The Demon Headmaster

With a new CBBC series continuing to introduce a whole new generation to Britain’s greatest authoritarian creep (he trumps Jacob Rees-Mogg by having the decency to be fictional), now feels as good a time as any to look back over one of its greatest ever programmes, The Demon Headmaster, series by series. Don’t look into his eyes…

Series 1 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster and The Prime Minister’s Brain)

The original, but not for me. Coming to the show late, I watched the first series as a repeat. Maybe this is why I think of it now (at least the first half) as the weakest story. The Demon Headmaster’s schemes grow more extravagant as time goes on, and his day job comes across in retrospect as rather small fry. Behold this sinister man, using his hypnotic powers to… teach children about the Solar System. When he tries to hypnotise the nation through a garish, gungy game show, the main threat seems to be that the country will wake up knowing more about ants.

The second three episodes give us our first steps into full-on supervillain territory, with the Headmaster brainwashing children to help him get access to 10 Downing Street and hypnotise the PM. Worries about new technology start to appear when children are subliminally influenced by cool new computer game Octopus Dare, leading to a battle with robots and a supercomputer that fills an entire tower block. By the end of this repeated series one, The Demon Headmaster had become the show I recognised from the first series I had watched…

Series 2 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again)

My original. The scariest series and the best. It’s an episode longer than the others as well – more chance for slow, creeping fear to build.

We know Dinah and the SPLAT crew now, and they’re a happily functioning unit after some angst early in series one (Lloyd and Harvey take time to accept their adopted sister). But now, creepy former prefect Rose from series one gets stuck into the group and turns them against one another again. It’s agony for us watching, and I catch myself shouting, ‘She’s clearly manipulating you, you idiots! My God, you’re as gullible as every adult character who appears the entire run of this programme!’ every time I come back to it. Simon’s relationship with his distant father is bleak too, with things tense between them even before his dad is hypnotised – and it’s never resolved. Things are taking a darker turn across the board.

After dipping his toe in the water in The Prime Minister’s Brain, the Headmaster’s a full-blown evil genius now, successfully hypnotising parents as well as children, and using his fancy new biogenetic research centre to interfere with evolution itself, playing with life and death as he pleases (appropriate with Lloyd spending most of the series in a coma, perhaps the easiest acting job in the history of CBBC).

That leads us onto the further edge series two has: monsters! Not just the giant creeper, silently inching its way towards you, or the Headmaster’s Dinah-lizard hybrid Eve, but the giant wasp that nearly kills Lloyd. I’m scared of normal-sized wasps, and I now realise all these years later that this is why. It’s wisely barely shown, and the endless distant buzzing combines with Richard Hartley’s radiophonic score and the atmosphere of night shoots and tunnel scenes to make some of the most terrifying kids’ TV ever. The darkest series, literally and figuratively – the impression it leaves doesn’t go away.

Series 3 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Takes Over)

Oh joy of joys, a children’s programme that comes back with everyone’s voice suddenly broken! This is the one I recorded on my own VHS (my brother recorded series two, and to watch it was a rare privilege). Because of that, this was my favourite for a long time. Looking back, it’s a beautiful late-nineties curio, all artificial intelligence and the world wide web, with our heroes saving the day from a cyber café. Chat rooms and cool new webspeak, crystallised on screen for us to gawp at in delight. They should have called this one The Demon Headmaster Gets Dial-Up.

In some ways, it’s a step back from the last series. We’ve seen adults hypnotised before, along with a distant father-son relationship. The Headmaster isn’t really the Headmaster either, but a clone of the original trying to piece together who he used to be – Terrence Hardiman is menacing as ever, but I remember my instinctive confusion at the time: is this one the real deal?

He’s boosted, on the other hand, by a new villain in hologrammatic artificial intelligence system Hyperbrain (an eerie, otherworldly performance by Alphonsia Emmanuel, realised with visuals that blew my 7 year-old mind). Amoral rather than immoral, which makes her even more frightening, and a perfect foil for the Headmaster. Like The Prime Minister’s Brain, the scariest element here comes from paranoia about technology, when Hyperbrain drains adults’ minds and leaves them zombified, white contact lenses and all – still nasty and compelling 21 years later. Even if her getting beaten by the internet being full of nonsense does tax the mind now.

Series 4 (adapted from Total Control)

And what of the new series? It’s a worthy sequel, upping the suburban paranoia, adding a more overt political message and building on how the old series handled the psychological impact of hypnotism. Now it’s a truly frightening experience, and we feel the characters fear as they have momentary flashbacks to when they were more themselves. Nods to the past are perfectly judged too, and the first three series are honoured even as the concepts are updated. So far, I’m loving every minute of it. The parents are all still idiots though.

The new series of The Demon Headmaster is available to watch on BBC iPlayer here.

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Peter Fleming on Ghosts

Hi everybody. This week, Peter Fleming has written for us about his experiences with ghosts and the unexplained to mark Halloween. Read if you dare.

Boo!

Ha ha! Only pulling your legs, my friends! It’s me! Peter!

Viewers of Sprites of the Forest (1970) or The Stone Boy (1967) will be familiar with the fact that I enjoy a good ghost story, but what they may not realise is the number of encounters I have had before and since those programmes with ghostly presences in my own life.

I can recall vividly the terror I felt at my first ‘ghost’, an evil spectre which towered at the top of the stairs of the children’s home where I lived, its hideous, unearthly call echoing down the hallway. Turned out to be the shadow of one of the matrons, who enjoyed improvising on her slide-whistle on the landing long into the night to amuse herself, but the unparalleled fright that gripped me then still grips me today. (This is also why I’ve never been able to watch an episode of Clangers without screaming.)

Catharsis was the watchword when I used this memory to inspire The Ghost at No. 24 (1969), and we enlisted the help of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create the sound of the Spectral Child, along with a Theremin player who charged so much money that in the end we couldn’t afford to record any pictures. And with the dialogue so sparse the whole thing made absolutely no sense. Had to put it out as a Radiophonic Workshop LP in the end. Not what I’d hoped for, although I did get paid as a session musician for bumping into Delia Derbyshire’s green lampshade in the middle of a take.

More successful was 1972’s Creak!, which I believe remains the only television programme ever to have successfully captured a real ghost on camera! The infamous shot occurred in episode 3, during a sequence filmed at the Stargroves estate (thanks once again to Mick Jagger for being so generous with the use of his house!). The camera followed our main actor round a corner, and there, down the corridor, was the figure of a man. Haggard and gaunt, he looked right down the lens, gasped, turned and ran away. Never seen such a frightening face in all my life.

These days, people there at the time try to rationalise it. ‘There’s no reason to believe it was a ghost, Peter – it might have been Keith Richards or someone,’ they’d say, or, ‘No, Peter, really, it looks exactly like Keith Richards,’ or, ‘Sorry I messed up that shot, Mr Fleming. Let me make it up to you with this signed copy of our new record, Exile on Main St,’ but with the episode missing from the BBC archive, I suppose we’ll never know for sure!

That’s not for want of trying, mind you. Left no stone unturned with my search for copies of that one, the memory really disturbed me. Searched all over the place for a film recording, or even paperwork in TV Centre. No luck there, of course; all the paperwork in TV Centre has been knocked down for flats (such was the scale of BBC bureaucracy that that did create a surprisingly large amount of space). Tried the BBC’s archive facility in Perivale too, but all I managed to do there was start a small fire and burn several newly returned episodes of Doctor Who. Luckily no announcement had been made, so fans didn’t have to face the disappointment of not being able to enjoy Patrick Troughton’s first appearance after all!

Yes, there’s sadly little chance I’ll ever find real confirmation of that little encounter with the beyond. But I still find myself making similar contact with other realms even today. Only a few months ago, I found myself the custodian of an old mask, haunted by none other than Geoffrey, Zippy and George from Rainbow! It came into my possession after an unfortunate incident at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, in which I mistook the mask for a prop from Mr Hildebrand’s Many Faces (1973). As a result, I was mistaken for stealing something that wasn’t mine, which it turned out I was, but I didn’t realise that until it was too late.

Fortunately, the culture sector in this country is so badly underfunded, the only security guard there was older than me and had to stop to catch his breath and call an ambulance mere seconds into our chase! Consequently, I finally have company on my raft after years of travelling alone. Trouble is they’ve all grown rather tiresome the last few weeks, always bickering over whose spirit is taking up the most room in one cheek or another, and they always patch things up by singing the theme from Rainbow together over and over again. I wouldn’t mind, but Zippy’s always about a semitone out from the other two, makes it nigh on impossible to sleep at night.

As you can see, my friends, the possibility that we might be contacted from realms outside our own cosy little world is always there. But I ask that you think on the account of my current situation and ask yourself: mightn’t it be better to leave well alone?

Best wishes,

Peter

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Peter Fleming: The Restoration Party Manifesto

Hi everyone. This week, architect of the golden age of British children’s TV Peter Fleming has written in with a very special announcement.

Good day, my friends!

Well, well, well, it is a huge honour and a privilege to be able to announce today my candidacy for Mayor of London, and the formation of my new political party, the Restoration Party! I have travelled up and down the country over the last few years, largely by water, and largely by accident. From every single person I have talked to, I have felt a growing sense of desolate exhaustion, especially after the first hour.

The public are tired, my friends. Our whole political class seems hell-bent on recreating the infuriatingly and inexplicably dreary final series of my once charming and whimsical programme The Westminster Bubble (1967-72; why did we suddenly decide to make it a figurative bubble and make it all about politics, I still ask myself). Whenever I happen to catch a few minutes of BBC Parliament through a family’s living room window, I even hear lines of dialogue lifted directly from Well What About Them? (1974), and whole scenes from Boris’ Secret Family (1969).

But what seems to tire people the most is the fact that my programmes have been wiped from the archives. Every time I mention it, I hear exasperated sighs, and see people roll their eyes upwards, then back down to check their watches. They’ve had enough of it! For every single problem I mention I’ve come up against, they seem to share my intense agony. And they’ve mentioned one or two things that have been bothering them about their day-to-day lives too, which I have broadly listened to as well and duly addressed in my flagship policies detailed in my manifesto, summarised below.

  • 20,000 new police officers to be recruited, and put to the task of recovering any film copies or reel-to-reel audio recordings of any programme I have ever worked on, from Sally’s Hamsters (1959) to Carnival of Grannies (1983).
  • Every recovered programme to be preserved and digitally restored in new government-funded archive facility (BFI and current BBC holdings can receive the same treatment if there’s the money for it), then released in lavish 600-disc (approx.) DVD box set – all proceeds to be returned fairly to original producer; a free copy for every Restoration Party voter.
  • To combat our gutting of the Earth’s resources, all new vehicles and consumables to be manufactured by the Blue Peter team from recycled household objects.
  • Any immigrants (or their children and grandchildren) without valid documentation to have it reconstructed from off-air photographs and the original television soundtrack; one portion re-enacted by the original cast, united for the first time since 1966.
  • Revoke Article 50 (I’m not quite sure what this means).
  • A statue of John Noakes to be added to the top of Nelson’s Column.
  • Infrastructure to be revolutionised with a new emphasis on the waterways; make it easier for hard-working commuters and retired producers to travel to work by barge, steamer and raft (also install more life rings every few metres along every river and canal – they really are very useful!).
  • Parliament and Civil Service to be rehoused in the former BBC Television Centre; circular shape of the building may engender a more cooperative style of politics, while the labyrinthine nature of its corridors is a perfect match for continued Whitehall bureaucracy.
  • BT Tower to be renamed the Post Office Tower; revolving restaurant on the top floor to be reopened and switched back on.
  • NHS to be restored to its former glory by doctors and nurses dressing in the same clothes they tended to wear in the 1960s.
  • Tax the billionaires.
  • Abolish linear time to bypass awkward technical discussions as to the optimal retirement ages and length of the working week, and reduce citizens’ anxieties regarding the looming spectre of death.
  • Grammar schools to be retained, but 11+ exams to be made impossibly difficult; increasingly empty school premises to be converted to studio facilities where children from across our communities can be taught about the practicalities of television production, and the paramount importance of retaining copies of their work.
  • TV licence fee to increase to £1,000 a year; extra revenue to be split evenly between benefits and a new government crack squad tasked with reviving Ceefax (expected to create 3,000,000 jobs).
  • BBC Sounds to be closed down; everyone responsible for the needless replacement of BBC iPlayer Radio to spend the rest of their lives in jail.
  • Bring back vintage TV repeats on UK Gold.

I’m very much looking forward to moving into City Hall, and my party’s eventual inevitable victory in the next General Election. I trust I can rely on your vote, my friends! And if you can spare any money to go towards the deposit that will enable me to stand, do get in touch.

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed one last time at the Bill Murray in Islington, this afternoon at 4.15pm. Tickets are available here.

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Peter Fleming’s Blue Peter Gossip

Hi everyone. This week, British children’s TV legend Peter Fleming has written to me about Blue Peter to commemorate the programme’s 61st birthday this week. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

Well, well, well, happy birthday to that television institution, Blue Peter! Now, over the last 61 years, there have been 38 different presenters of the programme, not counting occasional guest presenters, and an incident in 1967 in which I was mistaken for newcomer Peter Purves and helped helm a live edition, ending in an unfortunate incident that saw me barred from Television Centre for the next month (in my defence, you’d be amazed how easy it is to kill that many horses without even realising!),

Returning to my point, there have been 38 Blue Peter presenters over the years, and through the decades, I’ve picked up a great deal of gossip about them all (either through working with them directly or through hearsay). It seems fitting to share a handful of the most interesting titbits for this week’s anniversary. After all, as the old saying goes, what better way to show your love than to libel multiple national treasures? Enjoy, my friends!

  • Christopher Trace, hired as the first presenter for his love of model trains, ended his time on the show by making off with a real steam engine that he pinched from a railway museum whilst filming in Norfolk – everyone was at a loss as to how, because it wasn’t on tracks and had no fuel in it, but he managed it nonetheless, and was never seen again!
  • Katy Hill is three children on each other’s shoulders in a big coat.
  • Tim Vincent refuses to go out on any set until he has been fitted with the skin of a younger man.
  • Konnie Huq can extend her neck up to two miles long – she was originally pencilled in to do more RAF parachute jumps than she eventually did, but she would keep completing them by stretching her neck out of the plane before jumping, clamping her jaw onto something at ground level and lowering herself to safety (very impressive in a different way, but it was cheating).
  • Janet Ellis is one of five Blue Peter presenters to have engaged Tom Baker in hand-to-hand combat.
  • Matt Baker is the only Blue Peter presenter to have shot me.
  • Valerie Singleton once flogged a Girl Guide during camera rehearsals as a warning to the other guests.
  • Anthea Turner has seven legs*.
  • Peter Purves is the only Blue Peter presenter who can fly – he discovered his skill while bored at Crufts one year, but fears being captured in a big net and experimented upon by the government, so he only shows it off to close friends in his garden.
  • Mark Curry eats the core of the apple.
  • Peter Duncan fights tramps for food.
  • John Noakes was 50ft tall – every time you saw him on-screen, a camera trick was being employed for which he was required to stand at the far end of the studio to make him appear normal-sized. (Climbing Nelson’s Column doesn’t seem so impressive now, does it?!)
  • Diane-Louise Jordan started the fire at Notre-Dame – loathsome woman!
  • Richard Bacon never took cocaine in his life; he just didn’t want the dogs to get into trouble.

*somewhere in her house

Fascinating stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. And I haven’t even mentioned what Lesley Judd did! Many happy returns, Blue Peter!

Best wishes,

Another Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed for the last time at the Bill Murray in Islington on Sunday 20th October at 4.15pm. Tickets are available here.

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Peter Fleming in the Garden

Hi everyone. I’m still away this week, so children’s TV pioneer Peter Fleming has again taken over writing duties, this time to tell us about his devoted work as an amateur gardener. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

Television was my passion from a very young age, but gardening has also had a special place in my heart all my life. In childhood I wanted to tend the plants wherever I lived. Became a little gardener of sorts in the home where I grew up, in fact, with the matrons giving me free rein over a small patch in the back.

I would learn from books, the radio, and indeed the television, what the best things were to plant and where. Used my regular allowance for food to purchase seeds instead, which meant I had to wait a few months longer than everyone else for my evening meal, but I invariably felt I’d earned it once it finally sprouted. I seem to remember an elderly neighbour had green fingers too, judging by how keenly he watched and photographed me over the fence as I worked. Often looked over and waved at him, hoping to ask his advice, but he would immediately duck out of sight, gasping and muttering expletives. Must have been very shy!

Slowly, I developed ideas of my dream garden. Even drew a little map for myself! Roses here, lavender down the side, an apple tree in this corner, burial space for pets in that corner, time capsules can go here, a little vegetable patch over there – you name it, I had a place for it! I never quite realised it in full, as I had to move home so often I could never cultivate it all at once. For a good couple of years I travelled from house to house nurturing what little bits I’d planted in one garden or another. No mean feat, given the distance between them, and the increasing hostility of the new owners! Some people, would you believe it, aren’t especially welcoming when they find a man skulking about their back garden, even when he does explain he’s from the BBC.

The one exception to that unwelcoming attitude was the family that notoriously captured and enslaved me for several months, chaining me to a tree that I had myself planted and forcing me to tend their radishes every day in exchange for food. (My disappearance, incidentally, led to the cancellation of 1974’s Cabbage Girl). But all that those experiences going from place to place really did was help me become a faster runner, and, in the latter case, a master contortionist. (Really was an impressive escape, you know, I wish someone had been there to see it – they might have been able to help and I mightn’t have been shot in the leg!)

Yes, I really loved gardening, and it’s a source of regret that I never quite did the experience justice in my programmes. Children’s Vegetable Corner (1964) was too dry, The Garden Fairies (1968) was too fanciful, and Uncle’s Chattering Marrows (1972) was too noisy! Only Growing Up from Nothing (1975) truly captured that blissful solitude and peace of mind that comes with the slow, gentle labour of nurturing a new life in the soil. One of my very favourites, which is why, unlike most of my programmes which were wiped by the BBC, I kept a few episodes myself! Pinched the transmission tapes for fear of them being recorded over with some tatty Dennis Potter play or something, and then, for fear of being caught and reprimanded, buried them in a time capsule in one of my gardens for safe keeping!

I had to leave that garden in a hurry and was separated from the tapes – took me quite a long time to work out from my hurried scribbles which one they were buried in, but eventually I found my way back to them a few years ago! Trouble was, a tree I’d planted back in the day had grown much bigger (obviously well looked after by the new owners!) and its roots had plunged through the tapes and destroyed them utterly beneath the earth. I recall I did spend several hours crouching by that tree, howling in pain at the discovery – that is until the inhabitants of the house summoned the police. But I look back now and think to myself that, of all my works from over the years, there’s no programme that would be better suited to taking new form in the soil. So you see, there’s always joy to be found in the garden!

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed for the last time in Edinburgh this afternoon, Heroes @ Dragonfly, 15.20. Tickets are available here.

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Peter Fleming on the Big Screen

Hi everyone. I’m still away, so this week children’s television pioneer Peter Fleming has written for me about his various forays into cinema throughout his career. Take it away, Peter.

Hello there, my friends!

Film had long been thought of as television’s poorer cousin back in the day (especially in the seventies, when things really were in a dire state). To attract bigger audiences, feature-length versions of favourite TV programmes were often released. This was often done with sitcoms (Dad’s Army; Are You Being Served?; I seem to recall It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was heavily re-worked to become One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and I was happy to adapt my various television programmes over the years too – anything to help a struggling industry!

Given the shorter episodes and more lightly drawn characters, we found it hard to extend our programmes for 80 minutes without getting bored in scripting, so often developed things further than on television. This made us see that any film adaptation should be a standalone story, not a continuation – a realisation that admittedly came too late for our historical programme The Cricket Boys (1973-75). The film came out between the two series, and we made it part of the ongoing story, working in new challenges for the characters. Trouble was the film had a limited release, so when we returned to television with those changes in place, the audience were mostly unsure why the action had now moved to the Somme, and where half the characters had gone. In the end, we penned a stock letter to send confused seven year-old viewers who wrote in, explaining the history of the Great War and the catastrophic death toll.

Other hiccups could come up making the films due to factors outside of our control. Sometimes, for instance, actors from the television would prove unavailable and so we had to get other people in. It gave a fascinating glimpse into another world where the casting of our programmes had been very different. What if Professor Zany had in fact been played by Arthur Lowe all along, and his robotic assistant voiced by John Gielgud, as opposed to my friends Christopher and Paul who lived next door to the children’s home where I grew up? Makes you think!

My team and I also had to face the trials of studio pressure. If they’d wangled a big name to attach to a film, they’d always insist that they were involved, regardless of suitability. That’s how the 1972 film of our silly series On the Farm with Frank came to be scored by Bernard Hermann. The well-loved routine of Frank chasing after Daisy the cow for her milking was suddenly laced with dread, causing upset to all the children who went to see it. Sadly, the studio decreed that this was somehow the cow’s fault, and she was quickly destroyed. (Personally, I suspect they were saving on catering costs for the next film we were working on, because my lunch the following afternoon tasted eerily familiar.)

Troubles aside, I was always happy to work on the films, not least because I always enjoyed going to the cinema when I was a boy. That was until I turned away from it and more towards television, thanks to an incident when I was very young and started dancing to all the music in Fantasia. It was the sort of thing I’d have felt free to do in front of the television, but here I was thrown out for being disruptive. So I felt a personal stake when I pushed hard in 1976 for us to adapt Get Up and Go, our singing and dancing series. Can’t eject people for dancing if they’re supposed to, I thought! I was very glad to right that wrong, although it did end my relationship with any film studios ultimately, after the vibrations in some of those old buildings caused land subsidence and heavy casualties. But I like to think it was worth it for the half-hour or so of joy people experienced immediately before the floor gave way.

Yes, in the end, as I look back over all these adaptations, I’d be lying if I said I felt anything other than pride!

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Heroes @ Dragonfly, 15.20, every day until 25th August. Tickets are available here.

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Peter Fleming’s Birthdays

Hi everyone. I’m taking the day off writing for my birthday, so Peter Fleming, leading light of the golden age of British children’s television, has written about his instead. Many happy returns, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

You know, I’ve had so many birthdays now I can hardly remember my own age – or indeed what the actual date of it is. But certain birthdays flash into my memory all the time as I peer into different pockets of my life, and the pictures in my mind always seem more important that where exactly in the calendar they fell.

I should think most of us have had a birthday or two at work, and I had one I didn’t much enjoy at BBC Television Centre. Everybody decided to take their running joke of pretending not to know who I was a little too far that day. No one acknowledged it was a special day for me all morning, but after lunch, I was delighted to return to my desk and find a card there waiting for me – only to open it and see it was filled with messages like, “All my fondest love to you, Alan”, “Best of luck, Alan”, or “Get well soon, Alan”. But in the end I had the last laugh, spending the rest of the afternoon painting an enormous banner which I hung on the building just in time for the end of work, reading:

“TO HELL WITH ALAN!

Yours,
Peter Fleming”

Clearly it was seen, because for some months after, everyone was too embarrassed by their actions even to make eye contact with me in the corridor!

Birthdays at my own studio in the garden shed of the home I grew up in were much more fun. Surrounded by my surrogate family of friends, colleagues, neighbours, matrons, away from the hullaballoo of Wood Lane. More often than not, one of my programmes would be on for us all to gather round and watch. And I often used the schedule to my advantage and would plan programmes about celebrations to be broadcast on the big day itself! Millie’s Birthday Parade (1965), for instance, began as I held one of my own! The Happiest of Years came to a delightful end as I turned 28. And who could forget the infamous cake episode of Professor Zany’s Mad Laboratory (1962-63)? I suppose I must be one of the few people to have marked their birthday with the full backing of BBC1 (alongside the Queen and Christ).

Some years I liked to treat myself and see the viewers respond to my programmes, as a reward for all my hard work, so I would frequently surprise families by knocking at a random house and asking to watch with them! Tom Baker did something similar, I recall. The trouble for me, of course, was that, as a behind-the-scenes figure, none of the families knew who I was, and I slowly gained what I later found out was a very sinister reputation! Nonetheless, I still enjoyed making the visits – the irony is, now that I genuinely do need refuge, unfortunately no one will take me in!

Growing older, I’ve found myself spending more birthdays alone, and, drifting about the place as I do, I lose track of time completely. I’ve almost certainly celebrated my birthday a good few times per year in the last decade. The date itself has faded into insignificance in my mind. I simply live a day, and, heading to sleep, think to myself, ‘Yes, that felt just how my birthdays did’ – and so it must have been one! Although I’m long since removed from all the people and places that were part of those days, they remain always what a good day is measured against in my mind.

Days in the shed, gathered round the television I bought for the home with my first BBC pay. Seeing in another year one evening by sneaking out to watch Quatermass through a neighbour’s window. The last birthday I had with my family before I left home to pursue my career – my eighth one, that was. I looked through the window of a shop, saw gleaming new television sets all sitting there, all waiting for viewers to take them home and tune in, and my mind lit up with possibilities! How the rest of my life really all began.

I can reach further back too, though those memories are mistier now, to birthdays I spent with my family as they were. A trip to the beach. Unseasonably sunny days in the park. Following my sister up a hill as she flew her kite. I couldn’t see her face then, and all these years later, I still can’t quite place it. But all these images and sounds do emerge as I close my eyes at night, and I wrap myself up warm in them as I settle into my dreams. Longing for the next day to be a birthday again.

She had brown hair, I remember.

Many happy returns,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Heroes @ Dragonfly, 15.20, 1-25 August (not 12). Tickets are available here.

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