Thursday, 5 May 2011

Pilot Error: Leap in the Dark (1973)

In the early '70s, the occult went overground. Crystals, ESP, Chariots of the Gods, Yuri Geller getting a decent agent – supernatural larks were big news. It fell to the BBC's normally reliable Bristol region to come up with Leap in the Dark, a magazine programme for mystics, a Tomorrow's World for the other side, which stank the place out completely.

The opening music alone is a bad omen. With the synthesiser set to Alien Landscape Metallic Clang IV, we're all set for the sort of dink-donk business that results when session keyboardists have a few too many pale ales and become convinced they can “do a Stockhausen” off their own bat. Swooshing wind effects lead to a confident rising arpeggio which reaches its zenith, pauses for breath, looks a bit embarrassed and plonks slowly back down again. Then the petulant pianist indulges himself in some sci-fi jet pack bass fun, maybe by way of pretending he got the Dr Who gig after all, or maybe just to cover up that unmistakable noise of a leaky cistern in the background. Soon the whole thing has exhausted its limited supply of modernist twiddles, and falls asleep on the carpet to a relieved “der-dun!” Sadly, there's no credit for this music. Perhaps it was Roger Limb's cat.

The set designer, however, has failed to cover his tracks. It's Chris Robilliard, stalwart of BBC Bristol and children's programmes in particular, the originator of such iconic avant-teatime creations as the luminous letter grid on Jigsaw and the original incarnation of Look and Read's Wordy, the flying typewriter torso with the inappropriately ebullient manner. Here he's given us the ruins of a Festival of Britain exhibition entitled Drum Risers of Tomorrow. No doubt this programme was made on a shoestring, and the set had to be easily dismantled within minutes when World About Us started knocking impatiently on the door, but this is almost a perfect parody of threadbare seventies wackiness. As such, it's fantastic, though the presenters won't think so when they have to do the rough stuff, like sitting down on the thing.

Our hosts are a weird pair. Or at least, we're supposed to think so. Gordon Snell is the male anchor, trussed up in an olive green safari jacket to give just the right air of “gentleman adventurer with stories to make your hair curl”. In reality, he was a reliable old BBC hand who would later marry author Maeve Binchy. Linda Blandford was a similarly familiar voice on BBC radio shows of the Start the Week variety. Wardrobe and make-up have gone to town to give her a “Hammer high priestess” vibe but, while she looks good, she spoils it all with a plummily nice voice of the Louise Hall-Taylor school, and no amount of billowing satin and Sea Witch can spook that up.

Linda and Gordon struggle stoically with a script full of corn (“you can't buy psychic equipment at the ironmonger's!”) which has seemingly been set down in automatic writing. “It's not just the police who make use of dowsers' help. The Gas Board and British Rail make use of them, too. And do commercial firms.” The reports they link to are deathly viewing. We get a lot of 16mm film clips of people in sheds operating foil-clad paraphernalia, and people in meadows plodding about with bent coat hangers. Nothing comes of any of it. Things pick up visually when a fashion designer complains of a “grumpy spirit” shouting through her letterbox, and the camera crew get to tootle about the King's Road for a bit. Otherwise the world of the supernatural is one of fields and sheds.

Leap in the Dark aims to be “impartial” in its occult explorations, which means just sitting back and letting the fruitbats talk themselves daft – not necessarily a bad tactic, unless you're after interesting television. Linda herself, in grand Tomorrow's World fashion, goes in for a bit of dowsing to see if her skiing injury can be detected. Inevitably, the dowser finds every other ailment instead. “The rheumatism you have in the elbows... that will correct itself, between that and, er, tummy juices.” We're made to wait until the next edition to see whether her doctor agreed with this confident old fruit.

The programme ends even more apologetically than it began, both presenters mooching about another part of the set. This area has nowhere even remotely appropriate for sitting, so they both sort of half-perch on a too-high ledge, like itinerant schoolkids bored by an endless provincial summer. “It's been foretold that we'll be back in a month's time. We're waiting a month to give us a chance to read all your letters,” says Linda, fooling absolutely nobody. They should thank the spirits they came back at all.

Time has not been kind to Leap in the Dark, but look at what it had to work with. Even when it was fresh, people held their noses. “If this and subsequent programmes live up to the trailer, this could easily be the most appalling series of 1973,” reckoned the TV correspondent for the New Scientist, but then they would say that. Things improved no end the following year, when the awkward Tomorrow's World format was ditched for a bunch of playlets by proper writers, dramatising supernatural events in history. Someone at BBC Bristol had got the message – whether you believe in it or not, the supernatural is at its best as drama, as a story retold with panache. Holding a forensic inspection of a Dorset telekinetic's potting shed is a one-way ticket to the celestial dumper.


  1. I was invited to the audience at that show.Something about telepathy. Think I answered an ad in the Radio Times, can't rememebr now, but I know I was wobbling along on huge platform shoes and a wore a short skirt. LOL

  2. Very entertaining article. I'd still like to see this show – morbid curiosity on my part, I suppose.

  3. I did not see the early seasons, but the later ones were very good indeed. Loved the flickering candle and Debussy music in the opening titles.