Saturday 24 August 2013

Scragtag and Toddles, Ace Detectives

Genre: Childrens
Channel: BFBS
Transmission: 1991

The British are very proud of their armed forces. Over the years we've defeated the French, the Spanish and the Germans to name but a few. These are great bragging rights and many British people like to bellow about this when losing football games to the aforementioned nations. However, the British armed forces can brag about much more than victory. Oh sure, there's valour, righteousness and honesty, but we doubt anyone reading this blog subscribes to those concepts. No, the truth of the matter is that the British armed forces were treated to the final adventures of Scragtag - 80s super moggy - in the curious tales of Scragtag and Toddles, Pet Detectives.

Scragtag has left behind his beloved chest of drawers and set up a gumshoe detective agency. Going against all his species' beliefs, he has teamed up Toddles - a helium voiced dog. They're also joined by another doggy named Bill Barker who has an incredibly flat face and is impossible to understand. Together they investigate such curious crimes as the theft of a rare purple banana. Behind the crimes are exaggerated villains including Hatchet the Hitman (John Altman) and Fat Sam (Dave Lee). Along the way, they visit local schools and are aided by gangs of children clad in a striking combination of garishly fluorescent jackets and spiky hair. It was the early 90s, folks.

Scragtag and Toddles aired in 1991, but not on terrestrial television. And not on satellite television either. What the hell kind of channel did it air on then?! Well, the answer is: BFBS aka British Forces Broadcasting Service. Transmitting from the UK, the pick of UK TV was beamed around the world to British military bases. Original programming such as Scragtag and Toddles was also included. Marcus Kimber was, as on Scragtag and his Tea Time Telly, the driving force behind the show and the puppetry. Providing the musical cues was Vic Flick who also provided guitar work on several James Bond films. The series was produced by Chaltec Independent Productions and comprised eight episodes. A VHS was released by Chaltec featuring two episodes: Dognapped and The Case of the Missing Purple Banana.

Curious British Telly has been intrigued with Scragtag since discovering him in an old edition of the Radio Times. We investigated him further and ended up watching a few episodes of Scragtag and his Tea Time Telly which aired in the mid 80s. We loved the character, a laughing cat with a neat line in attitude. Tea Time Telly had its positives, but also some negatives in that it was aimed at such a young age group and felt too simplistic at times. When we discovered that there was a further Scragtag show we had no choice but to investigate.

Scragtag and Toddles is a decent set of capers for Scragtag and, unlike Tea Time Telly, lets his personality shine through. The plots aren't exactly Citizen Kane, but they're tongue in cheek and provided a couple of laughs. From what we've seen, the acting isn't too bad either. John Altman is known throughout the land as Nick Cotton and his accent as an American mobster isn't to be sniffed at. Dave Lee acts it up as a manic chef, but curiously this appears to be his only television job bar a 1970 appearance in W. Somerset Maugham. The only thing which we disliked about the show was Toddles who we found rather irritating. There was always a boy (or girl) at school who had a very high pitched voice and was a wet blanket, this is essentially what Toddles is.

The presence of a narrative means that Scragtag and Toddles is our favourite Scragtag vehicle and we're glad Marcus Kimber kept faith in Scragtag. As far as we're aware, this was the last time Scragtag made an appearance on TV and this saddens us. By 1991, Roland Rat had more or less gone into retirement, so there was certainly room for a wisecracking animal puppet on British TV. Alas, Scragtag will have to be remembered as a missed opportunity.

In another exclusive for Curious British Telly, we've uploaded a clip of Scragtag and Toddles to YouTube at:

Wednesday 14 August 2013


Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 23/02/1994 - 23/03/1994

There's a legend in our hometown that the local castle is connected via a four mile tunnel to a mysterious and medieval chapel. The legend continues that the tunnel was haunted, so a fiddler and his faithful dog entered it to quash any supernatural claims.

The fiddler fiddled away - as fiddlers do - so that the townsfolk could follow his progress above ground. Suddenly, the fiddling stopped. The previously faithful dog eventually came bolting out of the tunnel entrance, but the fiddler was never seen again.

Now, there's two problems with this myth. First, medieval construction methods meant that building a 4 mile underground tunnel would have been  rather difficult. Secondly, this myth has been repeated in pretty much any town which contains a castle.

Still, it blew our mind when we were eight years old and, a few years later, we were delighted to see an adaptation of one of these myths in the shape of Earthfasts.

The Little Drummer Boy

Keith (Chris Downs) and David (Paul Nicholls) are a couple of teenage boys living up amongst the Yorkshire moors. Seeing as there's only so many Pontefract cakes you can eat, the boys decide to venture up to the desolate moors and are soon investigating the strange movement of ancient stones.

Coupled with these strange 'earthfasts' is the mysterious and ominous drumming coming from beneath the ground. Before they know it, huge rocks on a hillside separate and out marches the 18th century drummer boy Nellie Jack Jon (Bryan Dick).

Apparently having only been wandering for a few hours, Nellie Jack Jon has somehow traveled forward 200 years. Finding that nothing of his old life is left, Nellie Jack Jon returns to the tunnel. However, he leaves behind a candle from the tunnels.

David takes charge of this inextinguishable object, but it slowly drives him mad. Local myths gradually begin to resurrect and Keith is left to solve the mystery of the moors.

What's the Story behind Earthfasts Production?

Earthfasts was a BBC production which aired on BBC1 in the early part of 1994 in the CBBC slot. The serial was adapted from the first book of the Earthfasts trilogy written by William Mayne - the other books making up the trilogy are Cradlefasts and Candlefasts.

In keeping with the tradition of the story, the second and third books were written many years after the first. Marilyn Fox - who we last covered in Running Scared - is in the director's seat and also takes on the writing duties.

The mysterious and creepy score is provided by another Curious British Telly favourite Ilona Sekacz - see Fox Tales.

Filming took place upon the rolling Yorkshire landscapes of Richmond and Wensleydale.

Oddly, Earthfasts only ran to five episodes instead of the standard six for this type of UK drama.

Was It as Good as We Remembered?!

Our memories of Earthfasts weren't entirely clear, but we recalled the drummer boy coming out from the rocks and also that Paul Nicholls aka Mad Joe from Eastenders was in it.

One memory which remained strongly encoded in Curious British Telly's memory was the show's atmosphere. We recalled a chilling, disturbing and often tragic air pervading the serial, so we were intrigued to see whether this stood up nearly 20 years on.

We're often very worried when we have to consider British child acting as it tends to be a bit emotionless and awkward, but the two leads here do a decent enough job.

Paul Nicholls has maintained a fairly constant presence on British TV and for a period in his late teens became a pinup for teenage girls.

Chris Downs handles the lead role well and the frustration and anguish that he portrays at the 'loss' of David is admirable. He didn't act again after Earthfasts which is a shame as we reckon he could have carved out a career on the small screen.

Perhaps the most successful cast member was Bryan Dick who has worked pretty much nonstop since 2000 and has also acted alongside Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. We wouldn't say that Dick's performance in Earthfasts hinted at such a strong future, but he gives Nelly Jack Jon a decent amount of charm.

The other characters appearing don't have particularly huge roles, but they give passable performances when they're on screen. A nice observation of the cast is that PC Hunter is played by Mark Jordon who was, at the same time, also portraying PC Phil Bellamy in ITV's Heartbeat.

Earthfasts is an intelligent, gripping and original script which offers a curious alternative to the well worn paths of Grange Hill and Byker Grove.

As the story unfolds it progressively becomes tinged by sadness. Nelly Jack Jon becomes a wandering loner torn from his own time, Keith loses his best friend and the community is left grasping at straws. It's rare that children's TV captures this sense of anguish so well and kudos must be given to Marilyn Fox's script adaptation for this.

At times, though, the plot does seem a little too surreal - the walking, giant stones are never fully explained and we did wonder how everything was going to end. Things are tied up satisfactorily in the end, so it's best just to go with the slightly confusing flow.

One thing we found strange, storywise, is the Yorkshire setting. The Arthurian element of the story would surely call for a Cornish setting and would have worked just as well.

Nonetheless, William Mayne set it there and we aren't going to try and finance some high tech editing. We probably couldn't even afford the bus fare to the studio.

Kudos, once again, goes out to Marilyn Fox on the direction side of Earthfasts. The disturbing atmosphere still chilled our bones 20 years on from our first viewing. The moors are portrayed as a world unto themselves where nature battles with magic. The skies topping the moor are always overcast and the claustrophobic aura of the serial is gently echoed throughout.

The soundtrack by Ilona Sekacz is a beautiful piece of work and builds up quietly to raise tension levels. She's a talented lass and knows her way round an orchestra. We're looking forward to discovering more of her work.

Without such a fine production, Earthfasts would have been a less interesting piece. And that's not disrespecting the script in any way at all.

It was nice for Curious British Telly to revisit Earthfasts and find it in such fine fettle. It always felt as though these type of 'scary' children shows began to die out around this time. We can't personally remember many more after this point.

There was Elidor, of course, the following year, and The Demon Headmaster the year after that, but we can't remember anything later - certainly not North and South. The viewing age of CBBC/CITV fell round about this time, so maybe this change in demographic contributed towards the change in tone.

It's a shame, really, as we're of the opinion that children need some decent scares. They have Doctor Who back these days, so at least they get a dose of it there and The Sarah Jane Adventures packed a few hairy moments too.

We would love to see a DVD of Earthfasts come out, but the chances are slim. Plenty of people remember it, but it doesn't seem to have developed a cult following online. Luckily, 2013 saw the entire series uploaded to YouTube, so go forth and bask in its glory.