There are two children’s TV programmes I really remember being frightened by as a kid. (Doctor Who, oddly enough, isn’t one of them, even though I distinctly remember seeing episodes when I was as young as three or four. My mum did once tell me I used to hide behind the sofa to watch it, but I can’t see how, as our sofa was against the wall!) Of one of the programmes, all I can remember are scary shots of power lines and pylons, along with some weird music. A little online research reveals that it must have been The Changes, shown in 1975. Judging by the plot description, that’s one I’d really love to see again, but there’s no DVD release. The other programme I remember, though, has been brought out by Network DVD, earlier this year, so I thought I’d give it a go.
All I remembered from King of the Castle was its basic premise: a kid gets in a lift, which plummets down to some sub-basement level, stranding him in a weird, underground fantasy world. That was enough to scare me back in 1977! And, of course, to make me want to watch it. (The series was planned to be shown during the week, but apparently it was thought too scary, so was moved to the Sunday teatime slot when kids would be watching with their parents. This has long been a traditional time for TV fantasy, usually on the BBC. King of the Castle, though, was ITV.)
Watching the programme now, of course, I wonder what on Earth I found scary about it. Probably, just the opening sequence with its plummeting lift — all that metallic-electric menace is enough for an imaginative kid to start scaring himself silly. The rest of the programme is a bit like a slightly dark Alice in Wonderland, as young Roland (named after the knight in Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, which gets quoted at one point) starts journeying his way upwards from the dungeons of the Castle into which he has fallen, encountering its weird denizens on the way, and having to elude their attempts to capture him, enslave him, or just plain kill him. The twist I probably missed back in 1977 is that each of the characters Roland meets in the Castle is a warped, nightmare version of someone from his daily life — his choirmaster becomes a mad scientist who tries to steal his voice, his stepmother becomes an evil sorceress who wants to make him forget his real life and remain with her, and so on. The early episodes all feel a bit, well, episodic — unrelated, and not adding up to an overall story — till we get to the last two or three parts (of seven), when Roland finally reaches the top of the castle and makes himself its king. It’s only then that you get a sense of the journey he’s been on having a more meaningful plot, as all the old characters come back for an Alice in Wonderland-ish trial. Episode two does have a rather effective chase sequence, though, where overlapped images give the scene a fittingly nightmarish confusion:
Throughout, Roland is helped (in various, not always obviously helpful, ways) by Vein, the keeper of the keys (played by the wonderfully Welsh Talfryn Thomas), who serves a role somewhere between the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, with perhaps a bit of Mad Hatter thrown in. It’s he who sees Roland through the journey, even opposing him when he becomes king, which is where the series really picks up. (Unfortunately, that’s right near the end.)
It turns out, of course, to be a rites-of-passage growing up story, as Roland learns to stand up for himself against the people keeping him down in the real world, including a rather pantomime-style bully (who crumbles unconvincingly when Roland finally stands up to him). I was a bit disappointed that Roland demonstrated his new grown-up status by throwing away his comics. Howard the Duck, I’m sure I’d have agreed with, but what about those old copies of Hammer Horror?
And scary moments? The things that seem scary to a kid are quite different from what seems scary to an adult. As I say, at the time the thing that most scared me was the idea of being stuck in that underground world via a plummeting lift. Watching the programme again, the thing I found most scary was the creature that the scientist Hawkspur (played by Fulton Mackay) creates. His attempts to steal Roland’s voice and give it to his creation results in a weird, semi-electronic honking coming out whenever the creature opens its mouth. That seems far more frightening, now, but I probably just found it funny as a kid…