The Haunted Generation
Bob Fischer’s article “The Haunted Generation” [ FT354:30
37] was intriguing – but although the move to the digital world kicked in from the early 1980s, children had been escaping into dreamscapes and soundscapes created for them in the analogue world for many years previously.
As a child in the early 1960s, I found Noggin the Nog exerted a strong, and lasting, fascination. The techniques used in this programme included a calm, unassuming narrative that gave factual accounts of fantastic adventures in a strange land long ago, backed up with very accurate historical drawings and peculiar music from Vernon Elliott. The use of the bassoon, with its rather strange timbre, for the music, and the sparse setting, added to the strangeness. Watching it was like entering a private world with a door closing behind you, and all adults excluded.
It terms of general spookiness, though, the 1968 BBC Radio adaptation of The Hobbit would take some beating. This was broadcast on dark autumn Sunday evenings as an adult drama and was done in the style of a grotesque middle European fairy tale, or Norse saga, by a cast led by Paul Daneman. It had music by David Munrow and BBC Radiophonic Workshop and had a very different tone to the kind of ‘feel good’ slightly comic approach adopted in later, better known, adaptations of Tolkien’s works. (Though now regarded as no more than a footnote, the series made such an impact at the time that John Boorman immediately hired Munrow for a feature film adaptation of The Lord of The Rings, to be done in the same style. Alas, despite much preparation in 1968-1969, this came to nothing when Universal Studios, who would have produced it, dramatically scaled back their funding for UK productions).
But is this really just to do with what we recollect from our childhood, or is the nature of memory conditioned by changes in technology? It is intriguing to consider that the textures provided by analogue recording and its broadcasting techniques created an atmosphere that we vividly remember now because it is distinctly different from our experience of the modern world. Once analogue fades away completely and we have nothing but CGI and computer game-type presentations, will our memories of today be different in 40 years’ time from our memories of 40 years ago now? Simon Matthews Gateshead, Tyne and Wear Reading The Haunted Genera
tion proved to be something of a cathartic experience. At last someone has been able to articulate why the 1970s has always provoked a sense of disquiet like a repressed memory of some family tragedy.
Having been born in 1966, the 1970s were my formative years, yet the decade seems to have been reduced to clip-show fodder of easy identifiable references – Spangles, Glam Rock and Chopper bikes. That’s not how I remember it.
I grew up in the early part of the decade in the industrial North against a backdrop of cooling towers and a glow on the horizon from the local steelworks that could be seen from the landing window at night. At the end of the main road was a council park bordered on two sides by light industrial units and a stretch of wasteland where people abandoned cars and the local crisp manufacturer dumped huge cardboard drums of out-of-date produce. On the other side was the supposedly haunted Clarkie’s Wood – the eponymous Clarkie having hanged himself from a tree in the wood itself. The shift from modernity to folklore was a question of feet, yet was real and palpable.
In the next street were a family in which all the boys suffered a genetic deformity – they were born without middle fingers or ring fingers on both hands and I would watch them outside the local hardware shop that sold Esso Blue paraffin eating apples held quite dextrously between the remaining fingers. Around the corner were a family who had newspapers covering their windows rather than curtains and there were stories of the daughter having been disfigured in a fire so that she never went out during daylight hours.
When I think of it now, much of the geography of my child- hood does seem elusive and half remembered – tower blocks and new motorways always figure heavily even though I grew up in a semi-detached and we never had a car. Is this just autosuggestion provoked by Mary, Mungo
and Midge, or the same Public Information films that promoted the idea that everything seemed designed or destined to kill – electricity substations, beaches, railway lines, building sites, strangers and most memorably farms? The grand guignol of ‘Apaches’ still haunts me to this day. When a quiet day out seemed likely to end up in dismemberment, electrocution or being kidnapped, it’s a wonder my generation ever went outdoors! Even the children’s programmes seemed to underline this feeling of disquiet – The Boy From Space seemed like a refugee from SHADO, Children of the Stones was truly creepy with its hint of something ancient and unseen while Animal Kwackers was just bizarre fodder for teatime TV.
We moved to the South of England in the mid 1970s and my memories from this new location are not as resonant or as haunted (though I still maintain having seen and heard some questionable things in the new flat where we lived). The 1970s officially ended for me in the upper balcony of our local Odeon when I watched an Imperial Star Destroyer attempt to catch the fleeing consular ship holding Princess Leia – but the decade never really went away.
Jonny Trunk’s point about leaving things half-remembered is a valid one – I have since tracked down programmes from this era only to be disappointed by how they appear now to my adult mind (apart from Ivor the Engine, which to this day fills me with a warm comforting pastoral glow). Maybe having a sense of disquiet in your life needn’t automatically be a negative thing. Richard Carey Pinner, Middlesex Bob Fischer’s article on the generation that grew up in the 1970s certainly produced many smiles and shudders of recognition from me, as I’m sure it did from many.
(Toni Arthur! God, I was terrified of her! She made my infant self want to run screaming into the arms of Chloe Ashcroft). Perhaps, for me, the defining image of the era comes at the end of the play
Robin Redbreast, when the heroine looks back at the murderous villagers and sees them transformed into pagans from the past, complete with stags’ antlers.
The past was still there, haunting the present and the future was going to be pretty weird too. Bob Fischer’s interviewees were in agreement about when all this ended – sometime in the early to mid-Eighties – but were less sure about when it began. I would argue that this was because it was all a continuation of what had been going on in our culture for centuries, with the spread of television adding another dimension. Think of all those M R James adaptations (in typical 1970s noholds-barred style) that appeared at Christmas – and was there ever a writer more concerned with a nation’s history haunting its present than James? Britain was a country with a living history and a big respect for the uncanny and we viewed the future with the same mixture of anticipation and terror.
Perhaps the stranger puzzle is why it ended. Richard Littler talks of the culture turning to money and that may be a big part of it. The conflicting voices of religion, history and science were all sidelined in favour of the dead whine of economics by 1985 and that has gone on to this day. In the 1970s, hauntings and monster sightings could appear as news items; today the news programmes whitter endlessly about “GDP” and “economic growth” as if they were real things, which they are not. It could be that we are so haunted by our childhoods because we were the last to experience that connection with our cultural past, which every generation before us had taken for granted. Today, it is impossible to believe we are watched over by figures from the past when we fail to believe that they could even have existed, walking where the retail parks and endless housing estates now squat.
One of the many sad aspects of the recent Brexit catastrophe was the sight of people claiming to defend British culture when they have none. It’s gone. We’ve lost it... or, at least, our mainstream culture has lost it. We have gone from being an island full of mystery and weirdness to being a prosaic, materialistic place with no weirdness in it all and that, paradoxically, is a very weird situation indeed. Albert Ravey Ramsey, Isle of Man Like Bob Fischer I was born in 1973 and have always had a sense of a ‘now’ just out of reach. This seems deeper than simple childhood nostalgia and was reflected in the children’s TV, information films and books of that time, which were more than happy to incorporate horror, the strange and the other for a child audience. The Picture Box opening titles (below), which the article references, seem the most distilled form of this, encapsulating the sense of ‘hauntology’. I would also mention The Box of Delight that ran on BBC in 1984, particularly the eerie title sequence. Likewise the beginning of
The Book Tower from Yorkshire Television, which began in 1979. It wasn’t enough just to do a programme of children’s book reviews; the opening titles place it in a strange isolated tower with suggestively spooky theme tune (a Lloyd-Webber adaptation of Paganini’s 24th Caprice appar- ently). In this tower is none other than Tom Baker, Doctor Who to children of that age, sitting alone, spooning impossible amounts of sugar into a cup of tea.
Also bubbling up through the hauntology was ‘The Boy From Space’ on Look and Read in 1980. My own ‘white whale’ is a song about a witch, which I recall being broadcast on a children’s TV programme, possibly Words and
Pictures on Hallowe’en in the late 1970s. It contained the refrain “a witch on a broomstick, she flies by, eee-addi-addi-eee is her cry”. As Fischer points out, we are probably the last generation to have such lost shades only available through our memories. Daniel Clay Hightown, Liverpool I’d like to express how moved I was by the terrific Haunted
Generation feature and would like to share my experiences as a child in the early Eighties. I was really haunted by my dreams as a child to the extent that I was taken to a GP several times because my parents didn’t know how to cope with my inability to separate dreams from reality. No matter how often they told me “it was just a dream” I couldn’t get over the dreams in the daytime. I now realise that a massive part of the problem was the public information films, television and literature I was privy to, including two spectacular errors of judgement (in my opinion) by my school.
Around 1982, when I was six or seven, our teacher gave us a pamphlet in a sealed envelope to take home to our parents. Obviously, the whole class opened these envelopes before they went home (including me). I don’t remember the reaction of my school friends, but I was absolutely stricken with fear. It was a pamphlet about accidents in the home with graphic pictures of children who had been injured in some way. I remember being upset by the imagery, but my mum brushed it off and said: “Serves you right for opening it!” To be fair, perhaps it was because of that pamphlet that I never tipped scolding water on myself or choked myself with a skipping rope, but there was more to come.
A few years later we were shown a hideous ‘stranger danger’ video starring the wonderful Duncan Preston. The stranger (Preston) kidnaps a girl with the old “Do you want to see some puppies?” line. You are shown two scenarios, one of the girl going off with the stranger, and one where she doesn’t go. The former scenario haunts me to this day. I can see the girl now as she describes her entrapment to her mum after she is found. Like the pamphlets, it did the trick, but I don’t think it needed to be quite so disturbing. I watched it again recently on YouTube and it still made feel weird – and every time I see Duncan Preston I can only think of the despicable man he played in that film. In later years he was one of Victoria Wood’s right-hand men and continued to be so throughout her career.
Then there was children’s television – where to begin? Never mind the obvious weirdness of
Bagpuss – what about The Children of Green Knowe? The Moondial? Running Scared? BOD? The Box of Delights? And the most terrifying
of all: Chocky. What the blinking hell was Chocky? I never watched an entire episode and I never will. I often felt very alone in my unease at these scary ‘made for kids’ films and TV shows and I don’t recall any of my friends being as sensitive as me, so to read that others were as disturbed by it all is quite frankly a tremendous relief. Finally, somebody gets it! Joanne Ross London
The Haunted Generation very much struck a chord, describing as it did some of my own childhood experiences (I’m 43 years old). In addition to his examples, I might add one other piece of 1970s drama: Nepenthe’s wonderful re-telling of Richard Adams’s Watership Down (where a big black farm dog behaves in accordance with its true nature regarding cute bunnies, shotgun pellets require skilled removal and multitudes are gassed.)
I first watched it aged about five, and the film left me with a deep and long-lasting feeling of awe, and I think an accurate impression of the ‘redness in tooth and claw’ of nature, but also an enduring sense of wonder. It was the root of my now decadesold passion for tales of Black Shuck and his shaggy kindred, another legacy of that bloody-jawed hound by the tree trunk. Twenty-first century kids that I know who’ve seen it appear to be universally horrified. Arthur Burton By email Bob Fischer’s musings on the weirdness and unease of 1970s television etc. certainly resonated with me. I vividly remember scary children’s dramas such as The Owl Service and Children
of the Stones. The still from the school’s broadcast Picture Box brought back memories of episodes that stick in my mind today. I also grew up in the 70s on a diet of reading Pan Horror Stories and books on ghosts for kids with very scary covers.
I recently talked to my husband about how weird “Music and Movement” sessions were in schools – something mentioned by Mr Fischer. I agree that the distinctive music of the age played an important part in this “aura of weirdness”. Would Chil
dren of the Stones seem quite as unsettling without the accompaniment of unearthly voices and haunting soundscapes? Sue Hardiman Bristol Thanks to Bob Fischer for articulating so well what I have been thinking for decades.
It’s impossible to explain to those who did not live through the 1970s, but they had a strange ‘feel’ to them. I remember the long, hot school holidays that seemed to last forever, when every abandoned house was haunted and every water-filled quarry (in spite of the warnings of the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water) hid a monster. It was as if an M R James story had been updated to the present and somehow leaked out into reality, infecting everything it touched.
Television of the era seemed to reflect this.
Doctor Who was at its zenith, weird, scary, and owing more to horror than to hard science fiction. It was a show of brooding, sinister factories, blasted heaths, darkened woods and ancient caves; it featured giant green maggots crawling from Welsh slag heaps, intelligent marine dinosaurs rising up from the sea, giant man-eating rats gnawing off people’s legs in Victorian sewers, animated killer dolls smashing out of shop windows, vampiric standing stones draining the life from hapless campers and a homicidal cyborg ventriloquist’s dummy with the brain of a pig!
Childrens’ telly was equally eerie, with the bedraggled Hartley Hare (above) in the distinctly odd Pipkins, the weird Victoriana of Bagpuss and the creepy title music of Simon in The Land in Chalk Drawings. And beyond this, the strangeness also seeped into ‘normal’ programmes. Play
for Today often featured supernatural and fortean subjects; and sometimes they even made the news, as when Nationwide did a piece on the werewolf sightings in Hexham.
In the 1970s, it seemed that you just might see a ghost on an evening walk, a monster in a lake or a strange silver disc in a field. Somehow, the boundaries between realities seemed thinner, I don’t know how or why, and I find myself longing for those days. Richard Freeeman By email Actually, I think the haunted generation probably lasted till the late 1980s, as I recall being terrified by many public information films as a youngster at that time. Probably the scariest for me was the one with the child pulling down the hot iron by the cord. A couple of years back, I heard a nuclear safety ad in an old bunker in Scotland, which had a pretty sinister electronic backing. I was also a fan of the NFL, and a lot of their films used some pretty ominous-sounding library music: tunes by Tony Hymas and Alan Hawkshaw. John Wilding Hessle, Yorkshire