Boy From Space, The (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros return to review this classic children's television series...
Sometimes where are things from your childhood that always remain with you, whether it’s a smell that evokes memories of a funfair on a carefree summer day, the rain on your skin taking you back to dashing through the rain on a chilly autumn evening or an unwanted gooseing that made you realise why your mother always told you to stay away from your distant great-uncle; something always remains, either consciously or unconsciously and those things are always there.
When Look and Read began in the 1960s, the aim was to get reluctant primary school readers interested in words, by presenting a story and examining the words used within that story, along with songs that emphasised spelling and correct usage of words. Combined with printed books to put the information to good use, it was an ingenious system of learning. Most people over the age of 30 will recall being exposed to Look and Read at school and the story that most will instantly think of when you mention the show is Richard Carpenter’s The Boy From Space.
In 1980, a teenage girl recounts the time from her youth when she and her brother became the first people on Earth to encounter an extra-terrestrial, and getting caught up in the dubious activities between humble space miners and another alien being who wants what they have worked for. When a meteorite falls to earth, enthusiastic amateur stargazers Helen and Dan see it through their newly-constructed telescope, and alert professional astronomer Mr Bunting to their sighting. When tracking it trough the woods, our young heroes find the titular Boy From Space, a silver-hued individual spouting a strange alien language and writing illegible gibberish. It turns out that that was no shooting star or other such phenomenon that night - it was a spaceship making and emergency landing! Naming him “Peep-Peep” after curious dialect, trouble erupts when a sinister being in a trench-coat is out to get the three of them, with Peep-Peep’s father trying to save his boy and stop the villainous Thin-Man. With Mr Bunting captured when his car is hit by a mighty ray-gun, its up to our plucky heroes - along with observatory assistant Tom - to work out the mystery of the off-worlders and their strange language, as well as making sure that everyone gets home again.
We’ll confess that we really wanted to review this disc, as we watched Look and Read when we were in primary school and The Boy From Space was far and away the most memorable out of the entire run. There are some images from this story that remain in our minds more than three decades after seeing it - the sight of the Tall Thin Man, dressed in his long, brown trench coat and standing in the woods is perhaps the most indelible one. If the thought of having razor-sharp memories of certain aspects of this story seared into our grey matter after more than 30 years is impressive, we should point out that we are not alone - the impact of The Boy From Space on children was such that if you were to perform an internet search, you will find discussions about this story dating back years, and certainly way before there was any sign of it being released on DVD. The internet is littered with references to The Thin Space Man, Peep-Peep and others, such are the fond memories it generated back in the day.
Watching it again, there is something deeply pleasing in the way that it lives up to exactly what you remember, as opposed to the usual cruel tricks the memory can play on fondly-remembered things. Nostalgia crept up our collective spines as we watched something for the first time in over 30 years, a sensation akin to a tarantula making its way up your back, sensing a primal fear and hoping to Hell it won‘t inject a lethal dose of cynicism to kill a delight from childhood. It’s a feeling which quickly turned into the strongest form a Zapain known to mankind, inducing a euphoric cocoon of warmth shielding any attacks from the outside world. Yes folks, experiencing The Boy From Space again really did have that much of an effect on us.
A good example of the power of something well-crafted on an impressionable young mind came when one of us started watching the first episode, after the first couple of bars of the theme tune, he started humming the melody and by the second line of the song (sung by Derrick Griffiths, in the far-gone days before he was a shill for a loan company), he was singing along to it, remembering the words in their entirety. When listening to it now, the theme shares the same lyrical, dreamlike quality as the song played at Billy Davis’ funeral at the end of George Romero’s Knightriders, and that is certainly no bad thing!
The first few minutes of The Boy From Space also cunningly double as a Public Information Film – the look and vibe are remarkably similar – as our young heroes are warned about the dangers of looking directly at the sun through a telescope; that she stops short of listing statistics of injuries caused is an example of how well-judged the writing is, and in a marked contrast to those mini horror stories of yesteryear, the two kids actually take heed of this advice and thereby avoid ending up like the poor sod at the end of that PIF about throwing fireworks. The story also shows you how to construct your own telescope, hence the reason (or disclaimer, if you are looking at it through cynical eyes); it's unlikely that in these modern days of health & safety and the fear of being sued the showing young viewers how to construct a potentially harmful piece of apparatus would be broadcast on children's television. It stresses that a telescope needs three lenses in order to function correctly - two causes the image to be seen upside-down, but we are informed that this doesn't matter when looking at the stars, though astronomers and people involved with astral-navigation might dispute this view.
Indeed, one of the major hurdles for educational programming is that of making learning fun, making kids learn things and enjoy the experience. Some might say that to successfully combine entertainment with academia is impossible, as we’ve seen enough frat-house movies to know that a nexus between the between the two is purely mythical. Many TV shows have tried desperately to bridge the gap, but most of the time, it was as obvious as putting a calculator on a spoon and saying: “Here comes the big aeroplane…”. The legendary Look and Read came close with making it all palatable for young audiences, but The Boy From Space represents the only time a TV show was able to give the kids something they were not only gripped by, but got all that fancy learnin’ stuff in there, too. Most importantly, the little bleeders actively wanted to get involved with the coursework which accompanies the series.
The plotting is pretty tight, and although writer Richard Carpenter was not happy about the restrictions put on him with the specific number of words he could use - he later said he could have made a much better piece without such dictates - the progression and ingenuity on display puts a most of the crap pumped out to much the same audience these days to shame. While all the characters are of a basic template, they are all likeable (or hissable, as the case may be) and get audiences on their side as intended. OK, it’s not exactly a revelation to modern viewers that the alien language the kids spend ages trying to decipher is in fact merely written backwards, but it was enough to get those watching to be interested in the nature of words, and that was the primary goal achieved. Dr Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham using only fifty words, and he didn’t feel that it would have been better with more, and the end result of Carpenters’ work is fine as it is. We won’t name names, but there are one or two Doctor Who stories which don’t come measure up to the structure of The Boy From Space, and this is the “respectable” side of kids/family programming from the BBC.
Speaking of Gallifrey’s finest, The Boy From Space also comes complete with a cliff-hanger for every episode, and some of them are absolute corkers. We won’t spoil them, but even when it all ends with a massive red-herring, they are pretty damned cool: watch them one with the threatening footsteps approaching Helen and Dan as they hide out in the observatory! Originally broadcast in 1971, it must be no coincidence that only a couple of years later Doctor Who story Terror of the Zygons also featured a race of aliens capturing people and imprisoning them in their spaceship parked at the bottom of a lake - surely no testament to just how widespread the influence of it attained. This whole thing really has an authentic, seventies-era Doctor Who vibe to it, and with most fans knowing them all inside out and backwards, to get something so close and be almost virgin material comes as a real godsend. The wonderful, nostalgic score from Paddy Kingsland just tops the whole thing off, and we defy anyone to not expect The Doctor to come charging in to say that the alien language can be deciphered by reversing the polarity of the neutron-flow.
When you analyse the story from a modern perspective, there are some cynics who - in a possibly ironic manner - would see the Tall Thin Man, bedecked in a trench coat and in pursuit of a young child in the woods to be either hilarious or creepy in a manner that writer Richard Carpenter might never have imagined. Then again, that sort of modern mentality makes the first ever episode of Doctor Who - in which a suspicious-acting elderly man who apparently keeps his granddaughter in a wooden box in a junkyard - seem positively pederastic to the cynical eye. With this in mind, The Boy From Space is best enjoyed when watching through the innocent eyes of a child; when you watch it, put the possible predatory overtones to one side and you’ll be wrapped up in an adventure that enthralled and terrified a generation of children. Who knows - keeping such thoughts in mind might even add to the tension and suspense!
Readers of our stuff at DVDActive will doubtless be aware that we have more than a passing affinity for Doctor Who, and with so many other similarities between the show shows, we couldn’t let this opportunity pass without mentioning some connections between The Boy From Space and the man from Gallifrey. The following are the connective tissue, or missing theatrical links, in no particular order of luvvieness:
John Woodnutt (The Thin Space Man), practically lived the role of Zygon leader Broton, in the aforementioned Tom Baker classic Terror of the Zygons; Woodnutt was always a sterling supporting actor who never really became a big star. He always brought a great intensity and/or a light touch to the roles he played, not to mention of having a Zygon-like quality of being able to completely immerse himself in a character.
Stephen Garlick, youthfully playing Dan, would later resurface in the Peter Davison story Mawdryn Undead in which he was Turlough’s fellow public schoolboy cohort Ibbotson. Oh, he was also the kid with the piss-pot stuck on his head in Carry On Doctor. It’s a funny old industry, isn’t it?
Essaying the role of Peep-Peep’s father is Gabriel Woolfe, an actor whose mellifluous, malevolent tones were heard in Pyramids of Mars when he played Sutekh, and later made a triumphant reappearance in Nu-Who as the devilish occupant of The Satan Pit. Now there’s a man who could inspire fear with only the sound of his voice, a timbre as silky as baby-oil in satin sheets.
The most astonishing Doctor Who connection in terms of the cast of The Boy From Space comes in the form of actress Sylvestra Le Touzel, who established a very impressive CV during her career, but had her first acting role alongside Patrick Troughton in The Mind Robber at the tender age of ten. Her early acting career certainly helped her get a handle on characterisation, as she is remarkably sure-footed as Helen. Many will remember her from the Doctor Dolittle-flavoured Heineken commercial as she struggles to shed her poshness as repeat the words: “The water in Majorca don’t taste like what it oughta’”. This advert not only proves that toffs get very common when pissed, but also how encountering aliens at a young age can turn you into an alcoholic in later life.
At the time the main body of the story was shot, it was pretty forward-thinking of them to include a black character in the story who was a positive role model and interacted with the two children in the story, without any need to shout out that this was intended as social integration by media. Tom, as portrayed by Loftus Burton, is a friend to the two kids and helps them on their adventures and his ethnicity is not mentioned in any way, quite possibly because nothing was specified in the script and he was hired because he was a good actor, in much the same way that Duane Jones got the gig in Night of the Living Dead. OK, he only seems to be a lackey for Mr Bunting, but you have to remember that this was shot in 1971, the very same year that ITV gave the world Love Thy Neighbour, which did the concept of integration a hell of a lot of damage. To give its young viewers positive images of other races and cultures was a very smart, progressive thing for Look and Read to do.
A clever framing device has protagonist Helen narrating the story, looking back upon the adventure from a more mature perspective and commenting upon things that would have otherwise remained unspoken; this not only allows the character to impart information from a personal perspective, but also allows a young audience to realise that though there is danger along the way, nothing serious is going to happen to the two lead characters and the youthful audience can just enjoy the story. This framing device was born out of necessity, as the original 1971 version was wiped in the same purge that destroyed copious Doctor Who stories, and when the remake came about in 1979, it was decided to have Sylvestra Le Touzel back to narrate it - an interesting situation that really serves the story well. In fact, the newly-filmed wraparound material really gives it an warm, comforting feeling, and works even better when revisiting it all these years later, inadvertently welcoming you back not only into the story again, but also to a time when you believed what you saw with all your heart and soul. The whole thing practically leaps out and hugs you from the opening titles!
In the 1980 version (this is seemingly the official title of it, despite the closing credits listing it as being 1979), the characters of Wordy and Cosmo have been brought in. As well as all the expected arseing around to pad out the running time of each episode, they serve to literally spell out the bleeding obvious, going over various clues and getting the audience to spelling out things in a manner usually reserved for re-shoots on a film after a preview to a confused test audience. The cheerful performance-boosters also give numerous blatant plugs to the book that accompanies the series - you would have thought that such gratuitous attempts at getting schools to purchase them would have fallen afoul of the Beeb's strict guidelines regarding advertising, but maybe there was a loophole if the item was for educational purposes. It’s almost the same principle of sticking a guy in a white coat at the start of a porno so as to classify it as educational. The mysterious appearance of what seems to be a copy of the story on a U-Matic videotape seems to have also squeezed through the same loophole.
You could argue that it’s all very middle-class, a charge which could never be defended, as it was made by the BBC, but it’s done in a way which appeals to all kids, thanks to the blending of mystery, suspense, invention and atmosphere. At our school, it was played to all kids as a way of finishing off a blustery afternoon during the winter months, giving the kids something entertaining to watch and using the accompanying educational materials as fun refreshers rather than much-needed basics. It didn’t hinge of being a bit behind the rest of the kids, as everyone loved watching it, regardless of scholastic ability or aptitude. To any kid, a boy from spaceship crash-landing into a lake as a creepy guy menaces both him and a couple of locals means the exactly same thing as it does to the rest of them. The Thin Man stalking children provides an equal amount of skid-marks - you probably get the gist by now. To paraphrase the late, great Roy Kinnear: “It means the same in any language… a pair of tits is a pair of tits…”
Even though said 1980 version is the one we watched at school over three decades ago, we would personally advise those approaching it for the first time to watch the feature-length edit, as the continual interruption and reiteration of the bleeding obvious by Wordy and Cosmo becomes frustrating remarkably quickly. That the word “interruption” is used to describe their protracted skits and that's certainly not a misnomer, as approximately six or seven minutes of The Boy From Space appears in each episode of Look and Read and when you consider that each episode runs for around 19 minutes, you feel that they're taking the piss a little. Still, when broadcast in schools, this story was invaluable to teachers, as it not only engaged a classroom full of kids in learning to read, but it also allowed teachers nearly 20 minutes to nip outside and have a crafty fag.
Wordy himself has always been a creepy creation, looking like someone who became a bilateral amputee as a result of being at the epicentre of an explosion in a typewriter manufacturing plant; one has to wonder that if Wordy were to head-butt someone, would the words “fuck you” appear on the face of his victim in a manner not unlike The Phantom's skull-ring? Never mind. In this series, Wordy is voiced by actor and former Radio 2 DJ, Charles Collingwood, who would later go to play second fiddle to former Radio 1 Noel Edmonds in television quiz show, Telly Addicts. If you listen very carefully, you can hear the illusions of forty-somethings shattering around the country at the revelation of the man behind the colourful wordsmith.
As well as the tedious reinforcement of the plot and various aspects therein, the linking material also allows for various songs that encourage children to grasp the basics of phonics and other such word-related matters; one particular song (in which one of the singers is none other than Shelia Staefel) gets kids to recognise words with a double-o in them, singling out words such as look, took, etc. – sadly, the song wasn't too memorable, as it was ironically missing a hook. Another has two green animated mole-things singing about light being too bright – this piece started to trigger flashbacks of the same kind of intensity as ones of a family friend being overly-familiar during a dinner party; this mole scene also has the animated subterranean educators informing us that there are many words ending in “ight”, we can think of one that sounds similar to describe much of the linking material...
Even though restoration had been carried out, the overall look of The Boy From Space is a tad disappointing; though the original 1971 incarnation was wiped, the film footage survived - but consulting with one of the guys involved with the restoration - the film was badly faded and restoring the A/B negs would have been prohibitively expensive to restore. He also confirmed our suspicion that the restoration was based upon the video master-tapes from the 1979 version. Maybe we were expecting a little too much, but it still looks about as good as possible, with some strong colours and a reasonable amount of image detail.
The mono 2.0 presentation is fairly strong, but the audio in the story is limited by the original recording, with some echoing interiors occasionally making dialogue a touch on the thick side, but there’s nothing completely inaudible. For better or worse, the educational songs sound pretty strong.
LP Version – Audio Version: This was available as an alternate teaching aid and is an audio adaptation of the story, with Charles Collingwood narrating (in a non-Wordy voice) and has participation of the original cast, but with everyone speaking v-e-r-y... s-l-ow-l-y, and Collingwood suffixes every line of dialogue with “...said (insert character name here)”, which becomes somewhat hypnotic during stretches of dialogue-heavy scenes. This is a neat little inclusion, but at 54 minutes, it's certainly something that all but the most die-hard fans of The Boy From Space will be able to sit through until the end.
LP Version – Film Version: Created especially for this DVD release, this version marries the audio from the LP version of Richard Carpenter's story with the visuals from the TV version – is this a happy marriage, or an acrimonious divorce in the offing? Bizarrely, it actually works rather well, and the stilted performances of the LP version aren't as frustrating and annoying when synced-up to the mouth movements of the character on-screen. This unusual hybrid would have kept kids awake whilst watching/listening to it at school, as the LP version is somnolent in the extreme but makes for a fun experience here.
Wordy's Think-Ups: All 19 of the animated musical sequences are presented here for your personal edification. Some of them are like hearing fingers being run along (appropriately enough) a blackboard, whilst others have an earworm-ish quality to them. We would say that using the “play all” option would be inadvisable as taking on a pissed-off Scanner whilst watching a series of Max Headroom-style blip-verts, with the end result just as messy. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
PDF Materials: When you pop this disc into your computer, you have the opportunity to download a copy of both the original 1971 pamphlet and the one from the 1979 remake. You, too can imitate Wordy and Cosmo by waving the bloody things around for everyone to see. It’s a nice little touch that really rounds out the whole experience of re-watching The Boy From Space.
Booklet: The DVD booklet is now something of a dying art form, but the British Film Institute are among the noble few who refuse to let it slip away into the darkness. The 22 page booklet has an informative piece from Ben Clarke, an aficionado of Look and Read, who supplies a history of the show and some things you didn’t know about The Boy From Space. Chris Perry of historical television society, Kaleidoscope, casts an illuminating eye over the linguistic restrictions by which writer Richard Carpenter was constrained tightly (Carpenter was only allowed to use 368 words from the English language in his dialogue) and explains about the wiping of the original tapes of The Boy From Space and the decision to remake it several years later. Rounding things off is a piece by composer Paddy Kingsland, who reminisces about the music he produced for the remake of this story and notes some of the similarities between this and his music for The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was produced just before this. There are exhaustive credits for all of the different iterations of this story and some nice other bits and pieces related to it. A sterling read!
The Boy From Space is a surprisingly simple tale, but one that is well told and enthralled an entire generation of kids who wanted thrills and spills whilst subtly (and at times, not so subtly) being taught some of the finer points of spelling and grammar. Modern cliché has it that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but we are more than happy to report that The Boy From Space is something which lives up to all of those warm, fuzzy memories locked away in the back of our mind all these years. An interesting cast and some nifty suspense-generating direction keep this story entertaining and though we would recommend watching it in the exclusive feature-length version presented here, there are going to be a lot of people about our age who will want to see all ten episodes to get the full Look and Read experience.
The BFI are to be congratulated in releasing this much-loved story in a version that can most certainly be called exhaustive and assuredly definitive, with a nice presentation and exceptional thought put into its extras. Now, we wonder if they are going to release any other Look and Read stories? We’d love to see The Dark Tower or The King’s Dragon…
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 25th August 2014
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Feature-length Presentation, BBC Records LP Audio Version, BBC Records LP Film Version, Wordy's Think-Ups, PDF Materials, Illustrated Booklet
Easter Egg: No
Director: Pat Farrington
Cast: Sylvestra Le Tousel, Stephen Garlick, John Woodnutt
Length: 200 minutes
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