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Dramarama: Spooky - The Complete Series [ITV] [Network] [DVD]
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Providing a showcase for some of Britain s most accomplished screenwriters, Dramarama was an acclaimed 1980s anthology series which became a staple part of children s television viewing and is still widely remembered today. Spooky aired shortly before the main series was broadcast, exploring the supernatural vein that would appear throughout Dramarama s run. These outstanding screenplays venture into the dark corners of the imagination to create some of the most spine-tingling scenes ever seen on children s television! Nicholas Ball, Wilfrid Brambell and Colin Jeavons are among the performers; high-calibre writers include BAFTA-Award winner Paula Milne, Grange Hill contributor Jane Hollowood, and authors Leon Garfield and Alan Garner, both recipients of the Carnegie Medal for children s literature.
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The storytelling is also slightly more grown-up than in Shadows. Shadows had its great episodes (The Waiting Room etc.) but its worst episodes were generally so because of an excess of childishness. In Spooky, there's a new layer of "knowingness"; you sense the writers are playing with the medium in a way that never occurred to the Shadows writers. Not that this makes the stories any better - indeed, given time this postmodern knowingness did serious damage to TV drama, especially children's, which eventually became totally sarcastic and trivial. At their best, Shadows and Spooky have a kind of seriousness, a willingness to trust children, that was soon to be lost and will likely never be recovered. We're all too clever nowadays!
Now a few notes on each episode...
War Games With Caroline
This is a competently written and directed episode that, sadly, just doesn't have much going for it. The story is thin and predictable. Would perhaps have been better as a 10-minute piece. Nice sets, adequate performances, special effects for their own sake.
The Exorcism of Amy
A badly written and bizarrely made episode which, in the end, doesn't even make sense. It is knowingly surreal without ever justifying it. Feels like a trick that went wrong.
The Danny Roberts Show
The first "good" episode, in that it clearly doesn't want to be considered "just a kid's show". It actually feels like an adult programme with the swearing cut out. You get three engaging characters (or 4 if you count the disembodied voice), a convincing situation, a satisfying denouement, and substance. The story sees a shallow and disingenuous man getting thoroughly cut down to size. What's interesting is the way that it's done, and who does it. A good little drama.
The Ghostly Earl
A trivial episode with garish sets, rescued by good characters and endearing performances all round.
In a Dark, Dark Box...
A well-written and well-directed episode let down by a story which isn't interesting or complex enough for the 25-minute runtime. The endless repeating of "dark, dark" gets a little, well, repetitive and one feels short-changed. Fantastic atmosphere throughout and a lovely performance from Sheila Burrell. Could and should have been a great episode.
The Restless Ghost
Atmospheric sets and a promising idea are wasted in the execution. The first problem is indecision about tone; the story starts off whimsical then tries to be scary but the segue doesn't work. The second problem is terrible exposition; deep dark secrets are revealed by characters apparently eager to get the story over and done with. A real misfire.
Better than the rest put together, this episode was written by Alan Garner and the arrival of a writer with purpose really shows. There are stylistic echoes of Garner's earlier TV work, The Owl Service, but the clumsiness of that series is completely absent and instead we have a well-crafted episode of depth and intense atmosphere. Garner squeezes a story almost as complex as The Owl Service into a 25 minute slot, which is an incredible feat. The story is told with two actors and one set: an essay in economy. Manages to be as scary as a good adult drama, and as interesting as a good children's drama. This episode is really a great achievement and TV writers and producers could learn a lot from it.
Sometimes the first series of a programme is a test-bed, and the second series is when it really finds its feet. I think this would have been the case with Spooky. In particular, subsequent episodes would surely have learned from the example of The Keeper. Who knows, we may have got some fantastic stories. As it is, what we have is a curious and enjoyable set of episodes. Most fall short of their potential but I dare say their intended audience, children, wouldn't be as fussy as me.
Aimed at a young audience, the plays manage to achieve an effective level of atmosphere, with good performances from a cast that includes a number of familiar faces. The series kicks off in impressive fashion, with the atmospheric ghost story "War Games With Caroline". The fourth story "The Ghostly Earl" has a more humorous, light-hearted feel. Although I found some stories to be better than others, overall this is an entertaining collection, a series intended for children maybe, but with plenty for adults to enjoy as well. Although I'm more than old enough to remember this series, I never saw it first time round so my review is not clouded by nostalgia.
This collection is reminiscent of the 1970's supernatural childrens TV series "Shadows" (another Thames TV production). So if you enjoyed those tales, I wouldn't hesitate in recommending "Spooky" for your perusal.
Picture and sound quality are good, no subtitles. The only extra is a 2-minute image gallery. The inside of the DVD case features an episode synopsis, which I have included below.
*WAR GAMES WITH CAROLINE - The year is 1983. Kevin, a schoolboy addicted to war games, is visited by the ghost of a girl begging for help amid the terror and confusion of a real war. The date: October 1943. When Caroline vanishes into the past once more, Kevin is reluctantly drawn after her and finds himself battling to save thirty lives.
Starring Faith Brook, Adam Bareham, Wayne Norman and Lucy Durham-Matthews.
*THE EXORCISM OF AMY - Amy, a lonely little girl, has created a dream companion called Amelia: a dream companion who is fast turning into a nightmare. But Amy has her ally, Elizabeth, to help her exorcise the fearful Amelia. At last, it seems that she might be free, and has found a true friend. But could it be that Amy's imagination is playing tricks on her yet again?
Starring Annabelle Lanyon, Lucy Baker, Rosalind Lloyd and Robert East.
*THE DANNY ROBERTS SHOW - Danny Roberts' Phone-In Show is the most popular on radio, as his callers keep on telling him. One caller, though, is rather less keen - and gives Danny the most frightening experience of his life.
Starring Nicholas Ball, Gwyneth Strong, Godfrey James and Christopher Reich.
*THE GHOSTLY EARL - It's exciting to move into Rillington Castle, but the family is now too poor to run it, and a certain Mr. Wilkinson is threatening to take the castle over. All seems lost; but young Clare and the elegant, lively ghost of the ninth Earl unexpectedly team up to tackle the problem.
Starring Robert McBain, Caroline Dudley, Suzanne Neve, Geoffrey Beevers, Terence Rigby and Nigel Hughes.
*IN A DARK, DARK BOX... - In a gloomy house in a wood, a grandmother sits by a boy's bedside as he eats his supper. With a storm raging outside, she begins a story: "Once upon a time there was a dark, dark wood. And in the dark, dark wood there was a dark, dark house - " "D'you mean this house?" interrupts the boy. Grandmother laughs. How could I? It's just a story...?
Starring Sheila Burrell, Andrew Downer, Christopher Bramwell and Justin Salmon.
*THE RESTLESS GHOST - In the year 1800, two boys, Harris and Bostock, decide to frighten the sexton of the local church. Bostock dresses up as a drummer boy, smears himself with phosphorous for an eerie glow, and stalks the graveyard pretending to be the ghost of a foundling boy said to haunt the area. But then Bostock sees the real ghostly boy...
Starring Jonathon Jackson, Stephen Rooney, Wilfrid Brambell, Colin Jeavons and Matthew Peters.
*THE KEEPER - To a deserted cottage come two young people, planning to camp for the night. Peter's hobby is to gather evidence of hauntings, and he hopes to have more luck here than he has hitherto; the outing will be fun, in any case. However, the place is not all that it seems... and they are not the only ones present.
Starring Janet Maw and Tim Woodward.
Another welcome release from Network.
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