Flying Near the Sun

Rob Buckley on Codename: Icarus, and adult drama for children

First published March 2006

For most of its history, children’s television has been childish. Shows with simplistic plots and large casts of children have long dominated the afternoon schedules, with dreary adaptations of classic novels the only real exceptions.

Yet during the 1970s, commissioners slowly began to experiment with more mature programming, bringing in adult themes in disguise through science-fiction and fantasy shows such as Ace of Wands, The Tomorrow People and Timeslip. Sapphire and Steel even went from being a show for children to a show for adults, through the simple exclusion of juvenile leads and child-friendly characters.

By the late ’70s and early ’80s, this pushing of boundaries meant it was possible to have a programme on children’s television that was firmly embedded in an adult genre, with mainly adult leads and adult dialogue, and for it still to be accepted as a children’s show.

Codename: Icarus, which aired on BBC1 in 1981, was the purest examples of this new breed of programme.

Written by Richard Cooper, who had penned the fondly (but poorly) remembered Quest of Eagles for Tyne Tees a few years previously, Codename: Icarus is one of the only works in living memory that managed to mix children and the spy genre without resulting in disaster.

The first of the main plot strands follows Martin Smith (Barry Angel), a pupil at a Northern comprehensive who appears at first to be the class clown. But Martin, who cheats at maths and is often in detention, is actually bored and frustrated by the simplicity of his schoolwork. After hours, he sneaks into the sixth form computer room to work on maths and physics problems that are advanced even for degree level. Martin, it turns out, is a child prodigy.

Unfortunately for Martin, the computer is being tapped by the headmaster of Falconleigh, a school for gifted children. He becomes aware of Martin’s genius and offers him a place with the other children, where he can develop his abilities. Pretty soon, of course, Martin, together with another of the pupils, Sue (Debbie Farrington), discovers the school isn’t as benevolent as it appears.

If that were the only plot strand, Icarus would be a relatively conventional children’s drama, with Martin no doubt bringing the school to its knees through his clever investigations. Where it differs from the norm is by having an initially separate plot strand entirely populated by adults that’s as important, if not more so than the children’s storyline.

Its focus is naval intelligence officer Andy Rutherford (Jack Galloway) who is given the job of working out why a new British missile exploded during its tests. After eliminating sabotage and various other explanations, he’s left with only two possibilities: an accident or a new anti-missile weapon that neither the East nor the West could possibly have. When a second missile explodes, he’s forced to conclude somebody somewhere has managed to do what the superpowers couldn’t.

Rutherford eventually stumbles across Falconleigh, which is one of the many schools for gifted children that “The Icarus Foundation” runs around the world. He concludes that the foundation has been using the children’s gifts for scientific research, which it then sells to whichever government will pay the most. Discovering that it has friends in high places, Rutherford has to take matters into his own hands. He kidnaps Martin’s tutor and enters the school as his replacement, where he meets Martin.

In a more conventional children’s drama, the child’s strand would now take priority and Rutherford would follow Martin’s lead as the boy continued his investigations. But Icarus takes a bold decision and argues the point that no matter how smart you are, the bad guys aren’t going to be nice to you just because you’re a kid … and there’s not much you can do as a kid anyway. Martin has been drugged up to the eyeballs and run through so much hypnosis and mind games that even the idea of leaving the school grounds terrifies him. It’s left to Rutherford to liberate Martin and Sue to a safe house, where Martin meets Farley, his former tutor, who is still being held by Rutherford’s colleagues.

Farley convinces Martin to return to Falconleigh where he meets the man behind the Icarus Foundation: the Nobel Prize winner Edward Froehlich, who the world believes died during World War II. He’s been using the foundation to look after prodigies like himself, building up more and more power and money until he can find someone as gifted as he was – someone with the intellect to create a quark bomb, a weapon powerful enough to destroy continents rather than just cities. With that final weapon, he believes he can force the superpowers to turn away from their abuses in a world run by scientists for everyone’s good. Martin refuses, leaving Froehlich to be picked up by Rutherford and the police.

Even today, Codename: Icarus is impressive and has dated little. For the most part, it also manages to maintain its adult sensibilities throughout the show. Martin, with his Northern working class roots and hobby of bird-watching, owes much to Ken Loach’s Kes and should be the obvious hero in a children’s drama. Yet he isn’t an especially likeable character: he’s arrogant, mean, treats his new friend Sue with disdain and slowly degenerates into a pale wreck as he’s subjected to more and more of Falconleigh’s mind games.

This forces the viewer to empathise with the personable Rutherford, who is the real hero of the piece. Rutherford, whose spy work consists mainly of low-key meetings with various other spies, would be perfectly happy in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which the BBC adapted two years earlier. It’s only during the final episode that any trace of hoary spy clichés creep in, with spymasters talking about “spiders in their web”.

The most adult theme is its discussion of the nature of scientific genius, a discussion mostly wasted on children yet ultimately the show’s raison d’être. Martin’s intellect is presented as a gift almost from God that cannot be wasted – “A tiny glimmer of light in a great darkness”. He has to act according to the rules of the gift or else it will be taken from him. Froehlich is presented as a warning, an example of what would happen to Martin if he breaks this rule: after twisting his research to prevent the Nazis from building their own nuclear weapon, he discovers he’s lost his gift. “Science is the truth,” Froehlich realises too late.

The story ends surprisingly undramatically given the build up, with Martin’s decision to use his gift the way it intends: “I want to use science to make men free.”

In contrast to other shows of the time and indeed those that followed, Codename: Icarus was leagues ahead in maturity. Post-Icarus, the BBC once again took refuge in children’s novels and child-focused dramas as the main way to deal with mature subjects, but by the end of the decade had decided to follow ITV and use fantasy and science-fiction to once again dabble with adult themes.

Russell T Davies’ Dark Season (1991) fell cleanly into the same camp as The Tomorrow People and Scooby Doo, with gangs of children investigating mysterious goings-on at their school. But its inclusion of helpful teacher Mrs Maitland (Bridget Forsyth) and lesbian neo-Nazis lifted it above the standard children’s fare into the realm of young adults.

Davies’ Century Falls (1993), however, was too adult for children and too childish for adults. While it went into even darker, more adult territory, its overly complex plot was way above the heads of most grown-ups as well as children, and its teenage leads were as unsympathetic as the village of villainous pensioners.

It was ITV that came closer to the mark with mature drama during the ’80s. Thames Television’s 1984 show Chocky was the nearest in tone to Icarus but had many of the flaws that would have taken Icarus down a far less adult path.

Chocky deals with 12-year-old Matthew Gore (Andrew Ellams), who starts to hear voices that enable him to become a genius in school subjects for which he never showed any aptitude. Matthew, however, is not the central character of the story. Instead, the shows focuses on the boy’s father, David (James Hazeldine), who is concerned that his child isn’t just conversing with a make-believe playmate but is actually schizophrenic.

Chocky, while more adult than most shows, still falls short of Icarus for two reasons. Firstly, Matthew’s knowledge comes not from his innate talents but because he’s been “possessed” by a friendly alien – the eponymous Chocky. Secondly, Matthew is never placed in any real danger. At one point in the story, Matthew is referred to a psychiatrist, who realises that Chocky might actually be real. He informs his oil company clients, who kidnap, drug and hypnotise Matthew, hoping to extract the knowledge of “cosmic energy” that Chocky has given him. But, when they discover Chocky has left, they simply release him, rather than kill him. Icarus, which aired not long after Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and only a few years after the invention of the neutron bomb, spoke to far more adult concerns than this successor.

Chocky went on to spawn two sequels of increasing childishness that fell completely into the traps it had almost managed to avoid. Chocky’s Children (1985) saw Chocky move on to another child, Albertine Meyer (Annabel Worrell), a genuine scientific genius, in an attempt to pass on her “cosmic energy” knowledge more covertly. While David Gore and Albertine’s father, Arnold (Prentis Hancock), are still major characters, it’s ultimately the children who thwart the pesky villains, using telepathy. By now the focus has perceptively shifted towards the junior leads and further away from realism. The final serial, Chocky’s Challenge (1986), takes Chocky firmly into children’s SF, with Albertine and a group of scientifically gifted Chocky acolytes ganging together to create cosmic energy collectors under Chocky’s overt tutelage, while the moustache-twirling military looks on in delight, ready to swoop in and steal the results.

Even Icarus‘ writer Richard Cooper was unable to make much headway. He deployed some of the same tactics he’d used to make Knights of God (1987) as mature as possible – but with diminishing returns thanks to its futuristic setting. Knights of God sees England in the year 2020 turned into a dictatorship by right-wing Christians. Cooper, who had been asked by TVS’ controller of programmes Anna Holme to create a tough story for children but with a mostly adult cast, drew on his own fears of religious groups to create the show and deliberately steered clear of any science-fiction trappings to make it as realistic as possible. He succeeded enough for the programme, which was originally made in 1985, to be shelved by ITV’s controllers for over a year: they regarded it as too grim and depressing for family audiences.

Nevertheless, Knights of God was largely unsuccessful in exploring adult themes. There was no real adult lead, unlike Icarus, leaving the uncharismatic, unlikeable Gervase Edwards (George Winter) and his drippy girlfriend as the show’s protagonist. Despite this, the grim setting and Cooper’s themes of brainwashing and children being at the mercy of outside forces shone through, particularly compared with the similar shows of the time.

The last hurrah for adult-themed children’s programming on ITV was newspaper drama Press Gang (1989). Although populated by teenage leads, these were very clearly young adults rather than grown-up kids. Occasionally undermined by overly comic situations, Press Gang managed to deal with issues such as drug abuse and political corruption in an adult manner. Yet it’s bright-eyed optimism, where nothing bad happened to any of the main characters, no matter what they did, placed the show firmly in the children’s programming genre, rather than adult’s.

After Press Gang, only a brief revival of The Tomorrow People (1992) and another Cooper-authored show, Eye of the Storm (1993), showed even a hint of adult sensibilities. Post-1993, ITV and BBC alike gave up the ghost and stopped produced anything that could remotely have been called “adult” for a juvenile audience.

25 years on, Codename: Icarus still remains more or less the only example of how best to create an uncompromising children’s drama.