It’s odd now to think that there was a time when daytime television wasn’t just boisterous property developer types stomping round a suburban street corner on a shouty collision course with the camera to the accompaniment of Coffee In The Pot by Supergrass and groups of people who you think you’ve heard some of the names of but aren’t quite sure of what they actually do sitting around frowning about some other equally obscure celebrity’s latest Instagram faux-pas. Although the BBC and ITV both had to put something on during those hours to meet the demands of some sort of scheduling-skewed arms race – even Channel 4 didn’t really bother until the mid to late eighties – they were both aware that nobody would really be watching, and that anyone who might be was not really worth expending any thought or money on, so daytime essentially became a convenient skip where they could throw anything and everything that didn’t fit anywhere or everywhere else while the builders weren’t looking. This wasn’t even limited to anything and everything that wouldn’t fit anywhere else; lurk around the daytime schedules – such as they were – for too long and you would run into all manner of untransmittable tedium scraped off the edges of a film editor’s desk drawer and flung out just as a way of making sure there was actually something on the screen. They may have stopped short of reaching for Go Girl, Mainly For Men and Sugarball The Little Jungle Boy, but probably only just. Essentially, television was something that it was considered whatever the opposite of right and proper is to indulge in outside of defined and approved viewing hours, and if you chose to contravene that for a spot of mid-morning goggleboxing, then that was entirely at your own risk.
That said, over on the BBC, everything was pretty much as you might expect. Programmes For Schools And Colleges and the odd underwhelming animated series and bit and piece of regional opt-out business here and there in the mornings, News After Noon, Pebble Mill At One and Watch With Mother/See Saw over lunch, and – unless there was live sporting coverage – late afternoons taken up on an apparently entirely random basis by a light comedy movie like Please Don’t Eat The Daisies, Not Now, Comrade or that one where Jon Pertwee played an ‘American’ by talking in his normal voice but calling everyone ‘Mac’. All that you really had to worry about were the admittedly numerous and seemingly centuries-long appearances by BBC Test Card F.
ITV, on the other hand, were as good as lawless. Already holding scant regard for what went in between the advertising slots that nobody was exactly paying competitive prices for, and further compounded by the individual ITV regions – as that’s what they were then – being told that filling the non-networked slots was their responsibility and theirs alone, they would more or less fling on whatever was nearest and cheapest to hand so long as it kept the IBA colour bars off screen, apparently neither knowing nor caring whether anyone was actually watching. The ITV daytime schedules were essentially a ‘hauntologist”s dream. Or nightmare, however that works exactly. The videos for La Serenissima by Rondo Veneziano, Jimmie Jones by The Vapors and Big Log by Robert Plant – not to mention that Butterfly Ball thing – as ‘Pop Time’ filler, long after they had tried and failed to trouble the charts. Imported great outdoorsy offcuts like outback zen quest with very polite shootouts The Outsiders and Canadian lumber-skewed action comedy The Beachcombers. Dynamic synth-soundtracked overexposed glare-prone film of daredevil types in Fisher Price Adventure People-style getup indulging in impenetrable feats of derring-do above enormous canyons or in the middle of the arctic. And all of if with virtually no introduction or context whatsoever. Yes, there were a handful of ‘proper’ programmes, but Afternoon Plus and its ilk often did ‘scary’ bits, while the likes of Whose Baby?, Looks Familiar (which you can hear much more about here) and That’s My Dog! would only turn up late in the afternoon, when you knew that the ‘normal’ world was about to clock off and herald a return to to something resembling explicability. Until then, you were on your own – often literally on your own – in a world of television that existed of its own accord and evolution and was probably made up of whatever the top rated shows were in those splinters in the space-time continuum in Sapphire And Steel. And it was there that I saw something that puzzled as much as it haunted me for a very long time indeed.
One afternoon in the deepest darkest recesses of the extremely late seventies, while I was not at school for reasons that are lost in the mists of time, the television was on in the background while the attendant adults were either concentrating on something more important or temporarily in another room, when my attention was suddenly caught by something so strange that it stood out even amongst the overall strangeness of ITV’s daytime output. It was a film about a teenage boy with glasses and an astonishing mop of curly hair who everybody appeared to hate, until one taunting neighbourhood girl bullied him so viciously that he shoved her, upon which she fell, hit her head on something and, well, you can work out the rest. Keen to protect him from the inevitable police investigation and associated pitchfork-wielding mobs of locals, his domineering mother pretended he had run away while hiding him in a secret chamber, feeding him with basic rations shoved through a hatch. While confined to the less than palatial surroundings, he slowly grew even more unhinged, scrawling part-demonic part-fairytale images on the walls and concocting plotless storylines connecting them all together. Then his mother herself disappeared, and another family moved in, who slowly began to become aware of a ‘ghost’ tormenting them at night. Larry The Lamb In Toytown it was not.
Even at that age, I knew that whatever this was, it was not just something I should not have seen, it was something that should not have been on in the afternoon at all. The overall effect was somewhere between the Bank Holiday-friendly shlocky glossy melodrama of TV Movies like John Travolta-starring true life tearjerker The Boy In The Plastic Bubble – which themselves often skirted around the very edges of timeslot acceptability – and the first five minutes of a grim imported police drama that you would sometimes get to see before being carted off to bed, though far sleazier and nastier than that might imply. It fascinated and alarmed me in equal measure, and the memory refused to abate – nothing about it was fuzzy or indistinct in my mind, and in fact I could even recall lines of dialogue. Needless to say, I eventually began to want to put a name to it. Which was to prove something of a challenge even to someone who was not exactly holed up in a hidden room when it came to the corners of cinematic history that you wouldn’t especially invite to a dinner party.
I knew with absolute certainty that had not just imagined this, but I didn’t know anyone else who remembered seeing it either. Trying to look it up in the library was no use, as even in the unlikely event that Halliwell’s Film Guide would have lowered its standards sufficiently to include an entry on something this degenerate – at that point, the likes of Last House On The Left and any Russ Meyer movie beyond Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and The Seven Minutes were conspicuous by their absence, presumably considered too debasing a silver screen stain on the legacy of the Golden Age of Hollywood even for the editor to do his trademark lamenting for the state of the modern world that make the entries on Yellow Submarine and Quadrophenia so unintentionally hilarious now – as I had no idea of the first letter of the title or even of who was in it. Checking in TV Times when you aren’t even one hundred percent certain of which year it was on will ensure you turn up late to that date with someone who was looking for a needle in a haystack. Even the under-the-counter-esque efforts that you could find falling off the edge of the TV And Film section in Dillons like The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film threw up no potential matches, even on the pages that did actually leave you wanting to throw up. Later, searching on the Internet only arrived at the very quick conclusion that you really wouldn’t be well advised having this kind of search history, and asking on forums only seemed to generate suggestions – often irksomely authoritative – that I was actually thinking of Crawlspace, a suitably cheap and nasty post-Manson 1972 horror effort along a similar theme. That was actually about a sullen hippy who decides to voluntarily take up residence in an unwitting couple’s structural void after ostensibly calling round to service their central heating, which isn’t really the same thing at all. Though I did like the poster for Crawlspace, depicting as it does what appears to be Nick Drake falling down the stairs.
Then, many misdirected enquiries later, someone actually responded suggesting that it might be Bad Ronald, a 1974 ABC TV Movie based on a 1973 novel by Jack Vance – and, fittingly, produced and directed by the same team as Crawlspace – that has since become something of a cult favourite on account of its lurid setting, storyline and visuals and what is perhaps best described as ‘over-invested’ acting. I managed to track down a copy of Bad Ronald, and yes, that was indeed it, matching up with the memories every bit as precisely as the BBC ‘Sunday Classics’ version of Pinocchio had done. Which is the point at which the story became seriously bewildering…
Even allowing for some of the extremely abstract, unsettling and inappropriate material that ITV used to casually deploy to fill space before they bothered having a proper daytime service, it was impossible to see any way in which Bad Roland could possibly have been considered suitable to be allowed out in the afternoon. My memory of it was so clear, though, and if it had been on later, there was no way I would have actually seen any of it, supervised or not. It had definitely happened, but at the same time it absolutely could not have done. I searched and searched and searched around any ITV listings I could get my hands on, but all I could ever find were post-11pm showings scattered around the ITV regions – there was no way that they were ever going to network anything this bad – and for both geographic and bedtime-related reasons there was no way that I could possibly have seen any of them. Nothing I found ever provided any evidence to back up what I definitely saw. Until one day, quite by accident, I stumbled across a late-revision schedule for Granada for Friday 19th January 1979 – and there it was. At twenty five minutes past two in the afternoon, sandwiched between Afternoon Plus and wartime cap-pullage soap opera The Sullivans, ‘Bad Ronald (TV Movie) – When a disturbed teenager kills a girl, his mother hides him in a secret room’. The other regions opted for Columbo investigating a spot of Old Fashioned Murder, which is a title that is frankly quite welcome in this context. Later on that day The Ghosts Of Motley Hall went searching for a hidden stash of money to help fund repairs to the Motley Hall roof, and Liberace showed up on The Muppet Show, neither of which appear to have made quite as strong an impression on an impressionable young mind. Later still, Vega$ found Dan Tanna hunting a criminal preying on beauty pageant contestants – so the same plot as about eighteen million other episodes of Vega$ then – and ITV’s late-night horror slot Appointment With Fear joined Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters for 1971 Witness Protection shockfest What’s The Matter With Helen?, but let’s face it, both of them would still have looked like good clean family fun next to Bad Ronald.
Precisely who thought that showing Bad Ronald in this timeslot was a good idea – and why – is something that nobody knows. Whether they got away with it without sackfuls of letters of complaint being disgruntledly emptied into their office is something that nobody knows either. 1979, however, was also the year that Granada saw fit to set sail across the airwaves with the ludicrously over-ambitious riverbound ferry-set Saturday Morning children’s show The Mersey Pirate (which you can read more about here), so you can draw your own conclusions about exactly how high a degree of rationality they were applying to their output around that time.
So that’s the story of how a murky and unpleasant low-budget movie that would still provoke complaints in any timeslot now got shown way back when at a time when children not only could have been watching, but actually were. Meanwhile, if anyone can help me identify that early seventies Spanish film about three women who steal a speedboat that I mentioned here…
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If you’ve enjoyed this, you’ll can find more tales of seeing unlikely films in unlikely circumstances in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Do Not Viddy This, My Brothers is the story of how I didn’t get to see A Clockwork Orange; you can find it here.
ITV’s peculiar attitude to daytime scheduling was one of the topics under discussion in Looks Unfamiliar with Stephen O’Brien, which you can find here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.