❉ Step back inside Wordy’s WordLab as we revisit a seminal sci-fi experience for a generation of British schoolchildren…
Out There In Space
Shall We Find A Friend?
Is There a Place?
Where the Universe Ends?
When Shall We Find It?
Space Goes on Forever
‘The Boy From Space’ has the most plaintively and groovy philosophical theme tune to a children’s television series ever made, perhaps to any television series ever made. Sung by friendly ‘Play School’ legend Derek Griffiths, this educational programme was one of my most looked-forward-to parts of the school curriculum in the early 1980s. One morning a week us children would be led into the Assembly Hall where we would expectantly sit cross-legged on the parquet floor, while Mrs Cheeseman wheeled out an enormous (probably 38 inches) television screen and tuned it to BBC2. For the next twenty or so minutes, we experienced bliss – even the naughty children paid complete attention. Of all the different serialised stories from the ‘Look and Read’ schools series, ‘The Boy from Space’ was the best. It was my first taste of sci-fi and it blew my mind.
Each episode began and ended with a few eagerly anticipated minutes of the story of big sister Helen (A young Sylvestra Le Touzel) and little brother Dan (Stephen Garlick), and their encounter with an escaped space boy (named Peep-Peep), who had shiny skin, white hair, a silver/blue Studio 54 jumpsuit and a way of talking that sounded like a mangled tape recorder playing static backwards.
The middle of each episode took place in a television studio got up to look like a space ship (called WordLab), involving unthreatening astronaut Cosmo and a ‘Last Days of Disco’-era puppet Wordy – who had the personality of Christopher Biggins gene-spliced with Magnus Pike. Wordy had quite a disturbing physical presence, appearing as a kind of floating head and arms combination which were decorated in random bits of alphabet. He was unnervingly excitable and was the sort of character best encountered carefully from the safety of a netted-off observation area. I often felt sorry for poor Cosmo, a poor man’s Doctor Who companion, who had to put up with his whims and dramas.
As the Wordy and Cosmo part of the show was where the bulk of the reading and learning occurred, it was usually the least fun bit, although there were some cool animated songs which aimed to demonstrate aspects of language. My favourite, which I can still recite from memory is “I’m an apostrophe, come take a look at me, I’m not a comma, nor a full-stop, don’t put me on the bottom, I go on the top” (reading that back it sounds like a gay dating app profile). These songs, about the deeply unsexy topic of punctuation and some of the more arcane rule exceptions to the English language (“drop that E” – reading that one back it sounds like a drugs reference), were full of humour and creativity and whoever wrote them should be living in a Golden Palace if there is any justice in the world.
But back to Dan and Helen – the series, spread over 10 episodes, followed them as they struggled to communicate with Peep-Peep and learn why he had come to Earth. It involved encounters with another alien called The Thin Man (‘Doctor Who’ stalwart John Woodnutt), who was evil and a genuinely terrifying presence, particularly in an episode involving a quarry where he tries to get the children. The series featured a couple of threatening cliff-hangers which made the whole class groan in horror as one, and wish it was next Tuesday immediately. You never forget your first cliff-hanger. Mine was when Dan and Helen were in the top room of the space observatory and Someone Was Coming Upstairs. Cut to the credits. Next week it turned out to be a (non-alien) friendly adult, and so the lesson I learnt that episode was that it is folly to spend every night worrying about and over-identifying with television characters.
The aliens communicate with backwards writing, which takes Dan and Helen a while to understand, and made me feel clever for figuring it out instantly. However, I wasn’t clever enough to get WHY they use backwards writing. Towards the end, it transpires that when they landed on Earth they found a plastic bag, turned inside out, so they copied the lettering on that. I’m still not sure how seeing a few words on a bag made them instantly literate, but never mind. I don’t know how they managed to fly a spaceship either. Just let it go!
Trivia: Where have I seen..?
❉ Colin Mayes (Peep-Peep) appeared in ‘Scum’, Alan Clarke’s 1977 Play For Today about borstal brutality.
❉ Sylvestra Le Touzel (Helen) is a prolific stage and screen actress. Her first TV credit was the 1969 Doctor Who serial ‘The Mind Robber’. She also appeared in a classic Heineken advert, “The Water in Majorca”.
❉ Wordy was voiced by Charles Collingwood, better known to ‘The Archers’ fans as Brian Aldridge.
When the BFI released all the episodes of ‘The Boy from Space’, I played it over Christmas to my three nephews and niece who are all too young to be called Millennials. My eldest nephew, who is the opinion former of the group, is wary of my cultural tastes and will often ask in a disapproving voice “What year is this from?” when I put in a new DVD. Anything from the ‘olden days’ (the twentieth century) is met with grudging scorn and much tutting. But despite the fact that the children in the programme didn’t own Ipads or Instagram accounts and were actually outside (unaccompanied by adults for most of the time) it proved to be just as engrossing as the endless Minecraft videos made by grown men on YouTube that they watch. We would have got through all 10 episodes but towards the end the Thin Man started his scary shenanigans and my niece (aged 3) became distraught so we had to put on ‘In the Night Garden’ instead. It’s so nice to be able to bond with younger relatives through safe fear, don’t you think?
The latest Boy from Space on the BBC is an alien prince in the ‘Doctor Who’ spin-off ‘Class’ (currently only shown online via iPlayer). He has a lovely side parting, an East European boyfriend and an embittered slave played by someone with very straight hair who used to be on ‘Coronation Street’, so that’s all you need to know about him. We have come a long way from Peep-Peep, and while I wish that ‘Class’, with its matter-of-fact non-drama-making handling of sexuality, had been around when I was growing up, I think ‘The Boy From Space’ is scarier. And it has that theme tune. Space Goes on Forever! Think about it. It’s lyrical LSD!
❉ ‘The Boy From Space’ was released on DVD by the BFI on 25 August 2014, RRP £22.99