We were lucky to have grown up in the ’70s. OK, we had to face semolina for school pudding once or twice a week, but we could play out in the woods after school, safe in the knowledge that as long as we refused sweets from strangers and resisted all invitations to see the puppies in the back of their cars, we were safe. I may have broken my nose playing Marine Boy in front of a nun – mysteriously called ‘Sister Joseph’ – but who can honestly say that didn’t happen to them once in a while and we grew up none the worse for it. We were a cosseted generation: Rolf Harris made Public Information Films warning us of the urgency to learn to swim, while Jimmy Saville told us how Gary Glitter was the new Number One. In a world of such fine role models, who wouldn’t have enjoyed every moment of their childhood?
Now, I was a soft Surrey child: I watched Blue Peter, never Magpie – which was, of course, for rough kids, though I admit to having a pre-teen crush on Jenny Hanley whenever her pic appeared in Look-In magazine. I preferred the wholesome warm comfort of Jackanory and Screen Test to the hardhitting reality of Follyfoot and The Tomorrow People.
Then, one day, I sat in front of our TV to watch a new children’s drama series.
The theme music started – a jolly tune, with what was possibly a jinky banjo section in the middle, supporting a gentle cartoon of some lovable hobo. However, the opening sequence ended to reveal that wasn’t an amiable animation at all, but what can only be described as electrickery. I cannot be the only child to have been quite terrified of Geoffrey Bayldon’s Catweazle. I had already been made a bit cautious of white-bearded men by the scary Jack Hargreaves, sat gnarled in a den full of archaic and dangerous-looking agricultural implements, telling us off about home-made fishing floats and ploughing in the olden days. But Catweazle compounded the fear-factor of the hirsute wizened chin even further with those wide apprehensive eyes staring out from his gaunt face and peering out through the black-and-white screen and deep into my soul and insecurities. I reached for the cushion and held it so that I could peer over the top with the same degree of protection that only soft furnishings could provide against the viewing of Daleks, Cybermen et al. My only link to security was the sound of Mum decimating potatoes in the deep-fat fryer from the kitchen, unaware that as she prepared the Alphabetti Spaghetti this confused, unworldly man was infiltrating my psyche.
He lingered long enough to enter my dreams at night in which I’d be walking though some misty forest or other, pursued by sword-wielding Normans (I had an Uncle Norman – I never felt quite the same about him again). I’d come across a deserted water tower, in which I suspected Catweazle to be reading runes or stirring a black cast-iron pot of pink semolina. I’d tread on a fallen branch. The crack would echo through the trees and suddenly there would be Catweazle, standing in front of me, staring through those piercing eyes and muttering a malevolent cocktail of olde English and ill-meaning spells. I’d wake with a start and a sweat, just in time to avoid being magicked into a stoat, or nobbled by the Normans.
Of course, in time I learned to love the programme, though I never much cared for Carrot in the same way that I didn’t like his vegetable namesake that Mum boiled to a pulp to accompany the tinned ravioli. I became braver, watching in the confidence of daylight, eventually without the need for the cushion, though still keeping an ear open for the comforting presence of Mum, frying the fish fingers in the kitchen. Eventually, the night terrors passed as new horrors such as homework and acne came and replaced them. But Catweazle had left his marks: today I still call even the most modern of handheld devices the ‘telling bone’; every toad I encounter is immediately named ‘Touchwood’ and to this day I won’t wear sandals, even without socks.
Looking back, the episodes were great. Richard Carpenter was a genius to create such a vivid character, Geoffrey was fantastic and perfectly cast in portraying him, and while each episode had its own story, the underlying narrative was simple, somehow believable, and kept viewers hooked from show-to-show. The presence of the amazing Catweazle Fan Club nearly fifty years on bears testament to this.
I showed my kids the Catweazle DVD when it was released a few years ago. They weren’t in the least bit traumatised by him, despite being the same age I had been. Mind you, these are the same kids who laughed at the puppet strings when I showed them Thunderbirds – I swear I watched that show, tense in every rescue situation each Sunday lunch time for ten years without seeing a single string. Their generation is bereft of our innocence, which is such a shame for them. I mark the rise of The Simpsons as the point in which kids were first shown more of the faults of the adult world than was good for them, thus starting the decline to this current distrust and picking at the fabric of organised society.
Maybe our grandchildren hold the key. I look forward to my beard whitening and bedraggling in my approaching dotage, before I stare at them in a bemused state, muttering cantankerous nonsense and declaring that the Normans are after me, all the time complaining of a complete incapability of using contemporary technology. Hmm, that sounds a pretty good description of my father. Perhaps my trauma was because I saw my future in Catweazle rather than the past. Tsk.
If you were not a child in the UK in the 1970’s then this post will have meant very little to you. Sorry.
I wrote this piece having been put in contact with Alan of Hidden Tiger books who is going to publish the story of Catweazle to supplement the other Cult TV book titles (such as The Avengers) and other genres in their range – I urge you to check out the full range on Hidden Tiger Books.
I was delighted to hear that it has been accepted as part of the book (keep watching this space), and can confirm that Hidden Tiger would welcome any more viewers recollections for consideration of inclusion.
If you would like more details, Hidden Tiger have a ‘contact us’ facility on their above site.
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