During my undergraduate years, our first lesson of a new semester in an English Literature class involved introducing ourselves by talking about our upbringing, and what led us to an interest in British writers. This class happened to include a large number of American students, and their childhood seemed just as free and easy as TV liked to make out, with pony-trekking, roller-skating, swimming in the ocean and all sort of summery activities. Contrast this to the native Brits whose memories of growing up in the 1970s and 1980s comprised mud, crying, dark bedrooms and TV shows with theme tunes to give you nightmares. This next time you get nostalgic for eating a bowl of Cheerios in your underoos watching Reading Rainbow or Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, consider what the hapless Brit in your life has playing in their mind:
Picture Box (1966 – 1990)
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Big Ben in JapanProduced by Manchester-based Granada Television for ITV’s service for schools and colleges, Picture Box was a showcase for foreign-made short films presented as an encouragement for children to develop their creative and imaginative skills. Perhaps the definitive edition of Picture Box featured the Oscar-winning 1956 French short The Red Balloon, while Jean Renoir’s The Little Match Girl (1928) and The Forth Road Bridge (1965), nominated for an Oscar in 1966, also made memorable appearances. Sadly, such laudable efforts counted for nothing as so few children made it past Picture Box’s opening credits, a blurred shot of a revolving empty jewel case accompanied by music sounding like a migraine haunting a fairground hall of mirrors while playing an solid silver organ containing the soul of a statue. Little did we know or care, but this anthem for nightmares, ‘Menage,’ came from French musical experimentalists Structure Sonores (brothers Francois and Bernard Baschet, with husband and wife team Jacques and Yvonne Lasry). Structure Sonores played instruments made of steel and aluminium, with metal sheets used for sound amplification and various rods and cones adding to constructions up to twenty feet tall. ‘Menage’, lifted from their album no.4, loomed just as large in the minds of children who knew nothing of 1950s French avant-garde music and assumed these sounds came out of some cold, mocking netherworld where carousel horses came alive and bit you on a skating rink.
Near and Far (1975 – 1988)
Ignore those dates, as Near and Far appeared to originate in a mid-1960s alternate dimension where it was somehow 1952 and people were desperate to escape into the 1970s by any means possible. Another schools program, this time made by the BBC for geography students, Near and Far wasted no time in installing a lifelong sense of existential gloom in its young viewers, with an opening credits sequence featuring a girl playing with a skipping rope, only for the camera to pull out to show the girl’s home city, then out again to show the British Isles, and then outwards yet further to show the entire planet Earth, against the background of infinite space. All this to the tune of ‘Boys and Girls Come Out to Play’ played some light-starved denizen of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on a synthesizer after downing a bottle of gin while watching the very first episode of Doctor Who a hundred times over on a loop. As the tune plays out, one imagines it reaching alien worlds in centuries to come, who take revenge against humanity by firing the music straight back at us using laser cannons. Never mind geography, Near and Far caused more teenagers to choose philosophy at university than any amount of drugs, loss of religion or pretense at depth to impress the opposite sex.
The Owl Service (1969-70)
A children’s drama fantasy show set in Wales, The Owl Service is perhaps the most baffling drama ever transmitted under the ITV Children’s Programs banner. A feverish concoction of mythology and coming-of-age, this eight-part serial covered events surrounding two boys and a girl in their late teens whose lives seem to parallel, and at times overlap, those of characters in an old local legend. The show’s opening music, the traditional Welsh song ‘Ton Alarch’ (‘swan-song’) played on a harp, is pleasant enough by itself, by the arrangement used by the show’s producers featured brutal interruptions from a chainsaw, owls flapping their wings, scratching of tree bark and what sounds worryingly like something being flushed down a drain. Images on-screen included hand-shadows, flickering candles and sepia photographs of woodland haunted by the shades of suicides. One member of the cast, Raymond Llewellyn, claimed the show has haunted him ever since its production, while another actor, Michael Holden, had his life ended by an unprovoked attack in a pub in 1977. One hopes his spirit rests more easily than those who heard the theme to The Owl Service play in their heads at night at the turn of the Seventies.
The Book Tower (1979 – 1988)
Another show hoping to get kids interested in reading, which instead sent them scurrying under the bed praying for ear wax, this ITV production featured a variety of hosts during its Credit: Tim Cookrun, most notably Tom Baker, who starred during the show’s first two years. Each show examined a book for children and featured short dramatic presentations in the studio depicting a scene from the book. TV has often struggled with the book review format, and to this day, there is no regular book discussion program on British TV. For this I blame The Book Tower's signature music, a vertigo-inducing piece based around Paganini’s 24th Caprice, arranged by none other than famous rock opera composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber and performed by his cellist brother, Julian. Starlight Express has nothing like this demented tune, which sounds like glass spiders playing a man’s spine as a xylophone as he runs in terror down a spiral staircase made of frozen tears. The 24th Caprice is of one the most difficult pieces in the repertoire of any classical violinist, while The Book Tower’s difficulty is of a show that feels like anyone appearing in it might turn to the camera and ask “and what do you think you’re doing?”
Once Upon a Time...Man (? – forever)
A bit of a cheat this one, as it’s a French show, but one which proved a lingering hazard in the darker corners of British TV schedules, both in derelict morning slots when all the kids have gone back to school after the summer holidays, or as part of the no-expense-spent line-up of shows heralding the ITV network’s earliest through-the-night broadcasts in the late 1980s. An animated series of possibly a million episodes depicting the entire history of humanity, the French makers of Once Upon a Time...Man might as well not bothered to make anything beyond its opening credits, showing microscopic life developing into the earliest animals, to cavemen, ancient Egypt and Greece, through medieval times, to horse carriages and automobiles. The last image we see is of an astronaut fleeing a raging mob as he boards a rocket, taking off just in time to escape the fiery destruction of Earth. As if the visuals weren’t bad enough, any lingering joy taken in our species’ great achievements is crushed by Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, that bowel-voiding piece of seventeenth century German jollity which rattles cathedral rafters to this day. TV Cream, the great archivists of British pop culture’s odds and ends, claim this as “the scariest titles sequence of all children’s television.” The sad part is that the sequence is of our own history and our fears for the future of our children. What better then than to inflict those fears on the kids themselves? Serves ‘em right for being young in the first place, I reckon.