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.

14 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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  3. It's the everydayness which gives it so much impact, that and the well-crafted simplicity of the story. This has stayed with me for forty years and is still quite terrifying in its way.

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  4. Me and my sister were both terrified by this show and used to cry because we didn't want to watch the next one! It gave us both nightmares for years. At the age of 40 now it still haunts me to see these pictures and haven't plucked up the courage to watch the videos yet if ever....my poor sister who's 38 is even more affected as was younger when she saw it and thank god l haven't got stairs as l'll always remember the shadow coming slowly up!! The thin man was the most freaky evil looking man l've ever seen! Those eyes!! What were the bbc thinking showing that to young kids in the dark?? l'd never let my daughters watch it!! We had to watch dark towers too but that was no where near as scary.

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  5. The thin man creeped into my mind today, i googled him to see if he was actually real or just a figment of my imagination, and i came here.

    I was also 8 years old, i remember laughing at Creepshow 3 when i was 8 ("Thanks for the ride LADY!", but the Thin man? Well he scarred me for life, it haunted me as a child. He was one scary muthaphucka and also that helpless alien kid....

    I am going to watch it... i know i shouldn't, but i am going to. Possibly with a glass of whiskey in hand.

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  6. As per my above comments on 26 August last year, I did indeed buy this DVD. And I sat with my 12 year old daughter who laughed at me for ever finding this scary. And I sat there transfixed, still scared and scarred all these years later.

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  7. Oh my days! For the last 30 years i've thought I was the only one who had these dreadful nightmares over a series chosen for school education! I'm so relieved that other share my scars. It still doesn't take away the shivers down my spine when I see those pictures though!

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  8. The Thin Man has plagued my dreams for thirty odd years. I couldn't remember where he was from or any other elements of the story ( I expect I had my eyes shut through all other episodes) but the image of the emaciated evil of this still terrifies me. Sat on a floor in the music room as a 9 year old, the telly would be rolled in, we were all scared rigid. Why did they think adding a flashers mac would be appropriate. Genuinely very weird.

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  9. Pretty sure this programme psychologically damaged me more than any teachers strike....

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  10. The Boy From Space scared me to death when I was 6 in 1982. I will never forget the sense of dread I felt sitting down to watch this every week. The first episode was eerie but enjoyable. The second was fine until THAT scene in the quarry. After that, I was petrified. So much so that my mum asked the school to exclude me from watching the later episodes as I was having terrible nightmares at home. Still, I managed to watch the whole thing eventually and for 30 years it occasionally came up in conversation. To now finally have this on DVD is amazing. It’s still scary to me. That sense of dread has never left. My own children have watched it and found it laughably outdated, but for me the sense of otherworldliness, the eerie synth soundtrack and slow acting (on purpose as it was an educational drama) still make it a captivating watch for anyone between 35 and 50 who watched it first time around.

    For those who are unfamiliar or who vaguely remember it, the programme was originally made in 1971 for BBC School’s Look And Read (and was actually made using many of the same crew as the Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who stories). This original version was shown in Black & White with a different and very basic score. It was in fact filmed in colour as it was hoped this would improve overseas sales via the growing BBC Childrens Education output of the time. However it was transmitted in B&W (and most UK schools would have only had B&W televisions). As the drama had proved popular and was already in colour, the Look and Read producers decided to update The Boy From Space and began a series of transmissions of the drama in 1980. This latter version (and the version included on this DVD, no version of the B&W episodes now exist) had the ‘Wordy’ inserts added and also the voiceover by Sylvestra (The Water In Majorca) la Touzal who played the young girl (both kids also appear slightly more grown up at the beginning of episode one as they filmed new scenes to interlink the story).

    Now to the scary bit! The Thin Man, Peep-Peeps alien uncle, was played by John Woodnutt (who passed away in 2008). He always played posh types in various TV shows over the years. He was the butler in Jeeves & Woocester, he was in the Doctor Who stories Spearhead From Space & Terror Of The Zygons. He is also a member of the political meeting in the Lewis Collins movie Who Dares Wins.

    As you may have guessed, this programme has had a lasting impact on me so I have looked into it as much as possible. Incidentally, the show was written by Richard Carpenter who created the excellent Catweazle and Robin Of Sherwood.

    A good deal of the programme was set at Mill Hill Observatory in Hendon in London. This looks the same now as it did in 1980. Other locations used include a place which points to Rabbit Hill (when the Thin Man stops Mr. Buntings car). This appears to be Wokingham as Heckfield is also on the signpost. This is south of Reading. If you look at a map of this area, you can see Bramshill Road, which was the location for the sandpit/quarry and lake used. However as it was made 45 years ago, this is very hard to find the exact spots used.

    One other thing worth a mention is the music used in the 80’s version. This was composed by Paddy Kingsland who again did a lot of Doctor Who in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Although the serial was scary enough, the eerie music using modulated synths of the time gave it that extra chill factor.
    This story is something that traumatised me as a child but has ensured it remains special to me in my adult life. I was certainly spooked by some episodes of Doctor Who around the same time, but The Boy From Space was so well made and memorable that it very rarely strays far from my thoughts!

    Out here in space,
    Shall we find friends?
    Is there a place, where the universe ends?
    When shall we find it? Never, Never
    Space goes on forever………forever………

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  11. scared the living daylights out of me! I think I was at infant school in kent and used to have to watch this as entertainment. I'm sure this was the reason for me being scared of the dark as kid. If the BBC were trying to scare kids, they done a great job with this programme. I think all of my school mates had sleepless nights because of the thin man played so scarily by the late john woodnutt. Watching the youtube clip brought back them memories with his scary eyes I thought I was six again!

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  12. OHHHH MY GOODNESS ! I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE ON EARTH WHO WAS ABSOLUTELY PETRIFIED OF THE BOY FROM SPACE, THE THIN MAN WAS A NIGHTMARE, WHEN MY CLASS USE TO WATCH IT, I MADE SURE I SAT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROOM BECAUSE THIS ROOM WAS SO DARK AND WHEN THE THEME SONG CAME ON I WOULD GET FRIGHTENED, BETWEEN THAT AND DARK TOWERS I WAS A SCARED CHILD , I KEPT QUIET ALL THESE YEARS THINKING I WOULD BE LAUGHED AT , BECAUSE NOT ONE CHILD FROM BACK THEN TILL NOW HAS EVER EXPRESSED THEIR FEARS FOR THIS PROGRAMME , SO THIS IS REFRESHING TO HEAR , I WENT ON YOUTUBE THE OTHER DAY AND MANNNNN! THE THIN STILL LOOKS SPOOKY.

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  13. This must be what's like in a support group! I echo every word. I've looked for this over the years and only today I found out what it was called. THAT scene in the quarry was the only thing I remembered - it's been branded onto my eyeballs by Satan's staff of fear. The day I saw it at school, I remember such a feeling of dread during THAT scene (it must always be capitalised!) I wanted to run out the room. Every time the Big Telly was wheeled out after that, I never felt excitement again. Just fear. Pure, primal fear. I just watched a minute long clip on youtube and it all came flooding back. Now...group hug. Please!

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  14. When I hear people say about hiding behind the sofa I feel like 'oh that's silly',but the boy from space is the only thing that put me there! I'm watching it right now,sitting ON the sofa quite happy!!! (Age 48)

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