The approach of Christmas inevitably brings to mind the TV shows I watched as a child. But defining children’s fantasy television is a bit like looking for bundles of straw in a haystack. After all, which kids’ fare doesn’t contain some element of the fantastic or the impossible? Still, we generally known what we mean when we talk about children’s sci-fi and fantasy TV in Britain, even if the boundaries can generally be quite shaky: it’s drama you only find between four and six pm, or on Sundays; it’s drama in which earnest drama school types called Tom and Tizzy go off to spend their summer holidays with a great aunt or uncle in the country in a big house with a garden which holds a secret that only the ghostly apparition of a grubby Victorian street urchin can unlock; it’s drama, more often than not, with really immaculate sets, portentous music and generally cheap but earnest special effects. If there is a predominant theme to this genre, it’s of children and teenagers finding their identities and coming to terms with the often dysfunctional adult world around them. Which is where the fantasy comes in. It might be a kindly old wizard or an amorphous jellyfish with a nice line in aphorisms but, whatever their shape, their role is to provide the wise, understanding, benevolent authority figure that’s been missing from our unfortunate heroes’ lives, and set them on the road to a brighter future. Looking back at the golden age of kids’ TV isn’t purely an exercise in nostalgia however, for these were the series that, in many cases, first entranced today’s fans of sci-fi and fantasy – after all, these were the tea-time delights that fed our imaginations at the most impressionable of ages.
The basic framework for what appeared on TV can be traced through the children’s literature of the previous century back to the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, in which a sulky young madam is packed off to her uncle’s country retreat, where she discovers a magical world behind a door in a wall. Then there are the works of Edith Nesbitt. Nesbitt’s The Phoenix and the Carpet, for instance, in which five young cherubs discover a conceited golden bird with the power to whisk them all over the world on a flying rug, was compulsive Sunday afternoon viewing in the 1970s. This presaged the BBC sanctioning the allocation of a large proportion of the drama budget of the late ’80s and early ’90s into elaborately ambitious Sunday teatime adaptations of the classics of children’s fantasy literature. C S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia were probably the most famous and successful of these, kicking off with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which opens, naturally, with our young heroes arriving parentless in the country, where they’ve been billetted for the duration of the Second World War. The Narnia adaptations were no doubt prompted by the success of the BBC’s 1984 adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, in which young Kay Harker quits public school for the summer holidays and ends up getting himself involved (the way you do) with a centuries-old bearded hobo with a magic – some might say delightful – box. A seasonal treat (the last episode was aired on Christmas Eve), The Box of Delights provided us with six episodes of poetic, atmospheric build-up involving the usual menagerie of unicorns, phoenixes and talking rodents.
Yet, equally, the boom in children’s fantasy TV at the end of the last century probably had just as much to do with the fact that the Middle England champions of public service broadcasting never seemed to be more enraptured than when TV was nursemaiding the little ones with the innocent conservative values of a bygone age. Anything with a Victorian nursery, a nanny or a Bentley tended to go down pretty well – take Tom’s Midnight Garden as a case in point. Philippa Pearce’s novel has been adapted three times since the 1960s (and that’s just on the small-screen) and it’s easy to see why. When young Tom’s little brother goes down with a nasty case of the pox, unsurprisingly it’s off to the aunt and uncle in rural Norfolk for the holidays. There he finds a clock which strikes 13 and provides the key to a secret garden where he meets a young orphan girl from another century. After Tom’s Midnight Garden TV continued to look towards the saturated children’s book market for inspiration, and children’s authors, it would seem, have continued to stick to the basic template laid down before the war, give or take the odd contemporary social tweak. Take Moondial, written in the early 1980’s by prolific children’s novelist Helen Cresswell. I probably don’t even need to tell you what it’s about – young girl, summer holidays, goes to stay with aunt in country, mysterious garden, lots of spooky shenanigans among the leafy leylandii. Quite good, actually!
But the real golden age for this kind of stuff was undoubtedly the 1970s. Blame the Winter of Discontent, the three-day week, decimalisation or even the Osmonds, but there was a definite need to escape in seventies’ Britain. A quintessential classic of the era was the dramatisation of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which mined the always rich vein of Celtic mythology in a complex tale of two step-siblings learning to adjust to their new family dynamic and getting drawn into a tale of Welsh wizards and magic via a couple of old plates and some paper owls. Terrifying though it was at times, The Owl Service was actually fairly standard stuff in the 1970s, when TV bosses continually put resources into such high-quality fare. Another fine example of this trend was 1977’s The Children of the Stones, which concerned a scientist who arrives with his young son in a small village held in the psychic grip of a circle of giant Neolithic stones. Based in the village of Avebury in Wiltshire (which is similarly surrounded by a circle of ancient stones), the series mixed action and adventure with West Country mysticism and is still capable of keeping grown men awake at night to this day. Then there was Catweazle, the story of an 11th century alchemist magically transported to 1970s Britain, and more wizardry courtesy of the hugely popular Ace of Wands, which ran for three series from 1970.
I should at this point make mention of the prevalence of time-travelling sci-fi children’s dramas in the ’70s and ’80s. The Tomorrow People, a series concerning super-gifted teenagers, wasn’t very good but seemed to run forever (even making a comeback in the 1990s). Timeslip was a series about two teenagers who were able to have adventures in different time zones thanks to the power of split-screen technology. The 1978 series, A Traveller in Time, involved a door in a cottage which led back to the 17th century. In the ’80s there was the magical Into the Labyrinth, which depicted the duel between good and evil in a world suspended in time; a creditable small screen take on venerable sci-fi scribbler John Wyndham’s Chocky books; and Aliens in the Family, a BBC adaptation of Margaret Mahy’s bestselling novel. In the 1990s future Doctor Who front man Russell T Davies made some acclaimed contributions to the sub-genre with Dark Season and Century Falls, two series which, with only a tiny bit of tweaking, might have equally graced the schedules of more grown-up TV.
It has to be said, however, that the late 1990s were a time when greater prominence was given to series more accurately depicting the real lives of young people (e.g. Grange Hill, Byker Grove etc). Some notable exceptions included The Queen’s Nose, in which a young girl fights to stop a magic coin falling into the wrong hands, and Black Hearts in Battersea, a highly effective treatment of Joan Aitken’s novel, packed full of atmospheric plots, dark alleys, eccentric dukes and evil conspirators. By the early noughties, kids’ fantasy TV had all but disappeared from the schedules altogether… then along came the aforementioned Russell T Davies with the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, the runaway success of which suddenly alerted the Powers That Be in TV-land to the possibilities of the genre. This precipitated some fine series such as The Sarah Jane Adventures and, more recently, promising fare such as Wolfblood, Wizards vs Aliens, Leonardo and Young Dracula. Are we perhaps about to enter another golden age of children’s TV? If so, I’ve got this great idea involving a girl who goes to stay with her aunt in the country…