Horrific ‘In-betweenness’: Spatial and Temporal Displacement and British Society in 1970s Children’s Supernatural Television

by Mark Fryers

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

Abstract: [page 30] The 1970s in Britain were a period marked by economic and industrial strife and a cultural emphasis on nostalgia. It was also a televisual “golden age” that was echoed in a rich seam of horror and supernatural television that was also reflected in an equally vibrant period for supernatural programming for children. These included the series The Changes, Sky, King of the Castle, The Georgian House, Shadows and Come Back Lucy, which consistently explored the fracturing and dislocation of time and space. Alongside these, children were constantly warned of the dangers of playing in the spaces of industry and agriculture by exposure to a series of Public Information Films broadcast on television that both traded on the representational paradigms of the horror film and which consequently imbricated the spaces of work and industry as potentially deadly. As this article will exemplify, a wider societal context of childhood fear was evoked on television that spoke to the attendant fear and uncertainty of the interstitial spaces between childhood and adolescence, adolescence and adulthood. This “horrific in-betweenness” explored so consistently on British screens speaks equally to the socio-cultural contexts of 1970s Britain, long established British childhood literary tropes as well as deeper anxieties surrounding the intractability of discrete parameters of childhood.

Keywords: British television culture, children’s horror and fantasy, horror and society, space and temporality in horror, supernatural television

Catherine Storr, the celebrated writer of children’s fiction, believed that cruelty and violence in children’s books as well as television “may help to acknowledge the dark and conflicted feelings we all harbour from infancy” (Reynolds). However, horror, whether related to childhood or adulthood, is related not only to primal fears but also to the fears of the [page 31] age. As children’s television is a popular medium, the contexts of production and reception are equally important in understanding its specific function and how, like adult horror, it also reflects the wider contemporary fears and anxieties of the culture that created, disseminated, and received it. Additionally, as scholars have argued, childhood and adolescence are not fixed definitions but fluctuate within changing paradigms and particularly, philosophical, psychological, and pedagogical approaches to childhood (Levy and Mendelsohn 11).

As this article will demonstrate, 1970s children’s super-natural television in Britain was especially fruitful, yielding a range of significant examples which speak to the above, but especially to the specific conditions of cultural, political, industrial, and economic strife that typify how this period of British history is traditionally viewed. A range of texts will be considered which attest to the vibrancy of the underexplored genre of youth horror and television during this time period, with specific emphasis on the supernatural series Shadows (1975-77) and Come Back Lucy (1978). However, it will also address a wider televisual culture by concomitantly considering how these sit alongside a range of widely-viewed Public Information Films that for many who grew up in the era, were the definition of “horror.” They offer an important insight into how a specific era can conflate childhood with general cultural fears alongside the developmental process that children and adolescents are forced to navigate, and therefore how societal horror is not just confined within discrete boundaries of fiction. That they so often invoked history, class, gender, race, and industry suggested tangible childhood fears within the nation state in 1970s Britain.


Any consideration of television in Britain, especially in the pre-satellite era, must inevitably acknowledge a history [page 32] of tension between the allegedly unique aims of the licence fee-funded British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC), as a paternal institution with a national remit to help mould good citizens, and the commercial impulse of the Independent Television Network/s (ITV). Before the intro-duction of commercial television in 1955, the BBC held a monopoly, and thus the birth of children’s television in Britain occurred within the purview of an institution with a specific remit to “inform, educate, and entertain.” Under the stewardship of Director of Children’s Programming Freda Lingstrom, the emphasis was on the latter at the expense of the former.

In many ways, children’s television in Britain reflects the history and inherent tensions within adult television, but writ large by the concerns traditionally held towards children and their capacity to absorb external influences. For many, the BBC represented “quality,” and its propensity for “quality” literary dramas was reflected in the fact that these were also seen as proper programming for children. Thus, children’s television on the BBC was marked by adaptations of the works of authors such as Enid Blyton, Edith Nesbit, and J. Meade Faulkner.

By contrast, the more popular programming of ITV was initially associated with expensive action adventure serials, many of which were American imports or high-budget UK or UK/US co-productions such as Sir Francis Drake (1961-62). Thus, cultural distinctions surrounding the perceived crass commercialism of networks fueled by advertising revenue was present and heightened in debates concerning children’s programming, underscored by the traditional British fears that exposure to American culture could create a generation blind to British values and culture. Fear and children’s tele-vision were at this stage marked by broader cultural concerns and those that traditionally coalesce around children and new technology.

The notion that children’s televisual provision should not just be for entertainment purposes, or even for educational [page 33] ends, but to inculcate within the child the imagined values of the nation state was echoed years later in 1997 by Lady Howe, who declared that television should “encourage the child’s development as a good citizen” (Buckingham et al. 4). Likewise, children’s television could be marked by conservatism, again echoing a similar strain within adult programming. Appearing as late as the 1960s and early 1970s, the animated programs Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967), and Chigley (1969), for example, were described as promoting a “very parochial middle England where everyone knew their place and profession” (Inglis 53).

Within this environment, the term “horror” was there-fore something that had to be treated with the utmost concern. It also raises unavoidable problems of definition, both of horror and of childhood. According to David Oswell, good “family viewing” would exclude genres such as horror and science fiction and even Jane Eyre (131). This is demonstrated by the concerns of Freda Lingstrom, who, as head of BBC Children’s Television in 1953, gave a speech to the Society of Film Teachers opining that if witches and dragons were featured in any children’s program, “they must on no account have teeth, for children are terrified by teeth” and later that “ghosts, witches and figures with ghoulish faces are strictly censored for children” (qtd. in Oswell 131). Perhaps this overly maternal attitude explains why, by the time Lingstrom was replaced in 1955, the BBC was, to a great degree, losing ground to the commercial appeal of ITV. It certainly underestimated the resilience of children to cope with the horrific/supernatural and the fact that, as estab-lished by literary heritage, it was healthy for children to face some fear in their upbringing, as Storr asserted.

It was perhaps the popularity of the BBC series Doctor Who, which straddled the generic boundaries of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, that helped paved the way for the period after 1967, in which horror/fantasy/sci-fi became a staple of children’s programming. First broadcast in 1963, the series remained popular into the 1970s, with some [page 34] episodes becoming notorious for their engagement with horror tropes. However, there was little proof that these were damaging to children—indeed, quite the opposite, as evidenced by the fact that the correspondence to the corporation was largely positive, with one young viewer stating his appreciation for the horror episode “The Seeds of Doom”: “I think it was one of the scariest ones of all, I liked the bit where the plants were taking over, and I also liked the monsters” (qtd. in Sandbrook 349). That this was apparently typical of such epistles suggests that Lingstrom had little to worry about.

Straddling these boundaries as it did, Doctor Who highlights another problem for scholars of children’s horror television: exactly how to define it, especially considering that children have traditionally been more open and less preoccupied with the policing of proper generic boundaries than adults have. Indeed, in relation to the traditionally rare beast of the children’s horror film, Catherine Lester describes it as an “‘impossible’ subgenre” (25). However, in television, especially in Britain, it is a much more prominent phenomenon in the time period that this article deals with, and one which tends to encompass the fantastic and the supernatural, which has led to a different problem of definition. For Helen Wheatley, children’s programs such as Children of the Stones fall within the larger category of Gothic television, although it has become more fashionable to place this text within the perhaps misused critical category of “Folk Horror” (see, for example, Cowdell on this). Pierse possibly offers the most inclusive term in “tele-fantasy.” The case studies discussed at length here, Shadows and Come Back Lucy, both fall within the purview of the fantastic and supernatural, but not within any discrete sense, while the Public Information Films, which flirt with established tropes of the horror film, similarly resist any simple generic categorization. Therefore, this article will discuss horror, the supernatural, and the “horrific” as part of a wider societal discourse of the [page 35] “uncanny,” fantastic, and that which induces fear and revulsion.

In whatever critical category, by the 1970s, children’s television occupied a central position in the lives of British children. As Home suggests, “Television is undoubtedly an important influence in children’s lives, one that helps to determine their taste, attitudes and knowledge of the world” (9). Indeed, useful distinctions can now be made between younger and older viewers and their usage of the medium: “When the child is slightly older than this [10], he or she is a ‘master television viewer’ and sees the medium as a primary source of knowledge and relaxation” (Huston et al. 44). However, defining childhood, as well as adolescent and teenage stages, remains difficult, especially so during the period in question. Indeed, it is through children’s culture that notions of childhood have traditionally been forged. As Levy and Mendlesohn explain, “The process of fashioning fairy tales into material for children was, in part, the process of reshaping the ideology of childhood” (35). The fear and uncertainty of develop-mental stages was manifest for children, with adolescence signaling new uncertainties as “a second phase of individuation during which many of the anxieties and frustration of infancy return in new guises” (Reynolds) or for Sainsbury “a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood during which young people attempt to come to terms with them-selves and society” (125). Yet for adults, youth anxiety is expressed both in their fear for children, encompassing their protection from exposure to deleterious and damaging material, and their fear of them, in their capacity to transgress rules and elide boundaries. Indeed, it is this very intangibility itself as a source of youthful fear and horror that this article is primarily concerned with, a concept that I will term, for want of a better one, “horrific in-betweenness.” [page 36]

The “Horrific” 1970s

The 1970s is viewed as a “golden age” for TV drama in Britain, and this extended to horror and fantasy television as well, with a plethora of standalone and anthology series such as Dead of Night (1972), Beasts (1976), and Supernatural (1977) appearing at this time. Similarly, the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas series (1971-78) revived the tradition of yuletide horror at a time when great industrial unrest often reduced the nation to blackout and candlelight. Austerity was a keyword at this time of inflation and manufacturing decline, and the themes of paganism and a return to a horrific past evident in British films such as The Wicker Man (1973) were echoed in the themes of televisual horrors such as Robin Redbreast (1970) or The Stone Tape (1972). In these texts, adult protagonists were invariably outsiders, drawn to their own destruction by their ignorance, arrogance, or curiosity or simply by virtue of being in the “wrong” place. While children’s horror television overlapped with very similar themes—mysticism, paganism, haunted (or “uncanny”: see Hutchings) landscapes, and Britain’s dark history—children, often displaced and lacking parental guidance, were made to unravel the secrets and iniquities of the past, at a time when their status as children or adolescents also rendered them lost or displaced—the “horrific in-betweenness.” What added a contemporary layer of resonance to these texts was the fact that they were also produced against a background of fractured industry, soci-etal and economic uncertainty, and a cultural form of nostalgia that tried to shield the nation from these realities.

Famously, 1970s Britain was a time of deep industrial and economic strife. As cheaper industrial manufacture from places such as Germany and Japan began to undercut the heart of British manufacturing, rising oil prices and stagnant wages contributed to inflation (see Turner; Sandbrook). The situation was exacerbated by what seemed like eternal industrial action by the powerful trade unions, [page 37] which led to fuel and utilities shortages, culminating in the two “winters of discontent” and the government-imposed three-day week. It is unsurprising that Folk Horror, a return to a pre-industrial past, paganism, and mysticism should creep into British culture when the nation was involuntarily plunged into darkness and a return to candlelight. It was also unsurprising that there was a general mistrust in some quarters towards technology and modernity. This, coupled with the first pangs of apocalyptic environmentalism from the burgeoning environmental movements in the early 1970s as well as the ongoing Cold War and threat of nuclear obliteration, contributed to a pervasive sense of perpetual decline, impending doom, and social malaise. This was displayed culturally through a broad retreat to nostalgia, evident in television programs such as The Edwardians (1972-73) and The Onedin Line (1971-80), which both looked back to historical periods of British industriousness and global influence at a time when, in reality, these were in terminal decline.

At the other end of the scale, the 1970s were also a “golden age” for televisual drama, with programs such as the anthology series Play for Today giving expression to marginalized and politicized working-class writers dealing with subversive, controversial, and taboo subjects in a social realist style. As we shall see, these also made their way into children’s horror and fantasy programming. Here, televisual culture echoes literary history, and this is particularly relevant with regards to cycles of childhood and youth culture. According to Levy and Mendlesohn, folk and fairy culture had been dissipated by the effects of industrial-ization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the focus on literary realism in Victorian society, and yet a “love for fantasy remained, if mostly on the periphery of culture, such as in children’s literature” (28). It is telling, therefore, that in this later period of industrial preoccupation, a peripheral love for fantasy should be expressed in children’s television, with stories often grounded in social and [page 38] economic strife but liberated by fantasy worlds in which children can work through mainly personal but also public anxieties.

Time Shift

A key text within children’s programming that exemplifies this malaise is the fantasy sci-fi series Sky (1975), in which three children, Arby, Jane and Roy, discover a traveler from another dimension with telepathic and other supernatural abilities and help him to escape back to his proper dimension. It is unsurprising that this was written by Dave Martin and Bob Barker, who had written for Doctor Who, as the program is concerned with the displacement of time and reality, with the titular Sky needing to return to his own time: “I am alien to this time” (a fine metaphor for the feelings of youth and childhood maladjustment). The show, which blended science fiction with fantasy and a dash of horror, not only dabbled in paganism and mysticism but also offered a critique on humanity’s reliance on machinery and a warning of future apocalypse. In the series, this was referred to obliquely as “the chaos,” an environmental catastrophe that wipes out most of civilization. The final two episodes encapsulate the sense of failed technology and environmental doom by dis-placing Roy himself to this dystopian future, in which he is admonished that “all intelligent beings … stand outside space and time” and that reliance on machines and neglect of the natural world will spell disaster.

Sky has much in common with another key children’s dystopian text with horrific overtones released in the same year. The Changes (1975), adapted from Peter Dickinson’s novels, posited a Britain in which people are compelled by a strange humming noise to attack and destroy all technology and machinery, returning the country to a pre-industrial age (the earlier Dickinson series, Mandog, 1971, also dealt with children and time travel). It was a series that delved [page 39] into Arthurian mysticism and similarly posits a warning that nature is being corrupted by modernity (a larger fear of the age evidenced by an obsession with pastoralism), but it also tackled subjects such as racial and gender discrimination, as did the later HTV series The Georgian House (1976), indicating that producers felt that the maturation levels of young audiences were such that they could tackle taboo subjects in broadly popular dramas in a way that adults perhaps couldn’t (in an era in which the unashamedly blackface The Black and White Minstrel Show was one of the most popular primetime programs).

In Survivors, meanwhile, another dystopian sci-fi released in 1975 and running for a further two series, the human population is almost wiped out by a pandemic. Doctor Who, aimed at youth audiences and produced by the BBC’s children’s drama department, continued to lean on tropes of terror, as well as ancient evil and apocalyptic doom, throughout this period and is a series that was also predicated on time travel and time shift. Another children’s series, Timeslip (1970), is similarly self-explanatory in its central focus, as is A Traveller in Time (1978), adapted from Alison Uttley’s novel.

From 1967 onwards, youth fantasy, terror, and horror programs traded heavily on the notion of time shifts or a displacement of temporality. Old worlds bled into the present, the future blended into the past, objects or places opened up portals to other time periods and dimensions, and, on occasion, the temporal displacement took the form of a supernatural possession. Key texts here are The Owl Service (1969), adapted by Alan Garner from his own novel (he also wrote Red Shift [1978]); Escape into Night (1972), adapted from Storr’s novel Marianne Dreams; and Children of the Stones (1975). The past, or an alternate reality, is opened up on each occasion by an object or objects—an enchanted dinner service, a sketchbook, and a stone circle respectively. Each of these functions as what Allen describes as a “transitional object,” a trope of the haunted house film [page 40] in which an object functions as a fulcrum for leavening the past into the present and vice versa, for disorienting or horrific effect (qtd. in Wheatley 387).

The Owl Service is one of the first of these children’s adventures, or indeed adult dramas, to inflect paganism into a tale that is now increasingly referred to as “Folk Horror.” However, it is just as important as a notably mature, challenging, and even daring take on adolescence and “coming of age.” The eruption of an ancient Welsh myth enacted through the teenaged Alison is said to represent her anxiety over her familial displacement and her awakening sexuality (Levy and Mendlesohn 131). For Jowett and Abbott, this space of televisual horror offers opportunity for a “re-negotiation of identity” (28), something especially relevant for youth audiences grappling with the internal and external pressures of growing up.

Equally significant is Escape into Night, in which a bedbound girl evokes a dark and disturbing fantasy space through the drawings that she creates. Marianne is injured after a fall and has to spend several weeks in bed, without her absent father who works abroad for long periods. Through her drawings, she creates an eerie fantasy world in which she interacts with a young boy, Mark, who is trapped in the house that she creates and who also happens to be a pupil of her tutor. Marianne realizes that she can, within reason, add and remove details that provide an uncanny echo of the real world (a clock, inexorably ticking, is a constant, however), but this begins to slip from her grasp as she and Mark are plagued in this fantasy by monstrous stones with eyes who emit disturbing, animalistic noises and shriek “We’re coming” (in a voice similar to the Daleks in Doctor Who) as they approach the house. Between them, they work out how to escape, and they both recover from their ailments in the real world, where they later meet in a park and Mark does not recognize her. It is tempting to interpret this, especially with the power that Marianne can wield over Mark in her fantasy, as an attempt to control her [page 41] approaching adolescence and the monsters an expression of her id – a “dark and conflicting” eruption of this. Either way, the fantasy space and the dislocation of time and space allow a space for Marianne to work out her inner demons and negotiate her identity.

Public Information Films (PIFs)

These programs had their realist doppelgängers in a series of public information films produced for British audiences at the time. These have become known as curiously British products and very much of their era, both part of a “nanny state” and unflinching in their depiction of potential everyday dangers. Children’s PIF’s were unrelenting in their directness, realism, and brutal honesty, which resonated with the social realist ethic of quality televisual culture.

At a time when manufacturing was causing such a societal schism, children were warned that the places of traditional and modern industry were equally the spaces of death. In 1973, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents lobbied the Home Secretary to raise awareness of the causes of accidental drowning, the third most common accidental cause of death in the under 16s (McGahan). The result was the two-minute horror short Lonely Water, broadcast on television channels. Shot with tropes from the horror film—fog shrouded shots, low camera angles, sinisterly tracking camera—it featured a voiceover by the actor Donald Pleasance: “I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool.” After showing children playing in quarries and dangerous deep water, the warning “I’ll be back” is framed as a terrifying echo.

Even more direct was the extended film Apaches (1977), which ran for almost thirty minutes and was shown in cinemas, which this time targeted agriculture as a space of dire disaster. A group of children playing “cowboys and Indians” come to an untimely end. One falls into a slurry pit [page 42] and drowns, another child is crushed under the wheels of a tractor, another perishes by driving a tractor off of a cliff, and another is crushed under a collapsing metal gate, while yet another dies from accidently drinking acid—these incidents all occur while children are playing in a dangerous place. Other adverts graphically illustrated the dangers of playing near the residues of industrial power, with unfortunates being electrocuted by flying and retrieving their kite in too close proximity to an electric pylon, breaking into an electricity substation, or wandering too close to live railway lines (The Finishing Line [1977]) or playing on building sites (Building Sites Bite [1978]).

For the adult population, the spaces of modern industry were visual indices for broader concepts—industrial and political battlegrounds, strikes, and arrested or zero productivity—but for the children in these modern morality plays, they were all too active—the electronic throb of a substation or the vertiginous edifice of a looming pylon became sites of terror to an entire generation. Likewise, the ghosts of moribund or dead industries—farms, quarries, canals, and others—were not just metaphorical tombstones but literal graves for careless or weak-minded children. The audio-visual culture of Britain at the time had imbricated a great number of spaces as ‘horrific’ for young audiences.

Shadows (1975-77)

Shadows was an anthology series of twenty self-contained episodes running for three series between 1975 and 1977 and featuring different characters, actors, and storylines, the vast majority of which were original stories written for the screen (and heavily female-authored). The first series was produced by Pamela Lonsdale and script-edited by Ruth Boswell, who took over as producer for the second and third series. Boswell also worked on Timeslip and Escape into Night, with which the series shares many thematic similarities. [page 43]

The first series focused mainly on eerie and ghostly tales, usually of possession, visitations from another age, and the displacement of time and/or space. These began with “The Future Ghost,” in which the time periods are ingeniously reversed; followed by the haunted schoolyard of “After School”; “The Witch’s Bottle,” wherein a haunted tree is a conduit to a girl being possessed by an accused witch from the seventeenth century; and The Waiting Room, where the young protagonists are haunted late one night by the victims of a train disaster. “Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes” was different still, a comic adventure with the evil wizard, Mr. Stabs, imported from the fantasy series Ace of Wands (1970-72).

“The Future Ghost” is indicative of a number of themes that the series as a whole addresses, especially with regards to the rupture of space and time, attitudes surrounding class and colonialism, and gender roles and stereotypes. In 1875, a young nurse, Julia, arrives at a hotel and is summoned in the night by a young girl, Emma, from 1975 who pleads with Julia to stay with her, thus saving her from a fire that destroyed her room (thereby creating a temporal vortex of mutual compassion). This device allows for much inter-rogation of the time periods, significantly when the Irish maid alludes to Irish terrorism, “the bombs at Phoenix Park,” at a time when the IRA had reignited its campaign of bombing and violence against British rule (1972 onwards). The echoes of colonialism are evident elsewhere in the speech of innkeeper Mr. Butler, who complains that “there's too much sun in India” and that the fifty pence coin that Julia brings back from the future “doesn't even mention the Indian Empire.”

The gender roles of women in the two time periods are also juxtaposed, with Julia's profession treated with skepticism by the innkeepers, with Mrs. Butler observing, “before we know where we are, we shall have women wearing trousers.” The same occurs in “Time out of Mind” (by Penelope Lively), in which a bored young girl, Liz, is [page 44] transported into the Victorian doll's house that she views while on a family trip. Liz ends up as Eliza, a servant to a family that echoes her own, becoming friendly with Helen, the daughter of the house, and her sister in the real world. Her aunt Myra is a stern governess, while her mother is a “delicate” woman, eternally bound to her chaise lounge with headaches. The drama revolves around Mamma's concern that Helen is too “delicate” for boarding school, with the evil governess deliberately sabotaging her home schooling to prove that she is not fit for the “rigorous” institution. Much is then made between the feminine realm of the private/domestic and the masculine, “rigorous” world of the public. With her twentieth-century sensibilities, Liz easily deflates the nineteenth-century performative notion of delicate femininity, assisting Helen with arithmetic and encouraging her to flex her bicep in a show of strength. As well as making these distinctions between gender in the two time periods, the role taken on by her parents and aunt in this alternate world, with an ineffectual mother, absent father and mendacious, vindictive aunt, also reveals the ambivalence and mistrust towards adulthood in this period of literal and symbolic “in-betweenness.”

“An Optical Illusion,” meanwhile, fully addressed a possible schism in class and generations while opening up the themes of a historical space and tragedy haunting the young, working-class protagonists by having the haunting precipitated by their contemptuous treatment by the old caretaker of the haunted property (he looks down on them as both children and working-class—a double discrimination for young people to navigate). As Buckingham et al. assert, “young people have always served as a fear for broader anxieties about social change, indiscipline and mood collapse” (3-4). By contrast, “The Other Window” focuses on a middle-class family, but the narrative and themes are very similar. After their father brings home a convex mirror and invites his three children to look through it, they all see different versions of British history, and their fantasies [page 45] converge into the figure of a soldier who tries to break through into the safe space of the family home. In one telling exchange between the two sisters, the eldest declares, “I used to think the same as you did,” to which her younger sister snaps back, “Well it’s a pity you stopped,” thus exemplifying the power and importance of a childhood perspective in these texts. Ghosts from history, and the impulsive nature of hauntings to incessantly replay history, also speak of childhood trauma: as Reynolds suggests, “compulsive or repetitive play” in childhood is “produced by excessive anxiety.”

The skeptical father is only finally convinced when his mother supports the children’s visions with stories from their family history. “You cannot come into my home,” he asserts. He is, however, rare as an adult protagonist who protects the children from harm rather than them being empowered to do so themselves. By way of explanation, the story is perhaps marked as old-fashioned, as it was not an original screenplay but adapted from a short story by J.B. Priestley and his wife, Jacquetta Hawkes.

This secure family unit may have acted as a comfort in comparison to those in other episodes. The sheer number of fractured families, absent parental figures, and displaced children in other aspects of the series, and elsewhere in children’s television, may be said to reflect the societal fracturing of British society at the time. Although traditional heterosexual marriage was clearly still an aspiration amongst the population at large, divorces had risen by 1975 from three in every thousand in 1965 to ten in every thousand, partly enabled by the 1969 Divorce Reform Act (Sandbrook 437).

The second series adapted a new and unsettling opening sequence that combined the fantastic with austere images of council houses (social housing) and other unsettling images and sounds, as if to emphasize a shift away from patrician, middle-class storylines and a new engagement with adult tropes of social realism. The council estate, in particular the [page 46] high-rise tower block, had its own indexical and symbolic resonances in 1970s Britain, which Sandbrook suggests were both symbolic of the “shattered ideas of the post-war consensus” and a “potent symbol of social breakdown” (190) and represented, for Inglis, something of a “national obsession at the time” (95). This is evident in the later series King of the Castle (1977), a show that Wheatley describes as exhibiting a “gritty verisimilitude” (391). It concerned a grammar-school boy forced to live in a tower block (a literal economic displacement), where he is bullied. He is drawn into a fantasy world in the block’s broken elevator (after a violent and traumatic encounter with the bullies), and the lessons that he learns in overcoming this fantastic impediment, with the people from the real world appearing as twisted doppelgängers, are subsequently applied in helping him overcome his corporeal struggles. Although mainly fantasy, the series riffs on horror in its iconography (Frankenstein’s monster and laboratory, dungeons, and cobwebs) as well as its oblique camera angles (the tower block and its stairwell are often framed from a low perspective looking upwards, to emphasize their overwhelming scale and vertiginous uncanniness) alongside its musical cues and general subject matter.

The series signals Roland’s displacement and dramatic juxtaposition from the very start, with the opening credits balancing shots of a cathedral and its cloisters with images of the tower block, council estate, and, especially, the stair-well. Indeed, the stairwell is a central symbolic entity in the series and also a wider metaphor for the difficulty in advancing through the stages of childhood and adolescence. It is the stairs that he is forced to take where he encounters the bullies, and in his fantasy world, he has to ascend the stages of the building, from the basement upwards, to become “King of the Castle.” On his way, he encounters stubborn and nonsensical rules, cruelty, and bureaucracy, and is trapped and constrained (including being shrunken and held inside a glass ball) at every turn. An oedipal [page 47] dimension is added by the fact that he has to evade his sorceress mother (the one who shrinks him) and unseat his father to become king. As king, he seeks to immediately right all the wrongs (“there’s no co-operation, no community”) but finds that the inhabitants resist change and turn on him. This is clearly a projection of how the child views the seemingly arbitrary rules and dangers of the adult world.

Similarly, several of Shadows’ episodes contain story-lines wherein bullied or poor and downtrodden children, often working-class and in care, open a conduit into a mythical past to escape the harsh realities of the present. In the opening episode, “The Dark Streets of Kimball’s Green,” an orphan, treated disdainfully by her foster mother, fantasizes about defeating her antagonists by imagining that they are pages from her history book. Similarly, in “Peronik,” a boy bullied by his father and stepmother imagines that he is the reincarnation of an ancient legend. In “The Inheritance,” school-leaver Martin is being pressured into an unfulfilling office job by his parents before he is made aware by his visiting grandparents that he has familial links to a birth-right from pagan times. Clearly, these episodes had more in common with strains of myth and fantasy, and in the last example, the Folk Horror and paganism identified with the era, but crucially, they all feature protagonists displaced and disenfranchised, for whom fantasy or a link to earlier periods of British history offer a panacea. Whereas in adult pagan horror, the return of the atavistic past invariably spelled doom, in “The Inheritance,” for example, it offered an opportunity—a salve and corrective—to help assuage and navigate the difficult transition into the adult world. Likewise, “Time out of Mind,” with its instructive title, features, as mentioned, a schoolgirl who escapes from a family outing by imagining that she is a housemaid in the Victorian doll’s house in a museum. The need to escape, the displacement of time and space, and the childhood powers of imagination again offer the dramatic conflict. [page 48]

“Dark Encounter” is unusual in that it features an adult returning to a place of childhood trauma, whereby he has to relive a childhood trauma that his younger self successfully navigated, indicating that the adult portal back to childhood can be enacted by unlocking the past. “The Eye” returned the series to its unsettling supernatural roots, featuring a terrifying figure summoned up by two children while their father is absent. Crucially, they falsely believe that their father had returned to the house, clad in motorcycle helmet and leathers, but it turns out to be a supernatural presence, offering the false parental figure as an obstacle for the children to collectively overcome.

The final series was more varied still, shifting further away from supernatural horror to mysticism, as in “The Boy Merlin” (which also formed the basis for its own series a couple of years later) and “The Silver Apple,” magical morality tales (with a hint of menace) such as “And For My Next Trick” and “The Man Who Hated Children,” or creepy mystery—“The Rose of Puddle Fratum.” It was bookended by two ghostly tales in the form of “Honeyann” and “Eleven O’Clock,” in which a father and daughter holidaying in France are disturbed by an incident from the past that occurred at the final breath of the First World War.

“After School,” from series one, was an original tale clearly resonant with socio-economic issues. Set in Wales, this is conspicuous by the regional accents but also in the highly accentuated setting. Over the opening credits, a high-angle helicopter shot reveals the location to be a colliery town, with recognizable vestiges of coal-mining apparent in shots of a mine shaft and neat rows of terraced housing built for the families of colliery workers. The focus finally rests on a school in the town, where two pupils playing football are admonished for their recklessness by an over-zealous physical education instructor. Adhering to stereotypes of cruel and sadistic gym teachers, he belittles and humiliates the boys (“you’re useless … no use to anyone … who’s gonna’ give you jobs … you’ll both end up down the mines”) before [page 49] setting them an essay-writing task for after-school detention. Continuing the theme of jobs and employment, the boys discuss getting a job and avoiding working in the mine, as one declares ironically that “there’s a future in mining,” aware that the school building is also built upon some of the abandoned mine-shafts. Comparing their composition responses while also aware of strange, disembodied industrial noises, they both appear to have written the same unsettling responses, as if possessed by a spirit: “Mother said be careful down here. It is dark down here. People think I’m dead. My fate will be down here with the rats.” At this point, the boys are aware that the building is collapsing and run through its length in order to try to escape, but one is pulled under as a shaft collapses. The other boy pulls him out and with him, a human skull. They both reason that whoever possessed them must have been trapped and perished in an accident in the mine 150 years ago and is subsequently calling out to them. They also must have been of a similar age.

Aside from the obvious contextual links to the energy crisis and industrial action, the mention of an industrial accident also resonated with the contemporary environment. An accident at the Lofthouse Colliery, Yorkshire in March 1973 had claimed the lives of seven miners. In this regard, the children in the story are only too aware that they wish to reject the proud tradition of their parents’ generation of becoming a miner, as it is a dangerous profession linked to darkness and both literal and metaphorical entrapment. This generational schism highlights the choice the children face in their in-between status of rejecting tradition and carving a future of (literally) brighter possibilities.

Also bearing comparison with the other examples discussed, the appearance of the supernatural here is linked to both the displacement of time and place and a portal into the past alongside the repressed cry of an unfortunate soul killed in the pursuit of capitalist industrial endeavor. As Messenger Davies suggests “the past is an unstable place, [page 50] never to be relied on as a refuge” (qtd. in Wheatley 393). Perhaps because children always feel dispossessed in relation to the perceived freedom of adulthood, they are more attuned to the dispossessed and marginalized voices of the past than adults—the past is something to learn from, not to blindly re-enact, and where they also “negotiate their own identity.” They show that history is unstable and impermanent—and by resolving the past, important lessons in navigating the present can be learned.

Come Back Lucy (1978)

Appearing three years after the other examples, in 1978, Come Back Lucy addresses a number of the themes discussed and is possibly more haunting than the previous examples for a number of reasons. It was based on a novel, by Pamela Sykes, and broadcast in the spring of that year in six-parts for ATV. The series opens with a funeral, that of the titular Lucy’s aunt and guardian, Olive. It is not explained why Lucy has no parents, but it is clear that she has been raised in an isolated and old-fashioned manner by Olive and has never attended school (thus making her doubly orphaned). This immediately frames Lucy within a long literary and cinematic/televisual trope of the poor orphan, having to navigate the increments between child-hood and adolescence without parental figures or, indeed, anyone at all.

From Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Kingsley’s The Water Babies, the orphan is a persistent trope within British literature. Even The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Box of Delights enact their child protagonists as “temporary orphans,” with wartime being the architect of familial fracturing and displacement, while Escape into Night positions illness and isolation as the catalyst for a similar paradigm. Even taking into account the rich literary history of orphans, children’s fantasy and supernatural television in Britain boasted an embarrassment of orphaned [page 51] or displaced children. Alongside those already identified in Shadows (as well as the later adaptations of The Box of Delights and The Chronicles of Narnia), they are joined by Moondial (1988—temporary orphan), The Secret Garden (1960, 1975), Tom’s Midnight Garden (1968, 1974, and 1988—temporary orphan under quarantine), and many more. This impressive aggregation of orphaned, unwanted, or displaced children within British cultural history speaks volumes about the country’s attitude to childhood (“to be seen and not heard”) and suggests that orphans provide an irresistible and irrepressible metaphor for the need for self-reliance in overcoming the violent fissures between utopia and dystopia, and between childhood and later develop-mental stages.

Reflecting this metaphor, Lucy is sent to live with another aunt and uncle, Gwen and Peter, and their three children, Patrick, Rachel, and Bill, in an old Victorian town-house. Displaced and isolated, Lucy struggles to fit in with her new family, whose modern and liberal attitudes to politics and gender expectations are at odds with her own sheltered life. She starts to play with Alice, a girl from the past whom she sees when she is particularly distressed or looking into a reflective surface. The “imaginary friend” only draws Lucy further away from the family, and it soon becomes clear that Alice wants to keep Lucy in her own world for good. Despite her increased fear and resistance, Alice is still able to draw Lucy back, as she is so often alone and unhappy. Alice finally resolves to take Lucy away from her forever by enticing her to a frozen pond where she pulls her through the ice. The children rescue her, and Lucy’s problems are talked through. However, Alice’s mocking laughter can be heard at the final scene.

While the other examples also feature the fracturing of time in relation to physical, psychical, and generational displacement, and this text also clearly engages with 1970s concerns, Come Back Lucy adheres closest to long-established horror and fantasy tropes of British children’s [page 52] literature. Lisa Sainsbury characterizes the move from childhood to adolescence as a “time of dislocation” in which a reappraisal of a world once recognizable renders it unfamiliar (126-7). Furthermore, Appleyard suggests: “Society forces young people into a liminal space that lies some-where between childhood and adulthood, but that is essentially distanced from both. It is a period of transition which, given its predisposition to thoughtful introspection is obsessively aware of its status as such” (qtd. in Sainsbury 126). Lucy’s horrific disconnect is a complex series of circum-stances and conditioning that positions her on the liminal fringes of numerous societal contexts, highlighted by the fact that at one time, fearing that Lucy’s stay at her relatives’ will only be temporary, her uncle Peter laments that “she’ll have to go to a home, an orphanage—there’s nowhere else.” Similarly, the avuncular doctor seems in tune with the psychological reasons for Lucy’s displacement, “grief, anxiety, insecurity,” and when Peter states that he realizes that she is here on a temporary basis, he replies “Lucy knows it too.”

As a result, Lucy finds it hard to relate to the other children, as they are both politicized and have very modern ideas about class and gender—echoing several contemporary debates. When Rachel tells her that they will be sharing a room together, she adds, “We’re really into democratic info-meritry [sic] in family relationships ... this is real family democracy in action.” Elsewhere, Patrick delivers homilies on Marx’s theory of urban revolution, examples of dialogue quite at home in a 1970s context but which would be seen as unusual and extreme in the 21st century (and which are also absent from Sykes’s novel). Meanwhile, Lucy is reminded that the past is not a place to live, underlining the leap of faith that children must face as they elide boundaries of childhood and adulthood.

Lucy’s Victorian attitudes to life are no doubt a result of her upbringing with her elderly aunt Olive. This is highlighted in ornately framed flashback sequences that Lucy experiences, often at times of stress, as with her [page 53] retreat into Alice’s world. This fracturing of temporality is a safety device for young Lucy—a retreat into comforting nostalgia that acts as a panacea to the uncertainty of the present. She also conforms in this respect to the Gothic heroine, as Wheatley observes, “acting on impulsive desires to return repeatedly to the past and invoke its ghosts” (391).

In one sequence, Lucy is asked by her cousins to wait behind the living room door while they decorate the room for Christmas. As she waits, she is comforted by a flashback to a very traditional Christmas with Aunt Olive. When the decorations are finally revealed to Lucy, they are under-whelming, exacerbated by their proximity to her flashback to an idealized Christmas, which prompts her outburst: “You’re weird, you talk about politics, you don’t respect your mum and dad, and your mum can’t cook a meal.” This last point is keenly felt by Lucy. The scenes that precede this are of rare harmony in the house for Lucy, as when she is asked by her aunt and uncle what she does best, she surprises everyone by responding, “cooking,” and although by herself, she proceeds to bake in the kitchen with glee. This is key for Lucy in defining the role of the woman, as is her preference for wearing dresses as opposed to the denim and modern “boyish” clothes of the other children. That Aunt Gwen cannot cook, and Rachel is interested in politics further distances Lucy from the modern environment and drives her closer to the Victorian attire and clearly defined gender roles of both Aunt Olive and Alice’s Victorian world. By contrast, gender is more fluid for Gwen and Rachel, influenced by the women’s liberation movement of the time (e.g. Sandbrook, 38-149), and not clearly delineated by performance and appearance as it is for Lucy. Again, this is underlined by the fact that the marginalized female characters first meet in the attic space, with its significance for nineteenth century women and madness (see Gilbert and Gubar).

This raises a number of important points, not just concerning gender politics in 1970s Britain but also concerning the gendering of children’s culture. According to [page 54] Levy and Mendlesohn, “small children were gendered feminine in ways which permitted fiction for their entertainment” (33), suggesting that children’s culture was, by association, seen to be different from masculine (and by extension, adult) culture. Furthermore, it is theorized that children’s fantasy literature therefore revolves largely around the domestic realm (something that Shadows both conforms to and diverges from, but which Come Back Lucy exemplifies). As Colin Manlove asserts, “domesticity is a major characteristic of the British fairy tale” (qtd. in Levy and Mendlesohn 39). For Levy and Mendlesohn, “the domestic is the locus of the fantastic,” and The Secret Garden, as a key example, offers “the domestication of the fantastic” (40). Wheatley, in positioning a number of the aforementioned texts as “Gothic,” similarly points to the centrality of the haunted home space as being both a Gothic trope and one which speaks to the domesticity of the medium, with The Owl Service’s attic space the epicenter of the otherworldly (388-389). Combined with the domestic conduit of television, the central focus on the house and attic space, and the attendant theme of Lucy’s search for a stable home and familial unit, the “domestication of the fantastic” is therefore solidified in Come Back Lucy.

The crisis of identity that Lucy undergoes is further reinforced by two significant presentational paradigms in the series—by the use of the mirror and other reflective sur-faces as a conduit for which the past and present are accessed, and through her past double, in the form of Alice. The opening credits are especially revealing in this regard as they depict a girl seen from behind looking into the mirror, and as she turns around it is revealed that she has no face. Quite apart from touching on a Baudrillardian theory of the mirror stage, it offers a powerful and unsettling image for the fracturing and loss of childhood identity. The manner in which Alice wishes and robustly attempts to trap Lucy in her own time period “to play with her forever” anticipates the ghostly twins whom young Danny Torrance [page 55] visualizes in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining several years later. Unlike his father, Danny Torrance rejects and resists the past and escapes being trapped within a never-ending destructive cycle of violent history. Lucy is forced to do the same here, ultimately rejecting the nineteenth century in favor of the twentieth, in a way that contemporary British culture was struggling to do in its “chronic form of nostalgia” for the past (Ware 97).


The popular strain of British children’s TV horror and fantasy continued post-1978, with several series, such as Sapphire and Steel (1979-82), Dramarama Spooky (1983), and Moondial (1988), that dealt with similar themes. Peirse and Wheatley both suggest that the 1980s saw an escalation of middle-class fantasy through increased technological opportunities and larger budgets facilitated by international pre-sales and co-productions (The Box of Delights and The Chronicles of Narnia being important exponents). Peirse further asserts that 1990s telefantasy was by contrast marked by contemporary settings as working-class spaces.

However, it is the 1970s that offers a fascinating period of children’s horror television that speaks more deeply not only to both traditional childhood and adolescent anxieties but also to how these sit within wider cultural fears and the social dislocation of the era that produced them. Traditional industry and agriculture were designated as spaces of death, disaster, and horror in the Public Information Films of the era, which, coupled with the economic and industrial unrest of the time period, made the navigation from childhood to adolescence and adulthood even more fraught for young audiences. This was compounded by environmental concerns that had begun to render modernity as antithetical to natural living, which in turn found their way into childhood culture. With society and family units fractured, time and history took on an impermanence or intangibility in this era, [page 56] “a horrific in-betweenness” that mirrored more traditional fears associated with developmental stages. However, while the adult protagonists who encountered a horrific past in 1970s supernatural TV inevitably suffer a lonely and deadly fate, the children in these narratives, while often orphaned or lacking any adult help, use friendships and their own initiative to overcome historic or fantastic iniquities and ruptures in space, time, or reason and thus overcome real-world problems. For them, the supernatural and the horrific are a salve—a safe space to negotiate the complexities of childhood and the “real” world. As the titular PIF spirit of dark and lonely water says regretfully, “Sensible children, I have no power over them.”

Works Cited

Buckingham, David, Hannah Davies, Ken James, and Peter Kelley. Children’s Television in Britain: History, Discourse and Policy. BFI, 1999.

Cowdell, Paul. “Folk Horror.” Western Folklore, vol. 78, no. 4, 2019, pp. 295-236.

Home, Anna. Into the Box of Delights. BBC Books, 1993.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic; The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. Yale UP, 2000.

Huston, Aletha C., David S. Bickham, June H. C. Lee, and John C. Wright. “From Attention to Comprehension: How Children Watch and Learn from Television.” Children’s Television: Fifty Years of Research, edited by Norma Pecora, John P. Murray, and Ellen Anne Wartella, Taylor and Francis, 2007, pp. 40-60.

Hutchings, Peter. “Uncanny Landscapes in British Film and Television.” Visual Culture in Britain, vol. 5, no. 2, 2004, pp. 27-40.

Inglis, Ruth. The Window in the Corner: A Half Century of Children’s Television. Peter Owen, 2003.

Jowett, Lorna, and Stacey Abbott. TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen. I.B. Tauris, 2016.

Lester, Catherine. “The Children’s Horror Film: Characterising an ‘Impossible’ Subgenre.” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 78, 2016, pp. 22-37.

Levy, Michael, and Farah Mendlesohn. Children’s Fantasy Literature; An Introduction. Cambridge UP, 2016. [page 57]

McGahan, Katy. “Lonely Water’ (1973).” BFI Screenonline, www.screenonline.org.uk. Accessed 20 September 2019.

Oswell, David. Television, Childhood and the Home: A History of the Making of the Child Television Audience in Britain. Oxford UP, 2002.

Peirse, Alison. “A Broken Tradition: British Telefantasy and Children’s Television in the 80s and 90s.” Visual Culture in Britain, vol. 11, no. 1, 2011, pp. 109-124.

Reynolds, Kimberley. “’I write to frighten myself’: Catherine Storr and the Development of Children’s Literature Studies in Britain.” Children’s Literature in Education, 2017, doi.org/10.1007/s10583-017-9339-1.

Sainsbury, Lisa. “Childhood, Youth Culture and the Uncanny: Uncanny Nights in Contemporary Adolescent Fictions.” Modern Children’s Literature: An Introduction, edited by Kimberly Reynolds, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 124-140.

Sandbrook, Dominic. State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974. Penguin, 2011.

Scovell, Adam. Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Auteur, 2017.

Sykes, Pamela. Come Back Lucy. Puffin Books, 1978.

Turner, Alwyn. Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s. Aurum Press, 2008.

Ware, Vron. Who Cares about Britishness? Arcadia, 2007.

Wheatley, Helen. “Uncanny Children, Haunted Houses, Hidden Rooms: Children’s Gothic Television in the 1970s and 80s.” Visual Culture in Britain, vol. 13, no. 3, 2012, pp. 383-397.

Film and Teleography

Ace of Wands. Thames Television, 1970-72.

Apaches. Central Office of Information Films, 1977.

Beasts. Associated Television, 1976.

Building Sites Bite. Central Office of Information Films, 1978.

The Black and White Minstrel Show. BBC Television, 1958-78.

The Box of Delights. BBC Television, 1984.

Camberwick Green. Gordon Murray Puppets Production/BBC, 1966.

The Chronicles of Narnia. BBC Television, 1988-91.

The Changes. BBC Television, 1975.

Children of the Stones. Harlech Television, 1977.

Chigley. Gordon Murray Puppets Production/BBC, 1969.

Come Back Lucy. Associated Television, 1978.

Dead of Night. BBC Television, 1972. [page 58]

Doctor Who. BBC Television, 1963 - .

Dramarama Spooky. BBC Television, 1983.

The Edwardians. BBC Television, 1972-73.

Escape into Night. Associated Television, 1972.

The Georgian House. Harlech Television, 1976.

The Finishing Line. Central Office of Information Films, 1977.

Ghost Story for Christmas (Unofficial Title—including A Warning to the Curious, The Treasure of Abbott Thomas, and The Signalman). BBC Television, 1971-78.

King of the Castle. Harlech Television 1977.

Lonely Water. Central Office of Information Films, 1973.

Mandog. BBC Television, 1971.

Moondial. BBC Television, 1988.

The Onedin Line. BBC Television, 1971-80.

The Owl Service. Granada Television, 1969.

Play For Today. BBC Television, 1970-84.

“Red Shift.” Play For Today. BBC Television, 1978.

“Robin Redbreast.” Play For Today. BBC Television, 1970.

Sapphire and Steel. Associated Television, 1979-82.

The Secret Garden. BBC Television, 1960

The Secret Garden. BBC Television, 1975.

Shadows. BBC Television, 1975-77.

The Shining. Warner Brothers, 1980.

Sir Francis Drake. Incorporated Television Company, 1961-62.

Sky. Harlech Television, 1975.

The Stone Tape. BBC Television, 1972.

Supernatural. BBC Television, 1977.

Timeslip. Associated Television, 1970-1.

Tom’s Midnight Garden. BBC Television, 1968.

Tom’s Midnight Garden. BBC Television, 1975.

Tom’s Midnight Garden. BBC Television, 1989.

A Traveller in Time. BBC Television, 1978.

Trumpton. Gordon Murray Puppets Production/BBC, 1967.

The Wicker Man. D. Robin Hardy. British Lion Films, 1973.

Mark Fryers obtained his PhD from the University of East Anglia in 2016 and has since taught at UEA and NYU London. His work focuses on media and envi-ronment alongside media and the gothic form and has been published in both journals and collections on a range of topics including global children’s television, gender and identity in the British costume drama, global animated film, film and television aesthetics and horror film and television. He is currently researching the twenty-first century sea film.

MLA citation (print):

Fryers, Mark. "Horrific ‘In-betweenness’: Spatial and Temporal Displacement and British Society in 1970s Children’s Supernatural Television." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 6, no. 2, 2020, pp. 30-58.