From Bing to the Black Death

I have various recollections of being genuinely scared by things when I was a child. After seeing Jaws on TV in 1981, I remember leaping from the bedroom door to the safety of my bed – pronking like a springbok – because in my seven-year-old mind, the blue carpet was ‘the sea’. (And Quint’s gruesome death has always stayed with me.)

In the same year, I watched the ‘Logopolis’ episode of Dr Who (the final instalment of Tom Baker’s tenure as the Timelord) where the appearance of The Watcher – spectral, featureless and still – absolutely terrified me. If he’d been standing, motionless, on a fictional distant planet, I probably wouldn’t have been so scared – but he was standing in a field at the side of the A413 Amersham Road. That made it all too real.

The sepia-tinted opening titles to Bagpuss used to unsettle me terribly (an experience perfectly articulated in Bob Fischer’s The Haunted Generation). I also used to watch in silent horror as celebrities were evaporated in the Vortex on The Adventure Game. And the haunting scream and disquieting 80s synth in the opening titles to John Wyndham’s Chocky chilled my young bones.

But that was all fiction. Fewer things spring to mind from my childhood that scared me about the real world; the terrifying place I inhabited but was, for a time, blissfully unaware of.

My earliest memory of something scarily real was probably Jimmy getting fried by a 66,000-volt shock in the Play Safe public information film about the dangers of electricity substations. That you could be happily playing frisbee one minute, then a charred corpse with your flares combusting the next, was nightmarish.

But as nightmares go, nothing can eclipse Barry Hines’ harrowing nuclear apocalypse drama Threads. In September 1984, I watched an early evening news report about a special preview screening of the film that had taken place ahead of its premiere on national television. I remember the Sheffield residents that were present – many of whom had volunteered to be extras – tearfully recounting the traumatic viewing experience, which at the time depicted a horrifying and very possible future. When curiosity got the better of me and I innocently asked my parents what ‘nuclear war’ meant, my dad bluntly responded: “Basically, if nuclear war starts we all get our heads blown off.”

And with that, at the tender age of ten, my world changed forever. My default setting has been DEFCON 1 ever since.

A woman reacts to a special preview screening of 'Threads'.
A Sheffield resident reacts to a special preview screening of Threads.

Only five months earlier, I’d watched Tommy Cooper suffer a fatal heart attack during his performance on Live from Her Majesty’s, which prompted my parents to hurriedly pack me off to bed during an unscripted commercial break. I crept out of my room shortly afterwards, sitting halfway up the stairs with my head squeezed between the banisters, straining to hear the news on TV. But my parents ultimately did their best to shield me from quite a macabre moment, keen to protect my innocence and perhaps avoid any awkward conversations about death. So I’ve always wondered why my dad didn’t hesitate when laying bare the full horror of nuclear annihilation on that Sunday evening in late September.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, and to what extent I can protect my own son from the horrors of the world. He’s only four, but insatiably curious, and I’ve already disappeared down several rabbit holes trying to explain things to him. The other night, as I was drying him after a bath, he asked me if I’d ever drowned.

“Of course not!” I replied.

“Why?” he said.

Before I knew it I was painting a visual picture of a floundering swimmer being devoured by the sea, his lungs filling with water as he quickly loses consciousness. “You don’t come back from that,” I said, with all the finality of death itself. I almost abandoned book time in favour of an impromptu screening of The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. But on reflection, I should probably have just skipped past his question.

My son is also fascinated with history, which is great, but history is dark – full of death, violence and cruelty. His many pirate books talk about keelhauling, which was a brutal and torturous punishment meted out to sailors, who either drowned or got sliced up by the barnacled hull of their ship. While his Roman Soldier’s Handbook talks about Roman army discipline, which includes chucklesome fates like being beaten to death and the ultimate punishment for cowardice: decimation (if someone in your cohort fled a battle, lots were drawn and then one out of every ten soldiers was executed). LOL!

Even in Usborne’s See Inside The World Of William Shakespeare you can’t escape death. On the page showing ‘Shakespeare’s London’ there’s a criminal being hanged in front of a cheering crowd.

When flicking through Horrible Histories’ Frightful First World War a few months ago, my son asked me to explain the ‘Three on a match’ superstition. Once again, before I knew it, I was pulling back the bolt of an imaginary Gewehr 98, taking aim at some enemy soldiers foolishly lighting three cigarettes with one match, then picking off the third guy with a single shot. I even mimed the recoil. But of course, it scared him. He gently closed the book and said that he wanted to read something else. I think we opted for something comforting and familiar, like Percy’s Bumpy Ride by Nick Butterworth. Better that than something like ‘Mr Worry And The Deadly Effects Of Mustard Gas’.

The other night, I left him flicking through the pages of People by French illustrator Blexbolex. When I went into his room the following morning, the first thing he said to me was: “Daddy, there’s something I want to show you.” He picked up the book and patiently thumbed through almost every page, past the centaur, cowboy, astronaut, mermaid, scuba diver, castaway, yeti, and spy…eventually landing on corpse. “Look, daddy,” he said, with his finger pressed hard on the page.

I explained that the man was dead and lying in a coffin, all the while wondering if my effortless flitting between Bing and the Black Death and Tinpo and trench warfare had made him morbid.

I do hope not. After all, my son’s of an age where the world is still full of wonder, blissfully ignorant of the horrors we gradually become aware of as we grow older. I should try and protect that fragile innocence for as long as possible.

I told him that John Lennon died of old age yesterday, so that’s a start!

Oh, the horror…the horror.


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