Stacia Briggs: Fed up with cosy children’s television? Then try these...
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These days, children's television is so painfully wholesome that you can practically taste the liquidised kale.
Every show is edifying, educational, parent-approved, bland tripe that is so inoffensive and undemanding that it's like watching an endless loop of magnolia paint samples on the small screen – but it hasn't always been this way,. In the good old days, we nippers watched shows that these days would send Mumsnet into meltdown in a nanosecond.
The BBC and Netflix this week revealed that they plan to join forces to upset a whole new generation of youngsters by rebooting Watership Down.
I remember watching the original film in a draughty village hall near Norwich with an outside toilet filled with monstrous spiders and tracing-paper sheets instead of toilet roll – this, I had thought, would be the most frightening part of the evening. Then I saw the film.
I had expected bunnies, sweet furry ones with lovely velvety ears cavorting through England's green and pleasant land – what I got was fields of blood, visions of an apocalyptic world, noble beasts killed by predators, caught in snares or choking for breath through clouds of gas. I was petrified. I loved it.
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The new version promises to 'tone down the levels of on-screen violence to make it more appropriate for children'. How depressing: removing the violence and the bloodshed from Watership Down is like removing the engine from a car. It takes away its power and ability to move. But if Watership Down is toned down, there are plenty of programmes your children can watch to learn all about unadulterated terror: old episodes of Doctor Who, The Boy from Space, The Children of Green Knowe, Escape Into Night, Moondial, The Tripods, Haunters of the Deep, The Demon Headmaster, The Legend of Tim Tyler, The Changes and the suggestions below. Don't have nightmares.
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EIGHT OF THE MOST TERRIFYING CHILDREN'S PROGRAMMES
• Children of the Stones
If you prefer your children's teatime dramas to have a petrifying Wicker Man vibe to them, this is the show for you. Even the opening credits are terrifying with the kind of wailing, sinister choral singing you'd expect to hear in a cave at a Satanic ritual. Professor Brake and son Matthew arrive in Milbury and quickly discover that nearly all the villagers are acting strangely, calling themselves 'the Happy Ones' breaking into spontaneous Morris dancing and finding fun in solving eye-wateringly difficult mathematical problems. It turns out that local squire Rafael Hendrick is using the power of the local stone circle to brainwash villagers and when Brake and Matthew manage to hoodwink Hendrick into using the power on himself, everyone turns to stone. But it's OK, because in Groundhog Day style, the next day a time loop kicks in and it all begins again. Phew.
• Worzel Gummidge
As a child, it took me a while to realise that Gummidge was a scarecrow and not a magical, haunted itinerant with three interchangeable swede, turnip or mangel wurzel heads, a family of mice living in his chest cavity, an obsessive compulsion to eat cake and a macabre fascination with a shop dummy. I remember him dealing with a scarecrow rival by throwing him off a bridge into the path of a moving train and having a slightly disturbing catchphrase: 'I'll be bum-swizzled'. I have never taken walks in the countryside for granted since.
• The Singing Ringing Tree
My friend Sally remains terrified by this East German 'fairytale' to this day and her fear prompted me to seek out a copy, which I binge-watched in a regrettable afternoon that still colours my nightmares – I was an adult, I can only begin to imagine how horrific this would have been had I been a child. The story begins with a beautiful but horrid princess rejecting a handsome prince unless he can bring her the magical singing, ringing tree which lies in an enchanted land and is guarded by a particularly malignant dwarf. The dwarf promptly turns the prince into a hideous bear from which point on, everyone in the show is either terrifyingly ugly, insane or a possessed dwarf – even better, it's all filmed in the kind of garish technicolour that makes you wish you could only see in black and white. One to watch with your children. If you hate them.
Specifically, Mr Noseybonk, the demonic creation of a feverish imagination who not only looked like Ronald McDonald kicked through Cyrano de Bergerac but also forced children to endure mathematics by stealth. Played by mime artist Adrian Headley, Mr Noseybonk wore a dinner jacket and a deathmask with a phallus nose as he crept around silently solving logic puzzles and quizzes. It can be no coincidence that the Saw films featured a hideous puppet called Jigsaw who resembled a nasally-castrated Mr Noseybonk and who forced people to solve logic puzzles. Jigsaw, however, was more upfront: he told you that you'd die if you failed, while Mr Noseybonk waited until you fell asleep and then crept out from under your bed to slice you from ear-to-ear. I imagine.
• Through the Dragon's Eye
If you want to help school children learn how to read, it makes sense to call upon the services of a TV character who can inspire and inform them. Enter Charn, a skeletal bird wizard whose dusty guts fell from his exposed ribcage and whose party piece was to shoot lightning from his knife claws and turn people into pools of bubbling human slime. I don't know about you, but now I'm REALLY ready to learn about silent letters and vowels!
With an opening sequence that looked like a Pink Floyd album cover set to a reverbed scream, Chocky was based on a John Wyndham novel which sees an alien travelling to earth and infiltrating the mind of a 12-year-old boy, Matthew, to glean information about Earth before a possible takeover bid. Matthew's parents seem blithely unconcerned about their son's 'imaginary friend' (at 12?) but when they realise he's started talking in binary numbers, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything and is telepathic, they start taking notice. At this point it all goes a bit Men in Black as the government get involved. The ending doesn't end the bed-wetting nightmares either, as Chocky reveals that in future he'll try harder to stay undercover. Reassuring.
The show started in 1973 as Inigo Pipkin, the story of an elderly puppet maker and his (creepy) creations but the actor who played Pipkin died during filming of the second series, a fact that was cheerfully built into the show which became known as simply 'Pipkins'. There are scenes in Stephen King's Pet Semetary where a dead cat is buried on the site of an ancient burial ground once used by Micmac Indians and miraculously comes back to life, albeit smelling like death, behaving like a psychopath and looking decidedly part-worn: I can only imagine King had seen Hartley Hare. Hartley is like a feral carpet.
• The Box of Delights
Magical, beautiful, probably the most Christmassy children's drama ever made, but... mysterious things lurking in the woods, a title sequence featuring a demonic Punch and Judy puppet, un-Godly vicars and a tramp beckoning you to open his 'magic box' – you had to be made of stern stuff not to watch at least part of this John Masefield-penned classic from behind a cushion.