Classic Kids' TV Corner – Look And Read Dark Towers: 40 Years On

Big wooden lid desks. Blackboards and chalk. Rancid bottled milk.

Just three of the many things that you don't see so much any more in modern schools. In the case of the milk, this is a good thing. I used to get these great big bottles of curdled milk with a blue straw, and it was like drinking mouldy cheese soup.

But one of the few things I do miss about school is the telly. Back in the day, the TV channels would put on a wide spread of schools programmes. Me and a clutch of other snotty kids would gather in the school hall, while the teacher would practically break his or her back wheeling in a great big TV on castors. It's the sort of kit that these days would be used in a World's Strongest Man challenge. I swear that while we were watching the TV, the teacher would sneak off to the nearest bathroom to take a discreet painkiller and let out an agonised scream.

These days, you don't get schools programmes any more. Whether this is due to a mass outbreak of teacher backache or pure TV programmer laziness, I'm not quite sure. Modern daytime TV doesn't offer much in the way of education, unless it's that bailiffs all look like Right Said Fred or that Anita Manning from Bargain Hunt has a haircut that makes her look like Benny The Ball from Top Cat. Vital information.

Shoddy daytime telly aside, the sad thing is that some of the classic schools programmes did a sterling job in educating kids. Give me a fun TV programme over a dry, boring lecture from some stuffy old fart peering over glasses to make sure that the class is still awake.

"Dark Towers is in danger! Get the picture?"

One of the best of its kind was Look And Read, a long-running English programme that succeeded on three major counts. The first was introducing its mascot Wordy, a floating orange cooking pot covered in Scrabble letters. Wordy – and his sidekick of the season – would educate you about the English language, including letters of the alphabet, rhyming language, words and sentences. Chirpily voiced by Charles Collingwood, Wordy is still fondly remembered to this day by misty-eyed Forty-somethings.

Which leads me to the second count. The magical songs brought wonderfully to life by the dulcet tones of Derek Griffiths and Julie Stevens. Both would sing about memorable word-based characters to help kids learn about the English language. Bill The Brickie would build himself words. Dog Detective was on the hunt for word sounds. Magic E was a wizard who would use the letter E to add a little extra to a word to create another. Griffiths especially is still rightly revered as a telly icon.

The third masterstroke of Look And Read was telling a 10-part story. The first one I remember vividly celebrates its 40th birthday this year: Dark Towers.

Look And Read, has over the years, dabbled in various genres. Science fiction. Environmental morals. Fairgrounds. In Dark Towers, it's spooky ghost story, and it does this extremely well. Right from the outset, the titles and theme song are designed to put kids on the edge of their seats – well, if we sat down on seats, any road. The cheapskates sat me and the other kids down on the cold, dusty, hard floor of the gym, inducing a class-wide epidemic of arse-ache.

Derek Griffiths is your trusty guide again, as he grimly invites you to “Come with me, yes come with me, to Dark Towers” over a mournful cello/harpsichord combo composition that sums up the haunted house feel of the story. To accompany this sinister dirge is a montage of gloomy looking rooms that would undoubtedly give Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen a migraine.

After that, it's a stone cold classic. I remember being captivated by this eerie ghost story – a simple tale of Tracy The Loner and her dog Towser chancing upon a spooky big house called Dark Towers. She meets both Lord Darks of the manor, and not long after blundering her way into the house (while on the hunt for a stray Towser) finds that a picture of an old man with long white hair and beard is moving of its own volition. Before long, the young audience is also introduced to the man in the picture, the ghost of another Dark, and more unnervingly, the Tall Knight of Dark Towers, who is as terrifying as he sounds.

It's basic stuff – complete with the sub-plot of a bunch of small-time crooks trying to hoodwink Lord Dark out of his family home and to get their grubby mitts on the Golden Book of the Tall Knight. To its credit, Dark Towers succeeds in juggling these plot strands well. It's a mish-mash of ghost story, crime drama and treasure hunt, and Andrew Davies skilfully weaves these together to create an accessible but hugely fun ghost train ride.

Tracey and Towser - having a Waley of a time.

I think that part of the reason that Dark Towers works so well is how seriously everyone is taking it. It's all to easy for actors to dismiss this kind of programme as a tacky kids show, but there's no sign of that here. It's an interesting and varied cast, all chosen well. Kids of the time will identify with the two leads. Juliet Waley was well known for her starring role in Carrie's War in early 1974, and she brings a lot of down-to-earth likeability as Tracy – even if the narrator is more than keen to stress how much of a loner she is. Waley hasn't been seen much on the box since – she's also remembered for playing Alison in medical drama, Angels, Beatrice in the Miss Marple adaptation of The Moving Finger, and the older Lucy in the Beeb's take on The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe – but since, the late '80s, not a trace.

The other youthful lead is Gary Russell, playing the junior Lord Dark. Russell was another familiar face on kids' TV at the time, having recently starred as Dick in ITV's Famous 5. He acquits himself well here, skilfully dodging the temptation to make Lord Edward Dark a toffy-nosed spoilt brat. Russell would go on to become editor of the Doctor Who Magazine, producer of Big Finish adventures, and script editor on Doctor Who, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood.

"Can you smell that frightened Hawk wind, boy?"

It's a given that David Collings will add that extra touch of class to any production that he appears in, and sure enough, he comes up trumps in the double role of Lord Dark Snr and the Friendly Ghost. Collings strikes the right balance of spooky presence and good humour as the ghost – the funniest example being when he gleefully freaks out Miss Hawk.

On the subject of the baddies, all three actors surprisingly play it reasonably straight. And that includes the unusual choice of Christopher Biggins as Benger, but he successfully makes Benger a suitably smarmy villain, with trusty support from Harry Jones as Bunce. I hadn't realised at first that Jones was the same chap who played Jarriere in the Blake's 7 episode, Gambit. But then he doesn't have the huge mop of curly hair in this one.

Jones is not the only Blake's 7 alumnus to appear in Dark Towers. As well as David Collings (Deva in Blake), there's also Juliet Hammond-Hill, who played Pella in Power. In the early '80s, Hammond-Hill seemed to specialise in these kind of frosty ice maiden villainesses (also excellent in Only Fools And Horses) and Miss Hawk is no exception. It's amusing to see the snooty Hawk so freaked out – both by the Friendly Ghost and later by the glowing, looming form of the Tall Knight.

It's the Tall Knight that remains one of the best remembered aspects of Dark Towers. A triumph of arresting visuals and sounds, it's little wonder that some of the more easily spooked members of my class hid their eyes and covered their ears all the way back in 1981. With the requisite height provided by none other than Chewbacca himself, Peter Mayhew, the Tall Knight is expertly shot. An unearthly glow is added to the Knight (most likely with the use of Front Axial Projection – a technique sometimes used in Doctor Who), and it's also shot from low down to add a bit of extra impact. Sound-wise, the booming vocals and the spooky Gregorian Chant-esque accompanying score cap off the terror of the Tall Knight.


"Knight to see you, to see you, Knight."

Roger Limb's score adds much to the atmosphere. So effective was the Tall Knight musical motif, that Limb would re-use it for Doctor Who's Caves Of Androzani score. Limb also creates an eerie, off-kilter synthesised score for the moving picture and the moving bedclothes, augmenting the shakes with some brilliantly memorable music.

I suppose that to modern-day viewers, Dark Towers would look dated. The production is shot entirely on OB rather than film. Outside Broadcast isn't everyone's cup of tea, but this was common practice in the 1980s. Today's whiffersnappers might find the pace a bit too slow and talky (practically all of Part 3 takes place in what's called The Red Bedroom). But Dark Towers quickly hooked me in as a 7-year-old, and 40 years later, stands up remarkably well. If you're looking to help your own kids with a bit of extra English tutorial, you can't go wrong with showing them this ghostly classic.


Screencaps: Copyright BBC