential guides to the history of horror cinema yet to be made available in the English language. With the exemplary English Gothic, first published in 2000, and its ‘prequel’ American Gothic which followed it in 2007, he gave us two detailed and immensely readable tomes both of which, between them, explored horror movie production in Britain and across the Pond in Hollywood from the dawn of picture-making to the present day (American Gothic terminated in 1956 when, thanks to Hammer, Britain for a time largely took over as horror movie capital. The recently expanded update of English Gothic follows the story right up to recent times, with its inclusion of UK films that entered production in 2015, although all of those mentioned were illustrative of the slew of the forgettable micro-budget digital horrors that these days come and go like clouds in the virtual ether of a subscription to Amazon Video). This being so, news that Rigby was planning a third volume in the series, that would set out this time to tackle the monumental subject of European horror, was understandably greeted by all true genre fans with a sense of expectation that can only be described as gleeful. The wait since that initial announcement has seemed like a long one, but the magisterial Euro Gothic is now finally upon us, and the results are every bit as ‘up to snuff’ as readers of the previous two volumes will have surely anticipated they would be. 

Rigby’s most recent publication before this, Studies in Terror, which came out in 2011, was a wide-ranging overview of the genre, selecting what the author considers to be horror cinema’s greatest ‘landmarks’. It traversed the entire world for horror favorites, to take in everything from 1920s German Expressionism to contemporary Japanese ghost pictures while incidentally offering us a first glimpse at Rigby’s appreciation of some of the classics of French, Italian and Spanish horror cinema. This was to be a mere taster, though, for a commentary on the subject that now reaches the zenith of its full expression in this handsomely produced volume, lovingly chronicling and critiquing scores of European horror and fantasy pictures, most of them dating from the late 1950s through to the end of the 1970s. The author's detailed tour of the genre is book-ended by what can in retrospect be cited as the point of emergence for Europe’s tradition of cine Fantastique, when the first magic effects films of Georges Méliès were produced in 1896 and, a little later, those of Paris-based Spaniard Segundo de Chomón; the end comes, for Rigby, with  the death of much of Europe's genre movie production in the wake of the 1980s VHS home video boom, which itself was petering out somewhat in the years succeeding 1983, after indirectly having forced various changes in the funding structure of the film industries on the continent, which brought about catastrophically deleterious effects in the profitability of genre film-making in countries such as Spain and Italy, whose industries had for decades previously thrived upon it.

In his introduction to Studies in Terror, Rigby reflected on how the success of individual horror movies is often dependent on their ability to generate a series of ‘moments’ that make a particularly strong impression on the viewer: ‘get enough of these moments together in one picture and the filmmakers might have a genuine classic on their hands.’ Arguably, more so than is the case with the horror and fantasy output of any other region of the world, the horror cinema produced in Europe during the bulk of the period covered in this book has predicated itself on just such a philosophy -- often sacrificing narrative coherence on the altar of the striking set-piece. This idea goes back to the genre’s earliest beginnings in Germany, when expressionism gave birth to a new form of cinematic terror that, while based on the motifs of Gothic literature, was also rooted in the psychological upheavals of the Great War. As this volume illustrates profusely, the supremacy of the image and of the horror ‘moment’ in general, was a concept that has continued to play a hugely important role in perceptions of the horror cinema that has been created in many European countries since then: from the poetic surrealism of Jean Rollin’s vampire fables of the late-sixties and seventies, to the outrageous, flamboyantly gore-splattered illogicality displayed by Lucio Fulci’s 'metaphysical' zombie movies, produced and released in the early-eighties.    

This volume, although for obvious reasons the heftiest yet published by Rigby, since it deals with all kinds of films made right the way across the best part of an entire continent rather than merely with the horror movie production of just one country, as did the other two books, offers a not quite so up-to-the-minute picture of the continental horror scene as that which was recently provided for Britain in his newly updated edition of English Gothic: the sheer quantity of movies made in Europe during the genre’s heyday in the sixties and seventies means that, just as, say, every single giallo picture ever made cannot feasibly be referenced here (that in itself would require a book of equal length to this one!) so there has to be a cut-off point to act as an appropriate moment at which to bring the curtain down on this examination of the genre in general. The year this book selects to be that moment is 1983: chosen by Rigby as his end-point apparently because this was also the year in which the European genre suffered its most cataclysmic downturn in production.

This means that there can be room only for the most cursory of mentions for a great many films that come after that date but which are still considered by a sizable group of fans to be genre classics, and therefore no less worthy of detailed comment than some of the avalanche of cheap euro slasher/gore efforts that were tossed out in the early 1980s, but which still get covered here because they come before the self-imposed ’83 curfew. The most striking omissions are Michele Soavi’s extraordinary quartet of films (only mentioned in brief summery on the last page of the book) and Dario Argento’s cinema post 1982’s modern giallo favorite Tenebrea. Though in the latter's case all but the most die-hard fans of the maestro would dare to quibble with the assertion that the quality of Argento’s output has been in marked decline for many years now, Phenomena and Opera are surely still prime period works and would normally deserve more than just a casual mention; while to say that everything that came after them is not even worth that is to considerably short-change such daring expansions of the giallo template as The Stendhal Syndrome – dismissed by many puzzled fans at the time of its initial release, but since re-evaluated as one of Argento’s very best – or even his version of The Phantom of the Opera, which, whatever else may have been said about it, was certainly the last Argento picture to look like it had been even half-decently funded.

This quibble is not intended in any way to downplay, though, the enjoyment that is to be had between the covers of this characteristically superbly written work, the pleasures of which are manifold. It is still easily destined to become the go-to account for anyone seeking instruction in the history of the European horror movie and/or wishes to understand the context of its emergence during the key period covered. The continent produced many unique styles and distinctive flavours as the horror genre slowly took root in many corners at various different points in time, particularly influencing the cinematic output of Germany, France, Italy and Spain during the golden period of horror production from the late ‘50s to the late 1970s. Just about every worthwhile horror picture made in those countries during that time gets covered here to a greater or lesser degree with the book always a compelling read, juggling Rigby's ability to generate real insights and display a deep knowledge of many very different cinematic styles, which he lays out for the reader with his customary knack for descriptive eloquence. As a by-product the book also exposes his evident enthusiasm for the many forms that the European horror film has assumed during its long ascendancy: from the jagged modernist abstractions of the aforementioned silent era German expressionists, to the poeticism at the core of the medicalised body horror which emerged from the French fantastique in reaction to the atrocities of war; from crepuscular 1960s black-and-white and colour Italian Gothics inspired by the success of Britain’s Hammer Productions and Roger Corman’s colour Poe series, to the innumerable numbers of West German Krimi thrillers and their equally fecund offshoot the Italian giallo - both updating the lurid crime literature imported from Britain and America, and popular on the continent after the Second World War. 

Rigby skilfully conjures in writing the texture and sensibility of many of the most well-regarded euro-horror movies of the classic era, such as the subtle Ostend arthouse atmospherics showcased in Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness, or the imaginative, heat-drenched Iberian surrealism which informs the aesthetic delights of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series. All the big hitters are here, obviously: Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Jean Rollin produced enough timeless classics in their heydays to ensure they each get their due; while the likes of Jess Franco and Paul Naschy were prolific enough also to guarantee themselves a large chunk of coverage herein, most of it favorable. Even if you do not agree with each and every summery and analysis of the 113 individual films written about in-depth here (very many more than that are also given a respectable amount of space), you will be hard pressed to fault the amount of time and effort that has clearly gone in to the research that lies behind Rigby’s assessment of these films and the filmmakers responsible for them, many of whom also have their careers discussed at length during the course of the book.

The book, amply illustrated with production snaps and including two colour sections, is of course impeccably researched, and also highly readable, even quotable (the author pithily sums up the appeal of Jess Franco’s cinema during his latter career as being the product of ‘a filmmaker who needs to film like a shark needs to swim.’) and the layout – which replicates that of Rigby’s other books -- includes cast lists for each major film covered, a quote from a contemporary review (where possible), and a relevant comment from a participant. Throughout its pages, Rigby’s writing always indicates an honest attempt to engage sympathetically with a multitude of idiosyncratic film-making styles and it becomes a sheer pleasure to immerse one-self in this treasure-trove of writing on Europe’s finest horror productions; the book will also become an invaluable reference source, and an educational fount of new viewing ideas for anyone approaching the genre afresh. 
Very highly recommended. 

             


Monday, 2 March 2015

MORGIANA (1972)

Recently cited by director Peter Strickland as a major influence on his new film The Duke of Burgundy (which I have yet to see), Morgiana is an eccentric, gaudily decorative vision of the grotesque, created by Slovak director Juraj Herz in 1971. A fairy tale fantasia that seems to have emerged directly from the same world as the stories of the Brothers Grimm, it’s part Gothic melodrama and part Jungian psychoanalytic allegory of the repressed: a sort of trippy period storybook of distorted doppelgangers, kaleidoscopic mirror images and split personalities fragmenting in hallucinogenic fugue states.

Made in the wake of the political clampdown which came after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in reaction to the liberalisation program of 1968's Prague Spring, Herz's film nevertheless managed to avoid the worst of the ensuing censorship wrought by the administration at the time; the director was never really part of the Czechoslovak cinema's New Wave, and the dark, skewed, otherworldly ambience of a film like Morgiana seems to owe more to the puppeteering of Herz's training in the theatre faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (where he was a contemporary of Jan Svankmajer) than it does to the artistic developments in Czech film which came about in the early sixties. Looked at today, the film has a similar dreamlike texture to the early work of Jean Rollin and to some of Jess Franco’s erotic revelries, making it part of a European tradition of the Fantastique that's as much informed by pantomime or children's stories as it is influenced by the dark Gothic splendour of Edgar Allan Poe's fiction. Such qualities are captured in the exaggerated theatricality of the film’s acting style, the lush decorative ornamentalism of its set dressings, make-up and art design, and the gaudy excesses of its period costuming.


 The fairy tale-like characters of Morgiana are as elaborately dressed up dolls or mannequins existing in a hermetic fairy-tale principality (although some of these dolls are rarely seen without a cigarette in hand), who're painted in the most vividly exaggerated, Felliniesque shades of greasepaint while possessing thick spidery eyelashes plastered in mascara. It's a horror film in the sense that Herz dwells on unsettled (and unsettling) psychological states, but dramatised in the form of a seemingly prosaic yet heightened melodrama centred on a sibling rivalry turned malignant; one that is set amid a feverish fictionalised Poe-like Gothic world of crumbling villas, windswept cliff-tops and isolated ruins. Like a piece of Angela Carter fiction, the ostensibly trite, childlike storybook plotting conceals a rich undercurrent of neurosis and festering adult madness.

The film is based on a short story by the Russian writer Aleksandr Grin and tells the tale of two sisters (both played by one actress, Iva Janžurová): one of them -- Klára -- is carefree and happy, dresses in lacy white clothes and sports a head of magnificent red-golden curls (she looks like a figure in a Gustav Klimt painting).  Klára is adored by everyone and has many suitors, all of whom she treats with the same good-natured indifference. Viktoria, on the other hand is dark and pale, dresses exclusively in black, is considered ugly, and is generally disliked or ignored by all. She harbours suppressed feelings of hatred and jealousy directed towards her unsuspecting sister, and only retains any real affection for her pet Siamese cat, Morgiana.


 Things come to a head when both sisters inherit separate properties in the will of their recently deceased father. Before she leaves the home they both grew up in, Viktoria sends away for a clear liquid, slow-acting poison -- which she receives in a wax-sealed package that arrives via the post -- and she sprinkles it into her sister's glass of sparkling water. She then makes the long coach trip to her new home, many miles away, but cannot help but wonder if the poison she was sold was actually real or not; she feels divorced from her previous actions, living so far away from news of her sister's condition. Eventually, she hears that Klára is indeed feeling unwell and suffers from an unquenchable thirst. But couldn't this just be coincidence? On the other hand, the poison was designed to act very slowly so as to relieve suspicion and not leave any trace of itself after the victim's eventual death.
Viktoria decides to test a little more of the drug -- just to make sure. She sprinkles some into the household dog's bowl of milk, but is called away at a vital moment and is unsure whether it was the dog, her beloved cat Morgiana, or the servant's infant son who actually drank the poison! Meanwhile, Klára begins to suffer from acute hallucinations and strange altered states of consciousness. Two of her suitors -- a doctor and a handsome soldier -- start to suspect something is amiss, while the fortune teller who originally sold Viktoria the poison threatens to blackmail her when she too learns of Klára's strange illness and puts two and two together. 


With a set of strident and insistently pulsing orchestral theme cues by Lubos Fiser, and delirious visuals courtesy of the work of cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera, whose copious use of wide-angle lenses, frequent and surreal handheld cat's POV shots, and hazy hallucinogenic prism effects for representing Klara's distorted and disorganised sense of reality (which look kind of like a 3D film does without the coloured glasses) give Morgiana something of the feel of Polanski's Repulsion if it'd been shot amid the elaborate Art Nouveau production design gaudiness of Suspiria -- the latter an appropriate reference given both films' attempts to conjure the ominous ambience of a delicate fairy tale cast under the darkest of storm clouds – or else a Kubrick horror film set in the world of Rainer Fassbinder.


 The film succeeds in establishing an otherworldly air of 19th Century decadence, set in some unspecified central European never-never land where unspeakable murderousness lies barely concealed by the doll-like manners of the narrative's cast of flimsy storybook characters. Herz apparently wanted to make a film that was more overtly about a schizophrenic psychological state, but was forced into taking a much more straightforward narrative route when his original script -- which would have revealed at the end that there had only in fact ever been one protagonist, each sister being merely a different side to the same personality -- was forbidden by the authorities, although Herz still manages to find ways of symbolically implying that idea throughout the film.


Herz made the film with no love for the project, and thought of it merely as an exercise in keeping his film-making muscles active during a time of censorship and repression. The duel performance of Iva Janžurová underpins everything here, and is so convincing it's easy to forget that both roles are being played by the same person; the join is impossible to spot thanks to Herz's impeccable editing skills. Despite this, the director's original ideas have been forced underground and into the subtext of the movie, which makes them far more powerful than they probably would have been if Herz had stuck with the original split personality plot outline, which, nowadays, seems rather more clichéd than it probably would have in 1971.

Alongside the strikingly offbeat and haunted visual stylishness of the film, Morgiana builds an unsettling sense of disquiet, displaced reality and a sense of duality through several subtle strategies. Firstly, Viktoria is presented as a considerably more nuanced would-be murderess than her scary make- up and Gothic style of dress would immediately suggest: after secretly applying the poison to her sister's drink at breakfast, she begins to suffer from second thoughts, and even attempts to persuade Klara not to drink her water and to send for another glass instead.




Once her sister does eventually down the mixture, though, Viktoria experiences a sense almost akin to elation, and the thought that she might have got away with such an act unleashes a cruel and recklessly vindictive streak in the woman, leading her to launch an attack on one of her own servant girls in order, presumably, to experience the rush all over again, by clumping the girl on the head with a rock from behind while she is bathing with her co-workers near the rocky beach! Then as the weeks pass, doubt and paranoia start to creep in and Viktoria wonders if she is really responsible for her sister's illness at all. Her attempt to poison the staff dog as conformation only leads to even more suspense and a feeling of unreality -- as now she is forced to examine every little tick or unusual action of the three possible recipients of the dose of poison for signs of their impending doom.


 Meanwhile, Klara's unsettled mental state leads to hallucinations in which she encounters a second version of herself clad in a scarlet dress, one who seems more like Viktoria in her sour, vindictive actions. This and Viktoria's increasing sense of detachment leads to exactly the air of schizoid unravelling of identity as Herz had intended with the original script, while the surface narrative continues to conform throughout to the fairy tale motif of the innocent 'Snow White' heroine and her black-clad Wicked Witch nemesis. The film eventually settles into the familiar routines of Gothic fiction, particularly evoking the work of Edgar Allan Poe, specifically the short story "The Black Cat". The role of Viktoria's pet Siamese cat Morgiana is eventually to be both that of symbol of guilt and harbinger of death representing accidentally delivered justice, seemingly from beyond the grave.



I was watching Morgiana via the UK DVD released by Second Run. The full frame transfer (the film's original aspect ratio according to the disc booklet) is full of speckles and often appears rather dark. It probably doesn't represent the film's colourful decor and ornate production design at its very best but it's good enough to convey the general tone and style of this unique work. The removable English subtitles are clear and understandable and the Czech language audio is delivered in clearly restored mono. There is a 15 minute filmed interview with Juraj Herz included as an extra, in which he discusses the origins and intent of the film in Czech with English subtitles; and the disc is packaged with a 12 page booklet of essays by writer Daniel Bird and Dr Ian Conrich of the University of Stirling.

This is a strange and haunting little film, and was rarely seen on these shores for many years until the release of this DVD. All lovers of the Fantastique will be glad to have it available again and from what I've heard about Strickland’s latest, it will make the perfect companion piece to it.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

OUTER SPACE: THREE COSMIC TALES FROM THE CHILDREN'S FILM FOUNDATION (1956-1977)

Whatever the theme by which the BFI chooses to link the three features that make up each of the volumes in its on-going Children’s Film Foundation DVD range, the content is invariably -- and comfortingly -- extremely similar in its design and method. Despite decade-specific modifications employed by each era’s film-makers in their approaches to the storytelling, we can always expect to encounter resourceful kids (shedding their tweed and sprouting longer hair and thicker regional accents as the black-and-white 1950s melt into the Technicolor ‘70s) learning about team work and moral responsibility, and usually managing to thwart the activities of a sorry collection of bumbling adult crooks and spivs in the process -- whether our young heroes and heroines happen to be involved in the business of building and racing their own go-carts, accidentally acquiring madcap superpowers, or helping out teen runaways who're looking for their lost families. The same principle applies to this latest trio of tales, which follow on from the recent Weird Adventures volume in presenting another grouping of fantastical fantasy fables, this time all of them set in the banal but recognisable everyday environments of home or school that would have been exceedingly familiar to the films’ young audience, each film centred on their child protagonists’ interactions with a varied selection of peculiar beings from outer-space.

All of these films are set on earth, probably for budgetary reasons, but involve groups of children who stumble upon and befriend extra-terrestrial intelligences who, though very different in kind, each happen to have special “magical” powers that make them a potential target for adult connivance and duplicity. Included in this set is the 1977 classic The Glitterball, long considered one of the very best of all the CFF’s productions; at one time this was as regular a Christmas treat as The Wizard of Oz, on British TV and when the CFF and its successor the CFTF were honoured, back in the mid-nineties, with a celebratory screening at Leicester Square Odeon, this sparkling jewel was chosen to represent the organisation’s thirty year mission to entertain and engage the imaginations of generations of Saturday Morning Film Club goers and their successors, the troupe of kids who also came to encounter these films during their perennial outings on UK television in the 1980s.

The first film here was made in 1956, but leaps to attention immediately for some obvious coincidental similarities it has retrospectively been discovered to bear to Stephen Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster ET: The Extra-Terrestrial: the basic scenario is from the outset, of course, necessarily very similar thanks to the subject matter, but with its sober backdrop of rural England in the 1950s, Supersonic Saucer plays amusingly like the plummy voiced, middle-class and extremely well-behaved cousin to its more famous sci-fi relation, in which a group of well-mannered boarding school children who find themselves left behind during the summer holidays, discover and befriend a bizarre-looking alien creature that's stuck up a tree in some quaint English woodlands on the outskirts of their now empty school, and decide to hide it from adults whom they believe otherwise would seek to “put it on display in a zoo” or else exploit its magical powers for ill-gain.


There are a number of uncanny visual similarities to the Spielberg phenomena that cannot help but link the film with ET forever: for one thing, although the diminutive alien in Supersonic Saucer is the primitive puppet product of a company called John Wright Puppeteers and PB Cow Limited, and essentially consists of nothing more elaborate than an elongated rabbit shape conveniently obscured beneath a white hijab-like shroud from which a pair of large round eyes peer adorably through a face- slit, the image it casts is undoubtedly similar to that squat, tortoise-like creature created by Italian special effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi for Spielberg’s classic. Both puppet designers have homed in on the single most important factor for creating the “cute effect”, and in fact John Wright & Co have reduced their creature to just that one particular attribute: two large, sad eyes, copiously fringed with luxurious lashes from which leak streams of tears whenever MEBA (the children’s own name for their intergalactic chum) accidently does something that vexes his/her small charges, or inadvertently gets them into trouble.


Like ET, MEBA also has special powers that appear miraculous to earth eyes, although, being deprived of limbs and digits, it is unable to wave a glowing finger whenever it wishes to accomplish its feats as Spielberg’s entity was inclined to do, but must resort instead to spinning its massive round eyes in a comical fashion in order to, say, make time and events run backwards for brief periods; it can turn itself into its own flying saucer vehicle in order to get about -- an effect which appears as an animated insert whizzing across a series of photographic stills; and the creature is also able to forge telepathic links with the children, leading to much mischief occurring whenever any of them lazily makes a wish without thinking of the consequences first, as the eager-to-please MEBA is likely to procure it for them immediately. Thus, at one point, the alien raids the local bakery in town to rustle up a feast of cake and jelly when the hungry kids express dissatisfaction with the tasteless plate of biscuits that’s been provided for them in their playroom; although, being the conscientious, well-behaved children that they are, they end up forcing the alien to replace the stolen hoard of goodies after solemnly coughing up their own pocket money pennies to pay for what they’d already eaten before it occurred to them that the produce was illegally obtained!

The story kicks off proper when MEBA overhears a conversation between the two young girls who, of its four earthling acquaintances, become the main focus of the alien’s ability to empathise telepathically. Foreign students Greta (Gillian Harrison) and Sumac (Marcia Monolescue) are forced to stay behind and live at their school during the summer holidays, looked after by the Headmaster and Headmistress who live on-site with their pompously professorial and self-regarding pupil son Rodney (Fella Edmonds), because the trip home (to Norway and South America respectively) would be too expensive for their parents to afford. This is what tempts the two girls, during a night-time conversation in bed, into wishing that they had a million pounds, prompting MEBA to take a flight to the bank in town after dark while they sleep and relieve the branch of exactly that amount, spiriting it back to the astonished children’s schoolroom where it is discovered by them the next morning after the town has become far too busy for the alien to be able to venture forth again and replace it. 


The children are thus forced to temporarily hide the money, alongside the school’s already secured trophy-horde of silverware, in the Headmaster’s safe until the following evening -- when MEBA is to once more fly off and put it all back in the vault it was originally taken out of. Unfortunately, the children’s plan is interrupted by nosey caretaker Mr Pole (Patrick Boxill), who’s actually a member of a criminal gang of professional thieves operating from a nearby derelict building. They've already been sizing up the school’s valuable trophy collection for its silver and Pole spies the kids bundling large quantities of cash into the school safe and reports this and the existence of MEBA back to ‘Number One’ – a gruff, over-coated Peter Lorre-type crime overlord (Raymond Rollett). Hoping to put the alien’s bank vault raiding abilities to criminal use, the bad guys abduct MEBA (tempting it into entering a box that is then quickly padlocked behind it by tricking it into thinking it’s going to be part of a surprise for the children) and spiriting it back to their headquarters, leaving Greta, Sumac, Rodney and their diminutive moppet-of-an-accomplice Adolphus (Andrew Motte-harrison) to track down the outfit’s lair in order to rescue their friend using MEBA’s telepathic distress signal as their only guide.  


These forty-seven minutes of cheerful, charming fun end with an image that would become a standard convention of the CFF’s output for most of the rest of the ‘50s and ‘60s, in which the adult wrongdoers are shown ritually humiliated in their stand-off with a bunch of morally determined and resourceful children who, this time out, also have an alien with magic-like powers to help them turn their enemies into bumbling clowns … although, it must be said, even with this type of slapstick conclusion being as common as it so often was in CFF adventures of this vintage, the particular criminal gang in question here must be a contender for the most oafish in the Foundation’s history, as its members prove themselves seemingly unable to spot children hiding in plain sight on several occasions, and invariably fall over themselves whenever given even the slightest opportunity to do so during their pursuit through the tumbledown building they use as their base. 

The screenplay was an adaptation of a story by Frank Wells (the son of H.G. Wells) but it plays like one of the two joyously quaint Famous Five serials the CFF also produced back in the day, and which used to play in weekly fifteen minute instalments alongside its Saturday morning feature presentations. In fact Gillian Harrison also played Ann in those Enid Blyton spin-offs, and it is her character Greta (and her older female schoolmate Sumac) who becomes very much the centre of attention in this story. On the one hand Greta and Sumac’s relationship with MEBA is a reinforcement of traditional 1950s nurturing female roles, since they take charge of MEBA's care as though the alien creature were a human baby (it is after all swathed in a white shroud and prone to shedding plentiful tears!). MEBA clearly mimics the appearance of, and behaves a lot like, a human baby, and Greta often cradles it as though it were one; also, it is the girls who take charge of the creature at night by resting it in a human child’s crib in their bedroom. But the affinity between the alien and the girls, and special to the younger Greta in particular, is also founded in their sharing a certain ‘otherness’; both of the girls and their alien charge are foreigners, cut off from their families and seeking friendship; and, like MEBA so often is, Greta is pictured crying profusely at one point -- in that instance because of her homesickness.


The schoolgirls’ experience of being outsiders is dramatized through their relationship with Rodney, the head teachers’ son, who also rather pretentiously likes to think of himself as their carer because of his family connection, and assumes a superior attitude from the off: ‘I have to help look after those two beastly little girls!’ the science-obsessed boy moans to a friend during a school outing at an observatory near the start of the film, and when Sumac informs him that her family come from South America, his instantaneous reply of ‘oh, I see -- foreigners!’ at first marks the spectacled, tweed-clad youngster down as an comically small-minded buffoon with an inflated sense of his own self-importance. Gradually though the children form an allegiance through their conspiratorial shared custody of MEBA, and the friendship bond between the children and the alien illustrates how racial and cultural barriers can be overcome through empathy. It is also the two girls who are shown to be the most intelligent and resourceful of the four children when challenged in adversity. This message is contrasted with a flashback to MEBA’s Venusian homeland in which we see the little alien ostracised among his identical-looking puppet peers for being unable to transform himself into a flying saucer as efficiently as them, and consequently being left behind alone on the planet's gaseous rocky surface before deciding to come to earth for a visit.

This theme of outsiders finding acceptance and sharing an understanding with those who might seem very different to them, but who nevertheless share an experience of not quite fitting in, also has some application to the second film on the disc, which transports us forwards in time to 1972 and introduces us to the colourful whimsicality of the peculiarly titled Kadoyng. The film starts, in traditional ‘70s fashion, by setting up our agreeable trio of young protagonists -- siblings Billy (Adrian Hail), Lucy (Teresa Coding) and Barney (David Williams) – in opposition to the flower-bed trampling adolescent yobbery of their stripy tank-top sporting long-haired nemesis Eric (Ian Pigot), whose park vandalism in the company of his loutish friends is dismissed by the lad’s bullish land developer dad Mr Fenton  (played by The Last of the Summer Wine’s Bill Owen) as an irrelevancy, since the lovingly tended flower beds of the trio’s friend, grounds-keeper old Robbo (Jack Haig), and the local plane fields the children spend most of their time traversing in play, are soon set to be ploughed up in order to make room for a motorway bypass that Fenton has been negotiating the contract to build, and which is set to carve its way through the countryside -- destroying the picturesque village of Byway in the process.  


Standing against and protesting Fenton’s plans are Billy, Lucy and Barney’s oddly matched parents, ageing, cardigan-wearing Professor Balfour (Gerald Sim) and his younger, middle-class hippy wife (although this marital set-up seems more down to the vagaries of casting than any attempt at characterisation), who are excitedly looking forward to a village meeting in the town hall at which Prof Balfour will be rallying the locales with a passionate environmentalist defence of the local landmarks which are set to be ruined by Fenton’s development plans, unaware that Fenton already has local political bigwig Pander-Willoughby (Michael Sharvell-Martin) in his pocket, and that the deal has already been decided behind closed doors!

This green parable about the greed and corruption of big business and the destruction of rural England takes place alongside a quirky tale of extra-terrestrial visitation. This being the early 1970s, the alien takes the form of an affable wandering cosmic astronaut hobo from the planet Stoikal (Leo Maguire) whose very glam-looking, gold Easter-egg-shaped sentient space pod 'Babble' crash-lands in a field in the rural idyll of Byway, where it is instantly discovered by Billy, Lucy and Barney. The kids soon determine that the friendly visitor isn’t an invading Russian, but also observe that the otherwise benign-looking humanoid will find it difficult to blend in to village life thanks to the vaguely rude proboscis-like antennae protuberance which sprouts disconcertingly from the top of his head! 


With the aid of their father’s top hat, the children are able to get Kadoyng (named after the sound the antenna thingy makes when the hat is whipped off too quickly) accepted in the community as a visiting friend, and thanks to his use of a portable teleport device, his space pod is soon hidden away in the barn adjacent to the spacious farmhouse that is the Balfour home while the alien attempts to fix it. It’s not long before Kadoyng becomes involved in both the Balfour children’s personal grudge match against gormless Eric and his thuggish comrades, and the fight against Fenton’s destructive motorway construction plans: it turns out that Kadoyng’s protuberance is a sort of organic alien magic wand and has many outlandish special powers, like magicking the bemused village bobby into disappearing each time he threatens to stumble on Kadoyng’s true identity, and the ability to turn the diminutive Barney into a martial arts expert able to fulfil every bully victim’s dream by besting the older, bigger Eric Fenton in a tussle on the plane fields.


The village hall meeting also doesn’t go the way Mr Fenton planned it to when Kadoyng intervenes in order to force the smug ministry official who’s been paid off and drafted in by the land developer to give a speech in defence of the unsound construction plans, to spell out the truth that lies behind his deceptive rhetoric instead (‘Blah, blah, blah. Rhubarb and totally meaningless clichés -- I promise you rubbish, rubbish and only rubbish!’). This sort of whimsical humour is crowned by the unexpected events that occur as a result of Kadoyng’s madcap efforts to thwart the construction permanently by drafting in the children and their eager parents (happily accepting of this cosmic eccentric) to help him make a bizarre alien chemical brew called Conkey -- meant to cause giant immovable alien plants to shoot up on the site at which the bulldozers are scheduled to start work. The humour throughout is absurdist slapstick, buttressed by the central performance of Leo Maguire (who also penned the screenplay) playing his role of quirky alien as though it's part Play School presenter, part mischievous child, and part absent-minded professor whose plots and plans rarely go the way they are supposed to. This last aspect of the story sits somewhat ambivalently with the environmentalist theme, since, in the concept of ‘Cronky,’ the film whimsically seems to endorse and make use of the notion that an advanced alien form of ‘wonder science’ is able in principle to solve all worldly problems, while in practice the formula becomes corrupted through human error and leads to even more potentially catastrophic damage being caused -- although in this case the ‘mistake’ also averts the threat of the motorway project coming to fruition.



The primary coloured exuberance and pleasant humour behind this offbeat comedy is nicely augmented by Edwin Astley’s moogish, vintage echo-chamber electronica soundtrack, while underpinning all the riotous, faintly subversive oddness there remains the issue of the reason Kadoyng ends up having to live among his earthling friends in Byway: like MEBA, he’s considered to be the oddball among his own kind on his home planet; but MEBA was merely made fun of by his peers for not being very efficient at transforming into an animated flying saucer ... the alien still came to earth of its own free will (for no other reason than to see what humans are like) and it was able to leave again as soon as it was rescued from its criminal captors and had begun to miss its home. Kadoyng on the other hand has been cast out as an undesirable influence by a race of ‘mental and physical giants’ who labelled him REJECT 642 and then gave him his sentient craft Babble so that he might find another home for himself far away from them! He ditches the craft on earth when the spaceship develops a fault, and finds his quirkiness translates into something like what is considered to be an agreeable childlike nature in human earth culture -- allowing him to blend in relatively easily … so long as he’s wearing a hat! The otherness of the alien creature in Harley Cokeliss’s The Glitterball though (the third film in this set -- from 1977) is not merely rooted in its possessing strange abilities or in some alienating abnormality of appearance, but in its complete defiance of the normal categories that divide living beings from inanimate objects!


The genius of this simple movie lies in how a production decision made purely for convenience, in order to avoid having to interpret Howard Thompson’s original story idea through a traditional creature design (which would have necessitated effects that most likely would not have been very convincing given the budget Cokeliss was working with), turns out to be its most unique and memorable feature: instead of a puppet or a model alien filmed against inevitably duff looking blue screen, the alien here is nothing more than a golf ball-sized silver sphere which emerges from a football-like UFO after it crashes through the roof of the shed in the back garden of the Fielding family on the night before its three members are due to move into their new home. Using a combination of carefully controlled blasts of compressed air and stop-motion animation by The Wombles animator Barry Leith to organise its movements, as well as utilising simple in-camera techniques such as occasionally running the film in reverse, Cokeliss and his crew manage to make this unassuming everyday object feel like an entirely new form of life, seemingly with its own personality and unique identity, a fact which accidentally puts the film in a similar category to those surrealist works by film-makers such as Jan Svankmajer that mix animation and live action to bring life to old toys and discarded bric-a-brac. 

Helping to achieve this effect are the ambient electronic sounds of former BBC Radiophonic Workshop soundman Malcolm Clark, whose wibbly-wobbly roster of unearthly blips and bleeps become associated with the sphere’s ‘moods’ and perceptions, and are just as important as the film’s animation for creating the illusion of a sentience and a Gremlin-like mischievousness behind the ball's otherwise blank exterior whenever it is shown eating the Fieldings out of house-and-home or, say, evading capture in the chocolate-primed mousetraps that have been laid for it by a family believing itself under siege from a plague of mice, rather than just one greedy little space ball!


After becoming fascinated by the little creature/object when he suspects it of wrecking the family kitchen during the night, the film’s main hero Max (Ben Buckton) becomes the alien being’s protector and interpreter, enlisting the help of his new mate Pete (Keith Jayne) whom he meets while trying to save the sphere from this film’s equivalent of Mr Pole in Supersonic Saucer -- a sleazy, light-fingered pickpocket and shoplifter known as ‘Filthy’ Potter (Ron Pember) that the boys encounter in the shopping precinct’s main supermarket and then spend the rest of the film trying to bring to justice or evade, depending on the situation. Ironically, Max and Pete are left to their own devices largely because Max’s dad (Barry Jackson), who’s a Sergeant in the air force, has been charged with investigating the UFO buzz that caused a fighter-plane-mobilising red alert at his base overnight, thus explaining why he’s not much concerned about his son’s interest in odd-looking silver balls or the rodents that have supposedly been causing havoc in Mrs Fielding’s (Marjorie Yates) kitchen! 


The film becomes the strangest of buddy movies as Max and Pete -- camping out in the latter’s tree house, where he usually goes to look at the stars through his telescope or read his now-vintage copies of House of Hammer and Ghoul magazine (the latter only lasted for one issue, so Pete got himself a real collector’s item there!) -- start to bond with their inscrutable alien charge after they discover that it is actually alive because it’s insatiable appetite for custard, crisps and Gobstoppers gives it away (though it's not too keen on stale meat pies it seems: the sphere comically pukes one of those back up after wolfing a discarded crust found on the floor of Pete’s tree house!). This quest for food is not just greed, despite the enthusiastic slurping noises added to the audio track: the sphere needs energy in order to contact its Mothership, who will send it more little silver helpers to guide the lost alien back home. After the boys go on a messy custard-making spree back at Max’s house, they manage to supply the cosmic Glitterball with enough ‘energy’ be able briefly to communicate with it in English, through the speaker of the Fielding’s battery operated transistor radio!


Director Harley Cokeliss manages to disguise the thin budget incredibly well, and the film even starts out looking like a decently financed action thriller, competing with Close Encounters of the Third Kind handsomely in that regard with its smart opening depiction of an air-force base alert and the radio tracking of the sphere’s ‘football’of a spacecraft, all of which is achieved thanks to some kind help from The 56(F) Squadron Air Force Strike Command and Military Air Traffic Operations National Air Traffic Services. But Cokeliss also struck lucky in obtaining the services of Brian Johnson, Stanley Kubrick’s model-maker on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, at the time, effects and model work supervisor for Gerry Anderson’s live action series Space: 1999. Johnson made the Glitterball’s model spacecraft and the Death Star-like Mothership which eventually comes to earth to rescue it and the boys from the clutches of George Potter, who, by the way, really is one the CFF’s most unlikable villains, happy to rough up two young boys in order to get hold of the alien entity because, once again, he’s a thief whose twigged that its powers will enable him to break locks and gain quick entry to the main safe of the local supermarket -- meaning he’d no longer have to be dependent on petty shoplifting or opportunistically pilfering whatever he can from people’s houses whilst ostensibly doing their window cleaning for them! 


The climax, in which the Mothership releases hundreds of its alien Glitterballs to flood the pristine white floors of the supermarket and bring their comrade home, while teaching old Filthy a lesson at the same time, provides a fittingly surreal, flamboyantly ‘other’ take on the alien contact theme so wonderfully and variously elucidated throughout this collection of  likeable little children's films,  but here made all the more enjoyable thanks to the spaced out cosmic electric ‘psych’ cues supplied by '70s Hammer Films composer Harry Robertson. 

The Glitterball is a film that manages to combine all the tropes essential in any typical CFF movie while still bringing an almost indefinable sense of originality and strangeness to its engaging, comic depiction of unfathomable alien intractability.

All three films look predictably splendid in their new BFI restored DVD versions -- and the disc also comes with an essential booklet featuring several nicely written essays, credit lists for all three films, and archive stills.        


   

Monday, 1 September 2014

THE BOY FROM SPACE (1980)

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!