Film & Television

The 1980s: A Decade of Terrifying Television

By Euan McGuffie

Growing-up in the country I spent a lot of my childhood cattle rustling and drinking moonshine. I also managed to squeeze in a fair few hours in front of the box. If Dream On’s Martin Tupper was right and the TV we used to watch has quite an effect on our consciousness, then maybe I’m in trouble. My parents were quite strict about what was on the box and I never had a TV in my room ‘til I was 14 but what chance was there when even educational shows or shows targeted at kids could be more warped and twisted than a video nasty? Here’s a few that have stuck with me, some of which I thought I had imagined and some of which were uncovered via other tortured souls through online discussion threads.

The Adventure Game made the likes of The Crystal Maze and Knightmare look like University Challenge. Looking like something from Douglas Adam’s nightmares and set in space, it was run by people normally seen reading the news or on Blue Peter, which was strange enough in itself. The show featuring celebrity contestants undertaking mental and physical challenges also featured shape-shifting dragons, a people-sized red salamander, an Australian guy who spoke backwards and an irritated plant called Uncle, who would roar and shake. Think that plant gave me the heebie-jeebies the most. There was also always a friendly wee person who’d give advice along the way – when in actual fact they were a mole trying to sabotage the entire operation. The final game of each episode was The Vortex; as the assorted weirdos looked on or tried to trick them, the contestant would negotiate their way across a grid strung out above the abyss of space while trying to avoid the unseen Vortex which would vaporize them if they put a foot wrong.  No pressure then. Though to be fair they could test for the presence of the Vortex by throwing sandwiches around. Of course they could. Until You Tube came on the scene I thought my memories of this show were flashbacks to some fever-induced delirium.

The deception theme continued in The Box of Delights which was aired just before dinner at a time when the BBC seemed to have a bunch of shows for kids that if they were books you wouldn’t be able to put them down e.g. The Children of Green Knowe (homicidal tree), and Moondial (ghost children). Screened in the winter with the final episode falling on Xmas eve the timing was perfect, giving it that chilly nostalgia. The theme tune and opening credits were spooky, never mind the storyline; people turning into wolves, cars turning into planes, incompetent policemen and a sinister clergyman who was very possibly the devil. Nobody was who/what they appeared to be. It didn’t matter that the main characters were upper class kids; we were all at the mercy of people who were perceived to be trustworthy. And neither of us wanted venture outside when the ‘wolves were running’.

Learning is fun, and there were educational programs like Jigsaw to help you, featuring a bizarre range of quirky characters like Ptery Pterydactyl and Biggum the giant. And there was also Noseybonk who was inadvertently the most terrifying nightmarish creation straight from hell itself. Conducive to learning? Unlikely, though he did have staying power in the ability to haunt your dreams for decades thereafter. And all because we tried to better ourselves by learning something new.

Betrayal and oppression arrived aboard the stolen alien craft in Blake’s 7. This was sci-fi at its best, with a seemingly miniscule budget for sets and props. It looks dated now but it had a great plot and characters – a bunch of renegades and criminals on the run through space from a totalitarian federation (where have I heard that before?). The main villain and boss of the federation was Servalan, a cold-hearted kind of space-super-bitch, who would wipe-out entire planets to advance her own career or even if they just left the toilet seat up. And there the foundations were laid for my entire perception of womankind……

So nobody can be trusted, especially those who seem to want to help you or were close to you. The threat also comes from the least likely sources. Often the mender of all things broken or to placate the Servalan in your life, a bunch of flowers, of all things, instilled terror in the minds of avid 80’s TV watchers. The opening credits to Day of the Triffids were chilling enough for some people; frightened faces blinded in that eerie green light. Far more terrifying than the B&W film of the 60s, this was rerun on the Scy-Fy channel a few years back and it’s lost none of its impact. No matter that they couldn’t actually see you; if you made a sound you’d pretty much had it. Hide upstairs where they couldn’t shamble up after you? Forget it – their long stinging stamens could reach up the stairs or through the bedroom window to get you. Mankind is at the mercy of nature.

Luckily nature, and pretty much everything else, will be destroyed by man’s own self-destructive nature. Sending CND support through the roof in one fell swoop was Threads. This 80’s film was about a nuclear attack on Sheffield and the struggle of normal families to deal with the very possible threat which seemed to grow with every minute of the film. Don’t live in the city? Well there’s no escape, everything is covered, from a distant strike knocking out the leccy to a direct hit melting milk bottles and burning people and animals. Then the real fun starts with the deprivation, radiation sickness, genetic deformities and general collapse of society. Out at round about the same time was The Day After which was along the same lines but although this US film may have had more impressive explosions Threads hit much closer to home on account of the hit being set much closer to home. We are all going to die in a hurricane of fire. If we are lucky.

And what’s more it’s probably all your fault. War Games suddenly turned that innocent looking Spectrum with the wee rainbow and spongy keys in the corner of your room into the most powerful weapon around. All Matthew Broderick was doing was looking for games online and he accidentally nearly starts World War III. Games, that’s all, fairly innocent compared to what a lot of computers are used for nowadays. I hear.  It’s probably a good idea that those with their fingers on the button aren’t on Twitter, least of all in the wee small hours after the pubs have closed. #duckandcover

No wonder I’m such a well-rounded individual after what TV has taught me:  that thing I thought I imagined in a nightmare did actually happen; the world is full of monsters and people who are not what they seem; people who ought to be trustworthy will try to deceive; women are cold-hearted, ruthless sociopaths who will do whatever it takes to control me; nature will bite my hand off given half a chance; we will probably all die in a hurricane of fire, if we’re the lucky ones, and it’ll probably be my fault. Responsible broadcasting, yeah, dream on. Pass the moonshine.

You can follow Euan on Twitter @CptPopTrance as he discusses Alloa Athletic, Music and the pointlessness of humanity…..also Cider.


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