Sunday, April 10, 2022

All Our Yesterdays

--There must be a word for it… the thing that lets you know time is happening. Is there a word?


--I was afraid of that.


I am going to write about the first science fiction TV show I ever truly loved.

No. Not that one.

Monday 28 April 1973. Around 5pm. I don't know how I came to be watching ITV.

We weren't one of those houses where ITV was prohibited. My parents rarely prohibited anything. I watched ITV often enough to have favourite adverts, to own a model Smash Martian, to desire the Klondike Pete free gifts in packets of Golden Nuggets. But we were certainly a BBC One family: ITV programmes were "on the other side".

We rigorously divided TV programmes into the ones we "watched" and the ones we "didn't watch", in the same way that there were magazines and comics that we "took" and ones that we didn't "take". A television programme was a weekly appointment, to be broken only reluctantly. ("The school concert is on Thursday evening" "Oh, that means we will have to miss the Six Million Dollar Man.") Some of the things we "didn't watch" were, if not forbidden, at any rate, strongly discouraged. We "didn't watch" anything with guns in it. We didn't even watch Dad's Army, because war is not funny and some of Daddy's friends were killed in it. But most of the things we "didn't watch" just happened not to have made it on to our list of weekly appointments. Mummy must have been one of the few middle-aged ladies who "didn't watch" Coronation Street, although she did sometimes watch Crossroads.

I am quite certain that the first Doctor Who story I "watched" was Carnival of Monsters. It may not have been the first episode I ever saw; but after Carnival of Monsters, Doctor Who became a weekly appointment, as much a part of the structure of my life as Sunday School or Boys Brigade.

I was about to say "I never missed an episode"'; but for a particular reason that turns out not to be true.

I think I may have been off school for some reason. We were slightly more inclined to watch ITV on non-school day, if only because they had slightly more, and slightly more interesting, day time schedules than the BBC. BBC stopped altogether after lunch, or else flipped to educational programmes or "something for our viewers in Wales". Maybe I was freer than usual to select channels than I would have been on a normal day. Jackonory was doing an uninspiring Helen Cresswell story that week, so maybe I simply "switched over". 

To the other side.

I think I was probably off sick. If I hear the theme music I can taste Lucozade and the series is suffused with a prevailing sense of the colour orange. There was an orange visual effect when the characters teleported; an orange light in their secret base; the main character's body glowed orange at the end of the pre-credit sequence. But of course, I would have been watching in black and white. These were the years when the Clangers and Bagpuss were still grey.

A boy in school uniform -- a teenager, much older than me, although he now comes across as embarrassingly pre-pubescent -- is walking through a market. A weird, sprite-like Artful Dodger is observing him from Tower Bridge. Somewhere, in a space ship or a TARDIS or a secret base, lit with what appears to be a lava lamp, older children are also watching him. They talk about the noise he is making, even though he is some miles away from them. Suddenly, the fashion of his countenance is altered: the picture shifts to negative, and the frame freezes. Colour negative was a popular special effect in those days: the Jackson Five could rarely get to the end of a song without at least one of them flaring into a strange reverse filter view. Strange music kicks in. It owes something to the Doctor Who theme: it has an endless beat rather than a melody; but it sounds more disco than electronic. Bom-bom ba-ba-ba-bom. Bom-Bom ba-ba-ba-Bom. A few years later, Dudley Simpson would compose the mighty heroic Blakes' Seven march. Neon lettering: and a title, more Biblical than science fictional.  

"The Slaves of Jedikiah."

For the next two years, The Tomorrow People was my secret vice. No-one talked about it in the playground. We didn't "take" TV Times or Look-In, so I never saw it mentioned in print. It was on at the same time as Blue Peter, and skipping Blue Peter felt a bit like opting out of Sunday School. I remember a girl in my class, Helen, admitting that she watched it some time during the second series. (I can picture her, on the wooden steps outside Miss Beale's prefab classroom. She had very bad eczema on her face.) I felt pleased that someone else shared the thing I loved, but also ashamed, as if someone else had discovered a slightly embarrassing secret. 

And anyway: John, Carol, Steven and Kenny had been my special friends.

There was a tie-in novelisation. It had pictures of my friends on the cover, so they continued to exist when the show was off-air. It turns out to have been a write-up of a rejected pilot episode, and includes back-story that was omitted (and somewhat contradicted) in the TV show. I only found out about the book because it was plugged on Magpie. Magpie was Blue Peter for kids with lower-class accents: I must have been going through a rebellious phase. 

I got a copy of the book for my -- dear god -- eighth birthday.

And suddenly everything slips into place.

We have talked, possibly more than is healthy, about Spider-Man: specifically about the 1970s British reprints of Spider-Man. My grandfather brought me a copy of Spider-Man Comics Weekly Issue Five out of the blue, one Saturday afternoon. He generally brought a small present, some chocolate or a comic or a little pocket money, when he came to tea. It contained a reprint of the first Ditko/Lee Mysterio story (Amazing Spider-Man #13) along with some early Kirby Thor, and I was smitten. 

But we have not talked as much about The Wombles, a series of children's books, an animated TV show and then a novelty pop group. (What is the British equivalent of bubblegum pop, do you think? Gobstopper Pop? Sherbet Dib Dab Rock and Roll?) But my primary-school bedroom was as much a shrine to Uncle Bulgaria and Orinoco as it was to Spider-Man and Doctor Who. Posters, badges, tiny figurines, and, ironically, the wrappers of Womble chocolate bars... I tried to create a replica of the Wombles burrow out of cardboard and cartridge paper. That went about as well as you'd think. 

I said I was given that copy of the first Tomorrow People paperback for my eight birthday. But I have suddenly remembered that it was specifically given to me by my father. I am sure that my parents colluded on all the other entirely forgotten presents I got that year; but the book was definitely said to have come from Daddy: because Daddy was in hospital at the time and therefore not at home on my big day. He had rheumatoid arthritis which impeded his mobility and often made him very ill indeed. Modern disease modifying drugs didn't exist then, so there were only steroids. He died in 1980 when I was 15.

Now, I know that Daddy went into hospital for the first time in May 1973 because -- and I am deeply ashamed that I recall this fact -- I missed the entirety of The Green Death because we had to visit him on Saturday afternoons. He was in a big teaching hospital in central London: the trek by train to see him became part of the structure of my childhood: part chore, part outing. We were usually allowed some sort of sweet treat in a cafe on the way, and sometimes even got to stop off in a big London shop or one of the museums. When you are seven you do not question this stuff: Daddy is sometimes around and sometimes not around; when he is not around, what you do on Saturday is go and visit him. 

"The one with the Maggots" is one of the ones which people who are not specially Doctor Who fans remember; but it has always been filed in my head as "the one I missed".

But this, unfortunately, generates a very clear chronology:

27 January, 1973: I watch Doctor Who for the first time.

5 Feb, 1973: I watch the Wombles for the first time.

10 March 1973: I read Spider-Man for the first time

30 April 1973: I watch the Tomorrow People for the first time.

19 May 1973: I miss the Green Death

11 July 1973: My eighth birthday.

We make fun of the Baby Boomers because they think that the popular music which was in the charts when they were teenagers is the best popular music; and who expect today's teenagers to agree with them. But in fairness, if you were born in 1950 then you really did turn thirteen during the heyday of the Beatles. so the popular music of your teenaged years really was some of the best there has ever been. The day of my thirteenth birthday You're The One That I Want by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John was number one in the UK charts. (The Smurf Song was number two.) But I genuinely did live through the golden age of children's television.

("Doesn't everyone think that their country's poets are the wisest, their nation's soldiers are the bravest, and their homeland's women are the most beautiful?" 

"Yes: but in England it's true.")

I know I have said before that the crucial year was 1978: Star Wars, Tom Baker, Dungeons and Dragons and not entirely un-coincidentally, the BBC television Shakespeare.  

But here I am: obsessing about TV and comic books that I encountered in a twelve-week period between my seventh and eighth birthdays. February 1973 to April 1973. 

And almost immediately afterwards, everything else started to go to shit.

Last month, when the news started to come through from the Ukraine, and people started to talk, admittedly not very seriously, about the possibility of nuclear war, I experienced a memory of a memory of the 1980s: Threads and the Day After and the War Game and Protect and Survive. The years when all the grown-ups talked as if our annihilation in a nuclear fireball was a foregone conclusion.

I think we underestimate the effect that CND and Greenham Common and the Peace Movement had on my generation. We lived the first maybe twenty years of our lives in a state of low-level nihilism. The world was almost definitely going to end and there was almost definitely nothing we could do about it. Mrs Thatcher was keeping unemployment artificially high as part of an (entirely successful) plot to de-power the Trades Unions and destroy the Labour Party. So even if the human race somehow survived, there were never again going to be any actual jobs for us to do. If we were going to be unemployed anyway, we felt we might as well spend out time playing Dungeons & Dragons and studying English Literature. That nihilism fed into Punk, and 2000AD and the comic-book revival, I suppose. 

I see now that this is why my life has been that of a very happy but very unsuccessful drifter. Something in my head still tells me that I was not really meant to be here. This time line was not meant to happen. I am walking down a road that we were promised would never exist. No wonder we are all a little directionless.

But the slight, the very slight, possibility that Mr Putin might make the whole thing kick off again, brought those feelings back. And the thought that perhaps I and everyone else in the world might die the week after next triggered, at the back of my mind, just below the level of perception, a strange thought.

"What would you do if you knew you only had four minutes to live?"

"Re-read Winnie-the-Pooh. Obviously."

I have tried to articulate this before. I think that certain books function in our lives as pseudo-places: as symbols of or replacements for home. I think that reading takes on an almost religious -- am I allowed to say sacramental? -- aspect. In some non-rational space, The Hundred Acre Wood is where I am from. So if I am going to die, that is the place I want to go back to.

Moorcock was right on the money when he called Lord of the Rings Epic Pooh. I could build a theology, if I wanted to. A.A. Milne's forest is pretty obviously an image of Eden or Innocence or the Earthly Paradise, so in longing for pooh sticks and honey I am really longing for God, which is all any human being ever longs for. (Have you noticed how all my essays link up if you wait long enough?)

But I could just as easily make a psychological explanation. A great man once said that there was a place he could go when he felt low, when he felt blue: and it was his mind. The imaginary happy places are just symbols for that internal place. Strawberry Fields forever. 

This is why I cannot help feeling a certain amount of sympathy for Harry Potter fans. Of course, the books are a load of rubbish: but then, they always were. But that's really not the point. In the cold light of day, Doctor Who is probably a load of rubbish, and the Tomorrow People certainly is. But Hogwarts occupies a special place in the imaginative life of anyone born in or around 1986. If you turned eleven the same year Harry did, then Hogwarts is where you spent you childhood. It is your home, or your image of home, or your symbol of heaven. The happy place. Part of a network of shared meaning that you are enmeshed in.

Maybe imaginary places should not take on that kind of importance in our lives: but they do. I have never really understood why ball games can seem important to adults: how the state of English Cricket can be the subject of a serious leading article in a broadsheet newspaper; how two young men can come to blows over the colour of a shirt. But clearly sport does have that kind of importance in the lives of very many people. Geek culture matters in a way that mainstream culture simply doesn't. 

Oh, we may read proper books. We probably agree that the grown up books are better. God knows I would never defend Stan Lee as a writer. I am at this very moment trying to re-educate myself about poetry. Some of it I enjoy. Some of it, not so much. But there is no danger that I will start to define myself as a Wilfred Owen fan, or display a small collection of A.E Houseman action figurines on my shelves.

Good books are what we read. The Tomorrow People and Harry Potter is who we are.

We can't rewrite our own history. We can't pretend that Star Trek is just a TV show, that Winnie-the-Pooh is just a fairy tale, that Harry Potter is just a book. Maybe we should have grown past them, but we haven't. 

It may be that a particular writer's political views are so objectionable that their books can no longer be read, no longer distributed, no longer even thought about. It may be that some people must be exiled from their imaginary homeland; it may be that an angel with a fiery sword will have to be installed by the entrance of Platform 9 3/4. But before we send out the eviction notice, let's be quite sure that we understand what we are asking them to give up.


NickPheas said...

I am not convinced that I have ever watched an episode of The Tomorrow People. We were one of those non-ITV houses, and I didn't really become aware of it until reading paperbacks in about 1978. Perhaps the same one?
Green Death on the other hand use the oldest Doctor Who I can remember watching.

Gavin Burrows said...

ITV watching habits in Seventies middle class households is probably one of those things You could Never Explain To The Young People Of Today. I used to exult in children’s TV time because it was the only point where channel buttons were not under strict parental control. I used to watch ‘General Hospital’, which was unbelievably dull, but it was a soap and they were otherwise banned in our house so it had a sort of fascination.

Like you I didn’t always watch ‘Tomorrow People’, when I’d watch much worse things it they were at all science fictiony. And I could well believe that was partly because without anyone else in the room to do it for me I was self-regulating my ITV input. ITV was like chocolate, cake or chocolate cake. A little of it was okay, but…

“I think we underestimate the effect that CND and Greenham Common and the Peace Movement had on my generation. We lived the first maybe twenty years of our lives in a state of low-level nihilism. The world was almost definitely going to end and there was almost definitely nothing we could do about it.”
One of my strongest media memories of childhood is watching ‘Planet of the Apes’ on the TV. It’s almost impossible to conceive of this now, but I wasn’t already aware of the ending. Which inevitably became the part I remember most vividly. I was old enough to know that this was a film, not a documentary about a man who went to the future. But once said out loud, it seemed unarguable. The adults I came into contact with, they were all Goddamn fools. And the adults who were above them, they were surely still more Goddamn foolish. How could this possibly end up any other way?
One effect it had on me was to make me very Peace Movement. You could either be one of the Goddamn fools or Charlton Heston shouting at them. Being apolitical in such times didn’t seem much of an option. At least to me.

But there’s also a sense in which I’m right with you. Their world would inevitably soon collapse under the weight of its own idiocy, so the sensible thing to do was not get too attached to it. That’s the way I felt, in fact that’s the way I feel up to today. The invasion of Ukraine is just the latest in a long line of Goddamn fools doing Goddamn foolish things.

Richard Worth said...

'I miss the Green Death' is one of those comments that needs a lot of explanation, possibly in the context of whether we miss the threat of nuclear annihilation

SK said...

let's be quite sure that we understand what we are asking them to give up.

Of course if they have even a crumb of sense then when you ask them they will tell you to go forth and multiply, and there's not a damn thing you can do to make them give it up.

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...


There were several Tomorrow People books: the first one, with the original team, was The Visitor, but there were at least two volumes of short stories (closer to the original TV show) with titles like THREE IN THREE and FOUR IN THREE. I think the story which introduced boy-band star and technicolour dream coat possessor Mike Holloway as Steven's replacement was novelised as ONE LAW. You are probably the only person to read the books without a prior commitment to the TV show!


The first I knew of Planet of the Apes was the TV show in which two human fugitives were chased by an ape policeman because they killed a one-armed man. (I may not be remembering it quite right.) There was a Marvel Comics adaptation of the Charltan Heston movie at the same time; I seem to recall that they couldn't afford Charltan Heston's face... There was never a time when I didn't know that the Planet of the Apes was the earth in the future; but I didn't really perceive it as a spoiler. Weirdly, they showed "Beneath" and "Battle" as a double bill at my local Odeon. But yes, Future Holocausts were taken for granted. (I think modern YA fiction skips the holocaust and heads straight to the dystopia.)



Gavin Burrows said...

My Dad, who had encouraged me to watch the film, promptly forbad the TV show from our house. (He was ever the film snob.) The next day’s school playground was inevitably abuzz with how thrilling it had been. But then, when the Marvel UK comic came out, I was aghast and wanted them to get back to superheroes. “Things are just not what they were” I thought to myself, aged eight. I did finally watch the TV series, not so long ago, and discovered it’s very much about the humans bringing Renaissance thinking to a Medievalist theocracy. Just with apes. Very, very much about this.

“I think modern YA fiction skips the holocaust and heads straight to the dystopia.”

Those kids, forever in a hurry…

postodave said...

I was a huge tomorrow people fan. Furthermore I borrowed the video of the first few episodes from the library and played it my daughter some time in the nineties and she liked it. It is tacky in places but what makes it work is a wish fulfilment fantasy. A similar one to the one behind Harry Potter. Kids like the idea of being special. Paul Magrs mercilessly parodies the TP in his Doctor Who novel Verdigris. The wish fulfilment contains a fascist power fantasy - these super kids are destined to take over the world. There is not the subtlety of the X-men, with good and bad mutants, all the mutants are necessarily good and pacifist by nature. This is never explained. It could be that there empathic powers would make them incapable of killing, but if anyone wanted to argue that being able to hear what people around you were thinking might make you a killer rather than a pacifist, there is nothing to argue against that in the series because one past the break out stage when they overhear the thought of the people around them the homo superiors only use there telepathy to make up for the fact that mobile phones haven't been invented yet.

That term homo superior is lifted from Olaf Stapeldon's novel Odd John, a much more explicitly Nietzschean and potentialy fascistic take on the idea of a coming race. The term is also used in Bowie's song Pretty Things and Nicolas Pegg tells me that Bowie and Roger Price, who met at the ITV studios in the early seventies, discussed the term, though there is some dispute about who borrowed from whom.

What I now realise is that I was very bad at spotting fascism as a teenager. I really enjoyed Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, and glossed over the rapery which you, Andre, have since drawn my attention to.

Incidentally, there was a comic strip of the Tomorrow People in Look-In where they travel to an alternate timeline where the Nazis one the war and find that the homo superiors have become a special squad working for the Nazi's. This made me at the time wonder what happened to all the not being able to kill stuff.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Gosh - you have pre-empted a lot of my points!

Speaking as one who watching all ten parts of the Ring Cycle on BBC 2 when I was about fourteen, I think I can excuse you for being bad at spotting fascism.

(Never read Stranger in a Strange Land or, so far as I remember, any Heinlein at all, but, was aware of That Quote. [Which is admittedly spoken by a {female} character and not necessarily the author's settled opinion.])

I seem to recall that Warren Ellis, in his infamous obituary, claimed that the Look In Tomorrow People strips were Better Than Kirby.