Hollow Child

I watched the new disc release of Come Back Lucy, the children’s serial from 1978. In a similar vein to other 70s childrens dramas such as The Georgian House and The Clifton House Mystery this shows modern kids coming to terms with ghosts and time travel breaking through into the era of long hair, flared trousers and the rise of monetarism.

The opening titles start with the approach of an outline of an old house. The theme tune is rather like that of a child’s music box.

Inside the house, the titular Lucy sees herself in a mirror.

Her reflection walks away….

…and the unreflected Lucy turns aside to show an empty head. This effect would have been extremely scary and strange in late 70s TV.

The story begins with the mourners at the funeral of young Lucy’s beloved Aunt Olive.

Already the money man is declaring that the old house must be sold off and the child placed somewhere else. We know he’s heartless because he says he has to go and work on a tax avoidance scheme later.

Aunt Olive was a lovable old lady who brought up Lucy apparently in a state of detachment from modern youth with their pop music, instead treating her to an array of old Victorian amusements and household work. I’m not sure if it’s stated she went to school at all.

The death occurred late in the year as we are coming up to Christmas and the only other relatives that the executors could contact have offered to take Lucy to stay over the holiday period. Mr and Mrs Long (the surname is only mentioned once) and their 3 children will be receiving the orphan in their North London home.

Aunt Gwen and Uncle Peter insist on being known by their first names by their kids as well as their friends. Readers of C.S.Lewis will recall from The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader that such “progressive” affectations are a bad sign and such families breed horrible prigs like Eustace Scrubb, who attend terrible “progressive” schools with no corporal punishment or RE lessons. The Longs certainly sound as if they might be fitting that stereotype – Gwen is involved in various action groups about “battered wives” and so on, whilst their older son Patrick is in the Young Socialists and Gwen is encouraging her daughter Rachel to read feminist pamphlets. However they turn out to be quite nice people, somewhat hopeless but only slightly bookish and not especially opinionated about the world around them. It’s not clear exactly how they earn their money, but Peter may be an architect seeing as he has a drawing board set up in his study, and he knows about home improvements and redevelopment. They’re also not exactly quite so right-on. They don’t seem to mind giving money to the church or object to Carol singers when they appear outside suddenly. Peter collects African sculptures and mounts them on the wall in a rather colonialist way; he also doesn’t seem to take Gwen’s action groups totally seriously, and makes a joke about the battered wives at one point. Gwen tells Lucy everyone needs to think about having a career nowadays but she doesn’t seem to be so very committed to that idea herself. She does nearly all the cooking, and there’s not much of a fight going on to get the males to do an equal split of housework.

The year is 1977 since Rachel mentions “Star Wars Annuals” as something you can buy in shops, and also from another connection revealed at the end. Also check out the groovy records one of Patrick’s friends brings to their party:

These kids love medium-paced soft rock, maybe not quite ready for punk.

But at the centre of the story is Lucy’s relationship with the spectral figure of Alice, a Victorian child who lived in the house with a French governess 100 years earlier. She seems able to manifest herself when no one is around as she is looking down from the attic when the car arrives. She later contacts her object via mirrors and other reflecting surfaces, drawing her into the past, though Lucy soon realises she can reverse the effect and return to 1977 by looking in to a reflection in 1877. While she is away with Alice she disappears from 1977 and the same interval passes in her personal time in the past as it does for everyone looking for her in the present day. It seems Alice can also roam into 1977 without her and the others notice her chuckling at them and banging doors. On one occasion the youngest child Bill sees Alice in the present day. Since Gwen and Peter hear her laughing at one point, it is not the case that only children are sensitive to spectral presences.

I was expecting the dark twist that Alice was somehow connected to Aunt Olive, and was trying to reassert what was in fact an emotionally dominating relationship by dragging her away into her Victorian childhood… but nothing like that happens. Instead that leaves a puzzle about how exactly Alice is capable of exerting her power across time, but her campaign has to end when she moved house 100 years previously. There is also little context about her life in 1877: she makes a few sneery comments about poor children, but there is nothing like the connection to the larger historical background. The Clifton House Mystery was rooted in the Bristol Riots of 1831, The Georgian House linked to the role of the slave trade in the city’s fortune, but there is no big topic here. Instead there is the personal trauma of childhood bereavement and the need to grow and change and move out of small worlds into the larger one.

In addition to the special video effects in the credits, the sound features plenty of reverb when characters are speaking across temporal gulfs, and scenes in the past are softer and blurrier at the edges. One eerie and unexplained moment on the soundtrack is the strange sighing voice that seems to come in at 5:08 in episode 6. Now I’ve typed this up it’s bothering me a bit more than when I first noticed it.

Children were always jumping into different worlds and times in 70s TV drama and story books, which were full of houses with secret rooms and passages, and the powers of mirrors. If anyone wants to revive or remount this style with a modern recreation, then a good source work would be A Chance Child by Jill Paton-Walsh. A neglected modern child simply vanishes back in to Victorian Britain, and is rediscovered in historical archives as a long-dead factory boy by the teenagers trying to find him. Her other historical novels Fireweed and The Dolphin Crossing were set in the Blitz and during the Dunkirk evacuation, and they mixed exciting heroic narrative with plenty of observations about divisions between the different Britons thrown together by the national crisis of 1940. There was a long history of storytelling going against the grain of the official history, and it was getting into children’s fiction already in the 70s.

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