Ghosts, Paranoia And Folk Horror: The Creepy World Of British 1970s Children’s TV

The scary TV shows made for kids in the 1970s were unnervingly good at getting under the skin – and remain just as effective today.

The British film censors have always seen horror – in any way, shape or form – as being strictly for grown-ups. We tend to think that horror films were branded with the ‘X’ certificate because of sex and violence but a quick glance at the sort of films that were age-restricted to more mature viewers (any point between 14 and 18 over the years) belies this. A film with no nudity and no blood spilling was still likely to be given an adult rating if it set out to scare or unsettle. The censors were as concerned with children being upset, distressed or frightened as they were with them seeing graphic content. The thinking was – and still is, it seems – that children needed to be protected from the scary because fear itself is dangerous and if kids have nightmares after watching a scary movie, then that itself is trauma. Very progressive of them, you might think, looking at how we treat upset today.

Presumably, no one at the BBFC during the 1970s actually had children – or if they did, none of them watched children’s TV with their kids. Because while the film censors were doing their best to shield kids from anything frightening, TV producers were doing their damndest to scare the living daylights out of them. I don’t mean with Goosebumps-like ‘horror-lite’. Oh no. British TV producers wanted to frighten by getting under the skin and creating a sense of unease, paranoia and creeping horror, the sort of thing that would shatter any sort of cosy sense of the world being a safe and pleasant place while making every dark corner of your home – your bedroom – seem as though it could be home to unspeakable terrors. Across the decade, a series of dark and challenging shows appeared on both the BBC and the ITV network, often without any sort of warning – plonked either in the middle of the daytime after-school schedules or in the Sunday late afternoon slot that became designated for literary adaptations and what we might now call YA (Young Adult) content but which then was all seen as kids TV.  In the 1970s, YA didn’t exist – there was children’s literature and adult literature and that was it. The children’s literature might have different age groups that it was aimed at, but it was still all basically kid’s stuff and there would be no real effort to separate the books or the programming out into different age groups – you just had to work it out for yourself. There is something positive about this – as a primary school kid, I began reading books that, in retrospect, were aimed at teenagers and this almost certainly helped develop my reading skills. For overly protective parents though, it must’ve been a bit of a nightmare, never quite knowing when a TV show being shown at 4.30 in the afternoon would be The Changes rather than Here Come the Double Deckers.

The Changes

The Changes was a dark and disturbing tale of society rebelling against technology and one girl – unaffected, somehow – attempting to make her way in this new dark age. It was unsettling stuff, especially in the first episode where explosions of violence – a father smashing up a TV set – came out of nowhere. My mother immediately declared the show verboten, one of her occasional moments of moral indignation. By the time the show was midway through its run, however, she had forgotten all about it and so I managed to catch up on the second half of the series and was transfixed. This was not kid’s TV as I knew it. 1970s British children’s TV was not generally as condescending as it is now – there was still an attempt to make it work as drama or comedy without exaggerated mugging to the camera or overly-simplified narratives. Kids were not treated as though they were morons. But even in this world, The Changes felt odd, disturbing, dystopian (not that I knew what that word meant) and creepy.

The Changes also felt like it had an odd link to what we might retrospectively see as the folk horror fixations of children’s TV in the 1970s. In that show, it was a return to the rural enforced by some ancient alien entity but in shows like Children of the Stones – probably the most famous of the folk horror series aimed at kids – it was very much in the tradition found in more adult versions of the sub-genre, with modern urbanites slowly finding themselves drawn into the Old Ways by an insular rural community that constantly outwits the more ‘sophisticated’ townies. Perhaps because of the pace of urban development or simply the new explosion of interest in witchcraft and Pagan culture that the decade saw, British folk horror had its Golden Age in the 1970s and it almost always involved a culture clash that the modern world would lose, either through the manipulations of the country folk or simply a discovery of some ancient power, often literally dug up. The past, as far as British horror was concerned, was something better left buried.

The Owl Service

Perhaps the first of these shows to creep onto children’s TV was The Owl Service, which was shown across the jump from the Sixties to the Seventies – its eight episodes were shown between 1969 and 1970. The series occupied that Sunday slot, which at least removed it from the mainstream of children’s TV and was produced by Granada TV. More po-faced families were probably watching something like Swallows and Amazons or the like on the BBC at the time, which probably allowed the series to slip under the radar – that and the fact that the colour production was broadcast in black and white, which probably reduced the visual impact somewhat. The Owl Service is extraordinary TV by any standards, the sort of thing that seems incomprehensible now even for adults – it would just be too weird to make it onto television today with its experimental approach, time jumps, creeping mysteries and unsettling exploration of desire, class division and murder amongst a cast of teenage characters (though not teenage actors, lest you feel concerned). Based on the novel by pioneering folk horror writer Alan Garner, the story begins when teenage girl Alison (Gillian Hills) discovers a dinner service set in the attic of the family home in Wales that she is holidaying in with her mother – never seen in the show – and new stepfather Clive and his son Roger (Francis Wallis). The service features odd designs that she identifies as owls, but which disappear as soon as they have been seen.  But that’s just the opening to a tale of not-so-hidden lusts – Alison, much given to strutting around in a red bikini, is secretly desired by her stepbrother and Gwyn (Michael Holden), the son of the cook. In itself, this is all sorts of unsettling even if these sexual desires go unspoken or understated; meanwhile, all sorts of mysteries and dark secrets involving the house and its occupants (past and present) slowly unfold in a tale of possession and history repeating itself that is awash with unexpectedly adult moments. The story is awash with overt class war – Roger mocks Gwyn for trying to ‘improve’ himself with elocution lessons and Alison’s flirtations seem condescending and insincere – though in each case, it’s hard to know how much of this is from the present-day characters and how much from the forces of the past that are making them repeat ancient love triangles.  Either way, it is increasingly dark and disturbing even now and it’s unsurprising that many – including the judges at Europe’s children’s TV awards the Prix Jeunesse – raised their eyes at this being presented as a children’s show.

The Intruder

The Owl Service‘s producer Peter Plummer returned to similar themes in 1972 for another series shown on Sundays. The Intruder drops the supernatural aspects and messes with the folk horror tradition, having a coastal community – most notably teenager Arnold Haithwaite (James Bate) and the man he calls dad (Jak Woolgar) – disturbed by the arrival of a one-eyed stranger, played with sinister intensity by Milton Johns, who becomes a cuckoo in the family nest. This eight-parter is a slowly developing story that holds onto its mysteries until the end – the stranger initially claims that his name is also Arnold Haithwaite (“but call me Sonny”), makes unproven claims of a family connection and then sets out to undermine the real Arnold’s relationship with the man who is the only father figure he has known. Interwoven with this is a faltering relationship between the insecure Arnold and the frightfully posh, flirty and self-absorbed Jane (Sheila Ruskin), who plays him along for fun, even as her mother expresses disapproval of the boy who doesn’t know the social niceties and speaks with “a bit of an accent”. The show is less spookily creepy than The Owl Service – though Sonny’s appearance out of nowhere and constant presence are definitely disturbing. What, after all, could be more terrifying for kids than the idea of someone coming along to steal your identity and your family? It is perhaps a little too much of a slow burn and entire episodes are little more than soap opera, but the constant questions about who everyone really is – as people and in what they really want – is naggingly unsettling and it hooks you in with its continual weirdness.

Come Back Lucy

These tales of class struggle and rural unrest sat alongside more traditional ghost stories in the children’s TV schedules during the 1970s. Series like Come Back Lucy and The Clifton House Mystery played on the idea of Victorian supernatural presences and time slips that had long been a part of children’s fiction and entertainment (notably in The Amazing Mr Blunden), usually with female protagonists – these series, and the novels that they were often based on, have long had the reputation of being ‘girl’s shows’ and perhaps they were made with a female audience in mind. But we are past such restrictive labelling now, right? In any case, Come Back Lucy rather subverts the conventions of the genre even as it plays with them, having its titular heroine (Emma Bakhle) finding herself orphaned and taken from her staid and old-fashioned life into a more modern and chaotic home with relatives who treat her well but have their own preoccupations. Through a mirror, she finds herself communicating with Alice (Bernadette Windsor), a Victorian ghost who seems to offer her the chance to live in the Victorian age that she fantasises about – but who slowly corrupts her and might not be content to have her new playmate living in another world forever. The show twists our expectations for these stories – the cliche for such tales is that a child in a terrible (adoptive) household finds solace in a romanticised past, but here, Lucy is treated well in her new home but is slowly corrupted by Alice… though we are unsure of just how much of Lucy’s pettiness and snobbery is of her own making. It’s an increasingly dark twist on a familiar story and as such probably crept up on viewers unawares. Like many of the creepier kid’s TV shows of the time, it develops its story slowly, taking a few episodes before anything actually happens – again, you can’t imagine this happening on a modern TV show where the need to hook in viewers immediately is all-consuming.

In retrospect, these 1970s shows feel like a reflection of the time – occult-obsessed, yes, but also deeply paranoid and exploring a yearning for the past while acknowledging that things weren’t actually so great in the ‘good old days’ either. They are very much of their time but just as we seem to re-living all the insanity and upheaval of that decade now, so these shows feel oddly relevant and fresh. The only difference now is that if these shows were made now, there would be howls of complaint from parents and authorities alike.


Come Back Lucy, The Intruder and The Owl Service are available in remastered Blu-ray editions – thank goodness for shooting on film! – from Network.

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  1. I was not expecting the Godzilla cameo in Come Back Lucy (a scene where the kids sit down to watch EBIRAH, HORROR OF THE DEEP). I hope Toho doesn’t find out!

    1. Everyone seemed a bit more free and easy about such things back then, even before ‘fair use’ became a thing – but it does seem the sort of scene that might require some digital adjustment today, much like changing the songs on old movie soundtracks. Perhaps no one on either side has noticed.

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