18/06/2012

Up-words - Shades of Blue

Up-words features the best of the articles from This way up when it was published as a print fanzine from 2002- 2010.

Shades of Blue
featuring The Story of Sky /Tim Worthington & Back in the Sky Life / Ben Finlay
April 2006

NB Since these articles were written Sky has been released in DVD.


The Story of Sky

by Tim Worthington (with additional material by John Connors)

Bob Baker and Dave Martin were highly imaginative and sorely underrated writers; had they diversified into books, films and radio, perhaps I'd even regard them as highly as I do Nigel Kneale. As well as several ambitious Doctor Who scripts, there's a string of other excellent series they worked on for HTV in the 1970's which few know about and even fewer have seen. Among these were the daring retelling of Arthurian legend Arthur of the Britons which stripped the fabled king of all his magical powers and even his right to the throne, the weird allegory with fairytale overtones King of the Castle which was actually moved out of a children’s' slot because it was too disturbing, and of course Sky. First shown in 1975, Sky is in many respects very different to the shows it is usually bracketed with by telefantasy critics and their incomprehensible compulsion to 'categorise' everything (what profits it a man to know that Stargazy on Zummerdown is a bit like The Old Men at the Zoo? And more to the point, who cares?). Sky has no Ace of Wands style over-the-top mysticism, no Tomorrow People fashion flashy futurism, and definitely no Freewheelers-like megalomaniacs with entire fleets of hot air balloons carrying poison gas. There is in fact little bar pure disturbing eeriness, not least due to the fact that the title character seems to perform acts of both good and evil and not really cares about the outcome of either. He is a clear offshoot of the Solonians from Baker and Martin's Doctor Who script The Mutants' but unlike those particular 'beautiful people' he does not necessarily lead a planet to a brighter future. In fact, he almost manages to destroy one without doing anything at all.

The plot is extremely complicated, but I'll have a go at summarising it here. Basically, Sky is an unidentified alien entity sent to Earth on an undisclosed mission. It is not even certain whether he had existed in some way before this time, or if he had been brought into existence specifically for this task. His arrival on the planet is at the wrong time, and a very different planet to the one he expected treats him as it would bacteria and uses its 'immune system' (the elements, in other words) to try and drive him away. When he’s buried alive by the Earth his telepathic cries for help are heard by some country teenagers who eventually locate and rescue him. Sky them ominously begs them to "take me away from living things", and is surprised by both their lack of telepathic capability and their failure to 'recognise' him. He realises that he has arrived during the 'decline' rather than the 'chaos', and begins an urgent search for The Juganet ("The Juganet is a circle. The circle is a machine. The machine is a crossover point. The point is a paramagnetic intersection", he declares provoking only bemusement from his new helpers) to prevent permanent damage being done by his dislocation. While the youths and Sky search for the mysterious item, the Earth calls upon The Green Man (a nature spirit from genuine folklore) to ensure that the 'invader' departs this time; a being called Ambrose Goodchild is created from wind and leaves, and instructed to deal with Sky.

 After seeking him out in human form, Goodchild infects Sky with a quick-growing fungus and he is only saved by the arrival of the youngsters. Realising there is no time to lose, the quartet set about finding the Juganet as quickly as possible. After searching at Glastonbury and Avebury, they finally find what they are seeking at Stonehenge. Goodchild's work is done and he disappears into nothingness, but something goes wrong and it is Arby (one of the teenagers) who is flung into the future instead of Sky. He finds himself in a strange Wicker Man-style community, where he is condemned to be burnt as an offering to please the gods. Sky, who had been sent to somehow guide the lives of these simple futuristic peasants in a different direction, arrives just in time to save his friend and erases the youngster’s memories of the whole encounter, but intimates that he will always remember them. Powerful stuff, full of deep messages about the power of nature and following false idols, and certainly light years away from the likes of Hatty Town and Magpie which shared its ITV children’s' slot. Producer Patrick Dromgoole later said of the show’s unusual approach; “What we were trying to say to the children was their normal definition of good and bad was not going to work because they were suddenly confronting one of the great mysteries of the universe and a very simple definition wasn’t available….something of that size and that importance…doesn’t fall very easily into the usual definitions of a `goodie` or a `baddie`.”  He likened the scenario to what would happen if a person were to really encounter one of the major religious figures; “(Sky) was potentially dangerous to the country kids who met him and tried to sort of make a pet out of him and own him and at the same time follow him and adore him without really understanding him.”

After filming in late 1974, the seven-part serial was transmitted in April and May 1975. Both producer Leonard White and executive producer Patrick Dromgoole are now highly regarded in the broadcasting industry, and on the strength of the acting it is amazing to think that none of the cast really went on to greater things (in particular seventeen-year-old Marc Harrison is astoundingly convincing in the title role). The sinister atmosphere is boosted by the weird musical score, using conventional instruments like harpsichord and cello but verging on white noise, almost like an acoustic version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre soundtrack. Baker and Martin drew on their Doctor Who experiences by persuading HTV to utilise CSO (whoops, sorry, 'chromakey') in the serial, even though the company's use of the system had previously been restricted to news broadcasts. The most significant adoption of this process was one that underlined the whole alien nature of the title character. His eyes were bright blue, but through the magic of CSO they could change colour according to his emotions (and in close-up, displayed starscapes and rolling clouds).

The series proved a success and a sequel was mooted but never happened and as the seven episodes were only show the once, a mystique grew up about them over the years. Various people claimed to have copies on video but never seemed able to back up their claims with the actual item and thus Sky became a `classic`. Its only been in the last few years that dvd copies taken from the original master tapes (complete with countdown clocks) have surfaced from somewhere just as obscure as Sky’s own origins and the chance to view the series again or, in most cases, for the first time has been made possible.

As if to underscore the series’ refusal to pander to the expected, it seems it’s original followers in the mid 70s were far from the geeks who followed other series of this nature as it was reported that graffiti declaring `Sky Lives` appeared in London shortly after the series was broadcast. Of course, this might just have been Bob and Dave.



Back in the Sky Life

by Ben Finlay

So, what would you do if you met God? It’s not an easy question and certainly not the sort of question you might expect a kids’ show to address but then again who else but a kid would ask such a question? Sky is saddled with a huge reputation albeit one shrouded in a rose tinted mist. Just seven episodes broadcast once thirty one years ago, the serial is lauded by those who saw it as being worthy of classic status but until recently there has been no real evidence to prove whether this is true or not. However copies are now on the fan circuit – in dvd format no less – finally allowing the programme to step out of the shadows.*

Inevitably, the reality initially seems somewhat less stunning than the expectation even given the changing pace and style of television over the ensuing time. The serial starts off as if it will be painfully long winded and while this does allow a certain enigmatic atmosphere to pervade the production through some good direction it is also true that some middling to poor acting undermines the effects. Yet Sky does contain themes that seem even more relevant nowadays and is not without charisma, thanks mainly to a mesmerising central performance by Marc Harrison as the titular boy from space. It is also hugely ambitious in concept, basically asking questions that stray into ecology and religion and while it may not provide answers, it is so refreshing to hear the questions asked. That the serial was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, already familiar to 70s telefantasy devotees thanks to a string of gaudily ambitious Doctor Who stories, with which Sky bears some similarities, is not surprising. Yet the fact that freed to compose their own series they strip the plot down to something more manageable is to be applauded. There are some hugely atmospheric and effective parts to the series and to be admired are the low budget but effective visuals and sound which do their utmost to convey the illusion of strangeness, particularly the leaves and branches. It really does all convey a sense of an elemental battle. The incidental music by Eric Wetherall- largely discordant harsh sounds created by harpsichords, cellos and percussion – adds a layer all of its own. Yet it is in the ambitious, literate scripts where the series’ real strengths lie.

The opening episode, `Burning Bright` kicks off with the arrival of Sky amidst waving trees and a flurry of leaves while nearby a pheasant hunt is taking place; perhaps a pointer to the way the visitor will himself be hunted for the remainder of the series. The focus is really on Marc Harrison’s other worldly performance supported by a barrage of technical gubbins like wind machines and spooky CSO eyes that glow plus the fact we never see him walk; clever direction means he just pops up from one shot to the next. Yet the actor himself makes it all work with an economy of movement and a clear voice; it must have been agony to play the part though.

Having got Sky here and made him as odd as can be, the writers seem lost at first as to what to do with him. His powers also seem to manifest themselves rather indiscriminately; for example in the first episode he states he doesn’t know how to use these powers yet its not long before he’s hypnotising people and opening locked doors. They quickly become a plot device; one minute he’s hanging helpless in a cave being attacked by roots, then he has enough wherewithal to bring poor Mrs Venner out of a coma. Not that his nemesis Goodchild fares much better; he’s supposedly drawn from the earth, so how can he see through bricks and wallpaper? There’s probably a reason but the writers just don’t bother to tell us. Much of the opening episode also serves as an introduction to the other characters principally brother and sister Arby and Jane Venner played by Stuart Lock and Cherrald Butterfield and it is initially hard work liking them or even at times understanding what they are saying. Of course it’s not entirely their fault, saddled as they are with some of the hoariest old Mummerset clich├ęs you’ve ever heard. “It’s all been plonked on us, hasn’t it?” Jane bemoans in the third episode and you wonder if this is a secret ad-lib plea to her agent! Yet this simple approach reaps dividends in the later episodes when contrasted sharply with Sky’s super powerful know it all attitude.

Baker and Martin’s handle on class differences, clearly something of a theme they wanted to parallel Sky - “I am to be a God” he says at one point – is to show Mr Venner downing a pint of beer (after which he drives too!) while posh newcomer next door Major Briggs is sauntering around the cottage with a gin and tonic and a water jug filled with lemon. As it goes, Briggs’ son Roy would have made a much better protagonist, perhaps teamed with Jane for a little teen love interest, and Richard Speight who plays him is far more assured in his performance than his peers. Unfortunately he gets shoved to one side for portions of the story.

Part 2, `Juganet` opens up the story as the kids  - now calling our hero Sky even though he’s never said that’s his name -hide out in an abandoned school (albeit one where they’ve left all the books on the shelves) but the direction here (by Leonard White) is tighter and Harrison manages to be both sympathetic and patronising. The odd anomaly – Arby has already proved he’s not the sharpest tool but seems to know what a cyclotron is – can be overlooked especially when you get to Goodchild’s arrival which is startlingly achieved through the simple use of a dangling piece of cloth that grows into the man, all taking place in front of a strongly lit tree stump in the dark. Episode 3 `Goodchild` moves the action round to the police station and the local constable who Sky hypnotises. There’s a very dynamically staged sequence in which the jeep seems to run into Goodchild but Mrs Venner is hurt.

After his dramatic introduction, Goodchild proves to be a villain that you imagine would really impress the young audience. Robert Eddison’s performance may occasionally stray close to boggle eyed Shakespeare but he manages to convey determination and latent power very effectively. Probably based in part on the still popularly remembered Master from Doctor Who, Goodchild hypnotises people and dreams up slightly over planned attempts to dispatch Sky and there’s a marvellous bit where we see him walking up stairs in a suit and his cloak just seems to appear somehow. Part wraith and part spirit, he seems far more powerful than perhaps he is. In fact you might wonder why he calls next door when he knows what house Sky is in, or why he doesn’t just throttle Sky instead of waving his cloak around but he’s just that sort of villain really. He likes to put on a show.

`What Dread Hand`, the fourth episode is when the series starts to deliver on its promise with an impressive hospital set and a well essayed supporting character in Tom (Meredith Edwards) an elderly patient who is somehow able to hear Sky and who has also seen burning stones as a boy, hence may know the whereabouts of this elusive Juganet. These scenes are notably better than previous episodes’ material and conclude with an excellent cliffhanger as, disguised as a surgeon, Goodchild prepares to operate on Sky. Left with nothing much to do this episode Arby and Jane have to gurn their way through a doctor’s awkward questions. Major Briggs has had enough though; “I must be going round the twist,” he says so Roy asks him if he wants a drink. He drinks a lot during the series, does the Major so I’m wondering if the whole thing is just a hallucination on his part.

The last three episodes are pretty amazing though even to contemporary eyes. In part 5, `Evalake` Sky has escaped rather cleverly and gets the kids and Tom to take him to Glastonbury, a tad early for the festival. The way Tom and Sky can communicate is a very interesting part of the script with Sky telling the kids that Tom’s mind is open whereas there’s are too cluttered. Left alone (one weak element of the script is the way people just drive off when the writers can’t think of what to do with them) Sky is mistaken as the keeper of the grail by an amazingly haired hippie who lives in a caravan which is subsequently attacked by roots in a startling sequence where visual and sound effects really deliver. Terry Harding’s direction of this episode is fantastic and he includes some beautiful long shots of Sky looking up at a tower and then close ups of his face with the sun and landscape behind him. Believe me, this is 70s album cover stuff! 

Episode 6 `Life Force`, takes the now seriously weakened Sky to an old house in a large estate where Arby and Jane are greeted by a very odd servant called Ray who locks them in the attic. There’s a truly leap off your seat bit where a large claw breaks through a wooden panel to the sound of a very loud crow. Downstairs, Sky is bound by vines and bathed in green light but is seems he is able to regain full strength and rises from apparent near death to declare “I am myself”. He is now clad in a futuristic smock and directly lit in white light, and able to send Goodchild away and rescue the kids. It’s at this point that you think; this seems familiar. Did Bob n Dave actually write this as a religious piece? Sky’s assertion of his God like status suddenly seems more than boasting.

Just to show we’re on a top level here, rather than slug it out physically the final battle between Sky and Goodchild is verbal and philosophical. Goodchild argues that he has been made manifest by “life itself” and accuses Sky of wreaking destruction. Au contraire says our brightly lit friend, “What you call destruction is change”. His people advance life he says, “with the first flint man bent nature to his will” therefore the Chaos to come is humanity’s own fault. “You have made man an alien” accuses Goodchild and predicts the day will come when nature will rebel against man. Global warning anyone? Its slightly mixed stuff but what I think Bob n Dave are tying to say here is that while technology and progress is essential, it cannot be at the expense of looking after our planet. This sort of message may be wearily familiar now but in 1975 when this country relied on industries like coal and everyone burned fuel and smoked and generally behaved like nothing they did had any long term consequences, it was strong, forward thinking stuff for a couple of telefantasy writers to drop into a kid’s show. Ultimately it is this that puts Sky near the top of the genre league.

After this episode 7, `Chariots of Fire` may seem anticlimactic but the ending fits as the Juganet turns out to be Stonehenge and Arby ends up in the future being sacrificed by people chanting “mission control” and “NASA”. Most series would labour on these things, allowing enough time for a dramatic rescue but as Sky is simply able to pluck Arby from danger at the last minute there’s time for him to offer more opinions on the human race. He even allows Arby the memory of what has happened, for all the other characters it’s as if Sky had never been there.

It is kind of the same for us really, as we never truly discover just who he is or where he’s from and the show poses far more questions than it answers. It certainly allows a refreshing ambiguity to show in most of its principal characters; in Sky and Goodchild’s science versus nature argument it is easy to see both points of view. The differences between these two are also satisfactorily mirrored in other ways; the way hospital patient Tom appears to be a rambling idiot who hears voices yet is the only character who sees things as they really are. The relationships between Sky and the kids is never allowed to become cosy; he seems at times to use them solely for his own purposes something even Arby finally realises; “its time he did something for us” he says near the end. While attempts at class contrasts, as mentioned, are clumsy there’s a lovely sub plot in which Roy is clearly trying to impress Jane with his motorcycle but she doesn’t really care about it; in that case nature does win over progress.

All told, Sky is an extraordinarily rich serial with content and style like some hand made masterpiece. You’d never get away with it nowadays whether because of the religious motifs or simply the slowness of pace but if you do get the opportunity to see it, take it and stick with it for all 7 episodes because sometimes you need to take your feet off the ground.

Sky 101

q  Producer Patrick Dromgoole later said about the show, “Sky certainly had a hell of an impact; a very brilliant piece of writing”
q  Marc Harrison said he agreed with the environmental and ecological themes in the show.
q  The casting originally called for someone with blond hair and blue eyes. Dark haired brown eyed Marc got the part after impressing at auditions.
q  His reward was to have his hair dyed, all visible body hair removed, huge big contact lenses stuck in his eyes, a synthesiser pack attached to alter his voice and at times a harness to help the character move.  He spent his first day of filming in late October 1974 lying on the ground in the cold, virtually naked and covered in leaves and wisps of cotton wool.
q  According to Patrick Dromgoole, Sky’s blue eyes were his idea, inspired by the chromakey effect using blue screens, which ITV were using a lot at that time.
q  Richard Speight who played Roy is the son of writer Johnny Speight who created Alf Garnett.
q  Robert Eddison was in his late sixties when he filmed the series but as far as we know he did his own cloak swishing. An actor with a huge stage reputation he took the part because he was one of Patrick Dromgoole’s old mates. He was in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade you know.
q  The series really did film on Stonehenge, which these days you’re not allowed to do due the wear and tear of visitors’ on the stones.
q  Twenty years after filming, Marc Harrison said of the show, “If it ever comes up in conversation people my age say `Wow, that’s extraordinary`. They don’t even remember it was me. It was great fun. Each day was a bit of an adventure because technically it was very demanding.” Years later when he was in hospital a cleaning lady said to him, “You’re Sky aren’t you dear?”

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