Looking for an original scare this Halloween? Skip the horror recommendations, and dive into the world of vintage children’s television. To adults of a certain age, the words “Chocky” or “Mr Noseybonk” can strike as much terror as “suspected hernia”. Broadcasters have spent decades sewing terror into their pre-watershed content: even today, CBBC’s recently-concluded Wolfblood series hooked fans with its boundary-testing animal attack scenes. But before today’s schoolchildren were streaming those, an entire generation was indelibly haunted by shows marketed as being for “older children”, but which contained enough nightmare fuel to still chill the spine over 40 years later …
The Owl Service (1969)
The Owl’s Service’s setup is idyllic enough: pouty teen Alison (Gillian Hills) is holidaying in rural Wales as part of her father’s second honeymoon. While dad unwinds by checking the oil on the car, Alison hears what she thinks are mice in the ceiling. Entering the loft, she and accomplice Gwyn (Michael Holden) discover a tower of crockery with no hallmark, but whose edges are inscribed with owl eyes. Or could they be flowers? When touched, the plates trigger visions of hands emerging from trees, and the ominous Stone of Gronw. Alison’s mood suddenly becomes more devilish, and David Wood’s choppy cinematography transforms the story from Welsh history lesson to something delicate but insidious, like a music box that can’t be silenced.
Introduced by a perfectly groomed Peter Fairley, ITV’s Timeslip begins with an explanation of déjà vu before proclaiming that “Today’s science fiction so often becomes tomorrow’s science fact!” So begins a depiction of TV’s first wormhole as we follow two teens able to travel into their families’ past. In the village of St. Oswald, a young girl ignores an MoD warning sign, and strays into the ruins of a naval station – where she vanishes. Pipe-smoking Commander Traynor (Denis Quilley) takes an interest, suddenly realising why St. Oswald was so quiet during the war. As two more children – Liz (Cheryl Burlfield) and Simon (Spencer Banks) – are sucked into the “Time Bubble”, they find themselves in a ‘40s dug-out, recognising Cdr Traynor from their own time. As he innocently remarks, “The war never lets us go, does it?”
Escape Into Night (1972)
When Marianne (Vikki Chambers) suffers a riding accident, she’s ordered to spend the rest of her school term at home, convalescing in bed. Desperate for stimulation beyond her wall maps and posters, she’s indulged by her mother (Sonia Graham), who provides hangman, haberdashery, and tea. But soon Marianne finds an enchanted pencil, and is sketching a windswept cottage that comes to life in her dreams. She spices the picture up with a young boy (Steven Jones), then torments him by adding sinister details to her dream-drawing: worn stairs, monsters, and an ominous grandfather clock. Escape Into Night neatly exploits every child’s two biggest fears: ghosts, and not being allowed outside.
The Jensen Code (1973)
As if cave-diving wasn’t scary enough already … This mystery adventure from ATV begins with stranded pot-holer Terry (David Bradley), who’s alone in the dark and screaming for help. Instructor Alex (Tony Wright) has left him to retrieve a dropped torch, and has apparently been gone for hours. But when the pair reach the surface, Alex insists only moments have passed – has sensory deprivation made Terry lose his bearings, or is time itself becoming twisted? The pair’s movements are tracked by a spy, and the placing of former marines in the staff of Terry’s youth group suggests our young hero is on the edge of a conspiracy. Claustrophobics, looks away now: to discover the true meaning of the Jensen Code will require Terry to do a lot of “wriggling down between muck and slime.”
When most people remember ghost stories for children, they might think of Casper (1945), Count Duckula (1988), or Goosebumps (1995). The producers of Shadows, clearly anticipating such a cartoonish future, made it their mission to cause more sleepless nights than a tropical heatwave. This splendid anthology series uses a mix of tense silences and faces-behind-the-curtains to make even adults hit pause. In standout episode The Witch’s Bottle, siblings Jill (Georgina Kean) and Steve (Jasper Jacob) are visiting their uncle’s country cottage, and learning its history from shawl-wrapped neighbour Catherine (Wendy Gifford). To a backdrop of flickering walls and mewling Theremins, they discover that, some 300 years ago, a young girl was burnt to death after being made to watch locals drown her mother. What’s more terrifying: that the prophecy of a gift from the witch could be true, or that Jill has already squandered it? Or that it’s all the figment of an overactive imagination? As one character chuckles, “You’ve been watching too much television.”
A serious workout for colour television at the time, this New Age sci-fi from HTV saw alien Sky (Marc Harrison) land on earth in a blaze of psychedelic flashes. Immediately overwhelmed by the wind, trees and nitrogen atmosphere – which combine to attack him, like a planetary immune system – he’s unearthed by brother and sister Arby (Stuart Lock) and Jane (Cherrald Butterfield), who are reluctantly taking part in a pheasant shoot at the behest of their boozy dad. Jump-cuts imply Arby and Sky are telepathically linked: he can’t get the alien’s voice out of his head, and is chilled by his cry of “There is danger”, and a warning of great impending chaos. Sky’s unsettling contact lenses and accompaniment of crashing harpsicords make him one of the most unusual intergalactic “friends” to ever grace the screen. Cauliflower cheese aside, teatime has never been scarier.
George Bass Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist
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