Monday, 25 August 2014

The Boy From Space:
Terror beyond imagination

Some time in the early 1980s, when I was about eight years old, my primary school teacher would gather the class into the one room that had a TV and we'd watch the BBC's schools programming so she could have a snooze or a gin or whatever it was she did when nobody was looking. These programmes were usually about dorky kids having humdrum adventures, and were frequently interrupted every five minutes so that an annoying puppet could teach us how to use apostrophe's.

The above recollection is based entirely on some reading I did about BBC shools programming last week; personally, I don't remember any of those programmes at all. Except for one. One of them is seared into the deepest, darkest crevice of my cerebral cortex and comes for me in my most vulnerable moments, because it is literally the most terrifying thing I have ever clapped eyes on. It was called The Boy From Space, and after thirty-something years of me trying to forget it, the BFI are about to unleash it on the world in DVD format.
As a grown man who is definitely still in his thirties, I decided to face my nightmares head on and watch The Boy From Space again, in the hope that it might make me realise how silly it is to fear a kids' programme made before I was born. That hope was futile; within fifteen minutes I had assumed the foetal position and was rocking back and forth in my chair and calling for my mum.

As well as the ten-part, 200-minute-long series (including interrupting puppet waffle), the BFI's new release of The Boy From Space includes a 70-minute edit of the whole story that strips out all the punctuation and grammar lessons and presents the story as a feature-length sci-fi drama. It's the best way to watch it (unless you can't punctuatify or grammarise properly), and enormoprops to Peter Stanley at the BFI for a sterling editing job. Although having had to watch it over and over again I imagine he's now locked in a special home for the terminally disturbed.

The story concerns two irritating siblings, Dan and Helen, who are keen amateur stargazers. There's a bunch of guff about telescopes and astronomy, in an attempt to teach young viewers about the boring mechanics of staring into space, and then the programme forgets all that and takes a turn for the utterly mental. Searching an empty quarry (a favourite location of 1970s BBC filmmakers), Dan and Helen hear a mysterious sound: a squeaky, squelchy, backwardsy noise that triggered all sorts of palpitations when I heard it again. Before they can investigate, a car pulls up, and THIS GUY gets out of it and chases the kids for no apparent reason.
Hope this is the right image, I had my eyes screwed up in fear when I uploaded it

"The Thin Man", as they call him (rather than the more accurate "The Embodiment Of All That Is Unholy And Evil"), haunted my nightmares for WEEKS as a child. When I went to sleep I would have to clear a path from the bed to the door, so that when I turned the light off at the switch by the door I could leg it back into bed as quickly as was humanly possible so The Thin Man didn't get me. The fucker was TERRIFYING. Not only did he look like that, but he spoke by just holding his mouth open, and sounds not of this earth would fall out. Also he walked in slow motion: not slowly as such, but the film was slowed down just enough to make it look unnatural without an eight-year-old audience knowing exactly how. Why would you do that to a child?

But worse was to come. After The Thin Man gives up the chase (also for no apparent reason), Dan and Helen discover the source of the mysterious sound. A boy, maybe ten years old, appears and moves unsteadily towards the children. With white hair and a silvery complexion, he looks like the result of a carnal meeting between Game Of Thrones' Joffrey and one of the aliens from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The look on his face is one of abject terror and helplessness, and as he stumbles towards the camera, arms outstretched, I genuinely felt more unsettled and anxious than at any point during Under The Skin. I mean look at this:
nope NOPE NOPE

The facial expressions and gestures that young actor Colin Mayes employs in his role as the unearthly child - irritatingly called Peep-Peep by the kids, as if he's a cuddly toy rather than an absolute living dreadmonger - are remarkable, and are almost certainly to blame for my reaction as both boy and man. The programme itself, I discovered upon rewatching, is also responsible for my lifelong distrust of observatories and deserted quarries.

The rest of The Boy From Space plods on predictably and, obviously, somewhat childishly; writer Richard Carpenter claimed he was restricted to the first 200 words of the English language (although I didn't hear anyone say "aardvark", which is the third word in my Collins Gem dictionary). But it doesn't get any less deeply creepy, and for all of these reasons I can't see that I'll ever put myself through it again. Just posting the pictures in this blog post has made me clench my nethers out of extreme anxiety.

Available from today, it will almost certainly appear completely benign, if not downright silly, to any fully-formed adult who hasn't seen it before. But anyone similarly afflicted by its distressing approach to educating children will be hard-pressed to resist a curious revisit. Don't hold me responsible for what it does to you though, my dry-cleaning bill is big enough.

2 comments :

  1. I remember being properly freaked out by the line at the end of the credits: "Space goes on for ever". How is an 8-year old meant to get his head round that? I'd forgotten how terrifying the boy looked, thanks for that.

    However, it was the series previous to this called Dark Towers (why did they do this to kids in the early 80s?) that really scared me. I really did have nightmares about an ethereal floating glowy knight after that.

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  2. Your review of this DVD is almost as if I'd written it myself! I have hunted for clips and stories about this for years despite being terrified by it when I was younger and still pretty much terrified by it now (I'm 38!).

    If you take The Thin Man (he needs capitals, although grammatically I'm sure Wordy would, well, have a word) out of the equation, then TBFS is basically ET filmed in Borehamwood on a damp Tuesday morning instead of Redwood Forest in L.A. But with him, it's the scariest thing since.....well, since this was made!

    I had nightmares from this every night for about a year when I was 6. So much so that like you, I believed The Thin Man to be in my room, just between the window and my wardrobe. His beady eyes were starring at me waiting.......

    I'm going to buy this DVD, however it will bring back 'The Fear' so much so that even at night, I will know that The Thin Man is hiding in a plastic case in my DVD cupboard waiting, waiting, waiting.........Cue Paddy Kingsland synth.

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