The Boy From Space: BBC Juvenile Science Fiction

The vintage children’s TV science fiction show from the 1970s.

It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time, the only thing you’d see on daytime TV – at least before lunch – were educational programmes for schools. The sort of thing so precisely timed for broadcast that they would often have a countdown clock leading up to each programme, and which often provided a nice bit of respite for school kids, as the TV set was wheeled into the classroom. Now, I’m not going to say that the removal of these programmes, to be replaced by the TV equivalent of Take a Break magazine, is a cause for regret or a symptom of a dumbed-down society. Clearly, in a world where the video recorder existed, there was no need for this sort of thing to be broadcast across the country – teaching aids on video were (and are) widely available. But it’s possible (and I have no idea what sort of stuff kids get to watch in the classroom anymore, so I might be wrong) that the shift from having these programmes made by established broadcasters to specialist providers has meant the loss of some of the more innovative educational shows – the ones that worked as entertainment as well as education. Shows like The Boy from Space.

Originally broadcast in 1971, this was part of the Look and Read series aimed at kids who were… what’s the politically correct way of putting this? A bit slow in the reading department, perhaps. Yes, that sounds right. The show was multi-stranded – this ongoing science-fiction drama was surrounded by educational stuff that tied into the drama, encouraging the viewer to interact by reading words on screen. The show was then rebooted in 1980, using the original Boy from Space footage with new wraparound stuff, this time featuring immediately annoying puppet Wordy and a space visitor, Cosmo, who’s attempt to talk down to the kids makes him sound like a simpleton.

This new version was both possible and required because the BBC – of course – had wiped the tapes of the original series, probably to record a vital snooker match or something. But luckily, the Boy from Space segments had been shot on film – colour film at that, despite the original broadcasts being in black and white (colour was seen as too much of a luxury for educational TV in 1971!). So it was possible to reuse them a decade later, albeit it with a new introduction that established that the show was set some years earlier, and with a voice-over that effectively states the bleedin’ obvious.

It’s the 1980 version of Look and Read that is on the first disc in this two DVD set, and while it’s a fascinating artefact of the educational broadcasting era, I suspect most viewers will soon tire of the presentation. You get around eight minutes or so of The Boy from Space and the rest of it is taken up with the educational side that is aimed at very young children. I suspect that this will wear thin as entertainment for even the tolerant viewer who might be initially amused at shouting out the on-screen words in the manner of classroom participation. Certainly, the novelty wore off rather quickly for me. I assume – though I could be wrong – that the principles of learning to read are much the same now as they ever were though, so it’s possible that if you are the owner of a child who is at the age where they are just learning to read, this might remain an entertaining way of encouraging them.

Thankfully, any issues with the first disc are more than compensated for by the second, which compiles the whole story into a 70-minute feature film. Devoid of interruptions, The Boy from Space proves to be an entertaining, if extremely juvenile science fiction tale. Brother and sister Dan (Stephen Garlick) and Helen (Sylvestra le Touzel) are keen amateur astronomers, and when they see what seems to be a meteorite land in a nearby field, set off to investigate. On arrival, they are chased by a strange-looking, pasty-faced Thin Man (John Woodnutt), who more astute viewers will suspect to be an alien. They then run into a boy (Colin Mayes), who looks equally pale, is dressed in a strange costume and gabbles away in a bizarre language. Realising that he too must be an alien – and a rather sick one at that – they take him to the local observatory, where Tom (Loftus Burton) and Mr Bunting (Anthony Woodruff) work. But as Mr Bunting tales the alien child – who they have called Peep-Peep – to hospital, he is pursued and captured by the thin man. Inside the hidden space ship, it turns out that Peep-Peep and his father (Gabriel Woolf) have been forced by the thin alien to travel to Earth in search of meteor fragments, which they covet like we covet gold.

Obviously, The Boy from Space looks pretty cheap these days – though frankly no more so than Doctor Who episodes of the same era (and because it is all shot on film, it doesn’t have that awful jump in visual style from scene to scene like shows shot partially on film and partially on video did). Given the episodic nature of the series, the story by Richard Carpenter flows surprisingly well as a feature film – only now and again can you see the joins – and while this is by design fairly unthreatening stuff, it still has a dramatic flow to it. What’s more, it manages to include the educational material without hammering the point home too much. This is, after all, a show designed to encourage reading, so it’s no surprise that much of the drama involves the written word – Peep Peep’s attempts to communicate in what seems to be a foreign language but is in fact mirror writing are important but not hammered home, being an integral part of the drama. If you didn’t know that this was designed as education, these scenes wouldn’t seem especially odd or laboured.

More of a challenge perhaps is the dialogue, which is very dumbed down. Carpenter was restricted to 386 words, as mandated as being those that the target audience would understand. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the dialogue is a little stilted then, and that the performances seem equally wooden – there wasn’t room to flesh out the characters in a way that you would have in even a regular children’s drama.

But The Boy from Space is oddly entertaining nevertheless, in its own basic way. It reminds me a little of Children’s Film Foundation movies – cheap, juvenile and worthy, but with a peculiar charm anyway. The feature version on the BFI DVD allows you to enjoy the film as a stand-alone science fiction drama, and so makes the disc well worth picking up for fans of vintage TV sci-fi – and if you have young children, I suspect that this will still prove to be a lot of fun for them.

The disc also includes vinyl LP version of the story, as both a soundtrack only option and a version that combines the visuals of the show with the LP narrative, effectively giving another variation on the story to enjoy. There are also PDF versions of the original pupil’s pamphlets, should you wish to go the whole educational hog.



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