Guest PostBy Gareth Bellamy
British Kids TV Shows Featuring Horror & The Occult
February 13, 2018 6:00 AM ‐ Television
Kids TV in the UK these days is usually a fairly unchallenging affair – in terms of whether it's drama, entertainment, there's not a lot happening that makes you ask 'what the hell is this?'. There's no doubt the production values are often higher than they have been in the past. Award-winning shows like Horrible Histories and Operation Ouch manage to combine entertainment for children with fantastic educational content.
But it wasn't so long ago that children's TV was seen as somewhere up and coming actors, writers, producers and directors could be more experimental in their approach. Here's our look at just some of the ways the occult made its way into children's TV in the UK...
Teatime scares aplenty
Shadows ran for three series on ITV in the 1970s. It started out as a pretty frightening series including haunting, witches and possessions but toned down the scary angle somewhat as the series progressed. A sense of threat and terror is entirely absent from children's tv programming these days, so watching this now you would be forgiven for thinking it was designed for an adult audience.
Typical plot: A man with strange powers arrives at a house. He finds a pair of shoes which used to belong to a bank robber. On wearing the shoes, he starts to take on the character of the bank robber. The bank robber then returns from the grave. This is pretty far from Dick and Dom in da Bungalow.
Occult Elements: Ghosts. Time travelling ghosts. Witchcraft. Time Travel. Possession. The dead returning to life. Magic. Take your pick!
A wizard from the 11th century travels through tie to modern day England, well, modern in 1970. Despite the lead character being a borderline insane wizard who befriends a young boy in modern times, this series was played for laughs. The humour in Catweazel partly derives from his seeing modern technology as a form of witchcraft itself. Thus on being shown electric lights he thinks of it as 'electrickery!'. A large, white plastic telephone is a 'telling bone'. Catweazel spends the series hiding out in an old water tower he names Castle Saburac, whilst talking to his familiar, a toad called Touchwood.
The element of a young boy keeping a strange old man a secret from his family probably wouldn't get passed the pitching stage these days.
Occult Elements: Time travel. Witchcraft
Rentaghost: 1976 – 1984
'An apparition quipped from deep inside a crypt... ring Rentaghost!'
Odds bodkins! A kids TV show based around a recently deceased man deciding he can make money by renting out ghosts. So far, so 1970s. The show was generally very funny. The comedy was pretty whacky, owing a great comedy debt to the kind of clowning around you'll see every year on stage during pantomime season.
Viewers, being young, tended to skip over the whole ghosts being scary angle and watched it for laughs. Were there any darker sides to it? Well, the ghost rental business itself was a complete failure – this was perhaps more a reflection of the industrial action affecting the UK in the 1970s. But the fact remains, kids were basically watching a bunch of ghosts on the TV screens in their living rooms whilst guzzling half a pack of custard creams. You could consider it a gateway drug, preparing many of us for the horror onslaught of the 1980s that the home video boom unleashed.
Perhaps the feature of the show that sticks most in the mind of those of us ancient enough to have enjoyed it was the theme tune. “If your mansion house needs haunting just call... Rentaghost..."
Weirdest bits: Timothy Claypole, the jester, often consults a small wooden version of himself for advice. There's a pantomime horse, Dobbin, which is alive. I mean, this is on top of this being a business staffed by ghosts.
Occult Elements: Ghosts. Inanimate objects coming to life. Spiritual teleportation.
Worzel Gummidge: 1979-1981
Head-changing fun in the country.
Based on the novels of Barbara Euphan Todd, the four series of Worzel Gummidge which ITV broadcast in the late 70s/early 80s told the story of your traditional countryside character, the scarecrow, who just happens to have come to life. Doesn't sound so sinister, does it? But add in the fact that this scarecrow can change heads to perform differing tasks. A headswap was shown at least once per episode. The odd look of Worzel himself, with part of a carrot for a nose, covered in mud, and looking more like a creature from a David Lynch film.
He befriended kids but if he got into trouble he would revert to lifeless scarecrow mode so the adults wouldn't spot him. Other more sinister scarecrows also featured in the series, along with a female love interest, a fairground Aunt Sally doll, played by Sherlock's Una Stubbs, who also came to life.
Even if the series wasn't designed to be outright scary, it was certainly eerie, the idea of Scarecrows coming to life, especially if one of them looked like this
Were the Scarecrows once human? How were they brought to life? Witchcraft? Worzel likes tea and cake, so he must have a digestive system, so is he human? How come they're seem to be half flesh, yet the nose is a carrot – how is that vegetable grafted onto living flesh? It made sense back then. When you watch it now, it seems very odd.
On a related note, the children's author Robert Westall wrote the award winning 'The Scarecrows' in 1981. Surely it's no coincidence that his story features threatening scarecrows advancing across the fields?
Modern agriculture seems to have done for scarecrows, but this writer can still remember heading home across scarecrow-containing fields with friends on darkening autumn and winter evenings as a boy. We'd stare at the silent, upright figure, someone would say “Did you just see it move?” Then the screaming and the running would start....
Occult elements: Scarecrows that come to life. A crowman/wizard who controls them. Head removal. Cake.
Children of the Stones: 1977
Makes a trip to Stonehenge feel like a trip to Tesco.
Filmed in 1976 and screen in 1977, this is reckoned by many to be the scariest children's TV series ever made. Right from the opening credits with some haunting voices you know you're in for a ride. Funnily enough, they don't seem to make horror series for children anymore, perhaps with good reason. The plot starts with a scientist and his son who move to a village surrounded by a 4000 year old stone circle, a circle that appears to hold a mysterious power over the locals. A complex script and an unsettling score all help to make this a kids series that adults will feel unnerved by. It's only a fiver on DVD, what are you waiting for?
Occult elements: Psychic powers, mind control, hauntings, time travel, does shitting yourself as a toddler count?
Being Human but, you know, for kids!
Proof that an occult theme can still pop up on children's TV. Wolfblood is an award-winning teen drama series that has recently been on CBBC. The series is based around wolfbloods, a species that look like humans and who can turn themselves, at will, into wolves. During a full moon, that transformation is uncontrolled. So, it's a kind on non-copyright infringing werewolf. Wolfblood is very much of a product of its time in that it deals with common teenage issues like trouble at school, fitting in with peers, relationships etc but with added wolf-related difficulties.
The difference between how this subject is handled presently when compared to previous decades is that being a Wolfblood is seen as a pretty good thing. There's no sense of menace or horror, which is probably right for a modern kids TV series. In style, it's more like Being Human, but for kids!
Occult elements: Humans that change into wolves.
Emu's World/ The Pink Windmill Show: 1982 – 1988
"There's somebody at the door!"
Perhaps one of the most notorious appearances of the occult on children's TV. Through various series and formats Rod Hull, with Emu on his arm, entertained and delighted millions of kids with competitions, song and dance routines and more. However, not all was well in their pink windmill home though. Evil incarnate in the form a green witch by the name of Grotbags was out to catch Emu because she would then be able to control all the children (brats) in the world. How? We don't know, but it terms of a personification of evil on children's TV you'd be hard pushed to beat Grotbags.
Occult elements: An emu operated by man with his arm up its rectum, and a green witch.
We're not even going to start on the occult elements in 1970s Doctor Who.
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