Saturday 2 March 2013

Running Scared

A little over twenty years ago, we took a walk through Woolwich foot tunnel with our father. We've never been back since, but we've always found it a rather haunting memory. The never ending length - tough work at 8 years old - accompanied by the gloomy lighting and the knowledge that the murky River Thames was above rather disturbed us. The thought of being chased down it by some type of madman was the stuff of nightmares. Oddly, just a few years previous, a young girl had been chased down it by an East End villain in Running Scared.

Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 15/01/1985 - 19/02/1986

Paula Prescott (Julia Millbank) has the usual struggles of any girl in mid 80s Britain - boys and finding space for Wham posters on her wall. However, she also has to deal with an East End villain by the name of Charlie Elkin (Christopher Ellison) - a keen golfer and 'respectable' club owner.

The reason for this set-to between the pair is that Paula's late grandfather (Fred Bryant) has hidden a vital piece of evidence - one half of a pair of spectacles - that could put Elkin behind bars for many years to come, much to the pleasure of D.I. McNeill (James Cosmo).

Just before he passes away, Paula's grandfather advises her that the location of the evidence can be found via an old musical box - the chase is then on to deciper the secrets of the box. Caught up in the maelstrom are Paula's family and her sikh friend, Narinder (Amarjit Dhillon) whose family are being terrorised by Elkin's gang.

Running Scared was a six part series which aired in early 1986 and was part of the children's programming. The show was the brainchild of then writer/headteacher Bernard Ashley who had - and still to this day has - a nice line of gritty books for children going.

One thing that Bernard set out to do with the serial was to highlight the lives of Sikh's - a bustling part of the East London community, but perhaps not so well known by many Britons.

All filming took place on location around various areas of East London and directing duties were taken on by Marilyn Fox who had worked on Jackanory and several other children's series in the preceding years.  

Running Scared was a self contained, one off series, so there were no further adventures for Paula and her family. Shortly after the series was finished, Bernard released a novelisation of the series.

An interesting note to make is that the series was quite notable in having a recently released Kate Bush single 'Running Up that Hill' as the main theme tune.

Curious British Telly only became aware of Running Scared whilst searching through YouTube for some Childrens BBC footage from 1986. As is often the case, this unexpected discovery was more than worthy of our attention.

Considering it's a children's show, there's a lot of grit in Running Scared - taking in guns and violence throughout. Never once does it pander to the young audience - the bad guys are portrayed as ruthless and quite willing to kill a young girl for their own ends. Grange Hill was renowned for taking risks, but these elements were usually sprinkled lightly over 20 episode series'.

Running Scared certainly pulls no punches.

Bernard Ashley weaves together a well crafted story which touches on themes of family, friendship, honesty and racism - never overstating these themes, but putting them across subtly. The reveal of how the music box holds the key to discovering the missing glasses is also a masterstroke. In fact, the mystery of how the music box would save the day kept us thoroughly hooked.

British child acting can be a very fickle beast and back in the 80s even the adult acting - see Doctor Who - was below par. Luckily, Running Scared put together a pretty good cast. Simon Adams - who plays Brian Butler - and Julia Millbank both put in great performances which leads you to assume they went on to have careers in The Bill or Eastenders. Sadly, they only pursued acting for a few more years.

Christopher Ellison - who was at this point only an occasional character in The Bill - was pretty much born to play East End ne'er do wells, so fits into the story just right - although his opening scene does seem a little flat. Also putting in a good performance is the attractive Hetty Baynes as Leila who plays Elkin's moll - perhaps a nastier piece of work than Elkin.

It was nice to see James Cosmo again (last featured in our blog on The Nightmare Man) and he puts in a likable performance - more screen time would have been nice, but the police very much take a back seat in this story.

We can't recommend Running Scared highly enough. It's a mature show for children which respects their intelligence and never sags.

It's a shame that children's television has changed so much over the years that the 12 - 16 age bracket don't seem to be catered for anymore. There's Hollyoaks, of course, but that's perhaps the lone outlet and that's more the mid teens to early 20s age bracket.

Therefore, we suggest you head over to YouTube and see what all the fuss is about. In the meantime, Curious British Telly plans to head back to Woolwich and tackle the foot tunnel once more.


Bernard Ashley was kind enough to take a few moments to chat about his life and work on Running Scared.

CBT: Hello, Bernard! Many thanks for taking time out of your no doubt busy schedule to chat with us about Running Scared. What are you currently working on? 

Bernard: I’m currently writing a book for Orchard (Hachette) set in World War One, to be published in 2014 to coincide with the commemoration of the war’s start in August 1914. 

I believe you started off in the teaching profession – serving 30 years as a headmaster. Part of this teaching career overlapped with your developing career as an author. How easy did you find it to combine the two?

I began teaching in September 1957. Seeing the need for some simple reading material for older juniors who were failing in learning to read I wrote some tailored stories for my ‘special needs’ class. These were seen by an educational publisher visiting my school in Gravesend and taken back to his office (Allman and Son, the non-fiction arm of Mills and Boon). They started to be published in 1966. I’ve been a children’s writer ever since. My two worlds worked well together. As I developed into writing novels (‘The Trouble with Donovan Croft’ [OUP] in 1974 was the first) I was writing about what I knew for children I felt I knew in Newham.

Graham Greene describes writing as a way of escape: ‘Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation. Auden noted: “Man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.”. Some evenings, after a bruising day at school, changing one word in a revision could send me to bed happy.

Several of the scenes in Running Scared are based in Woolwich, which is where you were born. Did your own background play any role in the inspiration for the serial or was there another muse at work?

When I was writing ‘Running Scared’ I was living, as I still do, in Charlton, a couple of streets away from where I was born in Woolwich. But the story’s main influence was from my job between 1971 and 1977 as head of a large three-decker multi-racial school in Newham, There was a strong Sikh community in the area, and we had a Sikh member of staff Riat Singh who became a friend. The ‘inspiration’ for the plot – if not for the themes in ‘Running Scared’ – was a musical box left to me by an aunt. As a writer of thrillers – which describes the genre of many children’s books – I explored ways in which I could use that musical box as a plot pivot.

Newham is just across the free ferry from Woolwich. I’ve known the ferry since a child, and with the drama of its churning water behind the paddles and the foot tunnel deep underneath its route, I wanted to use them in the serial, both had dramatic possibilities. Apart from some shooting at the Thames Barrier on the south side of the Thames there were no other south London locations as far as I know.

You’re well known for producing gritty work and Running Scared is no exception. Guns are waved about menacingly, teenage girls are threatened with drowning and Hetty Baynes struts about in a swimsuit, so just how hard was it to get this onto children’s television? And was there anything you weren’t allowed to show?

I wasn’t aware of any problem of getting ‘Running Scared’ on the screen. Under the overall management of Anna Home, head of BBC Children’s Television, I worked with Head of Drama Paul Stone throughout. Every couple of weeks I drove to BBC Elstree Studios (parked in what was the Grange Hill ‘playground’) and we took the story on. So far as I knew, at no point did anyone question what went on the screen. When Anna and Paul had commissioned me it was on the back of the sorts of books they knew I wrote.

My only slight disappointment was when I wanted Charlie Elkin to pursue his gentrification by joining an Essex hunt, but being shown-up there by one of his ‘heavies’. That would have been too expensive to film so he joined a golf club instead.

Running Scared has a number of strong themes running through the show such as friendship, family and honesty – all delivered effectively, by the way! How important did you feel it was to get children thinking about these themes?

I didn’t consciously set out to make young viewers aware of the serial’s themes of friendship, family, honesty, anti-racism or hypocrisy. They’re simply there in the story as part of the fabric. I was aware, though, that I wanted the greater viewing public to know more about the way of life of a minority element in British society, and to appreciate its values.

How smoothly did the production go and, looking back, was there anything you would have done differently with Running Scared?

From my point of view the production went very well. Once the final scripts were delivered, and Paul Stone, Marilyn Fox (director) and I had done a day’s location recce on both sides of the river (Thames Barrier, Woolwich Ferry, Green Street Newham, etc.) it was in their hands.

Marilyn invited me to the audition for the two young female leads at the BBC’s Acton rehearsal studios (what actors call ‘the Acton Hylton’!). She work-shopped forty or so girls, and I saw the directors’ dilemma. One Asian actress stood out, and one indigenous white girl. But they were of different heights, which would make two-shots difficult. So one was chosen and a match made with her for the next-best other party. I genuinely can’t remember which way round this was.

I went to the first read-through where Christopher Ellison looked at me and said, ‘I reckon you could play Charlie Elkin!’. Paul Stone allowed me to read out the stage directions.

I went to just one day’s shooting, of the final scenes at the Woolwich Ferry one Saturday morning. Marilyn Fox bravely held the north-bound ferry in the middle of the Thames for about fifteen minutes while she set up her final shot, of Paula Prescott (Julia Millbank) running off the boat (she was out there coming across on it). I don’t think anyone could have bettered what Paul Stone and Marilyn Fox (RIP) did with ‘Running Scared’.

Do you still keep in touch with any of the cast? And if so, how are they getting on?

I don’t have any contacts with any members of the cast, although I met Penny Morrell a few years ago at Marilyn Fox’s funeral. I’ve occasionally met Rani Singh who played Narinder’s mother at Voice of the Listener and Viewer events. My wife and I stayed good friends with Marilyn Fox until her death, and we both read at her funeral.

You’ve kept yourself very busy in the 25+ year period since Running Scared, so please give us a brief rundown of what you’ve been up to and what you’ve achieved.

Once the scripts for ‘Running Scared’ were delivered I set about writing the book of it to tie-in with the transmissions. I’m proud to say it was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. I’ve written many novels for young people since (see my website as well as BBC Children’s serials ‘The Country Boy’ and ‘Dodgem’, which won a RTS award for the best children’s entertainment programme of its year (1993). I also co-wrote with my son Chris Ashley two ten-part series of a Granada production set in a primary school in Lancashire – ‘Three Seven Eleven’. My novel ‘Little Soldier’ was also shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, as well as featuring in exhibitions at the Imperial War Museums in London and Salford. When I finish writing my World War One book I have two further book projects lined up. Meanwhile, a new book, ‘Jack and the German Spy’ will be published by Troika in May this year.

Regarding ‘achievements’, I’ve been honoured with honorary doctorates in Education (University of Greenwich) and Letters (University of Leicester).

Before we go, I’d be very grateful to hear about your overall memories of the show.  

A strong memory of ‘Running Scared’ is of the triumphant moment when Marilyn Fox rang me to say that she’d persuaded Kate Bush to allow ‘Running up That Hill’ to be our theme.
I also remember the warmth I received from many Sikhs who thanked me for highlighting their society in a TV serial.

Bernard also went on to say...

Since 1995 when I retired from teaching I’ve been pitching ideas for children’s drama without success. The teenage slots have all gone, ITV has bowed out altogether, and BBC Children’s is interested only in the under-twelves. I’ve campaigned with Save Kids’ TV to highlight the need for UK teenagers from all backgrounds to see their own lives reflected on the screen, instead of being restricted to transatlantic output, good though some of that is. In any case, the days of long serial ‘film’ shoots on location (‘Running Scared’ was the first to use a digital camera like a 16mm camera) are over. It’s all studio-based with small casts, animation, and CGI. Besides, no one would show the content we did in any of my serials, or in the dramatization of my book ‘Break in the Sun’ (BBC) – which I didn’t script – that preceded it.

They’re all running scared!

We couldn't agree more, Bernard! Thank you very much for your time.


Bernard Ashley is such a gent that he forwarded on some photos from the wrap party on the last day of filming. It took place in an East End nightclub which was supposed to be Charlie Elkins!

Bernard Ashley with Amarjit Dhillon and Paula Millbank
Bernard Ashley with Marilyn Fox and her partner.
Bernard Ashley with Simon Adams and Desmond McNamara


THE PERILS OF PAULA ~ Radio Times 11 - 17 January 1986

Schoolgirl Paula Prescott has to choose between betraying her family or her best friend in the new six-part thriller serial Running Sacred (Wednesday BBC1), which was shot entirely in London’s East End.

And 15-year old Julia Millbank, who plays Paula, says: ‘I just couldn’t believe how much alike we are in every way. When I read the scripts, I thought: “This is me!” Everything she does, I would do – and I would have made the same decision as Paula.

But Julia, who first showed a talent for acting when she played an old Cockney woman in a junior school play is not saying what it is!

Running Scared is written by Bernard Ashley, a master story-teller who’s at his best when his characters are caught up in tense situations – and the East End is his ‘home patch’.

Heroine Paula takes on a clever, brutal villain – one of the bosses of the London underworld of crime – after she discovers a vital clue which links him to an armed robbery. Her life is threatened, and Paula learns to her horror that one of her family is a member of the villain’s gang.

Her best friend, Narinder, also gets involved – she may be sent to India by her father, for her own safety, because the crime boss is threatening them as well.

Amarjit Dhillon, 15, from Southall, Middlesex, makes her TV debut as Narinder. She auditioned for the part after director Marilyn Fox saw her in a drama class in Featherstone High School in Southall.

‘The story is very realistic,’ she says. ‘The gangsters are running a protection racket, forcing local shopkeepers to give them money. We did the filming during the summer holidays last year – and Julia and I became good friends, just like the girls we play.’

Says Julia, who lives in Edmonton, north London: ‘Yes, we go on really well, and now that it’s over we write to each other. I’m waiting to see what my friends at school think of Running Scared. I bet they’ll pull my leg about it’.


  1. Another brilliant serial that should be on d DVD or available as a download. I vaguely remember it. Hard stuff for children's TV but that was the 80's.

  2. Absolutely loved this at the time. Stand by for a list of all filming locations as good as my memory (having grown up where it was filmed 30+ years ago) and Google Street View allows me to do. I'll let you know between Christmas and New Year.

    1. Yes, please let me know! It's well worth a rewatch, too, still stands up despite a little bit of wonky acting here and there.

  3. Oh hello there Radio Times March 1988, when Running Scared must have been repeated:

    1. Wasn't aware of Gruey! Will take a look into that one!

    2. Gruey sticks in the memory, though it didn't seem to be about much. Perhaps that was its charm. Both Kieran O'Brien and Paul Copley, already an established character actor, have gone on to greater things.

  4. Bernard Ashley. I send warm regards. Such sad news to read about Marilyn. She was a beautiful lady. The full package. Great time of my young life. Almost 50 now...... My daughter is my biggest and only fan ��. Julia (Paula) �� X

    1. Hi Julia! Thanks for stopping by and your words. Reminds me that I need to update this article.