Ghosts, Monsters And Legends (And Tennis Prodigies)

Radio Times cover for The Box Of Delights (1984).

It’s something of a default opinion to complain about the supposed long lead-in time to Christmas nowadays – as though seeing a smattering of wrapping paper in Rymans in late October is somehow forcing you into unwanted seasonal jollity against your will with a spell in the stocks as a penalty if you fail to smile at the required seasonal angle – but any former schoolchild with a trace of honesty and Christmas Spirit left in their heart will tell you that, once upon a time, ‘Christmas’ began way back in September at the start of the new school year.

Unlike the bloated, overlong, too-much-of-a-good-thing Summer Holidays and their proliferation of television programmes nobody wanted to watch (and there’s much more about how they occasionally were sufficiently dull to actually make time stand still here), the Christmas Holidays were a short but concentrated and intense blast of No School with a complete absence of all sense of temporal awareness, in the midst of a full-on sensory assault of decorations, Christmas Singles, bizarrely scheduled mishmashes of films on television and, most importantly of all, Coffee Matchmakers. It’s hardly surprising that youngsters would begin counting down the days the second that the end of the Winter term was even vaguely visible on the horizon, and one of the surest signs that the Christmas Holidays were on their way was the appearance of one of the spooky sci-fi/fantasy children’s serials that the BBC (and very occasionally ITV) would run in the run-up to Christmas. Everyone remembers The Box Of Delights (and you can read much more about my relationship with that series here, and indeed hear me talking about it here), which famously saw its concluding episode go out on Christmas Eve, but this was a long tradition that went on some time before and after that, and from Green Noah, Demon Tree (Evil Fingers Can’t Catch Me!) to The Ugly Wuglies, it’s always surprising just how vividly incredibly specific details from these serials seem to be remembered by so many people. Even if they can’t always remember what the series itself was actually called.

This look back at the BBC’s run-up-to-Christmas spooky sci-fi/fantasy children’s serials, from The Phoenix And The Carpet in 1976 right up to The Watch House in 1988, was originally done for my old website and eventually formed the basis of a much more detailed history of the timeslot (for want of a better word) that you can now find in Well At Least It’s Free, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Unsurprisingly, these serials have always proved popular choices for Looks Unfamiliar guests, and you can hear Richard Littler on The Moon Stallion here, Joanne Sheppard on The Enchanted Castle here, Rae Earl on Codename Icarus here and Stephen O’Brien on The Box Of Delights here. You can also find the story of my attempts to track down the soundtrack from The Box Of Delights here.

In a tradition that now seems almost as remote and archaic as the traditions that were invariably depicted in the serials themselves, the BBC used to put out vaguely seasonal – well, apart from the Cold War-tinged ones – children’s serials in the weeks running up to Christmas. Heavy on child actors, generally adapted from a novel that would be quickly reprinted in a TV tie-in friendly cover, saturated in state of the art visual effects and more often than not accompanied by music from Roger Limb of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, they were always hugely appreciated and mostly fondly remembered, albeit through a haze of waiting for school to break up and throwing dislodged Christmas Tree decorations at each other. So let’s have a look inside the Box Of Delights, and see what you might have been watching in years gone by… and Nick Berry as a ‘Pirate Rat’.

1976: “Some Indian Things…”

The Phoenix And The Carpet by E. Nesbit (Puffin, 1976).

E. Nesbit’s tale of Edwardian youngsters having spiffing bird-and-rug-instigated adventures in time and space- well, bits the bits of time and space that incorporate the British Empire – alongside a jerkily Yafflesque Clash Of The Titans-predicting puppet Phoenix with a conspicuously obvious join in its neck. There’s not much in The Phoenix And The Carpet to do with Christmas per se, but the genteel setting, mundane cliffhangers, disjointed pseudo-classical theme tune ending on disconcerting ‘melting’ tones and heaps of shakily realised Colour Separation Overlay-assisted sequences set the template for the next decade and beyond. Also seen this year, and adhering very much to much the same production style and indeed production values, was a feature-length one-off rendition of Roald Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach, noted for a decidedly unsubtle blend of human-sized insect costumes, CSO-derived ‘peach interior’ sets, balloon-derived ‘peach exterior’ sets, and soundtrack of hammy panto-esque song and dance numbers.

1977: “Leave It!”

King Cinder by John Foster (BBC Books, 1977).

The odd one out on this list, King Cinder dispensed with the tendency towards polite Edwardiana in favour of a speedway-riding Peter Duncan taking on local protection racketeers in a hail of car chases and ‘villain’s drinkers’. Stunts abounded and shouting reverberated in a serial that seemed closer to Quadrophenia than the usual Blytonesque twitterings, and those in search of more festive fare – not to mention less sub-The Sweeney soundtracks, were effectively left with the televisual equivalent of a sack of ashes; or, if you will, cinders. Doubtless served as the inspiration for a wave of dubious ‘new bicycle’ antics come Christmas Day, though.

1978 : “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

The Moon Stallion by Brian Hayles (TBS, 1978).

As if to make up for the previous year, this time there were two serials running more or less concurrently. The Moon Stallion starred a pre-Doctor Who Sarah Sutton in a beautifully rendered but virtually impenetrable tale of something to do with a blind girl, the chalk horse of Uffington, and a real horse locked in a battle of wits with some bloke who blames it for his family’s misfortune, um, somehow. There’s also something about an ancient Pagan deity issuing a warning about Skylab being a tool of the forces of evil. If that was too complicated for you, then it’s not exactly likely that you would have found much solace in a word that still causes a generation to shudder even today – Pinocchio. There’s little to say about this darkly-hued nightmarish art deco formally-theme-tuned puppet-meets-real-actors reimagining with added overlong shrieky bits par excellence other than that dedicated researchers have yet to identify anyone who carried on watching it past the still-terrifying Land Of Toys sequence.

The Adventures Of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (Armada, 1978).

Richard Littler, the Mayor of Scarfolk who knows a thing or two about spooky old children’s serials, joined me for a chat about The Moon Stallion on Looks Unfamiliar here.

1979: “It Must Be… Magic!”

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit (Puffin, 1979).

Not so much jumping the shark as jumping the Five Children And It with another E. Nesbit adaptation that was even less impressively rendered than Pinocchio’s dalliance with a cardboard whale the previous year – itself repeated in omnibus form this year, presumably to a viewing figure of zero – with the Children’s BBC bigwigs deciding that as youngsters had liked The Phoenix And The Carpet, they’d probably like The Enchanted Castle too. This was a slight miscalculation. The same basic lineup of posh children from Them Days are put through similar paces, only without a gimmicky puppet to guide them and with the added turnoff inducement of an obvious moral at the end of each wish-fulfilment adventure. The only bits that anyone remembers are some statues coming rather cumbersomely to life, and the celebrated ‘Ugly-Wuglies’, little more than scary cardboard faces attached to the end of brooms and essentially no more sinister than the average Halloween-themed Blue Peter make.

Joanne Sheppard joined me for a chat about The Enchanted Castle and her fragmentary memories of The Ugly-Wuglies on Looks Unfamiliar here.

1980: “Pa-P-Parrrrrrr!”

A Little Silver Trumpet by Thea Bennett (BBC/Knight,Books,1980).

L.T. Meade’s A Little Silver Trumpet would probably have done nothing bar gather cloth-bound dust on the shelves of second hand bookshops were it not for a viewer who, having enjoyed – and presumably actually understood – The Moon Stallion, wrote in to suggest that this forgotten children’s novel was ideal source material for a run-up-to-Christmas adaptation. Ther was no trace of olde-worlde-psychedelic fantasy in this straightforward social-status-swap melodrama, and the discovery of a fifty pound note somewhat implausibly stitched inside a dress was about as dramatic as it got, but it still won tons of awards and got a ‘lost’ book spruced up and reissued into the bargain so must have been doing something right. Also on offer over this Christmas was The Bells Of Astercote, a plague-haunting superstition-debunking yarn that was the first entry in the Children’s Department’s sadly short-lived attempt at emulating A Ghost Story For Christmas, which you can find much more about here.

1981: “You Are A Dirty, Messy, Stupid, Lying Clown!”

Codename Icarus by Richard Cooper (BBC/Knight Books, 1981).

Dispensing with the traditional Ye Olde Winter stylings in favour of an altogether different form of chilliness, Adric-adjacent Cold War thriller Codename Icarus concerned itself with a shadowy British military installation covertly recruiting misfit child genii to assist in the development of futuristic weapons for the purposes of Commie-obliteration. Densely packed with Nazi allegories, impressive military action sequences and ambitious wrestling with the concept of scientific progress versus the nature of good and evil, this was high concept indeed, but writer Richard Cooper was really only warming up for the infinitely more unhinged ITV children’s serial Knights Of God a couple of years later. Meanwhile, if all this Red Menace stuff wasn’t quite your ‘bag’, there was always the first and best Grange Hill Christmas Special, in which Tucker and Doyle united to fight a bigger foe and stop him from stealing the school’s, erm, ‘disco equipment’, penned by Phil Redmond via some suggestions made by a Blue Peter competition entrant.

Rae Earl joined me for a chat about being simultaneously inspired and terrified by Codename Icarus in Looks Unfamiliar here.

1982: “I’m Just As Good As You, ‘Beetle’!”

Break Point by Jeremy Burnham (BBC/Knight Books, 1982).

Back to reality for a sport-centric culture clash, effectively Billy Elliot two decades ahead of its time only with fairly realistic tennis taking the place of fairly unrealistic ballet dancing and indeed real eighties fashions taking the place of ‘ha ha, that’s how people used to dress back then!’ eighties fashions. Famously, the cast of Break Point were selected on the basis of playing a few sets against the producer rather than reading out any of the script, and in a real case of life mirroring art, Jane ‘Beetle’ Pearson went on to become a real life tennis champion. All very well and good for its undoubted feelgood factor, but those in search of the more usual semi-supernatural fare had to content themselves with the feature length Radiophonic Workshop-submerged spectral possession chiller Ghost In The Water, which you can read much more about here.

1983: “Walk On The Drugget, Children!”

Carrie's War by Nina Bawden (Puffin, 1973).

For unclear reasons there was no new festive fare this year, and viewers instead had to pretend to enjoy a repeat of the decade-old evacuees’n’cursed skellington serialisation of Nina Bawden’s much-favoured by older sisters novel Carrie’s War. Unusually, ITV chose this exact moment to step into the breach with the far more satisfying The Witches And The Grinnygog, light-heartedly charting the attempts of a pair of Rod And Todd Flanders-esque brothers to retrieve a mislaid stone gargoyle thing off their local church wall from a landscape gardening-fixated parishioner; and which, thanks to the rights-buying documentation-trashing hijinks of Ian Disney, is now contractually unavailable to anyone anywhere. Yeah, thanks for that, ‘Walt’.

1984: “Have You Got Any Cheese For Me?”

The Box Of Delights by John Masefield (Armanda Lions, 1984).

What is there to say about The Box Of Delights that hasn’t been said a million times already? From the first glimpse of that creepy title sequence to the very last Roger Limb-enhanced orchestral swell, and through every last second of Patrick Troughton’s performance, the effects may have aged slightly yet it remains as spellbindingly Christmassy as television is ever likely to get, plus you can laugh at Nick Berry playing a rat. Pretty much the centrepiece of the BBC’s much-trumpeted ‘Autumn Season’, something that approximately fourteen million million Radio Times covers and Blue Peter features were there to provide handy reminders of, but it would be churlish not to mention another serial that was hovering around the schedules – the shakily-acted flight through shakily-realised non-alien occupied wastelands of The Tripods.

Stephen O’Brien joined me on Looks Unfamiliar for a chat about the original transmission of The Box Of Delights, including his thoughts on that ever so slightly slapdash tie-in paperback cover, here.

1985: “………………………………….”

Children's BBC logo, 1985.

1985 was the year of big BBC cutbacks to fund the imminent launch of daytime television, which spelt bad news for fans of Pop Quiz, Crackerjack, Juliet Bravo and of the children’s schedules containing anything other than Fame!The Flintstones and ‘Friday Film Special’, which in itself scarcely ever seemed to contain anything other than endless showings of Pop Pirates. Oh, and apparently they cancelled some programme or other this year too. Needless to say there was precious little money available to mount any kind of ambitious Christmas-leaning serial, especially one maintaining the high standard set by The Box Of Delights, and the nearest that the audience got was that decidedly odd Grange Hill For Christmas based around some kind of slapstick shenanigans involving Imelda Davies and a donkey. All was not lost, however, and the new year would herald the return of Children’s BBC drama with a vengeance in the form of Kate Bush-soundtracked search for errant ‘bins’ Running Scared.

Running Scared by Bernard Ashley (Puffin Plus, 1985).

1986: “It’s Alexander’s Flute!”

The Children Of Green Knowe (BBC1, 1986).

Quite unlike what was unfolding in Doctor Who around the same time, the eighteen month ‘hiatus’ had clearly done the world of good for the Yuletide yarns, as 1986 brought what was arguably the very finest of the lot – The Children Of Green Knowe. On face value the novel-derived tale of a fifties public schoolboy spending Christmas with an elderly relative in the family’s ancestral home – and meeting some of his time-echoing Charles II-era ancestors along the way – wouldn’t appear to have much going for it, but rarely has such a gentle story been so beautifully and atmospherically realised – well, apart from the ‘walking statue’ right at the end, but we’ll overlook that for now – and with a misleadingly eerie title sequence and theme tune thrown in for good measure too. Also you did have to feel for the inevitable classmate who had the misfortune to closely resemble Alex ‘Tolly’ Christie. This may be seen as heresy in certain quarters, but The Children Of Green Know might even be better than The Box Of Delights, which itself was given a repeat in fifty-minute chunks over Christmas 1986. Meanwhile, ITV threw in some welcome Sunday-before-Christmas distraction in the form of an hour-long special of James Galway-heralded Liliputian comedy-drama, Return Of The Antelope. Which nobody remembers now.

1987: “Solita?” – “Nah Mate, It’s Kim Wilde!”

Aliens In The Family by Margaret Mahy (Hippo, 1987).

‘Salty’ dialogue ahoy as an alien-in-training bumps into a trio of squabbling step-siblings – who of course were ‘aliens’ too, aaaaaahhhhh! – whilst trying to avoid the the attentions of the marauding ‘Wirdegens’, a Flying Pickets-in-cowls-resembling bunch of bad guys headed by Mr. Fowl from Hardwicke House. Unlike most of the earlier serials, Aliens In The Family was set very firmly in the here and now, with a reference to Phillip Schofield, Morten Harket or that Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot character pretty much every five seconds, and an infamous joke about his sister being called ‘Solita’ (“Nah mate, it’s Kim Wilde”). No sign of Phil Cool drinking Citrus Spring though, sadly.

1988: “Oh Aslan, You’re Not Dead!”

The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo (Magnet, 1988).

Talk about being spoilt for choice. Albeit not actually the choices anyone actually wanted. The BBC launched their over-acclaimed Sunday evening adaptations of The Chronicles Of Narnia with The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, which made the front page of the Radio Times, but its ‘Five Go Mad On Turkish Delight’ stylings and endless wittering about fauns were of scant interest to audiences that had previously thrilled to the exploits of Kaye Harker, Bond And Solita and ‘Green Noah, demon tree, evil fingers, can’t catch me!’. They hadn’t been forgotten about, though, and were in fact more than capably catered for with adolescent-angst-meets-ghosts-of-old-seadogs lighthouse-based spookfest The Watch House, the inevitable repeat of The Children Of Green Knowe, and seriously unhinged one-off Billy’s Christmas Angels, which made absolutely no sense whatsoever but apparently had something to do with Nabil Shaban, Will from The Tripods, a pawn shop-bound guitar and mid-eighties variety show mainstays The Mint Juleps doing acapella versions of Bruce Springsteen songs. On top of this, ITV scored a rare pre-Christmas victory with an impressive Saturday afternoon double bill; visually arresting if impenetrably storylined frost-festooned Welsh folk tale The Snow Spider, and the totally off-the-sensibility-scale How To Be Cool, an explicability-defying Philip Pullman-penned The Prisoner/A Clockwork Orange-influenced dystopian thriller about the attempts of ‘The Mighty Gobbo’ and his Beastie Boys-attired associates to overthrow the sinister fashion-controlling ‘ National Cool Board’ mastermind Mr Cashman, starring Roger Daltrey, Tricia Penrose, Freddie Jones and a very young Perry Fenwick as a football-obsessed sub-Droog henchman. As well as someone we can’t mention now and whose presence, regrettable, ensures that it can never be repeated.

1989: “Howay Mon Winston Mon Yeen Canna Do That!”

No.

It was strange that 1988 should have been such a bumper year for spooky sci-fi serials, but it also served as an inadvertently fitting finale, as within twelve months the distinct odour of Caspar Berry was drifting across the horizon. Yes, Byker Grove was here to block-book those vital few weeks in November and December into perpetuity, and things were never quite the same again…

The Tripods: The White Mountains by John Christopher (Puffin, 1984).

Buy A Book!

Winter’s Tales, a detailed history of the various sci-fi/supernatural children’s serials covered in this feature and more (including the ITV ones) can be found in Well At Least It’s Free, a collection of columns and features with loads about archive children’s television. Well At Least It’s Free is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Just make sure Bond doesn’t mistake the mug for Solita or something.

Further Reading

A Ghost Story For Christmas (For Children) is a feature taking a more in-depth look at The Bells Of Astercote and Ghost In The Water; you can find it here.

You Shall Have It Under Your Hand Today is a look at the long hunt for the soundtrack of The Box Of Delights, and how what appeared to be the classical records used in it were not always quite what they seemed; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can find editions of Looks Unfamiliar with Richard Littler on The Moon Stallion – and spooky ITV children’s serial Come Back Lucyhere, Joanne Sheppard on The Enchanted Castle here, Rae Earl on Codename Icarus here and Stephen O’Brien on The Box Of Delights here. You can hear me talking about the BBC Pinocchio on My 70s TV Childhood here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.