When I was thirteen years old, I started to keep irregular sleeping hours. All teenagers do this; it’s part of that whole thing of taking control of your life thing. Kids these days spend these twilight hours online, chatting or gaming, but when I was thirteen the Commodore 64 was the height of home computing technology and if you wanted to play a game on that, you could start loading it at midnight and it might just be loaded before 2am. Besides, I didn’t have one.
What I did have, however, was an old B&W Bush portable TV. Now, watching live TV in the wee small hours in this day and age is an unedifying experience for a teenager, unless you count repeats of dull documentaries, minority programming, near-naked ‘babes’ or movies that no-one wants to watch at any other time of the day. Despite having dozens more channels to watch, there’s not really anything to capture a youngsters imagination on late night TV these days.
But in the mid-80s, we were actually quite lucky. A lot luckier than a lot of people would have you believe, in fact. The reason for this is that the four existing TV channels started expanding their broadcasting hours ever so slightly and chose to fill a lot of that time with classic American television of the 50s and 60s.
I think I probably started off watching Sgt Bilko (The Phil Silvers Show), which the BBC had been broadcasting at the tail-end of its schedule for a very long time and which could always be relied upon to provide a few belly laughs before bedtime. Then somewhere along the line, I discovered that BBC2 was showing double bill repeats of the original The Twilight Zone late on Friday nights. I must have caught the repeats somewhere near the beginning because the first episode that I ever saw was Mr. Denton on Doomsday, which I later discovered is the third episode. It was doubled with The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine, which follows it chronologically; so the BBC must have been showing them in somewhere near their original order.
The Twilight Zone captured my young imagination to an unprecedented degree. There was little of any interest to me on UK television in the early to mid eighties, apart from series that I had followed for years like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, but the sheer quality of storytelling in The Twilight Zone grabbed me like a vice and wouldn’t let go. I was starting to read voraciously at this point and one of my favourites was Ray Bradbury. The Twilight Zone tied in neatly with my love of Bradbury and the American gothic style, proving a great inspiration to me in my burgeoning love of writing.
I tuned in eagerly to every Friday repeat of The Twilight Zone; sitting in the darkness of my bedroom with that little Bush TV, getting lost in the extraordinary adventures that unfolded before me. The writing of The Twilight Zone, particularly in those early series where Rod Serling carried the bulk of the chores with able back-up from the likes of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, was so intricate and of such a high quality. It saddens me now that a lot of people think of The Twilight Zone as a gimmicky show with ‘twist’ endings. Serling was an award winning TV playwright and a lot of his episodes feature no ‘twist’ at all and where they do, he often cleverly plays with the format by introducing the ‘twist’ in the middle or at the very beginning.
My parents, seeing my interest in late-night TV watching (and probably wanting their portable back) bought me a portable TV-Tape-Radio player for Christmas. This only had a five inch B&W screen, but it had the capacity to record onto audio tape directly from the TV! In the days when a Video Cassette cost about a month’s pocket-money, this was an incredibly exciting development. I started to record episodes of The Twilight Zone on cheap cassettes to listen to again later. You’d be surprised how many episodes work just as well on audio as visually. One of my favourites to listen back to was the episode Mirror Image. It’s not a highly-regarded episode, but in terms of weirdness and atmosphere, it’s still one of my all-time favourites.
Around the same time as the Beeb were showing The Twilight Zone, the fledgling Channel 4 started to fill their late night schedules with repeats of The Avengers and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I fell for The Avengers almost as heavily as I did for The Twilight Zone and, along with the perennial Doctor Who; those shows represent the triumvirate of my favourite all-time TV. Quite soon after I’d started watching The Avengers, Channel 4 switched it to an earlier time-slot, meaning that I could watch the later episodes downstairs and in colour as intended. As such, it doesn’t really fall under the purview of this essay, which is a shame because I really do love The Avengers! Never mind, I’ll just have to write another piece about Steed and friends, that’s all.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents was another revelation. I hadn’t seen much of Hitchcock at that age. I’d most likely seen Psycho and maybe The Birds. It’d be a number of years before I caught up with the films of the Master of Suspense, but in the meantime I had his rather marvelous TV anthology series to enjoy. As with The Twilight Zone, the real hook of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was the writing – superb, taut thrillers packed into 25 minute episodes. TV writers these days complain that you need an hour or sometimes even a movie length format to develop character, but these two shows ably demonstrate what a load of old bunkum that is. A good old-school TV scriptwriter could introduce a character, make you care for them and then shock you with their downfall, all in two 12-minute acts.
Of course, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had Hitch himself at the controls, as well as introducing every episode in his inimitable laconic style. Hitch even directed a handful of episodes. A testament to the quality of the show is the little-known fact that Hitch co-opted most of his crew from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series to film Psycho! Some of my favourite AHP episodes were those based on the short stories of Roald Dahl, in his former life as an author of adult fiction. Tales like Man from the South and Lamb to the Slaughter are more vividly brought to life by this series than they were in Tales of the Unexpected twenty years later.
By and by, the four UK terrestrial channels stopped showing classic American anthologies in the late night slot. My portable TV wasn’t entirely put out to pasture though – I used it to catch up on most of the classic Hammer horror movies on ITV. They’d usually squeeze one in on a Friday night before the real horror started with that characteristically 80s abomination The Hit Man and Her. Because they were colour, I never really saw them in their full glory, but with no Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it was always something to watch. ITV also randomly screened the 60s sitcom That Girl in a late night slot, which I’ve never seen before or since on UK television.
By the early 90s we all had our own VCRs and the need to scheduled late night viewing was lost, but I’ll never forget the hours I spent in front of a little B&W portable TV enjoying the laughter and chills of TV made well before I was born. To this day, I never quite get the full thrill of an episode of The Twilight Zone unless I’m watching it in the darkness, tucked up in bed.
Originally published on the ‘Carnival for the Common Man’ Blog.