Peep-Peep, Pandit And Papers: Richard Carpenter's Look And Read Serials

This feature on the three memorable yet often overlooked serials written for the BBC schools programme Look And Read by Richard Carpenter - more widely recognised as the creator of Robin Of Sherwood, Catweazle and The Ghosts Of Motley Hall - was originally written for the television review site Off The Telly. Later, with a bit of reworking, it found its way into a special issue of the fanzine This Way Up devoted to Richard Carpenter, which is well worth tracking down if you can find a copy as there was a lot of very good material in it. This was basically written as a reaction to the manner in which 'genre' magazines would tend to dispense with Look And Read in little more than half a sentence when talking about his 'proper' shows; this was very much at odds with how fondly The Boy From Space in particular is remembered by those who actually watched it at school, or indeed chanced upon it as a bit of 'extra' sci-fi on a day off. You had to make your own entertainment in those days. Incidentally the title was intended to appear as Peep-Peep, Pandit And Papers, to reflect the technique used in Look And Read's animated interstitials, but nobody could ever find a way of making that work properly - including right now - so it always just looked a bit bland. Anyway, the piece itself is anything but bland, though I've had to trim it slightly to remove a couple of inaccuracies and a lot of waffle. Wordy would be proud.

What did Richard Carpenter once describe as “the most difficult thing I’ve ever written in my life”? His first ever television commission? Three series about a small cast limited to a single set? Trying to make The Adventures of Black Beauty in any way watchable?

No, it was The Boy from Space, a ten-part serial he penned for the long-running BBC Schools' programme Look And Read in 1971. Aimed at a primary school audience, Look And Read featured a combination of dramatised story segments, animated musical inserts and studio links with a presenter, and sought to reinforce reading and writing skills. A rare example of genuine 'entertainment' in education, the various Look And Read serials are inevitably fondly recalled by those who watched them at school, and many of the most well-remembered were written by Richard Carpenter.

Developing out of the similarly long-running Merry-Go-Round, Look And Read had made its debut in 1967 with the straightforward light-hearted crime caper Bob And Carol Look For Treasure. The somewhat grittier Len And The River Mob followed in 1968, which introduced the concept of the filmed drama segments being linked by one of the cast in character, in this instance George Layton as Len. Feeling that the programme needed to explore a fresh genre and direction, producer Claire Chovil then contacted a relatively new television writer to develop an idea for a science fiction-themed serial.

Previously an actor, Richard Carpenter had developed the idea for Catweazle, a comedy-drama about a medieval sorcerer who finds himself transported forward in time, in 1969. Quickly commissioned by London Weekend Television for broadcast the following year, Catweazle was an instant hit with viewers and critics alike, inspiring a best-selling tie-in novel and winning numerous industry awards. Impressed by his ability to relate advanced concepts to a younger audience through careful use of language, Chovil commissioned Carpenter to write a new serial limited to using, as he would later put it to TV Zone, "the first two hundred words of the English language, plus a few words like ‘telescope’ and ‘telephone’ and ‘television'". And unlike Catweazle, he couldn't make up his own new words and phrases to cover them either.

First transmitted in September 1971, The Boy From Space tells the story of Helen (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and Dan (Stephen Garlick), two astronimically-obsessed youngsters who come to the aid of a stranded alien boy who they nickname Peep-Peep after his garbled bleeping speech, and shield him from a sinister 'Thin Man' intent on extracting information from him. Although limited by its educative purpose and short episodic structure, The Boy From Space is more tense and enjoyable than might normally have been expected from a programme of this nature. Much of this is down to the skilful and economical direction by former BBC Radiophonic Workshop musician Maddalena Fagandini, though at its absolute foundation is Carpenter’s script, which managed to turn the small cast and equally limited number of locations to its advantage.

Although the BBC had nominally moved to colour broadcasting in 1970, some lower priority departments were still making programmes in black and white into the early seventies, and The Boy From Space was both taped and transmitted in monochrome; although the filmed segments were actually made in colour, with a view to later repeating them in 'movie' format. The serial was repeated up to the Autumn of 1973, after which the original tapes were erased. Little is known about the studio segments, other than that they were presented by actor Charles Collingwood and apparently from an observatory set, and all that remains of this original version are the standard Look And Read classroom workbook, featuring a simplified novelisation with illustrations and exercises based on the teaching segments, and an abridged version of the story soundtrack released by BBC Records And Tapes (RESR30). And the filmed inserts, of course, but more about them later.

First seen in Spring 1973, Joe And The Sheep Rustlers by Leonard Kingston was the first Look And Read serial to be made in colour, and took an entirely different direction yet again with its straightforward story of livestock pilfering. The following year, it was back to sci-fi as Richard Carpenter returned with Cloud Burst. Possibly inspired by the BBC's primetime 'sci-fact' serial Doomwatch, Cloud Burst brought the excitement thoroughly down to Earth with the tale of stolen plans for a 'Rain Gun' that could potentially eradicate drought and famine. Slightly less convincingly than their counterparts in The Boy From Space, youngsters Tim (Nigel Rathbone) and Jenny (Tina Heath) have an obsessive interest in atmospheric conditions, apparently on account of their father being a lock-keeper. This brings them into contact with scientist Ram Pandit (Renu Setna), who is developing the 'Rain Gun' in his laboratory; his twin brother Ravi is determined to steal his research and use it to make money rather than save lives, and what's more has a handy 'Gas Gun' at his disposal.

Unnervingly closer to a Cold War thriller than clean-cut childrens' adventure, and benefitting greatly from Carpenter's insistence that, with advancing technology in mind, Pandit's laboratory should have a 'home-made' feel to offset the computers looking outdated, Cloud Burst is a skilfully made serial with an unexpected 'lo-tech' twist at the climax. It also boasted an arresting opening sequence, with an ominious instrumental by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Roger Limb, complete with a perfectly-timed thunderclap, played out over time-lapse photography of blooming deserts. It was the first of many Look And Read serials to be re-edited in sound only for BBC Schools Radio, and to feature the celebrated 'darting eyes' opening animation, but it also brought with it a slightly more contentious innovation.

Incoming producer Sue Weeks was keen for Look And Read to introduce a regular puppet character that could interact with the human presenter, in much the same manner as other BBC Schools shows like Words And Pictures and You And Me. The result of this was Mr Watchword, or 'Wordy' as he was informally known - a huge orange electric typewriter print head with a face and arms and voiced by Charles Collingwood, who would smugly interject with know-all observations on how much better he was at using language than the rest of us 'Word-Watchers'. Wordy would remain with Look And Read until 1992, but was clearly a source of much irritation even at this early stage. The studio segments for Cloud Burst were presented by Richard Carpenter himself, in the postmodern guise of the story's writer, who would take great delight in pointing out to Wordy that he actually knew what would happen next.

Carpenter was the strictly off-screen writer of 1977's The King's Dragon, which kept up the postmodern pretence by featuring Kenneth Watson as Hasting Times editor Jack Dunbar, puzzling over how to paste up a story about the central archaeological mystery in the face of constant interruptions from Wordy. Indeed, there was a further experiment with encouraging the audience to produce their own classroom newsletter about the unfolding events, which was somewhat undermined by the relatively unspectacular nature of the serial itself.

Contrary to the sword and sorcery that the title might suggest, The King's Dragon is simply a historical artefact that has been stolen from a museum in a small Hastings village. Hot on the thieves' trail are Billy West (Sean Flanagan, also starring in Carpenter's The Ghosts Of Motley Hall at the time), a local youngster who has worked out their secret code for communicating via personal ads and newspaper headlines, and Ann Mills (Frankie Jordan), a Hastings Times reporter assigned to cover an archaeological dig. They soon find out that there are in fact two King's Dragons, and nothing about the theft is quite what it seems.

There is nothing wrong with The King's Dragon in itself - it's a taut escapade in the manner of Carpenter's more straightforward historical adventure serials such as Dick Turpin and Smuggler - but it had little to offer those who had thrilled to the decidedly atypical-for-the-classroom The Boy From Space and Cloud Burst. It inevitably came across as something of a comedown, not to mention a lot close to traditional classroom exercises, and - perhaps unfairly - it is widely regarded as the lesser of the three serials.

Unfortunately it was also Richard Carpenter's last new serial for Look And Read, although it did not actually mark his final contribution to the series. Following Leonard Kingston's Sky Hunter in 1978 - coincidentally featuring Catweazle star Geoffrey Bayldon amongst the cast - the production team were keen that their next project should be a cheaper book-balancing effort. The original filmed inserts for The Boy From Space were duly located, new animated inserts were commissioned, and studio dates were booked to tape Wordy and his technician Cosmo (Phil Cheney) aboard the space station Wordlab 1, which some may well have felt was the best place for them. However, it soon transpired that the film sequences required some restoration work and new editing, and also some new music and sound effects to bring them more in line with the current Look And Read house style. At a late stage of production, the decision was taken to film a brief new introductory sequence featuring Helen and Dan - played by the now adult Sylvestra Le Touzel and Stephen Garlick - returning to the observatory to reminisce; presumably, this was added to excuse some of the by then outmoded fashions and hairstyles on display. Needless to say, this did not exactly result in as much book-balancing as had been hoped for.

Nonetheless, this unexpected expense was arguably worth it for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Paddy Kingsland's musical contributions alone. Replacing the original contributions by his colleague John Baker, Kingsland added a more suitably post-Vangelis/Jean Michel Jarre style of 'space' music to the existing films and the new segments, and most memorably to the opening and closing titles. To the accompaniment of swooping portamento synth lines, Look And Read's regular singer Derek Griffiths plaintively asks "Out there in space, shall we find friends? Is there a place where the Universe Ends? When shall we find it? Never. Never. Space goes on forever...", echoing into the infinite distance as the closing credits roll. Lonely, haunting and dispassionate, it's likely that this song is what is most well remembered about The Boy From Space.

Although Cloud Burst and The King's Dragon have yet to put in an appearance, The Boy From Space is now available on DVD, complete with chapter points that make it easy to skip past the studio links when you've had quite enough of them. Space may well indeed go on forever, but thankfully Wordy does not have to.

There will be more about the BBC Records And Tapes LP version of The Boy From Space soon. In the meantime, you can get Top Of The Box - The Complete Guide To BBC Records And Tapes Singles from here.