Sunday, 24 August 2014
When I was only 8 years old my parents sold our house and told me that I would be moving schools. Devastated was I, not because I was leaving behind some wonderful friends and not because I’d have to take down my Wham posters and pack up my Look In magazines. I was devastated because our class had just begun watching Look and Read on the four-wheel-drive television on Monday afternoons and I would be leaving school half way through the series and half way through the most disturbing thing I had ever seen in my 8 years on earth, The Boy From Space, a dramatic Sci-Fi series integrated within the educational context of the programme. Each episode saw some children excuse themselves from the room, some with letters from their parents, some who just endured and spent the rest of the term in a terrified sleepless daze. What I saw of the series sparked in me some wild adrenal hunger that could only be quenched with a decent scare. As a last day treat, my form teacher allowed me to read through the accompanying textbook so that I could find out the fate of Peep Peep. But it wasn't the same as seeing it with my own eyes. Luckily for me and the vast cult-following that was formed during the Look and Read years, the BFI have put the lot on DVD, in both its original serial format and in a specially cut feature version. And, I’m pleased to say, it has lost none of its ghastly appeal.
The Boy From Space is an adventure story told from the perspective of our reliable narrator, Helen (Sylvestra Le Touzel) who along with her brother Dan (Stephen Garlick) makes a frightening discovery after witnessing what they believe to be a falling meteorite. With the help of a compass, the pair set out the following morning to investigate further. As they descend deeper into the woods Helen becomes aware of a shift in the atmosphere as she realises that all of the birds have stopped singing and when Dan checks his compass, he is startled to find it spinning out of control. When the pair reach a giant secluded sand pit, they are struck by a strange sound and in the distance an even stranger sight. The Thin Man (John Woodnutt) adorned in a mac and hat, creeps wide eyed and curious towards them, he begins to chase them first on foot and then in a car before making his exit and leaving the two children shaken but not scared. As the siblings prepare to leave they encounter another, less threatening figure, a young boy who speaks in a series of beeps, squeaks and pips. His name is Peep Peep, he’s the boy from space and he is in danger.
Richard Carpenter’s serial is a masterclass in suspense, particularly when enjoyed as part of the Look and Read series, as each five minute segment leaves you quivering on the edge of your seat, sometimes terrified and literally screaming for more. As Helen recounts her erstwhile adventure, her sombre and unaffected tone comes at you with the serious properness of a Public Information film, immediately recalling the nostalgic horror of Lonely Water or Front Seat Child. Her sincerity is appeasing, yet it lulls you into a false sense of security because you believe her every, chilling word. Any child that enjoyed the foot stomp of a Saturday matinee in the 70s or 80s will relate to this story as it’s filmed with a similar aesthetic; cheap, fearful and startlingly real. Carpenter plays with the idea of childhood curiosity, isolating the children somewhat and throwing adventure their way without the constraints of a cautious, head shaking parent. Every child’s dream soon turns into a nightmare as the sibling protagonists overstep the boundaries of all that we are warned against when we’re younger; don’t go into the woods alone, don’t put yourself in imminent danger and don’t talk to strangers. It all adds up to one of the most terrifying and unforgettable introductions to a character ever, The Thin Man, a frighteningly descriptive yet simplistic title that’s accompanied by an even scarier performance from John Woodnut.
As The Thin Man roams around the desolate pit, his movements and his wide eyed, silent stoicism are the pure epitome of alien and as he fast approaches the children, everything your parents ever warned you about stranger-danger can be seen reflected in the glaring close-up of his demented gaze. His make-up is a minimal silver sheen and his Warhol-esque haircut is hidden beneath the terrifying normality of an incongruous bowler hat. The mac that covers his somewhat dated space regalia is something else your mother warned you about. As the series progresses, the character loses his edge somewhat but you never forget that introductory moment in the pit, in a way that anyone who ever saw Bob crawl over the back of the sofa in Twin Peaks, is still haunted to this day. There are other familiar fears too such as the inability to communicate and moments of entrapment and menace which run, crying from the playground of pre-teen dreams. Perhaps Nicolas Roeg caught the series prior to directing The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) as there are several obvious similarities minus Bowie, boobs and a big budget.
Having watched the feature length presentation with my own children, I can tell you that they were as bewitched and as terror-stricken as I. The wooden acting, the cardboard sets, the terrible effects and costumes aside, The Boy From Space for all of its weaknesses has the power to entertain a contemporary audience as well as fuel the jittery nostalgia of the aged viewers who grew up afraid of David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video and hid behind the sofa every time Kate Bush came on the telly. The strength of the programme is in its proficient timing, gruellingly suspenseful moments and the constant pot boiling thrill of mild-threat. The series is up there with vintage Doctor Who, Chocky and other low budget Sci-Fi series that may not have the CGI effects or the big bucks behind them, but have the artful substance to trigger the imagination of a cult following and leave them trembling, merrily in their boots. It’s been thirty years since my badly-timed, mid-term departure left me hanging on a gripping sixth episode of The Boy From Space and finally thanks to the extensive BFI release, the wait is over and I can lay the perilous adventures of Peep Peep, Helen and Dan to rest. However, I’m not sure I will ever be able to say goodbye to The Thin Man but it helps to know that I am not alone or should that be “ɘnolɒ ƚon mɒ I” ?