Once more we explore the semi forgotten byways of children’s TV with this single disc collection of seven “Spooky” supernatural tales originally created in 1983 by Thames TV to accompany the main strand of their long running series of afternoon ITV plays produced for children under the umbrella title DRAMARAMA. Along with HTV in the 1970s, Thames were particularly adept at coming up with atmospheric and inventive tales of the uncanny - tea-time terror for tots, if you will - and this small collection of one-off 1983 stories proves to be a particularly high quality example of an increasingly fondly remembered mini genre: they’re often extremely clever, beautifully produced and display some wonderful art direction given the limits of their studio-bound nature - most important of all, many of these stories are exceedingly creepy and the Alan Garner tale is a classic.
War Games with Caroline by Maggie Wadey
On the surface a simple story about the past reaching out to the present through the tumultuous history that’s been seen during wartime Britain by a music room in an old school, this first tale wins extra marks for its memorably vivid execution, featuring unsettling POV shots, strange camera angles and the ever-building atmosphere evoked by some well-drawn expressionistic lighting effects. Playing expertly on the inherent scariness of school buildings after-hours, their empty classrooms and empty echoing corridors, this could almost be a “Sapphire & Steel” episode in tone; the tale finds a young war games obsessed schoolboy, Kevin (Adam Bareham), staying behind for detention and being left in the empty music room to finish an essay while his form teacher Mr Lilly (Wayne Norman) shows around a visitor (Faith Brook), a former teacher at the school (now an old woman) who has arrived for a commemorative anniversary celebration to be held the next day. After a series of creepy incidents (strange noises, fluttering curtains, moving objects and a feeling of being watched) Kevin is confronted by the image of a girl from 1943, who claims that he has to help her avert a terrible disaster which is about to take place back in her own time.
It’s a tightly constructed story which starts with the elderly visitor thinking back to none specified but unhappy events which she once experienced in these surroundings -- with ghostly manifestations of memory (schoolgirls singing a faint echoing hymn, the shadow of a child projected onto a corridor wall) the significance of which we at first cannot gauge. The distinctive look of the play is particularly enhanced by some stylised set design – the entire set painted grey to lend the location the appearance of a gloomy site on a dark rainy evening. The meeting between Kevin and Caroline (Lucy Durham-Matthews), the girl from 1943, is ultimately a harsh lesson for the boy in the true nature of war: The subject of the essay he has to write while in detention relates to how history cannot be understood only through playing War Games, and the strange combination of ghostly meeting and consciousness time-slip he experiences brings home to him the reality of loss associated with wartime bombing raids, eventually cementing a tacit understanding between himself and the older visitor as she herself finally comes to terms with the past.
The Exorcism of Amy by Paula Milne
An early piece of work by the award winning British screenwriter Paula Milne, this is an unusually structured and visually striking tale told directly to camera by a smiling fair-haired twelve-year old girl who beckons us closer at the start of the episode, in to a vividly white bedroom that sports Playschool-like arched windows. The little girl calls herself Elisabeth (Annabelle Lanyon), and straightaway we’re alerted that there might be something not quite right about this set-up, but what? The child cheerily addresses the viewer and is also dressed from head to foot in white like a fairy on a wedding cake; the rest of the house too, along with all the furniture, is all a stark, pristine white. The little girl informs us of her idyllic family life (spent living with her two loving parents, who seem to treat her like a little princess), relating to us how she helped to welcome the troubled little orphaned girl Amy (the young Lucy Benjamin) into her perfect home, when her parents adopted the child.
Elisabeth does her best to make her new sister feel at home, but the girl’s troubled, ‘destructive’ past begins to have an impact on Elisabeth’s ordered little world. The blonde little girl overhears the usually sullen and uncommunicative Amy talking to her-self in animated tones during the night – as though there were two people in her bedroom. It seems Amy is being tormented by an alter-ego called Amelia (also played by Lucy Benjamin): an imaginary friend she invented soon after her parents died in order to help combat her loneliness. This ‘friend’ has somehow now become a reality and doesn’t want Amy to leave her behind by making new friendships with real children. The evil imaginary Amelia (who dresses entirely in red) is malicious and disruptive and attempts to turn Amy’s new family against her so that they will eventually give her up, as has apparently happened several times before. The miserable Amy feels she is powerless to make anyone understand, but after a birthday party encounter with the malicious Amelia, Elisabeth resolves to help her new sibling.
The angel/devil dichotomy represented by the sickly sweet Elisabeth and the exuberantly nasty Amelia are two poles in a battle to influence the meek Amy, a girl struggling to assert her own identity as a result of her fractured childhood. The unusual dreamlike tone is set by extremely stylised sets, costumes and lighting; when Elisabeth’s parents throw a fancy dress party for their daughter all her friends arrive wearing the most elaborate and striking costumes, lending the sequence a surreal Alice in Wonderland quality in the midst of the entirely white house décor. While Elisabeth’s costume is that of a grotesque-looking bat, Amy’s costume is that of a field mouse, once again emphasising her diffident ‘small’ character; “Watch out – bats eat mice!” declares the birthday girl. This striking non-naturalistic tale comes with a nasty twist which proves that not all fairy stories have a happy ending …
The Danny Roberts Show by David Hopkins
A simple, effective and claustrophobic three hander that sees Nicholas Ball portraying exactly the kind of irritating radio disc jockey that had become pretty much ubiquitous back in 1983, in the days when Radio One ruled the airwaves and people like Gary Davies, Bruno Brooks and Dave Lee Travis were considered celebrities … A shallow, smarmy and egotistical broadcaster called Danny Roberts hosts a late-night phone-in show for Summit Radio, exploiting his lonely listeners’ problems for the sake of ratings using a mixture of syrupy sentimentality and false sympathy to elicit their sob stories on air, although he needs his off-air desk controller (Gwyneth Strong - better known as Cassandra in “Only Fools and Horses”) to remind him what their names actually are! Ball is spot on as the self-regarding, preening star of his own little late-night universe, but he’s about to get his comeuppance as strange forces from another dimension that have become rather fed up with listening to his inane, smug nonsense being broadcast throughout the ether, have decided to mete out their own style of ‘punishment and retribution’.
The whole episode revolves around Roberts continually having his phone-in calls interrupted by a malevolent and unnamed male voice that keeps returning again and again to threaten him with vague taunts of a punishment to come. The caller’s voice intrudes -- spookily -- over the top of that of the other radio contributors. Roberts thinks his desk mixer in the control room is incompetent and has been putting through crank calls without warning him, but no one else -- neither the controller nor the security guard who regularly stops by for a chat with her -- can hear anything. Soon the belligerent DJ becomes so angry that the fed up girl on the mixing desk leaves the building and Danny Roberts is finally left all alone. But his mysterious tormentor continues to threaten him still … even though the station is no longer on the air!
The scariest thing about this drama is probably the relentless background palette of anodyne 1980s hits Roberts subjects his unhappy listeners to; included among the 7” playlist are tracks from the likes of Shack Attack, Linx, Junior, Grace Jones and Aswad, and the episode plays out with Japan’s New Romantic hit Ghosts. This is a story that should bring in a few royalties for a bevy of ‘80s recording artists if nothing else! The phantom voice’s escalation from being merely a muffled interruption to its eventual total domination of its victim’s consciousness while no one else can hear it at all, is a needling, insistent and creepy idea which is well realised here thanks to Ball’s compelling performance, and his fate must rank as one the most appropriate punishments ever in the mind of anyone who has ever felt driven to distraction by the inane drivel issuing from a blaring radio.
The Ghostly Earl by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
After the strange psychological terrors of the previous stories, it is time for some light hearted whimsy in an episode that plays more in the comic vein of the 1980s series “Rentaghost”, as farcical supernatural light relief. Robert McBain plays the transparent, periwigged ghost of an 18th Century aristocrat who has been haunting his ancestral stately home for several hundred years -- ever since he was murdered by a debtor who owed him money. Since then, the foppish ninth Earl of Rillington has vowed to stay put on the material plane until he gets the chance to exact his revenge on one of the living ancestors of his original murderer! Unfortunately, his descendants – the current inheritors of his estate, Lord and Lady Rillington (Geoffrey Beevers and Suzanne Neve) – are unable to afford the upkeep of the premises and are being forced to consider selling up and leasing the grounds to a private developer called Wilkinson (Terrence Rigby), who wants to open the place up to the public and modernise some of the historically authentic interiors to make them a profit out of them. The ghost tries to help his living relations by teaming up with their spirited young daughter Cathy (Caroline Dudley) to uncover a secret stash of English Civil War-era treasure hidden away in one of the stately home’s many secret rooms. But the ghostly Earl becomes considerably more eager to intervene when he discovers the pompous Wilkinson’s secret ancestry!
This is undoubtedly one of the more trivial stories in the collection and is played extremely broadly, by McBain and Rigby in particular; but it trots along painlessly enough and has a few amusing moments. Really though, this is a breather before we get to the weird stuff …
In a Dark, Dark Box … by Jane Holloway
This one gives us all the Gothic clichés of classic ghost fiction in the initial set up: a dark and stormy night, branches tapping on the windowpanes of a cottage in the woods, flickering candles and sudden gusts of wind blowing open shutters. The tale takes place in a gloomy cottage in some woods at night, and a young boy (Andrew Downer) is propped up in bed with a tray of soup, being read a story by his grey-haired old granny (Sheila Burrell) . The story the boy is being told is also set in a cottage in some dark woodland, and involves the discovery of a dark, dark trunk in a dark, dark cupboard, and the mystery about what might be inside the dark, dark box that it also contains. Since the setting being described so resembles the house and the very room he is in fact staying in, the boy begins to wonder if he is actually a part of the story!
This is another structurally clever tale in which the recursive nature of the gran’s bedtime story is echoed in the story-within-a-story structure of the play itself, producing some eerie supernatural effects as the boy considers the fate of his dead father (whose odd Victorian-looking portrait is on the wall) and steps back into a sepia-tinted past as a result of his decision to challenge his own fear of finding out exactly what is inside the cupboard in the dark corner of his room. The seemingly Edwardian period of the main setting gives this the feel of one of the BBC’s M.R. James adaptations and this is clearly intended as a classical ghostly tale, with strange puddles of water manifesting on the floor, mysterious toy figures, photographs in which the image uncannily seems to change, and a dream state resulting in time merging and slipping. This is one of the most memorable and insistently strange stories in the series.
The Restless Ghost by Leon Garfield
This is a lovely little play with a vivid Dickensian feel, set in the early 1800s. In its small, studio-bound way, the production attempts to ape the visual and musical style of Hammer Films, with opening music that recalls that of James Bernard’s scores for the famous studio (and which just might be a library cue from one of their films by the sound of things). The action starts out in a fogbound graveyard at night with two little boys, Harris and Bostock (Stephen Rooney and Jonathon Jackson), dressed in the late Georgian style of the day, plotting to steal apples in order to earn money to buy them-selves some marzipan fancies. They’re apprehended by the elderly old Church Sexton – a wiry, white-haired semi-vagabond who patrols the grounds of the crumbling cemetery and its benighted chapel, in what must be one of the last TV performances from the great Wilfred Bramble (“Steptoe & Son”). The two little lads resolve to get even with their tormentor and to scare him away for long enough to allow them to steal those promising apples from the church orchard. The boys are familiar with the ghostly tale of a spirit drummer boy (Mathew Peters) who is reputed to haunt the area, although Harris’s apothecary father (Colin Jeavons) insists that the legend derives from an old smugglers’ trick used in the last century when a foundling boy was smeared with phosphorous paint and dressed as a grenadier to scare away trespassers while the ship looters stashed their ill-gotten treasures. The boys nevertheless resolve to go through with their plan after Harris steals a pot of phosphorous from his father’s dispensary, with unexpectedly dangerous and ultimately revelatory results …
Charmingly told and performed by all, and with a great, atmospheric, studio-built churchyard setting, this is a tightly scripted and convincing pastiche of both Hammer and the style and setting of a lot of Victorian and Edwardian supernatural fiction. The whole smuggler backstory greatly resembles the Dr Syn novels of Arthur Russell Thorndike, which were themselves plundered by Hammer films for their 1962 production “Captain Glegg”. Bramble is of course resplendent in his patented cantankerous, gurning old codger role – but he is perfectly cast and the whole thing is highly enjoyable and cleverly plotted, building to a climax which allows the veteran actor some unexpected poignancy.
The Keeper by Alan Garner
The best is kept for last though. The 1970 TV adaptation of the author’s “The Owl Service” is one of the landmarks of Children’s supernatural fiction and “The Keeper” proves to be far and away the scariest, most adult piece of work included in this mini-series. It’s on a completely different level of intensity from any other episode here, with vivid direction and a gorgeous score by Gordon Crosse, full of fluttering woodwind, ominous cello and clanging mediaeval sounding instruments bringing a sombre adult tone to proceedings. “The Keeper” feels more like a compacted version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting” and Nigel Kneale’s “The Stone Tape” mixed with the clammy out-of-doors supernatural dread of “The Blair Witch Project” and It’s quite hard to believe this was actually produced for a young audience, since both the sophisticated concept and the intensely atmospheric execution of it make no concessions for the age of its viewership at all.
Tim Woodward plays amateur paranormal investigator Peter and Janet Maw his girlfriend Sally, who accompanies him into the woods for an interesting weekend experience from which neither will return. The two are set to spend the night at Beacons Lodge, an old and decrepit hunting lodge left abandoned on a large now-abandoned woodland estate. The isolated place has a dark past: the man who once lived here committed suicide up in the woods in the year 1912; his daughter bought the place when it came up for auction but stripped it of all furnishings and has simply left it to rot for fifty years. Now the roof has large gaps that leave it exposed to the elements, the stairway has crumbled away, and the derelict, careworn interior is dark and empty apart from one untouched rocking chair in front of the fireplace, looking out over a single unbroken window.
The couple plan to camp here for one night, recording the supernatural phenomena they experience, such as any unexplained temperature drops. Director John Woods quickly establishes an unsettling atmosphere, shooting the whole piece as if we are peering at the two human intruders from the lodge’s point of view – gazing out at them from behind the fire grate or from behind broken shutters or from inside holes in the roof. The camera often suddenly moves from its original static position and starts prowling around the two unsuspecting investigators as they discuss the history of the lodge and the stories associated with the place. As night settles in, the two huddle down with cups of coffee over a game of scrabble to while away the dark hours lit only by a paraffin lamp. Like much of Garner’s work and much of the best children’s supernatural fiction, the theme here dwells on the concept of something dark and ancient and malevolent that is inextricably entwined with the landscape on which the lodge has been ill-advisedly built, and which wants to be left alone. As the two protagonists discuss the true nature of general hauntings – whether they are products of the environment or if they ultimately come from within the persons experiencing them – they fail to realise that clues are accumulating in the very words that spill out of their game of scrabble and in a poem Sally absently jots down in a note pad while Peter is out scouting the surrounding area. For the ancient pre-pagan nature of what truly lurks here turns out not to observe any of their categories of distinction at all.
This sophisticated exercise in carefully layered atmosphere laden with escalating dread builds to a Blair Witch-like conclusion, with a terrifying sequence in which the two petrified friends listen back to a tape recording of the violent disturbances which have been assailing them both … and hear that nothing but their own quivering voices has recorded onto the tape.
“The Keeper” is a fitting climax to the series but leaves much of the rest of the content of this disc trailing in its wake, despite most of the other entries included here being perfectly respectable quality pieces of dramatic entertainment for children. It’s a piece that it is definitely worth getting the disc for if you’re a connoisseur either of children’s supernatural fiction or of classic TV ghost stories in general, but most of the other tales are worth at least a look too, and offer a wide variety of approaches to the ghostly tale. The disc features all seven episodes on one disc with a small animated gallery of production stills being the only extra. It is available from TV archive specialists Network at a reasonable price.