BFI SCI-FI: Days of Fear and Wonder – The Boy from Space (1971/1980) DVD release PLUS an interview with actress, Sylvestra Le Touzel
Released on DVD by the BFI on 25 August 2014
In 1980 I was 14 years old and a confirmed Sci Fi and Fantasy nerd. It was a rather singular existence back then, being a time well before it became cool to be a geek or a nerd as it is today, indeed for many nowadays, being known as a geek is something of a badge of honour. I’m not too sure when geeks & nerds became the new cool, maybe over time it has been a combination of many factors; Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, The Big Bang Theory may have had something to do with it perhaps, I don’t know.
What I do know is that if a 14-year-old was to state today that he was rushing home from school to watch a classic science fiction television series for kids there may well be some degree of ridicule from some. However, that afternoon back in 1980 saw me well and truly chased home by a group of my peers, whose idea of ridiculing a nerd took the form of shouts of “How are you feeling the force now, sci-fi boy??!!” – these were accompanied by a few choice bricks. They were highly amused.
This short, rather bitter recollection isn’t meant to garner sympathy at my teenage existence – on the contrary, I was very happy in being a ‘sci-fi boy’ – after all, I had a myriad of worlds to keep me happy. All they had were their bricks, albeit big and painful bricks. No, the point of the story is that the programme in question that I was trying to get home to was one that had gained something of revered tones of admiration in the few magazines and periodicals that fed our science fiction habits back in those pre-internet (i.e horrible) days. It was the first time in nearly 10 years that it was reappearing on our TV screens, and it turned out that it was a bloody good job that I made sure I braved the taunts and the bricks to gets to see it, because as it turned out, it was not to be made available for another 34 years.
However, this is where the story becomes slightly complicated, because this isn’t simply a recollection, it is in fact a recollection within a recollection. The other reason that I was desperate to see the programme back in 1980 was because I had at that time vague and unsettling memories of watching it on its very first broadcast back in 1971. My next door neighbour in those days, Mark, was something of a hero of mine, after all I was 5 he was 8 and at that age he seemed like the height of sophistication with his encyclopedic knowledge of dirty jokes. He was also a science fiction nut and if that wasn’t impressive enough, his family had a brand spanking new colour TV. Star Trek and Dr Who were our staple diets of Sci Fi and Saturday nights were our nights of television heaven.
I’ll be honest, my memory of specifically watching the first 1971 broadcast of The Boy From Space with Mark is pretty sketchy, except for two factors; firstly, one of the lead actors was a rather pretty girl that I remember being just a little smitten with; secondly, one of the adult characters gave me something of the hee bee gee bees, he was known as ‘The tall thin man’ and he seriously frightened this 6-year-old out of his skin for a few nights afterwards.
So when it was announced that the series is at last being released on DVD by the BFI on 25 August 2014 as part of the ‘BFI SCI-FI: Days of Fear and Wonder’, well I has a bit happy to say the least.
So for those of you who may not know the synopsis of the story, a brief overview is on its way……
“When brother and sister Dan and Helen see a mysterious object falling from the sky one night, they set out to look for traces of a meteorite in the nearby sandpit.
There, they are confronted by a strange thin man, and discover a white-haired boy called Peep-peep who speaks a bizarre alien language.”
Now, to the allegedly ‘sophisticated’ CGI enriched science fiction audiences of 2014, The Boy From Space may have something of a museum-like look to it in terms of effects and budget, but back in those pre-Star Wars days in the 1970’s television wasn’t exactly awash with sophisticated science fiction TV. However I would advise anybody planning to watch this who are not of a certain vintage, to put aside any understandable feelings regarding the somewhat ‘innocent’ look of the piece, and enjoy it for what it is – an important and incredibly enjoyable example of British science fiction Television.
For what cannot be denied is that we are witness to a story that both engrossed and scared the young target audience in equal measure. Yes it may well be a simple story; alien is stranded on earth, local children find him and try to persuade the grown-ups to help the alien boy whilst in danger from a bad, bad spaceman (in a trenchcoat) – we’ve all been there….
However, this would be an over simplication because it would disregard the fact that behind the production there was a veritable cream of British writing and acting talent, with for example, the story’s writer being Richard Carpenter, creator of the cult 1970’s series Catweazle as well as the 1980’s Robin of Sherwood series (and still the best ever version of the story – so stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Kevin Costner).
It has to be said that The Boy From Space also boasted a genuinely gifted and atmospheric musical soundtrack by Paddy Kingsland that wouldn’t have been out-of-place in any piece of adult orientated science fiction with its note perfect complimenting of the scenes – particularly the more chilling ones.
The cast, particularly the two young leads of Sylvestra Le Touzel and Stephen Garlick were keen, enthusiastic and above all convincing in their portrayals. Though it is the character of the Tall Thin Man that impacted on those who watched it at the time and which still resonates with those of us that look back on that first viewing experience. The character, played by the wonderful British character actor, John Woodnutt, has regularly been voted into the top lists of scariest television or film characters. Whether the stories of children running in fear from the classrooms when this was shown as part of the Look and read children’s education series are to be believed or not, is academic. The sight of this trench-coated villain scared me then – and when I watched it again the other night, this time through the eyes of a little (much) older individual, I could still sense an element of the chill and menace that I and countless others felt on the first occasion, of this genius of a portrayal.
I would really love to know what the younger audience of 2014 think of this series, and if they can move past the blond-haired Aliens in silver suits. Maybe It would help if they knew context of the time that it appeared on television, to much acclaim, on that second occasion back in 1980….. Science fiction was a cultural behemoth with the ‘Star Wars affect’ still only three years old, we simply couldn’t get enough of it, no matter how ‘flimsy’ the effects. However, the The Boy From Space is an example of a time when the audience were treated arguably with a little more respect than they are now in terms of actually accepting that viewers might have a modicum of intelligence. Not only that, it was accepted that we would be allowed to be frightened and entertained in equal measure without the fear of being wrapped in a cultural ball of wool to try to protect our sensibilities.
What cannot be denied is that this series is an exceptionally well put together, exciting and yes frightening slice of British science Fiction. Highly recommended.
Originally broadcast in 1971, as part of the BBC’s educational Look and Read strand, The Boy from Space was shown again in 1980 in a revised version featuring new presenters Wordy and Cosmo, as well as updates – including a new foreword and a voice-over – to the main drama.
Look and Read was a programme for primary schools, aimed at improving children’s literacy skills. The programme presents fictional stories in a serial format, the first of which was broadcast in 1967 and the most recent in 2004, making it the longest running nationally broadcast programme for schools in the UK.
The various collections are included in this package in all their restored glory. However, it is possible that, like me, you might find the Look and learn excerpts slightly grating. After all, I realise I suffer from terminal immaturity and may never well ever fully grow up, but I did find myself fast forwarding through the ‘spelling’ bits. Remember, the excerpts were designed for primary school children, remember. Luckily, the kids can watch the Wordy and Cosmo versions while there is a fabulous feature-length presentation (70 mins)of the adventure which has been edited specially for this release – and boy does it work.
I would give this 9 out of 10
During the preparation for this article (don’t be so surprised, there is a little prep that goes into theses things!) I was lucky enough to arrange, via the lovely people at the BFI, to chat with actress Sylvestra Le Touzel, who played Helen in The Boy From Space. So, ‘borrowing’ ever so slightly from her IMDB page – Sylvestra was born in West London. She showed an interest in acting at an early age, enrolling at a Stage School. Subsequent numerous television roles followed, – noticeably in regard to this blog, in Dr Who and The Boy From Space.
Later credits include Fanny Price in a 1983 adaptation of Mansfield Park, though, in cult television terms, this was eclipsed by a commercial, still long remembered, for Heineken lager where, in a parody of My Fair Lady she portrayed an upper-class girl being tutored for a cockney role, success only coming when she drank a can of Heineken. In 2008 she appeared on the West End stage with Kenneth Brannagh well received revival of the play ‘Ivanov’. There is much, much more than I could list here in regards to her career, so check out her full credit listing.
Sylvestra remains a familiar face on British stage and screen
Hi Sylvestra & many thanks for taking the time to answer a few of my questions.
Q) Firstly, before we come onto The Boy from Space, I’d like to ask you about a certain TV series that is significantly in the news at the moment. You appeared in Dr Who in the late 1960’s. God so many questions about that! :-)
1) Did you meet the Doctor?
Yes I did meet the Doctor, in 1968. He was only on his second incarnation then of course. I have watched his career with interest but our paths have never crossed again. I was one of a group of children conjured from his past, who had bullied him at school, the only people he was frightened of.
2) Did you see that Tardis?
I did. I had watched and been terrified at home. Television was black and white then. I’d expected the Tardis to be nearly black. (I remember Police boxes being very dark). I was traumatised to find it was bright blue. I suppose it had to be that colour to show up in black and white.
3)What was the overall experience like?
It is a complicated memory, a clash of several realities. I am writing about it in a memoir.
(The Doctor Who story that Sylvestra appeared in was The Mind Robber. The Doctor himself was played by Patrick Troughton)
Although it did feel like the centre of my universe at the time. The adult me is amazed, the child me assumed that everything I touched would be museum quality.
Q) Have you seen it since filming it?
In the mid nineteen eighties it was shown again. We recorded an introduction where Dan and Helen were grown up and looking back on their childhood adventure – the BBC needed to explain why all the cars were out of date. That was a mere thirty years ago. I’ve not seen it since then.
Q) How did the part of Helen come about?
I remember auditioning in a BBC car park in Ealing – Maddalena, the director, chasing me between the parked cars, I think I got the part because I could look petrified. I was petrified.
Q) How enjoyable (or not) was the involvement in filming the series?
It was tremendously enjoyable. Stephen and I were both 12 years old. It requires concentration to film a series over several weeks. We got a tad giggly around the observatory one time, over-confident, and Maddalena had to get stern. We blamed Loftus Burton [who played Tom] but it wasn’t his fault, it was me, I never could keep a straight face.
I can’t remember now what was so funny. Just kids being stupid I expect. Colin [Mayes, who played Peep-peep] was older. He was always professional.
It was a quarry near Basingstoke. It was very exciting, a real secret landscape. I remember on our way home we’d see people wearing big hats in cars coming home from Ascot and I’d think ‘I know where you’ve been but I bet you can’t guess where I’ve been’.
Q) Were you at all aware of the reputation the series had garnered amongst young sci-fi fans at the time, and over the subsequent years?
I had no idea.
Except that when we were rehearsing the film that was eventually titled Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh told me his son Leo used to watch the programme and was impressed that he was working with me. I thought he was pulling my leg. If Mike starts claiming The Boy From Space is a major influence, don’t believe it.
Q) Perhaps the most enduring aspect for many viewers (including myself!) was the frankly chilling ‘Tall Thin Man” played by John Woodnutt – Were you aware that the character is credited with frightening a generation of children!
No I wasn’t aware of that. How amazing for John, especially when you consider not only was it pre-CGI, it was pre-Lycra, those catsuits weren’t easy to wear. He was a Guardian reader I seem to remember, and now you come to mention it, the first person I’d ever seen putting in contact lenses.
Actually it was very scary. He was a serious actor. He knew he mustn’t get too friendly with us. Maybe the shortsightedness added to his mystery.
Q) Why do you think a production like The Boy from Space is so revered?
Is it the innocence? For a film to work and to endure, regardless of how quaint some of the notions may seem over time, it must begin with everyone believing utterly in the world.
Maddalena must have understood that, hence the terrifying Ealing car park audition. I remember there was integrity and commitment from everyone. It felt very grown up to be involved.
Q) You may have noticed that I’ve managed to get through this interview without mentioning a certain commercial for lager type beverage?! 🙂
Yes. Well done. The water in Majorca tastes a lot better these days I am told.
Finally, I’d like to say thanks again, Sylvestra!
Thank you. It means a great deal to me.
The Boy from Space with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, live, at BFI Southbank in DecemberOn Saturday 6 December, to celebrate this DVD release, BFI Southbank will present the specially created 70 minute version of the series, directed by Maddalena Fagandini, followed by a panel discussion with key figures in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who provided the original music for this and so many other series. Following this our regular Sonic Cinema strand will provide a chance to hear the group play a specially selected set of Sci-Fi music from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Quatermass to Doctor Who.
Never available in any video format, the classic BBC series The Boy from Space (1971/1980) is at last being released on DVD by the BFI on 25 August 2014 as part of BFI SCI-FI: Days of Fear and Wonder, a celebration of Sci-Fi film and television. This well-remembered Look and Read series is presented with a host of extras, including the complete audio from the 1972 BBC Records LP and alternative presentations of the filmed drama sequences which allow for this thrilling adventure to be experienced in new and exciting ways.
DVD Special features
· * The complete 1980 series (10 x 20 mins): all ten episodes of the BBC’s classic Look and Read series, featuring Dan, Helen and Peep-peep’s story, as well as helpful reading tips from Wordy and Cosmo
· * Feature-length presentation (70 mins): exclusive version of Dan, Helen and Peep-peep’s adventures, edited specially for this release
· * BBC Records LP – audio version (55 mins): original spoken word recordings from the 1972 vinyl release, narrated by Charles Collingwood (the voice of Brian Aldridge in Radio 4’s The Archers)
· * BBC Records LP – film version (55 mins): an exclusive presentation, combining the audio from the 1972 LP with film and video footage from the 1980 TV broadcast
· * Wordy’s Think-ups: 19 original animations from the series
· * Downloadable PDFs of the original 1971 and 1979 pupil’s pamphlets
· * Illustrated booklet with essays by British TV experts Ben Clarke and Christopher Perry, and recollections by composer Paddy Kingsland
RRP: £22.99 / cat. no. BFIV2001 / Cert PG
UK / 1971/80 / colour / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles /
200 mins / Original aspect ratio 1.33:1 / 2 × DVD9 / PAL / Dolby Digital audio (192 kbps)