The Universe Downstairs

Welcome back! I’ve finally felt some inspiration to write in this here blog again, and it came magically when I found a TV show on YouTube that made a big impression on me when I was a kid. I present “The Universe Downstairs”, an episode of ITV’s Dramarama, that was first shown in March 1985.

Dramarama was an interesting show, as it was effectively a set of one-off TV plays aimed at kids, and it was slightly unusual in the way it was produced. At the time, ITV was a set of regional franchises, and instead of being made by one of those franchises, episodes of Dramarama were made by all but four of the ITV companies, so each one often had a unique cast and crew. This particular one was made by TVS, the company that held the franchise for the south of England from 1982 to 1992, and made some particularly good childrens’ TV in that time.

Right – that’ll do for background. This is one of the very few episodes of Dramarama I can particularly remember. I only ever saw it the once, back in March 1985 when it was first broadcast. At the time, I was ten years old and in my final year at primary school. I remember it turning out to be a “watercooler moment” show – we all talked about it in the playground the following day, and for the next few weeks at least, we declared anything good to be “real ultra”.

Seeing it again for the first time in 35 years, I’m first of all struck by how well I can remember it, which is very unusual for me, as I have a memory like a sieve. I struggle to remember what happened ten minutes ago. Following on from that, for a one-off show for kids, I’m impressed by how well put together it all is. The sets are quite decent, the acting is certainly better than a lot of other kids’ shows at the time, and there’s a couple of big names in the cast (which I didn’t realise at the time). I can’t help feeling that this was bit of a golden age for kids’ TV, certainly for ITV. Eventually they stopped making kids’ TV completely, after having dumbed it down really badly for a while.

Why did I like it so much? I think it really tapped into the zeitgeist of being a kid in 1985. It was a time when my generation was starting to get exposed to technology and concepts that baffled our parents, the height of the home computer boom. At my primary school, we had one BBC Micro on a trolley that made its way around all the classrooms, but six months later, when I started secondary school, we had a whole classroom full of Beebs all networked together to a suitcase-sized hard drive. I’d seen the future, and it looked like this – people in futuristic outfits, living in exciting bright futuristic homes, rather unlike my dull, somewhat out-of-touch parents in their chintzy Victorian semi.

I can see now why I related so much to the characters in this – Vincent was a quiet, sensitive, geeky kid, just like me, with clueless, older parents who didn’t seem to get him. Welcome to my world! Back in the eighties, there was a huge generational gulf between kids and parents, but in my case, it seemed particularly big as my parents were older than most of my friends’ parents. My mum was 34 when I was born, which was considered a seriously ancient age to be having babies in the mid-seventies. I lived a very different life to them. I felt misunderstood and lonely, and I suppose I wished I could fall through an interdimensional hole and discover my own personal Dollbaby.

Let’s face it – look at how cool she is! She sounds all slick and stylish! She’s wearing an excellent outfit, right in that mid-eighties futuristic vibe! It was love at first sight. She scrambled my little brain at the time. How I wished I could go into my cellar and find her! Sadly, all it contained was my model railway, which although awesome and a hugely enjoyable part of my life, wasn’t quite the same as a girl from another dimension, who found me sexy and fascinating.

I rather like the plot as well, the idea that the people in the future might reject technology and move backwards instead. I guess we’re seeing that now, but it was an interesting question to be asking in 1985, when everyone only wanted to be moving in one direction. Computers were starting to have an impact on our everyday lives, and our generation really wanted a part of it. Now, though, people are starting to question whether endless growth and technological advance is always good. Maybe it’s not. Maybe Dollbaby, Skydaddy and Starmummy were onto something…

I’m not sure this episode ever got shown again. Some Dramarama episodes were released on video and DVD, but this one never did. Sadly, TVS had a turbulent time and lost their broadcast franchise in 1992. They attempted to carry on as an independent production company afterwards, but in the process the company changed hands several times, and the records relating to the company’s archives were lost. Many of the master tapes have subsequently been junked, so a huge amount of TVS programming has been destroyed forever. It only survives on VHS tapes and YouTube clips. I’m sad about this, as many of my childhood favourites have gone, including Do It, the UK version of Fraggle Rock, and Number 73.

It was a real treat to see this again, though, so I’m glad it’s survived somewhere. It was interesting to see what’s become of the cast. Jay Simpson, who played Vincent, has had a long and successful acting career, including a role in the Chernobyl miniseries last year. It’s been a bit harder to find out much about Cassie Stuart, who played Dollbaby, but she seemed to be in lots of things up to about 1998, after which she doesn’t appear to have done any more acting. According to something I found, which may or may not be right, she was 32 when she starred in this, so is 67 now! She certainly looked like a teenager, but given that one of the Derry Girls cast is now in her thirties, it’s not entirely outwith the realms of possibility that she was much older than she looked.

The adult cast was interesting too. Skydaddy was played by David Collings, who passed away on March 23rd this year at the age of 79. He was very well known on stage and screen in the UK for years, as was Rosemary Leach, who played Vincent’s mother. She died in 2017, aged 81. Eileen Nicholas, Starmummy, is still with us and was in both the Trainspotting films. Brian Peck, Vincent’s father, is now 89 years old, and has an impressive list of roles to his name.

All a wonderful nostalgia binge. I’ll have to see what other gems I can unearth in the days to come, given that I don’t have a huge amount else to do…

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