The year 1982, I was eight years old. I wasn’t one of those kids that ‘got’ school, for the most part I felt it constraining. I could be usually found staring out the window during lessons, daydreaming while wrapped up in my own private world. However in the aforementioned year something turned up out of the blue and turned my world upside down. I am talking about The Boy from Space, a ten part educational TV show that first aired on British TV in both 1971 and then again in a slightly reworked version in 1980. The show followed the exploits of a youngsters Helen, and Dan, who meet an alien boy that has crash landed on earth, and then get followed by an ominous ‘thin tall man’- who is neither, but is pretty scary all the same. What follows is a story that explores the pitfalls in communicating with extraterrestrials, the perils of strangers, and an eventful day for the siblings that sees them nearly kidnapped by aliens.
Back in the winter of 1982 every week, for ten weeks, we would line up outside the school hall as excitement hit fever pitch amongst my fellow class members. Once inside our weekly viewing of The Boy from Space would commence for which we would sit cross legged on the cold parquet floor, while the huge TV on wheelie legs was dragged out. Our teacher- good old Mr. King- would insert the cassette in the top loading VHS player, and then the fun would begin. The sound would always be blaring to the point of distortion, the well-worn tape would flicker and chew up at points; the colours would be well over saturated, but we didn’t care- those images on the screen proved to be both fascinating and terrifying all the same. The Boy from Space represents one of those seminal moments for me in crafting my viewing tastes, my love of cheap trashy sci-fi and all things scary. As such the title has lived on in near legendary status in my foggy memory. Until now, when I was able to revisit this tasty slab of nostalgia thanks to the latest DVD release by the BFI, with the restored The Boy from Space in a standard definition print looking a damned sight better than I remember it looking on that school TV I must say! This is the first time this release has been available on digital format.
I am sure there are many others who share my affection for this once lost gem of a programme; it was something that stuck in my memory for many years. To see it so lovingly restored with a wealth of extras just makes my heart sing. I was worried that this would be one that may not live up to the impression that it made in my young mind; all those years way back when, but am pleased to say I was not let down. This two disc edition offers up the entire The Boy from Space in its original format- as part of the BBC for schools Look and Read series- and then as a newly edited ‘feature length’ seventy minute version without the wrap around filler.
Look and Read was an innovative programme for its day. Little did I realise at the time, and looking at it with adult eyes, the episodes were packed with educational content that was being subliminally beamed into our young impressionable minds. Each episode was presented by a puppet character called Wordy. This weird creature, with bumpy letters on his head, had a passion for words and would call on the young audiences to help him in his quest- often interrupting the main story arch with his questions that served as a tool to check comprehension with the audience. Each episode had a set of key words, but the stories would carry you away so far into the imagination, it wasn’t obvious to us kids the fact that we were expanding our reading and writing skills while soaking in the sci-fi goodness. For me, these episodes were the highlight of my school week and seemed to me just about as far away from learning or work as you could get. Wordy was teamed up with his human sidekick Cosmo- and between the two they would back up the messages served by the main storyline- like the perils of stranger danger, or lessons on space and the solar system. This all took place inside their custom built cardboard spaceship set, complete with flashy console in delectable BBC low-budget ‘make the best of what you have’ style.
The main story- written by Richard Carpenter, who incidentally was responsible for another one of my childhood delights Catweazle– was served up throughout the series in titbits. Each episode always landed on a cliff-hanger so you would be chomping at the bit to get to the next episode- a week when you are eight years old can seem like a lifetime. The benefit of this disc is you can choose to watch it in this format, or straight through from beginning to end in a full-length version. The story focuses on Helen and Dan, a brother and sister who have a penchant for stargazing, and have befriended kind Mr. Bunting at the local space observatory and his assistant Tom. One night while watching the stars with their own telescope the two spy upon a UFO crashing to earth. While out exploring the next day, the plucky pair encounter a creepy stranger (they dub him the thin tall man) who walks with unnatural movements and looks to do them harm. This ‘thin tall man’s’ main target is the young Space boy Peep- Peep, a young lost space explorer who Helen and Dan take under their wing, and soon the three find they are in grave danger as the predator closes in on them. What struck me watching this back is the ominous vibe that runs throughout this piece- supported by the fantastic synthesised electronic score by Paddy Kingsland. In the scenes where the kids are pursued by the thin man, the camera adopts POV shots from the stalker’s point of view, almost slasher style. There are plenty of chase scenes to display tension as well, and many of the scenes have a sense of urgency and excitement packed into them, which is further supported by the score. There is also the use of cheap and cheerful special effects to consider- including the use of frequent mime acting to portray invisible force fields- these elements round off the piece with a heavy dose of spectacular camp entertainment value. Twin this with spacey silver make-up effects- and groovy space suits, complete with wellies sprayed in silver, or weapons that look like they are crafted from something found in the garden shed (sprayed the obligatory silver of course) and you have a pretty whacky piece of British Sci-fi television that comes delivered with bags of retro charm.
As well as the two formats for The Boy from Space this version also comes with the added bonus of two other versions- the BBC records audio only version from 1972, and then a freshly edited version with audio from the LP set to video from the 1980 TV show. While the 19 animated song snippets on the extras menu from Wordy’s Think-Ups come with a whole other reason to enjoy the additional material on offer here- some of these are really on the creepy side too, and not to mention catchy and addictive. The release comes with a collector’s booklet with writing from Ben Clarke, Christopher Perry and composer Paddy Kingsland that explores the history of the show. Needless to say, there is much to immerse yourself in here.
So for those wanting to take a trip down memory lane, the BFI offer a great package, presenting a once lost treasure from the vaults of British children’s television to the DVD generation. This will also have some appeal for those who like their sci-fi on the cheap and cheerful (think early Doctor Who), made for TV side. Check out the BFI official site here for more details on where to buy. This release is part of BFI’s Sci-fi: Days of Fear and Wonder series- a celebration of sci-fi film and television. On the 6th December 2014 there will be a special screening of the 70-minute version of The Boy from Space at BFI Southbank, including a panel discussion with key figures from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop- check out the main BFI website for details of this event.