“Space Goes on Forever”

TJ Worthington on Look and Read: “The Boy From Space”

First published September 2002

School’s television has always been the poor relation of the wider sphere of “cult” broadcasting. While it formed as integral a part of childhood viewing as anything that was broadcast under the banner of “proper” children’s television, it has been sidelined and all but forgotten about in the rush to celebrate the more fondly remembered occupants of the “proper” timeslots.

There are plenty of rent-a-non-opinion celebrities who would no doubt be quite happy to enthuse at length about “sitting on the floor, watching the clock thing count down … ooh, fingers on lips … looking at a big TV with those funny shutters on the front – what was that all about?” if given the opportunity to get their face on screen by way of a nostalgia programme, but there seems to be little interest in or enthusiasm for the actual programmes that were watched on said big televisions with funny shutters. The comments made by many such celebrities on Channel 4′s Top 100 Kids’ TV Programmes suggest that, on the whole, such programmes are frowned upon because of their educational aims and intentions; no matter how much they may have been enjoyed by viewers who actually sat through them in an educational context, they are “boring” and for “saddos” who should “get a life”. Let’s face it, the prevailing mindset seems to suggest, who wants to reminisce about the weird high contrast grainy film stock and unsettling disembodied voice-over of Experiment when you can send each other Bagpuss-themed graphical text messages?

On the other hand, genuine television enthusiasts don’t seem to be that interested either. School’s television, which was mostly given endless repeats, does not hold the same allure for aficionados of the obscure as forgotten supernatural-themed miniseries from the late 1960s or big-budget heavyweight dramas. Not to mention the fact that many of them are aware that when viewed from a present-day perspective, many “classic” examples of Programmes For Schools And Colleges are not glimpses of forgotten televisual wonder but every bit as staid and slow-moving as you might expect given the combination of the educative brief and the budgetary and technological limitations of the time. Unloved and unwanted, School’s television sits in its own strangely detached corner of broadcasting history, ironically reminiscent of the equally strangely detached position it held (and indeed continues to hold) in the television schedules.

However, there is one programme that has managed, almost by surprise, to find itself achieving significant “cult” status. Look and Read, a series that aims to reinforce an understanding of basic literacy in seven to 10 year olds, started in the 1960s and is still running on the BBC today. For the most part, the series has revolved around the use of dramatic filmed serials intercut with short and very heavily educative linking devices, and is essentially quite far removed from the usual characteristics that are seen to constitute cult children’s television. Yet in recent years it has been the subject of increasing interest in magazines like TV Zone, and now has its own page in the “cult” section of the BBC’s website where it sits rather conspicuously among such expected fare as Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who. Over the years, there have been more than 20 different Look and Read serials, from the early efforts featuring youngsters Bob and Carol looking for treasure, to more recent and highly sophisticated offerings like “Captain Crimson” and “The Legend of the Lost Keys”, and the series has remained near-unique in its aim to blend structured learning with structured entertainment. Unsurprisingly, many of the featured stories are fondly remembered by those who saw them in school and by those who caught glimpses of them on those treasured “days off” alike – among them “Sky Hunter”, “Cloud Burst”, “The King’s Dragon”, and most famously “The Boy From Space”.

First broadcast in January 1967, Look and Read essentially began as part of an earlier BBC school’s programme, Merry-Go-Round, in 1965 – 66. Described in official documentation as a “miscellany” series, Merry-Go-round had no fixed or predetermined style and the content and structure varied with successive production teams. When Claire Cholvil took over as producer in 1965, she decided to utilize short drama serials (originally fashioned from reworkings of film sequences previously seen in earlier Merry-Go-Round programmes) as a method of holding the child audience’s attention and enthusiasm while also attempting to convey key linguistic concepts through the on-screen action. This successful approach was developed into Look and Read in 1967, with Cholvil joined by production assistant Helen Nicoll (who later became a renowned writer of children’s books) and child language acquisition expert Dr Joyce M Morris. Initially intended for “backward readers” (the BBC’s words, believe it or not!), the series quickly found favour and acclaim as an educational aid, and its success soon gave rise to an effective “spin-off” aimed at younger children, Words and Pictures. Although it was constantly repeated into the late 1980s, “The Boy From Space” was actually the third serial to be produced under the Look and Read banner, and was first glimpsed on those big televisions with funny shutters back in 1971.

The “Boy From Space” of the title is a stranded alien visitor, who is discovered on Earth after two human children, Helen and Dan, set out to investigate an unusual light in the sky. Believing the light to be a meteorite, they follow it to the point of impact and find themselves in a strange woodland clearing, where compass needles spin round wildly and no birdsong can be heard. While exploring, they find themselves pursued by a strange thin man, and only just manage to outrun him – and while running, they encounter the Boy From Space himself. The children befriend the confused and frightened boy, who seems to have a strong aversion to bright lights, and name him Peep-Peep in reference to the strange beeping sounds he makes when attempting to communicate. Sensing the need to get him to safety, they take him to see Mr Bunting, the man who runs the local observatory. Bunting is not convinced by their story at first, but soon changes his mind after Peep-Peep seems able to interpret his complicated star charts. It transpires that Peep-Peep was travelling aboard a spaceship that had been to Mars to collect minerals, and had then arrived on Earth by accident rather than design. Bunting thinks the best move would be to take him to a hospital, but the Thin Man is watching as he and the boy leave. Waiting in the observatory, Helen and Dan realize that they can understand Peep-Peep’s writing if they hold it up to a mirror – and the message that he has left for them is “in danger”. The Thin Man intercepts Bunting and Peep-Peep’s journey by firing a strange ray that stops the car they are travelling in. Bunting initially thinks that the Thin Man has come to help Peep-Peep, but soon changes his mind when, in a scene that is imprinted on the memory of anyone who has seen it, the Thin Man uses the ray gun to make his car seemingly vanish into thin air. Back at the observatory, Helen and Dan are worried that they haven’t heard anything back from Bunting yet, when they are terrified to hear someone climbing the stairs.

Fortunately for them it turns out to be Tom, who works at the observatory and whose clothes and car have been stolen by the Thin Man. Together they set off to find Bunting and Peep-Peep, whom the Thin Man is busily herding into a prison cell aboard a spaceship. The cell, it soon transpires, is also housing another alien whom Bunting believes to be Peep-Peep’s father, and a large collection of meteorites. While Bunting tries to interpret the noises made by Peep-Peep’s father, the children and Tom find two sets of tyre tracks that suddenly stop. Tom recognizes one set of tracks as those of his stolen car, and Helen finds a book dropped by Bunting – which contains a hidden message from Peep-Peep, alerting them to the situation. Aboard the spaceship, a strange argument develops between the Thin Man and Peep-Peep’s father – the former wants the latter to start the spaceship, but he refuses to and apparently wins the debate. Meanwhile, in the woods, Dan’s compass goes crazy again, and the trio soon find themselves in the grip of an invisible forcefield. Somehow managing to break through it, which unknown to them sets off an alarm aboard the spaceship, they come to the realization that Bunting and Peep-Peep are being held underwater. Tom scouts around the lake for the entrance to the spaceship, and is soon captured by the Thin Man, but once in the cell he is able to show Bunting how to read the aliens’ writing. The Thin Man can see Helen and Dan on a monitor, and attempts to capture them as well. Helen escapes, but Dan is caught up in the force field and unable to escape.

Remembering that the aliens don’t seem to like bright lights, Helen uses a mirror to shine sunlight in the Thin Man’s eyes. The momentary distraction allows Dan to escape and board the spaceship, but the Thin Man sets off in pursuit of Helen. Dan is unable to hear what the others are saying to him from behind the door of the cell, but Peep-Peep manages to communicate with him by writing on the window. Dan is then able to free the captives, and they ambush the Thin Man as he returns with Helen. The children learn that the aliens had been sent to our solar system to collect meteorites, and that the Thin Man had tried to steal them for his own personal gain. In the ensuing struggle they had crash landed on Earth, and Peep-Peep had managed to escape from the craft. The Thin Man is secured in the cell, and Bunting discovers how the aliens had learned to write their strange backwards language – on a previous visit, they had found an inside-out plastic bag and followed the reversed lettering! The children give Peep-Peep the compass as a present to remember them by, and they watch from the observatory with Tom and Bunting as the aliens leave Earth.

“The Boy From Space” was first broadcast as part of Look and Read in black and white in 1971. Although the BBC had proudly announced their move into colour broadcasting the previous year, it was financially and technologically impractical at that point to switch all of their productions and transmissions into colour straight away. While new equipment was gradually purchased and union rules were slowly worked out, “low priority” programming continued to be made and broadcast in monochrome for a number of years, and school’s television somewhat unsurprisingly fell into this category. The serial was written by Richard Carpenter, who had just completed work on the superb LWT time-travel comedy Catweazle and would later create a number of other exceptional series including The Ghosts of Motley Hall and Robin of Sherwood. Looking back at “The Boy From Space” in 1993, he commented “that was about the most difficult thing I’ve ever written in my life, because you’re restricted to the first two-hundred words of the English language plus a few words like telescope and telephone and television.” Despite these restrictions, however, Carpenter managed to craft a tense and brilliantly-paced serial that expressed basic linguistic concepts in exciting and humorous ways, and it is testament to his expert writing skills that so many viewers who presumably only ever saw “The Boy From Space” once or twice in school are able to recall so much detail about it.

Surprisingly, Richard Carpenter is not the only well-known name to be found within the credits of “The Boy From Space”. The atmospheric and highly effective music for the serial was provided by Paddy Kingsland, later famed for his work on Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Kingsland furnished the serial with an understated and evocative electronic score that managed to avoid the “silly noise” excesses of most similar works of the era, and still sounds surprisingly strong and atmospheric today. Helen was played by a very young Sylvestra La Touzel, while also on the cast list were two names that will be very familiar to cult television aficionados – John Woodnutt, best known for his many and varied supporting roles in programmes like Doctor Who and Children of the Stones, portrayed the Thin Man, while Gabriel Woolf appeared as Peep-Peep’s father. Ironically, while Woolf is famed for his deep, sibilant voice that has been used to such great effect in so many radio plays (and indeed in his memorable portrayal of Sutekh the Destroyer in the Doctor Who story “The Pyramids of Mars”), he was not heard on screen in “The Boy From Space” at all and was simply required to move his mouth in time to a series of electronic bleeps that were dubbed on later.

The metallic jump-suits and Paddy Kingsland’s score weren’t the only “futuristic” features of the serial. In common with most other subsequent Look and Read serials, transmissions of “The Boy From Space” were accompanied by a workbook that contained text and illustrations based on the story, and was fashioned to provide hesitant readers something to work with outside of the actual programmes. While this might not sound particularly exciting or innovative from a modern day perspective, at the time it was something of a bold and experimental move into what was essentially a crude early form of multimedia interactivity. Considering that this came at a time when the possibility of combining different forms of media to enhance the learning experience was only really beginning to be investigated, the significance of “The Boy From Space” in the development of modern teaching methods has never really been given due recognition.

Unfortunately, little is known about the original version of “The Boy From Space”. It has not been broadcast since the 1970s, and the original monochrome videotapes have either been long since wiped or else have sat unnoticed gathering dust on a shelf marked “black and white – do not touch – may confuse viewers” since then. However, although the first run of transmissions were in monochrome, the original filmed sequences for the serial were actually made in colour. Although colour production was beyond the financial and technological capabilities of the BBC school’s department back in 1971, additional funding for the project was provided by BBC Enterprises, who wished to use the inserts either to compile into a film or to use in English Language instruction programmes for sale to overseas broadcasters. For this reason, the original film – which would ordinarily have been junked after use to save storage space – was preserved in the archives, and in 1980 the Look and Read production team decided to use it to create a new colour version of the serial. This move was at least partially intended as a cost-saving measure, but rumours persist that for various reasons it ended up costing even more than it would have done to make a brand new serial.

Although the actual story sections of “The Boy From Space” were apparently more or less the same as they had been in the original version (except, of course, for the obvious difference that they were being seen in colour!), the linking sections had to be completely rewritten and re-recorded from scratch. Since the transmission of the original version, Look and Read had been joined by Wordy, an enthusiastic if occasionally smug orange puppet covered in random typewriter keys. Ostensibly some sort of living manifestation of the concept of grammar and spelling, Wordy (full name Mr Watchword, and voiced by veteran radio actor Charles Collingwood) would punctuate the filmed stories by sharing his observations on the language used with the viewers and his human co-presenter. In its new form, “The Boy From Space” was no exception. Wordy linked the story from aboard his orbiting spaceship, Wordlab 1, with the assistance of his human co-pilot Cosmo (Phil Cheney). To provide a sense of continuity, a short introduction was added showing Dan and Helen as adults driving back to the observatory, and reminiscing about their adventure. However, the budget clearly did not stretch to allow the filming of anything other than that introduction, and the present day Dan and Helen did not appear anywhere else in the programmes! The BBC also produced a new version of the accompanying book, which differed from the original in many ways; the narrative was changed from third person to first person (as indeed it reputedly had been for the screen version, presumably due to the surviving film sequences lacking the original narrative), facts about space were added to the end of each chapter, and the spaceship (which never actually appeared on screen, presumably as it would have been far too expensive to realize) is illustrated in a completely different way to how it had been depicted in 1971.

Yet the biggest – and unquestionably the most memorable – change came in the form of the addition of a new theme song. When the original version of “The Boy From Space” was transmitted, Look and Read was introduced by nothing more exciting than a couple of voices repeating the words Look and Read over a very basic graphical title sequence. Since the arrival of Wordy, however, the shows had been introduced by specially composed electronic theme tunes specific to each individual story. Composed by Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and sung by Derek Griffiths, the theme song of “The Boy From Space” lasts for barely 20 seconds, but does everything that it needs to within that short running time. To the accompaniment of Limb’s shimmering, celestial electronics, Griffiths sings “Out there in space, shall we find friends? Is there a place where the universe ends? When will we find it? Never, never, space goes on forever”, as the swirl of synthesisers seem to play on into infinity. Although generally ignored and lost among a sea of similar soundtrack electronica at the time, the song and its arrangement have aged well, and if anything the passage of time and changing musical fashions have only served to heighten its sense of otherworldly isolation. Given the resurgence of interest in vintage electronica in recent years, and the corresponding rediscovery of “lost” pieces of electronic musical ephemera from soundtracks and previously disregarded “demonstration” albums, it’s surprising that the theme from “The Boy From Space” has yet to resurface and find itself hailed as a lost synth classic.

“The Boy From Space”, though, is a lost classic in itself. Most Look and Read stories found an unusually high level of favour among their target audience because they offered the sort of excitement and entertainment that was generally absent from Schools’ television as a whole, and were never stuffy or overtly educative in their approach. “The Boy From Space”, however, took this a stage further. It offered that rarest hint of excitement; science fiction, which was usually frowned on and considered silly and frivolous by the establishment, being used in an educational context. Richard Carpenter’s inventive script, the atmospheric and expertly paced direction (most notably the arresting cliffhanger that sees Helen and Dan hear menacing footsteps approaching up the stairs, which still looks and feels genuinely frightening), and the detached, isolated visual style of the serial as a whole combine to produce something that in all honesty stands up extremely well next to the more widely praised fantasy-sci-fi based children’s television serials of the 1970s. “The Boy From Space” probably represented the closest that educational broadcasting ever came to what the majority of child viewers genuinely wanted to watch – in fact, it was probably a lot closer than most “proper” children’s programming ever managed to come – and it’s hardly surprising that so many people seem to remember it with such fondness and clarity.

As “The Boy From Space” falls squarely into one of the biggest black holes of vintage television, you’d expect the BBC to be ignoring it and taking no notice of the fact that people out there are genuinely interested in it. Yet – amazingly – they actually seem to be keen to acknowledge the series and its enduring popularity. The story has not been shown in the Look and Read slot since the mid-1980s, but interested parties can watch a series of clips from “The Boy From Space” in RealVideo format, including the infamous disappearing car, at the BBCi page devoted to Look and Read. It is fitting that a series that took such a groundbreaking and forward-thinking approach to concepts of multimedia and interactivity should benefit so heavily and unexpectedly from new technologies, and more encouraging still is the fact that the BBC are actually responding to public interest in the series in this way. Hopefully they will go a step further, and release “The Boy From Space” in full on DVD. There’s something particularly appealing about the idea of seeing and enjoying it all over again, in pristine digital quality and with Paddy Kingsland’s score remixed into stereo, while Jamie Theakston and his ilk stand around missing the point with their fingers on their lips and staring at a big television with funny shutters…