Peep-peep, Pandit and ‘papers

TJ Worthington on Richard Carpenter and Look and Read

First published February 2006

What did Richard Carpenter once describe as: “The most difficult thing I’ve ever written in my life”? His first ever television commission? Three series’ worth of comedy about a small cast limited to a single set? Attempting to make The Adventures of Black Beauty in any way watchable?

Actually, he was talking about “The Boy from Space“, a 10-part serial he penned for the long-running BBC Schools programme Look and Read in 1971. Intended as a more sophisticated counterpart to the equally long-running primary school-orientated series Words and Pictures, Look and Read was based around a combination of dramatic story segments and studio links with a presenter, aimed at reinforcing understanding of the linguistic devices introduced in the stories. Hardly surprisingly – not least because they represented a rare glimpse of out-and-out entertainment in the throes of the school week – the various Look and Read serials are fondly recalled by those who saw them, and several of the most well-remembered were the work of Richard Carpenter.

The long history of Look and Read does in fact stretch back to slightly beyond the start of Carpenter’s professional writing career, its first stirrings taking place while he was still working primarily as an actor. Developing out of Merry-Go-Round, another long-running BBC Schools production that was effectively created as a testing ground for new and vogueish ideas, Look and Read arrived on BBC1 in January 1967.

The first story, the square-jawed and wholesome “Bob and Carol Look for Treasure” (written by Joy Thwaites, and starring Veronica Purnell, Stephen Leigh and “a goat”) was effectively a halfway house between Merry-Go-Round and what would come later, featuring a rather tame and genteel crime-busting caper enlivened by high speed chases and secret messages delivered by toy boat. It didn’t have that much in common with subsequent tales, but it did introduce the standard Look and Read format.

Devised by renowned child education expert Joyce M Morris, who would continue to act as the programme’s reading adviser for many years, it featured 10-episode stories comprising two story segments per show which were punctuated by songs and animation (including “I’m an Apostrophe”, “Dog Detective” and the famed “Magic E’” which had actually appeared in an early incarnation in Merry-Go-Round) and a word-watching presenter, in this instance one Tom Gibbs.

12 months later, “Bob and Carol Look for Treasure” was followed by “Len and the River Mob”. Far more indebted to the swinging London spy thrillers that were then clogging up the nation’s cinemas than to the average children’s storybook, this new serial was written by Roy Brown and Leonard Kingston. It starred George Layton as Len Tanner, a teenage labourer who stumbles across a smuggling ring operating out of London’s docklands. The format remained essentially the same, although a new precedent was set with the teaching segments being presented by Layton in character as Len.

It wasn’t until the third Look and Read serial that Richard Carpenter first entered proceedings. With the award-winning success of his LWT comedy series Catweazle, Carpenter had become established as a leading figure in scriptwriting for children, and was exactly the sort of figure the production team were looking for. Claire Chovil – then part of a rotating squad of Look and Read producers that also included Andree Molyneux (who due to the differing production schedules would end up never working on the series with Carpenter) – approached him about the possibility of contributing to the series. Despite the obvious headaches of being “restricted to the first 200 words of the English language, plus a few words like ‘telescope’ and ‘telephone’ and ‘television’” as he would reflect on in a TV Zone interview in 1993, he began to script a rather more ambitious story than had previously been attempted.

First transmitted in September 1971, “The Boy from Space” tells the tale of two astronomically-obsessed children, Helen (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and Dan (Stephen Garlick), who come to the aid of a stranded alien boy they nickname Peep-Peep (after the unusual sounds he makes in lieu of speech) and defend him from a sinister Thin Man who seems intent on extracting some sort of information from him. Although limited by its educative purpose and bite-size episodic structure, the story was a surprisingly tense and enjoyable tale. A large part of this was due to Carpenter’s script, which managed to turn the small cast and equally limited number of locations to its advantage. It created suspense and succeeded in introducing the setups for the various educative segments in an unobtrusive fashion.

As with every Look and Read serial, the transmissions were accompanied by a classroom workbook featuring a simplified novelisation with illustrations and exercises based on the teaching segments. An abridged version of the soundtrack was also released by BBC Records (RESR 30M), which was presumably only made available to schools for academic purposes as copies are now virtually impossible to find.

Sadly, that’s all that remains of it. The last Look and Read serial to be made and transmitted in black and white, “The Boy from Space” was repeated up to the autumn of 1973, after which it was apparently wiped. Although the scripts are still probably knocking around somewhere, there’s no other evidence of what may or may not have gone on in the bits between the story segments, and tragically, we may never know just what combination of vowels Dog Detective was in hot pursuit of on this occasion.

So if it hasn’t been seen since 1973 and has since gone walkabouts from the archives, how come “The Boy from Space” is so well remembered? All in good time …

The following Look and Read serial, the wall-to-wall agrarian angst of ruralist mutton-theft mystery “Joe and the Sheep Rustlers” was first seen in the spring of 1973 and was written by Leonard Kingston. Richard Carpenter’s next contribution, “Cloud Burst”, arrived in September 1974.

Whereas “The Boy from Space” had concerned itself with a futuristic threat arriving on Earth, “Cloud Burst” acted almost as a variant of the BBC’s contemporaneous “sci-fact” drama series, Doomwatch, with the threat essentially emanating from within the planet itself.

Not wishing to deviate from a successful formula, the story revolved around yet another adolescent male/female pairing, Tim (Nigel Rathbone) and Jenny (future Blue Peter presenter Tina Heath). Boasting an unnatural interest in atmospheric conditions courtesy of their lock-keeper father, through a series of typical Look and Read incidents involving mysterious motorcyclists and runaway radio controlled aeroplanes they become involved with Ram Pandit (Renu Setna), a scientist working away on a massive computer in a private laboratory to create a “rain gun” that will eliminate drought and famine. Also working away on a massive computer in a private laboratory is Ram’s twin brother Ravi, who is determined to steal his secrets and use them for slightly less benevolent purposes. What’s more, he and his henchmen have a handy “gas gun” at their disposal, making the acquisition of said research a lot easier for them.

What follows is a traditional and often deliberately confusing espionage film-styled runaround of thefts, counter thefts, and mistaken identity (Ravi for Ram and vice versa), but it is all quite skillfully done and the climax – when Ravi attempts to fire the rain gun and flood the fens (finishing Ram and his research off in the process), and is only thwarted at the last minute through the skilful jamming of the gun’s communication systems by the model aeroplane that started everything off – is edge-of-the-seat material.

“Cloud Burst” was very well made in general; the scientific equipment glimpsed in the story inevitably looks severely outmoded today, but it benefited from a minimalist design intended to emphasize its “homemade” nature which prevented it from lapsing into the silliness that dogged most other televisual representations of computers from that era. Also, special mention should be made of the arresting opening titles, featuring disturbing footage of lush foliage blooming from out of dry desert land to the accompaniment of well-placed thunderclap effects and a dramatic theme tune by the Radiophonic Workshop’s Roger Limb. Although Carpenter later described the serial as a parable about nuclear power, whether or not the actual concept of the rain gun was based on any sound scientific principles is unknown. However, it is true that attendees of various early 1970s rock festivals were purportedly kept dry by a special “cloud bursting” device made by some European hippies, which was supposedly able to re-freeze clouds on the point of raining (and which was recently dragged out of retirement by none other than Paul McCartney).

Meanwhile, readers are invited to draw their own conclusions over whether or not Kate Bush had seen the serial prior to writing Cloudbusting.

“Cloud Burst” again came accompanied by a workbook (fittingly with eco-friendly green shading this time), and was also the first Look and Read serial to have its soundtrack re-edited into new sound-only episodes for broadcast in the BBC’s long-lost Schools Radio slot. In fact, “Cloud Burst” saw the arrival of several innovations that would soon become staples for the series, courtesy of incoming producer Sue Weeks. The opening titles introduced the signature Look and Read animation, featuring a pair of cartoon eyes darting around before turning into the “oo” of the programme’s title. In addition, Derek Griffiths was called in to perform the vocal duties for the songs, and a certain hovering orange puppet covered in typewriter keys and voiced by Charles Collingwood, made his debut. Wordy, or Mr Watchword to give him his rarely-used full title, was the creation of Sue Weeks who wanted to bring in a smug know-all figure who could interact with the human presenter and facilitate a much more involved discussion of the teaching topics. He would remain with the series right through to 1992.

Addressing viewers as “word-watchers”, Wordy would generally materialise from out of something vaguely word-related such as a typewriter or a newspaper masthead, and take great delight in spotting the various language-related elements of the story segments. Joining Wordy on this occasion, in a neat touch of postmodernism, was Richard Carpenter himself, commenting on the writing of the story and the accompanying workbook as the tale progressed. And, while Wordy might very well have allowed himself to feel smug about knowing the purpose of punctuation marks, Carpenter got one over on his insufferable puppet chum by constantly referring to the fact that he knew what was going to happen next.

Although he did not act as presenter again, Carpenter wrote the follow-on Look and Read serial “The King’s Dragon”. First seen in January 1977, this was the most ambitious story so far in that it took advantage of the newspaper-based setting of both the tale and teaching segments to encourage children to produce their own classroom publication. Unlike Carpenter’s previous two serials, there were no sci-fi or fantasy leanings whatsoever. The King’s Dragon is, somewhat sadly, a stolen museum piece rather than an actual dragon on the loose in modern Britain. In a throwback to the very earliest Look and Read serials, it has fallen into the hands of smugglers operating out of a small Hastings fishing community, where their cunning modes of communication involving personal ads and words cut out of newspaper headlines are intercepted by local youngster Billy West (Sean Flanagan, who would go on to play Matt the stable boy in Carpenter’s The Ghosts of Motley Hall). Also hot on their trail, albeit inadvertently as a byproduct of being asked to cover a mysterious local archaeological dig, is Hastings Times reporter Ann Mills (Frankie Jordan).

In fact, it turns out that there are two separate parties after the surprisingly popular historical artifact; renowned archaeologist Miss Wood (Ann Pichon), whom the duo initially suspect of theft, has merely hidden the item while she makes sure that it is the genuine article, while the real smugglers are a more mysterious bunch fond of leaving threatening anonymous messages warning off the other interested parties. However, they are hardly the most ruthless bunch in the world, and their plans eventually come unstuck when an argument over whether or not to release the captured Billy ends with one of them hurling the priceless relic over the side of a boat in a fit of pique. If nothing else, it certainly gave Ann an interesting way to fill up the next day’s paper.

Aside from the excitement of being encouraged to put together their own newspaper within the confines of the classroom, “The King’s Dragon” never really had the same feel of entertainment masquerading as schoolwork that so enlivened Carpenter’s earlier sci-fi tinged serials. This isn’t to say, though, that it is in any way boring or below-par. The taut scripting has much in common with Carpenter’s work on straight-laced historical adventure serials such as Dick Turpin and Smuggler, expertly wringing fascinating plot twists out of everyday objects and settings. The location work (particularly the lengthy sequences filmed in St Clement’s Caves in Hastings) is also impressive and evocative.

The by-now obligatory workbook, radio adaptation and Roger Limb theme tune were all present and correct, and the serial also kept up the postmodernist pretence of “Cloud Burst” by having the story segments presented by Hastings Times editor Jack Dunbar (Kenneth Hastings), taking time out from paste-ups and puzzling over the unidentified letter-adorned figure in the paper’s masthead to explain how the story unfolded from the perspective of a veteran newsroom hack whom had initially written it all off as un-newsworthy fluff.

To date, “The King’s Dragon” is the final script Richard Carpenter provided for the still-ongoing Look and Read, but it was not actually his last contribution to the series. After the success of Leonard Kingston’s “Sky Hunter”, the bird-smuggling thriller first seen in September 1978 and arguably the most well-remembered of all Look and Read serials (and coincidentally featuring Geoffrey Bayldon, the star of Catweazle, among the cast), the production team decided it was high time the adventures of Peep-Peep and company should be revived. The original tapes were presumably already long gone by this point, and due to their monochrome nature would have been pretty much useless for this purpose anyway, but thanks to a stroke of archival good fortune there was no need for a remake.

Although most BBC Schools programmes were still being shot in black and white well into the 1970s, some uncharacteristic far-sightedness within the Corporation saw to it that sufficient funding was provided for the story segments of “The Boy from Space” to be shot on colour film. This was ostensibly so that some sort of long-format compilation of the story could be made at some point in the future. The practice wasn’t an unusual setup for BBC schools’ TV at the time. Various animated renditions of ballet suites seen in Music Time had been edited together and often ended up on BBC2 over the Christmas schedules, while a similarly unbroadcast two-part version of earlier Look and Read story “Joe and the Sheep Rustlers” was prepared some time around that serial’s production. In the case of “The Boy from Space” although nothing was ever shown – possibly nothing was even edited together – the film inserts themselves managed to survive in the BBC’s archives.

Matters were not quite that straightforward, though, and what was intended as a cheaply-made entry in the Look and Read stable actually ended up costing a lot more than anyone had anticipated. In fact, it reputedly became even more expensive than an entirely new serial. The film inserts lacked the original musical score, and so a new one was commissioned from the Radiophonic Workshop’s Paddy Kingsland. Additionally, a short introduction was placed at the start, featuring the now-adult Sylvestra Le Touzel (by then something of a “name” actress) and Stephen Garlick reprising their roles as Helen and Dan, revisiting the observatory and providing a “flashback” to lead into the original film. Meanwhile, a new set of teaching segments had to be created to replace the older ones, so Wordy was relocated to his own personal orbiting space station Wordlab 1 in the company of astronaut Cosmo (Phil Cheney), which was frankly the best place for him.

The accompanying workbook was also given an overhaul, with the teacher’s edition advising any originals that were still knocking around should not be reused for the new shows. There were also new illustrations featuring a redesigned spaceship (that didn’t match the one seen onscreen!) and the novelisation was completely rewritten in the first rather than third person. The most memorable addition to this new version, however, was without question the haunting, evocative theme song provided by Paddy Kingsland. Over a backing of celestial swoops and bleeps, the lyrics mused: “Out there 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 …”. Short and simplistic it may be, but it was nonetheless a highly effective and memorable piece of music.

Space might well indeed go on forever, but trends in education do not and by the late 1980s, even the remake of “The Boy from Space” had been quietly retired to make way for more contemporary Look and Read efforts about badgers, pigeons, and actual non-ornamental dragons. Happily, nobody was quite so trigger-happy with the “erase” button this time around, and even though the Richard Carpenter serials had outlived their academic usefulness and slipped into that weird half-recalled limbo that affects any television show between its original broadcast and the length of time it takes for it to become considered worthy of revaluation, they were available to show again when the time came.

That time finally arrived in 2003, when the recently-launched BBC Digital channel CBBC decided to haul out all of the extant Look and Read serials (even including “Joe and the Sheep Rustlers”, with its missing episode semi-reconstructed from that aforementioned two-part compilation) for their “Class TV” slot. Thankfully they had all worn the passage of time well, particularly “Cloud Burst” with its sense of scientific eerieness of the sort that only seemed to be possible in 1970s television drama. What’s more, the subsequent developments in broadcast and home recording technology had made it all the more easy to skip past the bits with Wordy, next to which even “space” seemed to have a definite point of conclusion.