Haunted Coast – Growing up with the Spooks of Bottle Bay

For the longest time I was sure I’d invented The Spooks of Bottle Bay. If i didn’t own a few episodes on VHS I’d have been completely sure of it. I used to watch it obsessively, this one video tape. My parents could never find another and so I saw the same four episodes on a loop for years and years. I still have it. Even if I had a VHS player, I’m sure I wore it out a long time ago.

I could never find full episodes online. For years, every now and then I’d search “The Spooks of Bottle Bay” on YouTube or something, in the hope that someone would have uploaded some. Until a few years ago it was just the theme tune, the opening credits, just the most memorable snippets. It was like this thing from my childhood just hadn’t existed at all except in the same vague snatches I can pull from a haze of preadolescent recollections. I can never find anyone who’s seen it. It ran from 1993-95 for only three series. It’s never been shown since and even the few videos there were didn’t cover all the episodes. I think it was just chance that saw the one I had fall into my life.

Spooks is a strange children’s show, oddly psychedelic even. It was created by Ian Allen, famous for Button Moon, another completely bizarre British children’s show. The titular town, Bottle Bay, sits inside a bottle on a mantelpiece. The show follows Sidney Sludge, a well-meaning but gormless young man and the younger brother of Sybil and Cedric Sludge, the principal antagonists. The elder Sludges are as vile as their names, ugly both inside and out, utterly obsessed with wealth. They spend each episode getting up to mischief, usually to the end of making money at other people’s expense.

Their plans are invariably foiled by the Spooks, a cast of ghosts in sheets that haunt the town come nightfall. The spooks are the real stars, a colourful array of pillowcases and old blankets that threaten to outnumber Bottle Bay’s living population. Of course the show conveniently sidesteps the fact that presumably the ghosts were once living themselves. They live a hilariously well-organised afterlife, there’s even a night-school for ghosts, presumably just regular school for them.

There’s a wholesome grimness about it all, featuring as it does Baby Spook, who is exactly that: a baby ghost. I don’t remember ever engaging with the implications of that as I sat wide-eyed in front of my tiny 90s television. Probably for the best.

Everyone’s remarkably cheerful to be dead, delighting in causing mischief not out of malice, but impish delight. The designs are fantastic, each ghost inhabiting different household fabrics; the scenes where they come out at night, literally forming out of whole cloth, still look kind of creepy today. None of the spooks are the spine-chilling phantoms you associate with ghosts, except for Tommy, a grinning maniac who I was in absolute terror of as a child. You can see him just after a minute in to the episode below. It just happens to be one of the four I had on video.

Bottle Bay is a jolly little seaside hamlet and it’s obvious that Ian Allen conceived it as a love-letter to the oddities and quirks of British coastal towns. Everyone’s always eating fish and chips, there’s a quaint little hair salon, a Punch and Judy man, even a haunted bed and breakfast, although as typical for Spooks the ghosts are good-natured and friendly. Tommy does stalk the halls, but even he’s a friendly ghost really. The couple that own the B&B are exactly the kind of companionable, regionally-accented types I’m sure Allen remembers from his own childhood trips to the seaside.

If you have a little time I couldn’t recommend spending a few 15 minutes of it on Spooks enough. Preferably on a Sunday morning, with the sun catching those little dust-fairies that dance around a living room. Maybe that was just mine. Maybe Spooks is just mine; it’s always hard to get off those rose-tinted glasses when you slip them on.

There’s really nothing like The Spooks of Bottle Bay and in looking back on it, like so much from one’s childhood, I think it left a larger impression than I realised at the time. I’ve been in love with ghost stories ever since I can remember and this weird, pastel-gothic artifact could well be the culprit. Even now I feel an uncanny familiarity with seaside towns, like I’ve visited them all already in fleeting, wispy memories from another life.

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