❉ James Gent looks back on the seminal Look & Read sci-fi drama.
To British readers aged thirty-five and upwards, the following ritual will be familiar. In infant and junior schools, at a certain point in the day, your class would be shepherded away from their creaky desks and chairs to gather in a darkened, musty room, where dustmites danced in the half-light between the drawn curtains, and a boxy television set held pride of place against the furthermost wall, housed in an elaborate wooden cabinet on wheels. The class would sit cross-legged, waiting impatiently as Sir or Miss struggled with the wooden doors of the school’s television set, and the boys in the class would ‘shoot the dots’ off the ‘Programmes for Schools and Colleges’ clock…
This was the early 1980s, when educational programmes for children both at home and at school had a dedicated place on the mainstream channels, rather than sequestered away onto a digital channel.
Schools output ranged from ITV’s vaguely stentorian educational programmes such as Good Health (“Blockaboots, blockaboots, they’re in fashion… today!)”, Maths In A Box and Near & Far with its frankly terrifying intro zooming into a map of Britain from an establishing shot of planet Earth, alone in the inky blackness of space, to such delightful BBC innovations as Playschool, Take Hart and Think of A Number where such avuncular figures as Derek Griffiths, Brian Cant, Tony Hart and Johnny Ball taught restless pre-teens the delights of painting, storytelling, melodies and counting without once being condescending or patronising.
It is testament to the significance of these shows, that the mere invocation of their presenters’ names can act as a kind of shibboleth when thrown casually into conversation with any group of fellow Generation X British adults, provoking a warm, reassuring nostalgic glow and sending you straight to TV Cream or YouTube to unlock some nagging memory gaps.
As these memories indicate, and pub testimonials will attest, the influence and effect of educational programming on the formative years of my generation was profound. This was a time when television was a kind of third parent: When your own understanding of the world didn’t reach beyond the school gates, the playground and your local Fine Fare, the television screen gave you a wider view of the larger world, with its rules and games, and schools programming had a profound effect on shaping that understanding. Contrary to the fears of child psychologists, this influence was almost entirely benign.
Almost, with two exceptions. One was the public information films produced by the Orwellian-sounding Central Office of Information, those pocket-sized Hammer horrors with their menacing, doom-laden voiceovers and radiophonic stings, that still surge up from my subconscious whenever I see a pylon, substation or a child actor in a donkey jacket.
The other was an episodic drama that provided the spine for a series of the long-running childrens’ literacy series Look & Read in the early ‘80s – an entrancing, intriguing and disturbing drama that totally captured my imagination on its original colour broadcast, and had a deep-rooted influence on many of my formative obsessions as an introverted, information-obsessed child, and yet was permeated with such an uncanny, otherworldly sense of alienation and dread that it never progressed to the safe space of cosy nostalgia as my happy memories of Bric-A-Brac and Chockablock, instead lurking somewhere in the ghostly depths of my subconsciousness, flickering in the same half-light as those terrifying illustrations in 1970s Tom Baker-era Dr Who annuals. It was a simple story about a boy from space called, with devastating originality, The Boy From Space.
A bit of background: Look & Read was a long-running programme that aimed to develop childrens’ basic literacy, by presenting a full-cast mini-drama that one would follow over six weeks of a school term, carefully scripted to enhance a child’s vocabulary. The dramatic sequences were intercut with studio sequences full of recaps, word games and animated song sequences that reinforced basic grammar rules such as the use of punctuation. It was all very jolly. The drama segments tended to be based around parochial adventures involving badgers, peregrine falcons and fairgrounds, but The Boy From Space was something different. A truly alien piece of sci-fi, that was so successful upon its original broadcast in 1971, that the programme makers revived the original filmed footage (originally transmitted in black and white) and updated the literacy-based linking sequences around it. This was the version that I sat down spellbound to watch back in 1982…
Simply told, the story revolves around the discovery, by two youngsters Helen (Sylvestre de Touzel) & Dan, of the titular alien boy (Colin Mayes), in that most British of science fiction locations – an abandoned quarry. Stranded on Earth and only able to communicate via strange electronic-sounding bleeps, the kids endeavour to protect him from another of his kind, the sinister, mute ‘Thin Man’ (John Woodnutt), who relentlessly pursues Peep-Peep (as the kids nickname their new friend) and friends. Separated from his spaceship for too long, Peep-Peep becomes frail and weak, as the Thin Man draws ever closer.
The denouement takes place on the aliens’ ship (concealed by an invisible force field – this is a low budget production!), where the Thin Man is holding its original pilot – Peep-Peep’s father (Gabriel Woolf) – hostage as a result of a power struggle between the two adult aliens which resulted in the ship crash landing on Earth. The Thin Man is overpowered and Peep-Peep and father are free to return back to their home planet.
An economical tale that uses its episodic structure effectively – each instalment is topped and tailed with a fresh revelation from the previous episode and a cliffhanger-friendly dramatic twist to up the tension. It’s a writer’s guide in episodic drama.
Watched in short bursts over half a term, this was seriously compelling drama to my seven year old self. There was something uncanny about the juxtaposition of mannequin-like, silver-faced humanoids moving with eerie stillness amidst its Earthbound setting of quarries, country roads and British Leyland cars that fired the imagination – the child’s imagination that fills in the gaps – and made it easy to reenact and relive.
This juxtaposition – the classic admixture of the otherworldly and the everyday – made it simultaneously the strangest thing I had ever seen and yet somehow relatable. Walking home from school or rambling in the woods and gravel pits behind my house, I’d imagine that I could happen across a mysterious alien friend like Peep-Peep or find me and my school chums on the run from the terrifying Thin Man.
A significant factor that made such an impression were the strikingly visual, spooky performances of young Colin Mayes as Peep-Peep and veteran character actor John Woodnutt as his literally unstoppable nemesis. Purely through body language and subtle facial expressions, Mayes puts across a tangible sense of hunted, haunted, vulnerability that made his plight achingly relatable.
Then as now, I was a fairly earnest, intense individual – popular and well-liked but a sensitive loner by nature – whose overactive imagination was coupled with a strong sense of empathy for vulnerable characters, and since then the alienated, otherworldly ‘lost boy’ has been an archetype that resonated with me growing up, as a bookish loner, social misfit, and sexually confused teenager. In retrospect, projecting myself onto androgynous alien boys in jumpsuits certainly presents a narrative antecedent for my pubescent obsession with David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust alter ego five years later, not to mention my general love for all things ‘ZOMG! SPACE!’ and glam-disco tinfoil sci-fi kitsch that continues to this day.
Equally otherworldly was Woodnutt’s Thin Man – once seen and never forgotten, his gaunt, silver-skinned face looming into camera was one of the most terrifying things I had ever seen – his mute, relentless, unstoppable pursuit of Peep-Peep and friends stalked me through my nightmares. Never has a middle aged thesp in a silver wig, trenchcoat and ill-fitting nylon jumpsuit and silver moonboots been so terrifying.
Yes, everything about The Boy From Space seemed calculate to disquiet, with the precision of a finely tuned violin string, and it was certainly effective, lurking all the while in my subconscious over the past three decades, a lost key text. Even the plaintive theme song ended on an eerily existential note of hopelessness, its final line, “Space goes on forever…” being mind-blowing in its philosophical implications: We’re all alone on this small dumb rock. Aw, crap! That’s quite a trip to lay on a six year old kid!
Revisiting the serial when it received a DVD release in 2014, the extent of its influence on my young mind was further revealed as I relived the educational inserts that broke up the drama segments, and reeled back in shock in reaction to how far-ranging the show’s influence was on my prepubescent interests. The serial is peppered with factual inserts on the solar system and astronomy. Of course, as a child of the ‘80s, space was the place – I am of the generation that was bewitched by Doctor Who, Star Wars, Buck Rogers and soforth, but this was science fact, not science fiction, and I soon began cramming in space trivia inside my febrile brain. In 1982, there was still a fascination with spacemen and astronauts as kings of a new frontier, just a good few years before the Challenger disaster of 1986 took the bloom off the rose.
Revisiting this very special serial also gave me a reminder of a more idiosyncratic quirk that I had previously assumed was a propos of nothing… At one point in the narrative, Dan takes note of the registration plate of the Thin Man’s stolen car. Is it coincidence that that particular summer, I developed an intense fascination in the makes and brands of my neighbours’ cars, in hand with a borderline autistic fascination with cataloguing registration plates? Clearly, this drama was to me what a madeleine was to Proust (sans the seven volumes of ball-aching memoirs, you’ll be pleased to know).
To return to my original theme, television was a large part of my life growing up, but it was by no means a case of being plugged into the goggle box, passively receiving information. My experience of The Boy From Space, and the legacy of its lingering after-image, is that when it hooks your curiosity, television drama becomes something more interactive, positively alchemical, as your imagination (the part of your brain that sees faces in shadows and clouds) takes the base elements of what’s onscreen and maps them onto your own reality, before taking on a life of its own, replayed in your mind through lucid dreams and playtime.
How much of this is down to the talent of writer Richard Carpenter, cast and crew, is moot – but it’s certainly true that when I revisited The Boy From Space on DVD quite recently, it was remarkable that the passage of time had not diminished its effectiveness, which is more than can be said for Into The Labyrinth, another fantasy serial of similar vintage where the memory, it turns out, really did cheat.
The effortless simplicity of the narrative, just enough for your imagination to pencil in the broader strokes, was solid, and the general air of otherworldliness, dread and unease was as tangible as ever; I could totally appreciate how it caught my imagination as a dreamy innocent, full of wonder, and the strange subconscious lure its after-image has had without any latter-day cynicism or scoffing.
In someone else’s eyes, The Boy From Space may well be a load of cheap looking infantile melodrama, and maybe they’re right. But whoever it was who spoke of the potency of cheap art wasn’t kidding – alienation, space, failure to communicate, these are potent themes that run across many of my favourite books, films and records, via Ballard, Kubrick, Bowie and more, but The Boy From Space got there first and seeded it in the inner world of my imagination. Space really does go on forever.
❉ ‘The Boy From Space’ was released on DVD by the BFI on 25 August 2014, RRP £22.99.
❉ An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in ‘You And Who Else’ (Ed: J.R. Southall), published in 2015 by Watching Books. Available from Amazon on kindle and in paperback.