Enter the spooky world of ’70s children’s telefantasy.
Come with me into a wyrd world of ancient owls, stone circles, King Arthur, ecological disaster, and lovely horses… A terrifying journey into vintage kids telefantasy.
This week on The Doctor Who Companion, we’ve been highlighting other TV shows that scratch a bit of that Doctor Who itch when you feel like watching something Who-like but you just don’t want to watch your favourite Time Lord. And most of them have been grown up shows that that win awards, are on Netflix, and appear in ‘top 100 TV show’ lists.
But there is a stranger path, a darker and more disturbing journey into the fearsome world of children’s TV telefantasy. In many ways, these fantasy and science fiction serials match much closer to classic Doctor Who. They are made up of mostly 25-minute 6ish-part adventures with creaky chromakey effects, devious villains, spooky cliffhangers, and some of the most evocative electronic soundtracks you’ll ever encounter (outside of Doctor Who).
These shows (from the late sixties to the late seventies) are Doctor Who’s little step-brothers and sisters. Perhaps not as well known as their world famous big brother, but inheriting the same hand-me-down jeans and often taking a weirder path to compete with their elder sibling. They sometimes get lost in the woods.
The Owl Service, 8 episodes, December 1969 to February 1970, ITV (Granada)
As we wait at the school gate for the caretaker to let us into Who’s latest spin-off show, Class, it’s interesting to look back at what ‘young adult’ shows were like at the dog-end of the smoky ’60s.
The Owl Service is definitely not for a CBBC audience; it is genuinely groundbreaking in that it was neither pitched for the Andy Pandy generation, nor for their mums and dads. Written by brilliant fantasy author Alan Garner (who also penned the Carnegie Medal-winning book), this is a tale of burgeoning sexuality and teenage angst set in a strange reality/fantasy world where ancient legends seep into everyday lives.
That other famous fantasy author and Doctor Who scriptwriter Neil Gaiman says he is ‘in awe of [Garner’s] use of small, simple words, the way he shapes the rocky crags and high tors and deep caves of plot and story with words that feel like he hewed them, or whittled them, or flaked them from flint.’ You’ll be delighted and disturbed in equal measure…
It’s available from Network, whose catalogue is a treasure trove of obscure and brilliant archive TV and films.
Timeslip, 26 episodes, September 1970 to March 1971, ITV (ATV)
This fondly-remembered series is made up of four separate adventure for two time-travelling children, Simon and Liz, who slip through a time barrier first into a German WWII invasion in 1940, followed by jaunts into three alternative future earths.
Although this is more of a children’s story, there are strong adult characters too and the young adventurers are challenged about the people they could grow up into in the future. Devised by Ruth Boswell, the idea for a sci-fi kids show was by ATV producer Renee Goddard who wanted to see if the rival network could come up with something to match the Beeb’s successful Doctor Who.
Much like some of the early extended Pertwees, sometimes the six and one eight-part stories tend to drag a little. But the ambitious and intelligent scripts (two co-written by Fury from the Deep‘s Victor Pemberton) are thought-provoking and exciting. Another Who-connection is the archive status of Timeslip, intended to be full-colour some episode were filmed in black and white and now only one colour episode remains. But the technicolor imagination remains undiminished.
A shiny new complete box-set was released this year by Network, which features all the existing episodes (including the single colour example), plus a wealth of brilliant extras.
The Tomorrow People, 68 episodes across eight series, April 1973 to February 1979, ITV (Thames)
By far the longest running British children’s telefantasy drama series on this list (and of all time – most are made up of one-off adventures), this became to be known as ITV’s answer to Doctor Who. Like Who, It’s a hugely ambitious programme set in the present day, the past, the future, and across the galaxy.
But while some scoff at classic Who effects, they are often jaw-dropping in comparison to The Tomorrow People’s creaky standards. But, like Who, the dodgy visuals are often eclipsed by likeable characters, good scripts, and a great spirit of adventure. There are some risible but few forgettable stories, and the best of the best (such as Series 2’s The Read and the Green) are still fab examples of vintage kids TV.
It’s also (in)famous for featuring the first ever TV appearance from future Doctor Five, Peter Davison, kitted out at in one point only in ankle-high leather platform boots, skimpy blue y-fronts, and a curly blonde wig. Check out Series 3’s A Man For Emily, which also co-stars Peter’s future wife Sandra Dickenson, so at least she knew what she was getting…
There are many more Who connections, particularly the villainous guest cast which features fearsome turns by Kevin Stoney, John Woodnutt, and Michael Sheard (among many others). But the absolute icing on the cake is a terrific rousing theme song from classic Who’s very own musical legend, Dudley Simpson. Matched with the stunning visuals it it’s one of the few opening titles to rival Doctor Who:
The complete original series (there have been a couple of reboots) is available from Revelation Films, and is a proper bargain from Amazon.
The Changes, 10 episodes, January to March 1975, BBC
The first BBC show to make the list is an absolute classic post-apocalyptic drama, in the mould of the contemporaneous adult show Survivors from Dalek creator, Terry Nation. Directed by John Prowse and based on Peter Dickinson’s series of children’s novels, The Changes is the story of a young teenage girl, Nicky, whose world is torn apart when the entire population of the world (apart from Sikhs, surprisingly) turn against technology.
The first episode is an astonishing piece of television, which by all accounts haunted the memories of many of its teen audience, and plenty of adults too. The remaining nine shows don’t quite live up to the promise of the opener, but like the best of Who, this is a top-notch adventure story with plenty of ideas to fire (and terrify) young minds.
Billed as ‘a serial for older children’, this is an often disturbing tale that feels much more adult than the ITV shows on the list (apart from The Owl Service). But, like The Tomorrow People, the atmosphere is hugely enhanced by the talents of a Doctor Who musician. The Radiophonic theme and incidentals are provided by the amazing Paddy Kingsland.
After many years lingering in the vaults (save a UK Gold showing in the early 90s), The Changes was finally lovingly released by the BFI (no less) in 2014, accompanied by a brilliant illustrated booklet.
Sky, 7 episodes, April to May 1975, ITV (HTV)
When Bristol boys Bob Baker and Dave Martin weren’t troubling Terrance Dicks with their inventive and over-ambitious scripts, they were over at HTV (the ITV franchise holder for Wales and the West of England in the ’70s to the ’90s) writing mind-blowing kids TV series.
Without the solid script-editing of Dicks or Holmes, this was Bob and Dave let loose with crazy concepts and budget-challenging visuals. Sky, like many fantasy kids TV shows of this era explores apocalyptic ecological themes through the story of a strange man-child who falls to earth, the eponymous Sky.
Of all the shows on this list, I must admit this was the one I was most disappointed by when I finally saw it. It really does need a final polish from a solid Who script editor, but what can’t be denied is the strength of the ideas and the haunting and ethereal impression this series leaves with its viewers. Once again, the titles and music greatly enhance the show, which is still highly recommended if you are prepared to indulge a little…
This is another series released by Network, who deserve great acclaim for offering obscure classics like Sky to DVD.
Children of the Stones, 7 episodes, January to March 1977, ITV (HTV)
Now this is a stone-cold classic. Children of the Stones is rightly renowned as one of the shining lights of British children’s television, of any genre. Its ambitious mix of Quatermass, The Stone Tape, The Wicker Man, and classic Doctor Who still holds up well today. Every episode is excellent, it never drags and richly rewards repeat viewings.
Written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray (who also penned the near-equal children’s fantasy adventure Raven), it’s astonishing that none of the Who production team thought to call them up and write for Tom Baker’s Doctor.
This series is possibly closest in atmosphere to ’70s Who. With the story centred around the scientific investigation of an ancient stone circle, you half expect Professor Rumford to be hidden behind the next menhir along, chomping on a sausage sandwich.
The cast are universally excellent, including the two juvenile leads, Peter Demin and Katharine Levy, but it’s everyone’s favourite rebel leader Gareth Thomas who really steals the show. If he hadn’t gone on to play Roj Blake in Blake’s 7, Thomas would still have secured his place as a legend of British sci-fi thanks to Children of the Stones.
If you’ve been a bit spooked by the opening titles so far, just wait until you’ve seen this…
Another welcome release from Network, this is a great place to start because the set not only includes the complete Children of the Stones, the bonus disc features episodes from other HTV’s cult shows, Sky, King of the Castle, The Clifton House Mystery, and Into the Labyrinth.
The Moon Stallion, 6 episodes, November to December 1978, BBC
As the valve and sherbert-driven, analogue world of the 1970s draws to a close, teetering on the edge of the digital, BBC Micro-powered ’80s, we finish with another flawed gem from the BBC…
The Moon Stallion is children’s adventure that plays to the BBC’s strengths as a period-piece costume drama with a solid script (from Ice Warrior-creator Brian Hayles) and a top-notch cast. The obvious draw to Who fans is a terrific lead performance from future companion, Sarah Sutton as the haunted Diana Purwell.
Like many of the shows featured so far, this showcases a great recognisable strange British landmark. The Owl Service is set around Alderley Edge, The Changes visits Clearwell Caves in the Forest of Dean, Sky takes in both Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor, while Children of the Stones makes perfect use of the stone circle that surrounds Avebury (the village that inspired the story). The Moon Stallion is a nearby Wiltshire neighbour with scenes filmed around Uffington’s White Horse and the Neolithic chambered long barrow, Wayland’s Smithey. Just a visit to those sites alone would provide a perfect creepy tour of ancient Albion.
Sarah Sutton is a charismatic lead as the blind Diana, who is haunted by a supernatural steed, the titular Moon Stallion. The denouement (which I won’t spoil) is somewhat of a disappointment but strong performances, particularly David Haig (The Leisure Hive) as the villainous Todman, keep this very watchable. As does the beautiful music from Howard Blake, who a few years later would find fame for his score for The Snowman.
Sadly, The Moon Stallion is the one series listed here not yet available on DVD in the UK (and I can’t find just the opening titles on Youtube either). But there it was released in Germany in a slightly re-edited 3-part version as Der Mondschimme, which I can confirm has an option to play the original English soundtrack. While it’s worth tracking down, it would be great if the BBC or BFI released a UK DVD with the original edit.
Oh, but wait. Brian Hayles did write an adaptation, so the story can still be experienced!
There are plenty more ’70s classics to discover, so if you want to delve deeper I’d also recommend Ace of Wands, Escape into Night, Shadows, The Georgian House, The Feathered Serpent, King of the Castle, Raven, A Traveller in Time, Come Back Lucy, The Clifton House Mystery, and The Boy Merlin…
So that takes us into the ’80s and, if you’ve enjoyed this, I’ll be happy to offer a selection from that decade at a later date, which will no doubt include a selection from such classics as Chocky, Moondial, The Children of Green Knowe, The Secret World of Polly Flint, Shadow of the Stone, The Gemini Factor, Aliens in the Family, The Snow Spider, The Watch House, The Tripods, The Box of Delights, and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Until then, don’t have nightmares. But, if you do, there’s sure to be a spooky stone circle that is the source of your nocturnal terrors. All you need are some flared jeans, a bottle of Tizer, a Chopper bike, and a bit of pluck and you’ll soon vanquish the ancient evil before the end of the world. Sleep tight, children…