Stepping Back into the Shadows

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I’m not the sort of person who goes on about the children’s television shows of the 70s and 80s that ‘traumatised’ them as a child; in fact, that sort of behaviour really annoys me. If the most traumatic thing that happened to you as a kid was watching Sapphire & Steel, you should count yourself damn lucky and stop bleating about it. However, there was one moment that slightly haunted me for many years and I only comparatively recently found out what it was from. It was a scene of a man turning into the tree; he became rooted to the spot, unable to move as his arms became branches and his face was covered with bark. Like many kids, I used to have nightmares about being unable to move and this scene seemed to hit at the heart of that phobia. For years, I asked round my friends who are very knowledgeable about TV, to see if anyone could name the show, but no-one could. Then one day, completely out of the blue, I saw a clip from the story The Man Who Hated Children, an episode of the late-70s spooky anthology show for kids called Shadows – and I knew instantly where that feared scene had originated.

More of that later; The Man Who Hated Children is one of the last few episodes of Shadows, which ran for three series between 1975 and 1978. The show was initially produced by Pamela Lonsdale, who had previously produced Ace of Wands and created the pre-school show Rainbow; Ruth Boswell, former producer of The Tomorrow People took over for the second series before Lonsdale returned for the third. Shadows attracted some impressive names as scriptwriters, including Fay Weldon, J.B. Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes, and more big name actors than one would expect to see in a children’s TV show. There are also a lot of child actors who went on to great things in their adult life, such as Pauline Quirke, Peter Duncan, Gwyneth Strong and Sophie Ward. Jenny Agutter doesn’t really fall into that category because she’d already had great success with The Railway Children and was mere months away from filming Logan’s Run.

From the first series, Shadows established the format of mixing ghost stories with tales of witchcraft and magic and elements of ancient folklore. The first story, The Future Ghost by Roger Marshall, explores the fascinating idea of someone from the present day find themselves to be a ghostly presence in the past. In this case it’s a sick young woman from 1975 whose ‘future’ room is stumbled upon by a Victorian girl occupying the same building 100 years earlier and it’s a fascinating and intricate start to the series. After School by Ewart Alexander (the series’ most prolific writer) features genre stalwart Gareth Thomas as a P.E. teacher in Wales supervising two unruly children. Left alone, the children start to experience ghostly resonances of a mining disaster many years earlier. This was less than 10 years after the Aberfan disaster in 1966, when a school in a Welsh mining village was engulfed by a collapsing slag heap, so such disasters will have been quite fresh in the public consciousness.

The Witch’s Bottle by Stewart Farrar is a traditional British story of a witch’s presence lingering in the place where she was killed many years ago. Although a lot of it takes place in the garden of a country house, it’s quite effectively filmed in studio, as is The Waiting Room by Jon Watkins, in which the aforementioned Jenny Agutter and her brother find time repeating itself in a very spooky manner in a remote railway station waiting room. Shadows often works best when restricted to single, studio-bound settings, as it gives an unsettling sense of claustrophobia, which is heightened by the fact that the directors were never afraid to turn the lights right down. Pauline Quirke seemed to specialise in panicky troubled teens in her younger years; she plays one in An Optical Illusion by Tom Clarke, and would go on to play a very similar role in the first episode of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts the following year. This is another ‘troubled spirit’ episode, set in a stately home turned museum, once again showcasing the single set scenario.

The next episode is unusual in being a semi-spin-off from Ace of Wands; Trevor Preston’s Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes brings back the villainous magician Mr. Stabs and his assistant Luko from the AOW serial Seven Serpents, Sulphur and Salt, once again played by Russell Hunter and Ian Trigger. It’s great to see the characters again and the performances from the two leads cry out for a series of their own, but sadly the script is far from being Trevor Preston’s best work, gleefully ‘borrowing’ from The Twilight Zone’s Dead Man’s Shoes and the Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) episode Murder Ain’t What It Used to Be. Trevor Preston would bring back Mr. Stabs one more time in 1984 in an episode of the first series of Dramarama entitled simply Mr. Stabs, with the title character played by David Jason and Luko by David Rappaport. The series ends with The Other Window by famous novelist J.B. Priestley and his partner Jacquetta Hawkes. This is a story about a special lens that shows images of the past when taped to a window. It’s a bit old-fashioned and seems out of place among the quite modern stories that precede it; one can almost imagine The Other Window being filmed in B&W in the early 60s.

The first series had a minimalist title sequence that composed of a candle casting shadows on a wall over which word Shadows forms. For the second series, this is replaced by what is regarded by many to be the scariest opening titles of any children’s TV series ever! To a sequence of weird sounds, you had an animated title sequence full of strange imagery such as a young girl whose shadow is skipping while she stands stock still. It’s very unsettling and is a large part of why the second series is considered the scariest of the three. The first story The Dark Streets of Kimball’s Green tells of an orphaned young girl fostered by a dragon of a woman who makes friends with an old derelict and convinces herself that an ancient mythological king is coming to rescue her. As a child, I would have viewed it as a simple fantasy, but viewing it now, the heartbreaking scenes of an unhappy orphaned child crouched in a vandalised telephone box making pleading imaginary calls for someone to come and rescue her is a sad indictment of the failures of Social Services in 1970s Britain.

Time Out of Mind by Penelope Lively sees a teenage girl imagining herself into a Victorian doll’s house that she sees in her museum. It’s a little bit twee and very brightly lit, so it doesn’t really fall into the same category as the other episodes this series. The Inheritance by Josephine Poole is more what we come to expect from Shadows, the tale of a teenager discovering the haunting secrets of the past; in this case, it’s a boy who feels out of sync with his city life coming to terms with his destiny when his Grandfather, the last in a long line of gamekeepers, comes to visit and explains to him the ancient and mystical secrets of the forest. As with a lot of episodes of Shadows, The Inheritance isn’t afraid to pull punches and the Grandfather dies at the end of the story, making way for the boy to continue the family tradition.

Susan Cooper is a successful children’s fantasy author whose best known work is The Dark is Rising series, which 20th Century Fox attempted to launch as a film series to rival Harry Potter in 2007 (without success, only one film was made). For the second series of Shadows, Cooper wrote Dark Encounter, which is set within the world of The Dark is Rising. Alongside series one’s Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes, this shows that the producers of Shadows weren’t afraid to bring in characters and story elements from pre-existing properties and it’s this sense of variety that makes the show something special. Dark Encounter fits nicely into the ethos of the series, being about the discovery of ancient forces and/or powers in a remote rural location. Susan Cooper’s books incorporate elements of Arthurian mythology, an element that hangs heavily over every series of Shadows and will crop up again in the very next story…

Peronik by Rosemary Harris takes an obscure part of Grail Lore, that concerning Peronik the perfect fool, and superimposes it over the mundane story of a boy attending a school disco. It’s a rather surreal episode and it ends with a scene that you’d almost certainly never be allowed to put on kids’ TV these days, as the hero and his mate pretend to open fire on a crowd of screaming school kids with toy machine guns! Closing the series is The Eye by Ewart Alexander; the simple story of a couple of kids alone in the house haunted by a malevolent spirit trapped in an ancient Greek urn. The Eye is a good example of how the directors on Shadows often used lighting and sound to create an unsettling atmosphere; throughout the story, the orange light from a Belisha beacon can be seen flashing through the windows of the house and the director Neville Green concentrates on bubbling pots boiling over to add a sense of urgency.

The Third series of Shadows concentrates more on fantasy, as demonstrated by its new opening title sequence and (for the first time) music. If the intention was to make the show less scary for kids, this didn’t quite work because this series is the origin of the scene that troubled me as an 8-year old. The first story Eleven O’Clock by Ewart Alexander is quite typical of Shadows, a ghost story in a remote house revolving around spirits from World War I, but the following episode The Rose of Puddle Fratrum by Joan Aitken is one of the most surreal in the entire run! Starting off as the simple story of a young reporter looking for the story on a reclusive prima ballerina from a small village, it then chucks a chatty portable computer into the mix and ends with almost certainly the only example of one-legged computer ballet ever seen on British television. Shadows stayed away from Chromakey (the primitive blue-screen process, also known as CSO) for most of its run, but there are a few examples in this third series, including the dancing computers in this one) and it’s as basic as you would expect from the 70s.

Sapphire & Steel creator P.J. Hammond makes his only contribution to the series with And For My Next Trick, in which a struggling magician played by Clive Swift suddenly finds himself in possession of three magical jewelled eggs capable of performing amazing tricks; unfortunately, every time he uses them, part of his old act disappears. It’s a great example of someone succumbing to temptation even though they know it’s destroying their own life and is characteristically sophisticated children’s writing from Hammond. The Boy Merlin by Stewart Farrar (from a story by Ann Carlton) takes us back to Arthurian mythology, but this time pre-Arthur instead of post. This story of the fabulous wizard Merlin as a young boy spun off into its own series the following year, also produced by Pamela Lonsdale. The series The Boy Merlin, which essentially filled Shadows’ production slot at Thames, only lasted one series of 6 episodes.

And now it’s time for that episode that haunted me as a child: The Man Who Hated Children by Brian Patten. When I eventually got to see it again, it surprised me that this is essentially a comedy episode, with George A. Cooper (soon to be known to millions of British kids as the school caretaker Mr. Griffiths in Grange Hill) playing a curmudgeonly old man who plans to force through a curfew for children by vandalising a park and blaming it on the local youngsters. It’s a peculiar script that brings in elements of Peter Pan and is filmed in studio partly on expressionist sets to represent different areas of the park. The worrisome scene comes right at the end, when a child wishes that the old man would change and he transforms into a tree. The shots of roots emerging from his trouser legs, branches from his sleeves and his cries of distress as he is unable to move, his face covering with bark, stuck with me for years and years. When I watched it years later, the final zoom out of his face in a knot-hole of the tree was immediately recognisable. A positive spin, however, is that seeing this story again and realising that it’s a comedy exorcised my childhood fears after over forty years.

The Silver Apple by Roy Russell (from a story by Philip Glassborow) is an old-fashioned dark fairy tale about two princes, an evil wizard and a magic carpet. Filmed on minimalist sets and with heavy use of Chromakey, it feels more like an episode of Jackanory Playhouse and its star is a pre-Blue Peter Peter Duncan. It’s entertaining enough, but it doesn’t feel like Shadows and the feeling that the producers were keen to move onto something else seems to hang over the production. The final episode is Honeyann by Fay Weldon and it’s quite possibly the best – certainly the best written – episode of the entire series. Gwyneth Strong returns for a second time as a young country girl who takes up a position as a nurse maid to the family of an ageing rock star; the household is seemingly controlled by a domineering nanny whom the older boy is convinced is a witch. Honeyann initially dismisses the idea, but when she runs foul of the nanny, she uses the ancient white magic taught to her by her mother to drive the witch out. The characterisation is excellent, as you would expect from a writer of Weldon’s calibre and this is a fitting end to the series.

In 1982, Thames television produced Dramarama: Spooky as a spin-off to the children’s drama strand Dramarama, which was a fourth series of Shadows in all but name, and Dramarama itself often included episodes that could have come from the earlier series (such as another outing for Mr. Stabs, mentioned earlier), but they were never quite the same. As time went on, children’s TV became more sensitive of portraying ghost and horror stories and apart from a few remarkable exceptions like Helen Cresswell’s Moondial and Russell T. Davies’ Century Falls (both for the BBC), the spirit of Shadows was driven out of network TV. But Shadows left an extraordinary legacy; for one thing, it was very female-led at a time when TV production was overwhelmingly male. Not only were both the producers women, but so were at least half of the writers. This was not a show aimed at boys; it was understood in the 70s that ghost and supernatural stories were incredibly popular with girls, as evidenced by the popularity of the classic girls’ comic Misty. This was a show for all children and yes, it might have produced a few restless nights, but such things are the spice of life and no amount of gunge-tanks and fart-gags will ever replace the exciting chill of watching an old man turn into a tree.

Sleep well, children… and don’t have nightmares.

2 thoughts on “Stepping Back into the Shadows

  1. Hello,

    Firstly, thank you for the review. “Shadows” remains a haunting childhood memory.

    And *THAT* scene – that very same scene you refer to – absolutely terrified me as a kid too. Like yourself, I didn’t register it as a comedy episode at that age. I watched the episode again recently, and even seeing in it in context and as an adult, it still has a disturbing quality!

    Kind Regards,
    C.W.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yeah, for years I had no idea what it was from and none of my friends knew. I only found out by chance when I saw the series on DVD.

      Like

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