Hi everyone. This week, to mark 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing, Peter Fleming has written for me about the ways space travel influenced his work in the golden age of British children’s TV. You’re clear for lift off, Peter!
Hello there, my friends! Over! [crackle] (Ha ha ha! My little joke. I’m very much on the ground – practically in the gutter, in fact!)
Children have always been fascinated by outer space. I wonder if there’s ever been a child who hasn’t gazed up at the myriad stars of the firmament, and wondered. Naturally, this was perfect subject matter for children’s television, and throughout the sixties and seventies my team and I stretched our imaginations and our creative ambition with the programmes we made.
This was a time of more generous budgets, don’t forget – nowadays, you couldn’t train an entire production team as astronauts and blast them off into space. And you wouldn’t be able to take animals with you anymore either, thanks to the unforgettably bloody filming of Cows in Space in 1968! On that front, I can only apologise to my peers for spoiling the fun for everyone else.
The space race was a real driving force for us in the early sixties, and we tried explaining it to children in our own Race to Space series in 1963. Every week, they tuned in to watch a team of upstanding British astronauts helmed by Captain Steven Stardust – played by teen heartthrob Mickey Steele. (We were very lucky to get Mickey when we did, as within two years he’d become a much bigger name and branched out into narcotics.)
Under Stardust’s leadership, the crew eventually made it to Mercury, in spite of underhand tactics from their rivals: brash American astronauts and seedy Russian space spies, all played by Harry Secombe. We thought Harry was very good, but his broad performances ultimately brought the programme down to Earth, when management on the sixth floor received a number of complaints from the government. It turned out NASA had found the programme very insulting, and our Prime Minister bowed to the President’s wishes that production cease. A real lack of backbone, I thought – thank God those days are over!
At the other end of the decade, as the moon landing approached, we felt inspired once again, and produced 1969’s Our Friends on the Moon. This depicted a family of strange little creatures popping out of the craters they lived in on the lunar surface, their alien voices realised by an actor speaking the dialogue into a musical instrument (an ocarina, I think). Sadly, it didn’t last long, thanks to a dispute with Oliver Postgate regarding a similar programme he created at the same time. Merely an unfortunate coincidence, but nonetheless, Our Friends on the Moon was unceremoniously scrapped, following a particularly lively discussion that culminated in my kicking a Clanger’s face off.
After the moon landing, I decided to make programmes showing how, in the future, space travel would become much more routine. That was the inspiration behind Neil the Rocket Driver (1972; every week a delivery astronaut transports space stationery to a different lunar office building), Space Wardens (1974; a team of space traffic wardens gives speeding tickets to daring astronauts and prevents their adventures, teaching children to drive responsibly), and of course Mars Town (1976; our way of giving an exciting outer space twist to local government and council bureaucracy – ironically brought down itself by BBC bureaucracy, and dismal viewing figures).
Those are all still remembered by viewers now, and often credited with the wider public falling out of love with space travel over the course of the decade. Apologies once again, my friends! In spite of that, I still often find myself gazing up at the stars each night (hard not to when there’s no roof over your head!), and I wonder what life might be out there, gazing back at us. I wonder too what lives we may build out there for ourselves in the future, thanks in no small part to the hundreds of thousands of people who worked on that Apollo 11 mission, back in 1969. To say nothing of the crew! Yes, this weekend, I too shall spare a thought for those three brave men, whose names will live on in history: Michael Collins, and whatever the other two were called.
Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the following times and places: