Ghostly goings on in this seventies ITV children’s series…
Those like myself who were around at the time or have been following Network’s release schedule so far will know that in the mid-70s there was a vogue for supernatural-themed TV series for children. The first series of Shadows debuted on ITV in 1975. Created as an anthology series (another popular form of the 70s) it was made up of seven individual plays to be shown at Wednesday teatimes on darkening autumn evenings. Two further series followed in 1976 and 1978 and, hopefully, these will also be released in the future.
The details for the seven Season One episodes are as follows –
The Future Ghost – 25m 11s
Written by Roger Marshall
A young woman staying at a hotel in the 1870s meets a resident of the same building in the 1970s.
After School – 23m 5s
Written by Ewart Alexander
Two schoolboys doing detention in a small Welsh school encounter the poltergeist of a boy miner who died in the workings beneath the school.
The Witch’s Bottle – 24m 54s
Written by Stewart Farrar
A city brother and sister have a rural encounter with a modern witch and the spirit of her ancestor.
The Waiting Room – 25m 1s
Written by Jon Watkins
Another brother and sister miss the last train at a country station and, while waiting overnight in the disused waiting room, encounter people from the 1920s.
Optical Illusion – 24m 59s
Written by Tom Clarke
Three kids from the East End of London visit an old Tudor manor on an excursion and relive events from the house’s history.
Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes – 25m 25s
Written by Trevor Preston
An evil sorcerer and his lackey, while stealing an object of power, do battle with the spirit of a 1920s gangster.
The Other Window – 24m 5s
Written by Jacquetta Hawkes and J B Priestley
A scientist brings a special lens home which he attaches to a window overlooking the garden. The other family members then have visions of the past when they look through the lens.
All the stories with one noticeable exception, Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes, conform to the same basic format. One or more teenagers have a supernatural encounter with people from another time. In most examples, this ultimately benefits the children affected. Five of the stories concern present-day youngsters meeting figures from the past but one, The Future Ghost, is set in the 1870s with a modern-day interlude. These six episodes are, dare I say it, cheaply made. They are filmed mostly on one or two wobbly studio sets with a small cast. The exception, Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes, is not really a ghost story, more a camp black comedy and has much higher production values with impressive location shooting and a larger cast. It also has no child characters. The principal character, Mr Stabbs (Russell Hunter on magnificent pantomime-villain form) had already featured as a guest villain in Ace of Wands so perhaps this was made as a pilot for a possible spin-off series which failed to materialise and which was then lumped together with the other plays just to give it a chance to be seen on air? Possibly?
Anyway, because of the constraints of the age of the audience and the timeslot there were limits as to just how graphic or scary the stories could be. Rather than going for horror, the stories were structured along the lines of traditional ghost stories relying on atmosphere and a sense of dread than explicit shock tactics. The opening credits eschew music altogether and utilise a simple scary sound effect as a candle is lit and the title card appears. One unusual structural option taken by Thames is to skip the usual mid-episode advert break so each piece plays for an unbroken 25 minutes. Given their timeslot (Wednesday teatimes with their attendant distractions) it seems sensible to maintain the tension and keep the young audience engaged. The story situations are hardly exotic and reflect what many of the young audience would experience in their own lives. Most of the six pieces that pursue this option are, for the most part, effective but are hampered by the technical limitations of the young cast members. Because of the nature of studio production of the time, the most effective way to generate atmosphere was through the performances of the actors because the studio lighting and editing options really didn’t lend themselves to classic scary cinematic technique. And this is where the series came unstuck because most of the teen actors just don’t have the skill to fully convey the necessary atmosphere. It is true that some of the young actors, such as Richard Willis and Pauline Quirke were experienced and talented but their efforts are often undermined by their less-skilled colleagues. The best example of sheer talent and class overcoming all the surrounding limitations is the presence of Jenny Agutter in The Waiting Room. Her performance lifts the episode into something quite different from all the others and makes it the best of the series. It is also, to be fair, one of the simplest and best premises and one of the creepiest of all the stories.
Of the remaining episodes, Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes stands out from the rest, not just because it is so stylistically and thematically different, but because it’s not really a classic ghost story, more a camp supernatural romp with an excellent cast and a bit more money thrown at it. It had previously been released by Network as an extra on their superlative Ace of Wands set but this is the first time it has been partnered with the other episodes from this series. From these other episodes I would particularly recommend After School and The Witch’s Bottle because they have a more political agenda and are not just simple ghost stories. After School deals with the difficult choices facing high school boys in a small Welsh mining town. Do they go down the pit like their fathers and grandfathers before them or do they strike out and leave their small community for other opportunities? Giving some historical context is the discovery of the remains of a boy of a similar age who had died in a mining accident in the previous century. The Witch’s Bottle reaches further back in time and looks at how events from the time of the Witchfinder General resonate down to the modern day through a female lineage. The one real stinker, surprisingly given its origins, is The Other Window which is static, talky, badly-made, dull as dishwater and boasts an atrocious bunch of child actors. The two excellent adult actors, John Woodvine and Aimee Delamain try to salvage what they can but, not helped at all by the over-intrusive tacked-on classical music, their attempts are in vain.
The seven episodes are contained on a single disc.
Transfer and Sound
The tapes have survived in pristine condition and the transfer, as usual, is exemplary. I spotted only one instance of tape damage and that was very brief. Given the subject matter there are many darkly-lit scenes and notwithstanding the excellence of the transfer there are occasional moments of light burn-in on the original tape and digital ghosting (pardon the pun) as characters move through the darkness. The mono sound is as clear as you would expect by now from Network and given the young cast’s tendency to shout all their lines there isn’t much problem understanding any of it.
There is a brief gallery of production stills lasting 1m 34s.
The supernatural was one children’s TV genre that ITV excelled at in the 70s and this anthology is one of the better releases. Despite the presence of some iffy elements and one real clunker this is one of Network’s better and more interesting and entertaining releases.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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