Frightening Children’s TV

October 25, 2019

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.

Timeslip (1970)

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.”

Shadows (1975)

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.”

Sky (1975)

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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  1. Simon Franklin Reply

    Excellent collection of dramas here. I was too young back in 1969 to handle the Owl Service, but certainly remember being gripped by Escape Into Night. Although that was made in colour I’m pretty sure that I saw it in black & white, and I think that the monochrome version here works better, adding to the overall creepiness of it all. By the mid 70’s I had been packed off to a boarding school in the wilds of Norfolk where TV viewing was a very rare luxury so I completely missed out on the Jensen Code, Shadows and Sky but thanks to Network, I’ve finally been able to catch up on all of these shows along with Time Slip (can’t remember whether I saw that first time around) and they have all been hugely entertaining. Just taken advantage of the offer here to get the Owl Service and the Jensen Code, so looking forward to viewing those.
    All of these of course were made back at a time when ITV really did seem to care about giving children decent, well produced drama series. All of that came to an end in the era of Thatcherism when the accountants moved in and began questioning why commercial television was spending so much money on on an audience that had (as far as the beancounters were concerned) little in the way of spending power. At which point the quality began to rapidly decline. Sad, sad, sad. So it’s great that these and other children’s shows survive on DVD for both those who remember the original broadcasts and (hopefully) new audiences. Keep up the good work! Oh, and a quick mention for one series not included here (shurly shome mhistake!) the mighty and highly creepy Children Of The Stones.

  2. Patrick Gleeson Reply

    I have to agree wholeheartedly with Simon Franklin. ‘Children of the Stones’ is still very creepy. Not at all on the level of what you see, rather what you imagine – still as disturbing a children’s programme that was ever made.

  3. Michael Drivas Reply

    Monday the 28th or Thursday the 31st at 4?

  4. James Wallis Reply

    What about Chocky?

  5. Patrick Gleeson Reply

    Shadows remains a classic of the genre, but ‘Children of The Stones’ has got to be the greatest and most unnerving children’s series even made.

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