Look and Read – The Boy From Space. Series overview and BFI DVD review

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Look and Read (1967 – 2004) was a long running BBC Schools programme that is fondly remembered by several generations of school-children.

Its aim was to help less developed readers gain confidence but the drama segments (each twenty minute episode would be a mix of studio based learning lessons and a continuing serial) ensured that the programmes appealed to most children.

The Boy From Space was the third in the Look and Read series, originally broadcast between September and November 1971 and was scripted by Richard Carpenter.

Carpenter had started his career as an actor and during the 1950’s and 1960’s he racked up an impressive list of credits on shows such as Z Cars, Softly Softly, Emergency Ward 10, No Hiding Place, Sherlock Holmes, Dixon of Dock Green and Strange Report.  But by the late 1960’s he had decided to change course and become a writer.

His first series, Catweazle, was an instant success.  Broadcast on LWT between 1970 and 1971, it starred Geoffrey Bayldon as a magician from Norman times who found himself adrift in the modern world and totally unable to understand many of the simplest things we take for granted.

Carpenter would continue to notch up an impressive list of writing credits over the next few decades (creating The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Dick Turpin and Robin of Sherwood, amongst others) and he also penned several further serials for Look and Read – Cloud Burst (1974) and The King’s Dragon (1977).

Turning back to the original 1971 broadcast of The Boy From Space, it comprised 10 episodes of 20 minutes duration.  Although it was repeated several times up until 1973, sometime after that the tapes were wiped which meant that that only the drama inserts remained.

At this point in time the majority of BBC programmes were made and broadcast on videotape.  Videotape was expensive and could be re-used, hence the reason why so many shows from this era are lost for ever – as periodically the tapes would be wiped so that new recordings could be made.

Film, however, could not be re-used, which explains why these sections of The Boy From Space remained in the archives.

In 1980 BBC Schools were looking around for a new Look and Read serial, so it was decided to use the material shot in 1971 along with newly created learning inserts.  And as the original music was lost Paddy Kingsland from the Radiophonic Workshop was commissioned to write a new score.

Wordy and Cosmo
Wordy and Cosmo

The 1980 series was presented by Phil Cheney as Cosmo with Charles Collingwood providing the voice of Wordy whilst Katie Hebb was the puppeteer who brought him to life.  Derek Griffiths led the team of singers who performed the educational songs.  The cast list from the 1971 drama inserts was as follows –

Anthony Woodruff as Mr Bunting
Colin Mayes as Peep-peep
Gabriel Woolf as Peep-peep’s father
John Woodnutt as the thin space-man
Loftus Burton as Tom
Stephen Garlick as Dan
Sylvestra Le Touzel as Helen

As with the 1971 series, it was broadcast over 10 episodes –

01 The Meteorite (15 Jan 1980)
02 The Spinning Compass (22 Jan 1980)
03 The Man in the Sand-pit (29 Jan 1980)
04 In danger! (5 Feb 1980)
05 The Hold-up (12 Feb 1980)
06 Where is Tom? (26 Feb 1980)
07 The Hunt for the Car (4 Mar 1980)
08 The Lake (11 Mar 1980)
09 Captured! (18 Mar 1980)
10 In the Spaceship (25 Mar 1980)

It’s fair to say that The Boy From Space is an odd viewing experience.  The drama sections concern two children, Dan (Stephen Garlick) and Helen (Sylvestra Le Touzel) who, whilst out stargazing, spy an object plummeting to the earth.  They decide to explore and discover a crashed space-ship.

Peep-peep
Peep-peep

Amongst the ship’s inhabitants is a young alien boy christened “Peep-peep” by the children due to his backwards language.  But there is danger from another alien who the children refer to as  “the thin space-man”, played by John Woodnutt.  He seems to have a hold over their new friend from space and this puts them all in danger.

Whilst this is obviously quite low budget, there’s plenty of merit here.  The child actors are pretty good (Le Touzel would go on to have a lengthy career) whilst Gabriel Woolf and John Woodnutt are as solid as you would expect.  Another plus point is the score by Paddy Kingsland.  Anybody who loves early eighties Doctor Who music will find much to appreciate.

The thin space-man
The thin space-man

The educational inserts may be of less interest to some, but thanks to the comprehensive package prepared by the BFI, there are several different viewing options.

You can either watch the series as broadcast in 1980 or there’s an option to view just the drama sequences in a new 70 minute edit on the second disc.

There’s also two versions of the BBC Schools LP recording.  The first is the original audio, with narration from Wordy himself and the other marries footage from the show along with the LP audio.

The original LP cover
The original LP sleeve

In addition to this, there’s Wordy’s Think-ups (animated lessons from the episodes), PDFs of the school brochures from both broadcasts and an interesting booklet which contains information about BBC Schools programmes in general as well as detail on the Look and Read series.

The DVD is part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder series of releases.  Also available now is The Changes, with others such as Nineteen Eighty Four and Out Of The Unknown to follow later in the year.

The series by itself would have been a worthwhile purchase but the supplementary features mean that it’s an even more attractive package. It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but it’s nice to see the BFI releasing something slightly left-field like this. Hopefully there will be more to follow in the future.

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