It is a warm Sunday evening in 1969. I am seven. I have somehow managed to avoid going to bed long enough to glimpse the start of the scariest thing on television: a scene of a night-time funfair, brilliantly illuminated, the rides in full swing … but there is no-one there except me. I know I am there because the camera took me through the turnstile. I know it’s Battersea Funfair because I went there once with my family. But now I am there at night, alone.
The above clip has Proustian associations for your correspondent. As a child of seven these opening titles were an introduction to a world of terrors comfortingly remote from my Surrey childhood. It took me several decades to discover out the name of the TV programme that haunted my dreams, and when YouTube finally unlocked the key I discovered that the opening retained something of the power I recalled from childhood. The series was an Anglo-American co-production and featured stories of a supernatural or macabre nature that were filmed in Britain but produced by Los Angeles personnel (the producers had worked on Hitchcock’s TV series) and financed by U.S. cash; the legend ‘In Color’ at the start of the titles gives the game away. Unfortunately, the titles are the best thing about Journey to the Unknown: the dramas that followed failed to deliver on the delicious promise set up by that atmospheric introduction. I know this because I acquired a bootleg DVD of the entire series and discovered to my intense disappointment that most of the stories were flaccid and weak, starring waning Hollywood turns marooned in UK settings, a sop to the American market at which the series was targeted.
The other Unknown is a BBC Science Fiction series from roughly the same period, an entirely British project this time – although it cast its net wide in terms of the writers it showcased. Out of the Unknown began as a vehicle for ‘straight’ SF – hence the likes of Asimov, J.G. Ballard and John Wyndham got a look-in – but by the time the final season aired in 1971 it had become less ambitious and was offering more generic horror and fantasy fare. As it was shot on video, the series suffered the fate of so many BBC programmes from the period, its tape being recorded over for the sake of Match of the Day or similar. This practice was standard at the BBC, prioritising sports coverage and local news reporting above drama and entertainment – which is why Parkinson’s interview with John Lennon is long gone, along with many classic dramas and – bizarrely – live coverage of the first Moon landing. There goes the past.
Except that in this case a few episodes still exist, and I have trawled these in search of similar madeleines, raising my hopes of identifying other fragmentary glimpses of disturbing childhood viewing. But I drew a blank here; it’s possible that some of the lost stories might have unlocked further memories, which only makes their loss more frustrating. I have been able to identify a couple of scary memories as deriving from a BBC TV show called Doomwatch, an early 70s drama that featured government scientists tackling futuristic crises amidst a paucity of believable special effects. The one about a virus that eats plastic really put the wind up me: it opened with a passenger on an airliner discovering that the cabin is melting all around him … that was bound to add to the stock of a 10 year old’s night terrors. Doomwatch itself might as well have been eaten by the same virus, so much of it has been destroyed. (Before I am accused of wanton nostalgia for its own sake, I will say that my favourite TV programme from 1969 was a comedy called The Gnomes of Dulwich starring Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott as a pair of garden gnomes in suburban south London. That entire series has been wiped, and no-one is going to claim that as a lost masterpiece.)
The last time I posted on here it was Midsummer, now we are on the brink of winter. I haven’t posted much this year (a) because I have been trying to write a book and (b) I often couldn’t face it. Hard news was just too hard. You don’t need me to tell you that we are living through strange times; we are characters in a story worthy of Doomwatch or Out of the Unknown. At some point in the 1990s I began to realise that the digital world was fulfilling many of my boyhood imaginings of what the future would look like: by the same token, I now feel that reality is delivering on some of the dystopian dramas that gave me nightmares as a child.
Anyway, this is a seasonal post. When I was a boy it was Guy Fawkes night that crystallised the dangerous glamour of the season now upon us; I associate bonfire night with winter funfairs, and the titles of Journey to the Unknown evoke all the menace of a darkening pleasure ground. But ghost stories were reserved for Christmas. The American custom of Halloween has ousted Guy Fawkes and there’s no point protesting: to do so would be as futile as placarding the embassy in Grosvenor Square over any other US encroachment on sovereign territory. So in the spirit of the season, I leave you with an entirely appropriate image for this particular Halloween, courtesy of The New Yorker … just click here …
Sleep well. D.S.
From J.M. Whistler’s ’10 o’clock Lecture’, 1885, reprinted in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1892:
And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us …
The recent fog in London, despite its inconvenience for air travellers, commuters, etc., proved to be quite a popular meteorological event: instead of invoking Bleak House’s November gloom it made the city look impossibly glamorous. The above photo was taken on the evening of Sunday, 1st November, during a wander along the Chelsea Embankment: Whistler territory. The great American painter was a local from 1859 until his death in 1903, and his ‘Nocturnes’ of the Chelsea/Battersea foreshore transform the Victorian industrial Thames into a Japanese world of shadows and fugitive lights. (Whistler was fond of applying musical terms to painting, so his nocturnes derive from Chopin: by the same token, Debussy was a fan and his orchestral Nocturnes return the compliment, evoking the Seine in the same mood as the painter’s Thames.)
The final nocturne was ‘The Falling Rocket’, a sort of proto-Abstract Impressionist take on fireworks at Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure garden located roughly where Lots Road Power Station is now. You don’t need me to tell you that this is the painting condemned by Ruskin in terms incendiary enough (‘I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’) for artist to sue critic. Whistler won the case but was awarded joke damages and went bankrupt. No matter. Posterity has found in Whistler’s favour; he even has his own statue now, on the north side of Battersea Bridge.
This post is really a couple of years late, as there was a reportedly excellent show of Whistler’s Thames paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. I say ‘reportedly’ because I was marooned on the south coast at the time and missed the bloody thing. But I’m back now, which is why I chanced to be walking along the Chelsea Embankment on Sunday night … (As it happens, I am writing this on Guy Fawkes night. Even in the pissing rain, I can look out of my 6th floor window and see the whole city lit up by sparkling lights. Some of them are even fireworks.) D.S.