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Children's Fantasy and SF

Stretching young imaginations

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Fantasy and science fiction series firing childish imaginations down the decades have ranged from fairytales to far-flung futures. One of the earliest genre examples, The Silver Swan (BBC, 1952-53), transported viewers into past eras by way of an heirloomed violin. But in truth this was closer to magic than rational science fiction. Time-travel would similarly act as a semi-educational history class in Jamie (ITV, 1971), The Georgian House (ITV, 1976) and Into the Labyrinth (ITV, 1981-82).

In the 1950s, as the space race heated up, science-fiction, or at least juvenile outer-space adventure, slowly overtook cowboys and cops and robbers as the fictional genre most exciting young minds. Lack of budget seemed to limit British television's dealings in the genre - as it would for decades - and the earliest 'space' adventure was the earthbound Stranger from Space (BBC, 1951-52), with a crash-landed Martian befriended by an Earth boy. True spacefaring followed in The Lost Planet (BBC, 1954-55), with intrepid scientist Dr Lachlan McKinnon encountering benevolent galactic telepaths, and futuristic semi-educational serial Space School (BBC, 1956).

Puppet heroes best captured the childish thrills of the age, in the sophisticated 'marionations' from husband and wife team Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. The jokey Supercar (ITV, 1961-62), space opera Fireball XL5 (ITV, 1962-63) and submarine adventures of Stingray (ITV, 1963-64) all proved popular, but deathless peril and altruistic heroism in Thunderbirds (ITV, 1965-66) provided their biggest hit. The grim Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (ITV, 1967-68) was distinctly adult, the twee Joe 90 (ITV, 1968-69) less so. Children remained glued to attempts at intelligent live action SF in UFO (ITV, 1970-71) and Space: 1999 (ITV, 1975-77), but adult viewers and schedulers alike pigeonholed Anderson fare as kids' stuff.

ITV's live action SF hit of the 1960s was the cliffhanging Pathfinders (ITV, 1960-62), taking the very English Wedgwood family to the moon, Mars and Venus. Creator Sydney Newman forged something similar at the BBC with Doctor Who (1963-89), helping to develop the idea of a semi-educational series, part history and science classroom, featuring a mysterious time-traveller. The second serial introduced the robot-like Daleks, establishing an enduring template for futuristic adventure and monstrous adversaries and spawning a Saturday teatime ritual. Its time travel core and ability to switch styles along with its lead actor's persona has made it the ultimate, inherently flexible SF format.

Forged in the white heat of 1960s technology, the 'spy-fi' genre encompassed the hi-tech gadgetry of James Bond movies and US import The Man from UNCLE (1964-68), both eagerly followed by British children. Junior derivatives included Sierra Nine (ITV, 1963), Orlando (ITV, 1965-68) and Freewheelers (ITV, 1968-73). Mad scientists and even madder science saw death rays regularly threaten world capitals.

Ace of Wands' (ITV, 1970-72) spy-fi mix of sports cars and flares soon mutated into something odder and more downbeat, while its successor, The Tomorrow People (ITV, 1973-79), dominated the coming decade with hi-tech gadgetry, idealist liberalism and honest thrills. But glossy US import Star Trek (1966-69) made British efforts suddenly look homespun when aired here from 1969. A primetime hit for a decade, it ran in repeat form in BBC1 children's slots in 1984. Blake's 7 (BBC, 1978-81) was a cynical, grimy British primetime space opera similarly popular with children.

1970s kids' TV steered clear of galactic epics to explore other areas. The Owl Service (1969-70) delved into adolescent lust and the occult, ushering in a counter-culturally-inspired cycle. Arthurian magic and the 'gaia' concept of the planet's capacity for self-renewal cropped up in The Changes (BBC, 1975), Sky (ITV, 1975), Children of the Stones (ITV, 1977), Raven (ITV, 1977) and The Moon Stallion (BBC, 1978). Existential nightmare King of the Castle (ITV, 1977) sprung from the same creative well.

Concerns over the portrayal of occult and black magic practices on children's TV meant it was seldom handled. Shadows (ITV, 1975-78) initially featured outright supernatural tales, before taking clever turns into the less frightening. The Clifton House Mystery (ITV, 1978) was terrifying, if educational. Sapphire & Steel (ITV, 1979-82) rendered ghosts in SF terms and was developed as a children's series, but it was promoted to primetime when Joanna Lumley and David McCallum were cast as leads.

Ghosts were deemed suitable subjects for comedic treatments Rentaghost (BBC, 1976-84) and The Ghosts of Motley Hall (ITV, 1976-78) and a superior 1970s comedy drama entry was charming contemporary fairytale Lizzie Dripping (BBC, 1972-75). This 'imaginary friend' trope asked if Lizzie's witch friend was in her imagination or if the fantasy was 'for real'.

Amid modish psychedelia were a few quintessentially English period fantasy tales, with E. Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet (BBC, 1977) and The Enchanted Castle (BBC, 1979) both tackled. Sunday teatime 'classic' adaptations Gulliver in Lilliput (1981), Alice in Wonderland (1985) and a frightening version of The Invisible Man (1984) all showcased complex effects.

Period settings persisted, but when the real-world 1980s went computer-crazy, it was all TV could do to catch up. One of its first responses the hi-tech espionage thriller Codename Icarus (BBC, 1981). Star Wars (US, 1977) had heralded an era of cinema special effects blockbusters with which TV couldn't hope to compete - instead Saturday morning shows and kids sitcoms alike had bacofoil makeovers. Fantasy output moved outside of drama fiction into other formats: interactive whodunit Captain Zep - Space Detective (BBC, 1983-84) mixed comic strip drawings with live action; game shows included The Adventure Game (BBC, 1980-86) and sword and sorcery effort Knightmare (ITV, 1987-94). In 'serious' SF, Chocky (ITV, 1984-86) satisfied while ponderous epic The Tripods (BBC, 1984-85) lacked SF hardware. Comedy Luna (ITV, 1983-84), starring a young Patsy Kensit, was among few series playing with genuine SF ideas.

Those preferring the supernatural to silver-tinted futurism had the brooding Ghost in the Water (BBC, 1982) and anthology Spooky (ITV, 1983). Dramarama plays (ITV, 1983-89) also regularly featured fantasy material, from ghost stories to whimsical SF comedy and allegorical weirdness.

The Tripods had enjoyed Australian co-finance, but more significant was the international funding of The Box of Delights (BBC, 1984), featuring a time-travelling magician hiding out in a rosy glow Edwardian Christmas. Similar lavish heritage fantasies with Trans-Atlantic export potential followed, including The Chronicles of Narnia (BBC, 1988-90) and The Borrowers (BBC, 1992-3).

Contrasting with cosy nostalgia, tougher Sunday serial Knights of God (ITV, 1987) offered an SF take on King Arthur legends set in a futuristic fascist republic Britain. Hints of post-Grange Hill (BBC, 1978-2008) contemporary realism were seen in Aliens in the Family (BBC, 1987), the spooky Moondial (BBC, 1988) and the sensual Shadow of the Stone (1987), where fantasy provided metaphors for adolescent angst.

Contemporary 90s soaps such as Byker Grove (BBC, 1989-2006) squeezed out fantasy, and an incoming policy that all but abandoned children over 10 for ratings reasons largely shut out more serious fare. Fantasy retreated into slapstick fairytales like Bernard's Watch (ITV, 1997-2001), but occasional successes included Russell T. Davies' quirky Dark Season (BBC, 1991) and the same writer's sombre Century Falls (BBC, 1993), inventive adaptation Elidor (BBC, 1995) and a Tomorrow People revival (ITV, 1992-95).

By the turn of the millennium, JK Rowling's Harry Potter novels had rekindled a childhood fascination with magic. The Worst Witch (ITV, 1986; 1998-2001; 2005-6), a comedy about a junior witch academy, now found new life. Time travelling magic series The Magician's House (BBC, 1999-2000) and would-be epic Shoebox Zoo (BBC, 2004-5) were costly BBC/Canada co-productions.

But with children now watching the Potter movies on home DVD on constant loop, it was difficult for children's TV to match such spectacle. Quality SF serial Life Force (2000) was dumped into morning slots by ITV for poor ratings, and cloning thriller The Fugitives (2005) sadly became ITV's final homegrown fantasy show. The BBC cancelled telepath series Powers (2004) after one excellent run.

Resources appear to have been diverted into primetime since, with Russell T. Davies' bravura revival of Doctor Who (BBC, 2005-) drawing massive family audiences and critical acclaim and inspiring Saturday night fantasies Primeval (ITV, 2007-), Merlin (BBC, 2008-) and Demons (ITV, 2009). In children's slots, only Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah-Jane Adventures (BBC, 2007-) and spy-fi comedy M.I. High (BBC, 2007-) currently fly the fantasy flag.

Alistair McGown

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Ace of Wands (1970-72)

Ace of Wands (1970-72)

Children's drama about a magician with telepathic powers

Thumbnail image of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68)

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68)

Indestructible Supermarionation sci-fi from Gerry Anderson

Thumbnail image of Catweazle (1970-71)

Catweazle (1970-71)

Children's comedy series about a time-travelling sorcerer

Thumbnail image of Century Falls (1993)

Century Falls (1993)

Fantastical children's drama exposing the dark secrets of an English village

Thumbnail image of Children of the Stones (1977)

Children of the Stones (1977)

Atmospheric children's supernatural chiller

Thumbnail image of Chocky (1984)

Chocky (1984)

Compelling adaptation of SF classic about alien intelligence

Thumbnail image of Chronicles of Narnia, The (1988-90)

Chronicles of Narnia, The (1988-90)

Lavish adaptations of C.S. Lewis's classic novels

Thumbnail image of Dark Season (1991)

Dark Season (1991)

First children's SF adventure from the pen of Russell T. Davies

Thumbnail image of Feathered Serpent, The (1976-78)

Feathered Serpent, The (1976-78)

Distinctive children's historical drama series set in Aztec Mexico

Thumbnail image of King of the Castle (1977)

King of the Castle (1977)

Children's serial about a lonely boy who stumbles into a parallel universe

Thumbnail image of Lizzie Dripping / Lizzie Dripping Again (1973-75)

Lizzie Dripping / Lizzie Dripping Again (1973-75)

Much-loved children's fantasy about a child with an unusual friend

Thumbnail image of Moon Stallion, The (1978)

Moon Stallion, The (1978)

Children's fantasy drama about unwise delvings into Arthurian legend

Thumbnail image of Orlando (1965-68)

Orlando (1965-68)

Espionage adventure capers with old Irish sea dog Orlando O'Connor

Thumbnail image of Owl Service, The (1969-70)

Owl Service, The (1969-70)

In Wales, two teenagers meet a local boy and become involved in a mystery

Thumbnail image of Rentaghost (1976-84)

Rentaghost (1976-84)

Children's comedy series about an agency for the recently departed

Thumbnail image of Secret Garden, The (1975)

Secret Garden, The (1975)

Third (and first colour) television version of the classic children's novel

Thumbnail image of Shadows (1975-78)

Shadows (1975-78)

Series of one-off supernatural plays, aimed at children

Thumbnail image of Space: 1999 (1975-77)

Space: 1999 (1975-77)

Moon-set science fiction drama

Thumbnail image of Thunderbirds (1965-66)

Thunderbirds (1965-66)

F.A.B. adventures of International Rescue

Thumbnail image of Timeslip (1970-71)

Timeslip (1970-71)

Sci-fi adventure series about time-travelling children

Thumbnail image of Tripods (1984-85)

Tripods (1984-85)

Ambitious children's SF adaptation about alien invaders

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