The 1978 series holds more than a few surprises in context of the trope it employs that is a classic in British children’s fantasy. You know the one, where a child is sent away to live with a distant relative, sometimes because they are orphaned, sometimes because the parents travel or are too rich to actually have time for the children. Sometimes war sends them to the countryside. In Come Back Lucy, the title character is an orphan (Emma Bakhle) sent to live with her great aunt, but that’s just where the story begins and moves onto subvertive.
In fact, Lucy does live a precious, cloistered life with her great aunt, immersed in an old fashioned world that offers Lucy comfort, but also enchantment. Rather than that being the beginning of a magical adventure, the great aunt dies and Lucy finds herself being shipped off the the city with a family of relations that challenge her very notions of what is proper. The kids are loud and animated, plan parties, and attend young socialists meetings, while the parents are intellectuals with African art hanging all over the place and taking a lax approach to parenting. In Lucy’s eyes, this just isn’t done.
Lucy gets an escape from this overwhelming situation when she encounters Alice, an inhabitant of the house from 100 years before. Lucy keeps going back and forth between the disheveled present and the terribly well-postured past as Alice tries to entice Lucy to stay in the past with her — genuinely, at first, but then with an obsessive overtone that seems very unhealthy at best and dangerous at worst. Lucy finds herself darting back and forth, unable to decide what era she was truly meant to be in.
The presentation of Aunt Gwen (Phyllida Law), Uncle Peter (Royce Mills), and their kids — Patrick (Russell Lewis), Rachel (Oona Kirsch), and the rambunctious Bill (François Evans) — is what makes the series so engaging. At first, the viewer is almost as inclined to dismiss them as Lucy is. After all, we’ve all read the Narnia books, we all know about how proper children should behave. But as you get to know the family, you begin to love their energy and chaos, and view it as exactly what Lucy needs after being held prisoner in the past, first with her great aunt and then with Alice. They are a call for Lucy to open up her mind to reality and offering acceptance to things she doesn’t understand — mirrored, in fact, by the family’s attempted embrace of Lucy despite her distant and alien manner.
At the same time, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a television show for kids acknowledge the complexity of a child’s psychology and take adults to task for not quite getting it right. There is a level where Aunt Gwen and Uncle Peter needed to step up, even though they thought they were doing the right thing, in a sort ‘70s sort of “I’m okay, you’re okay way.” It’s a viewpoint that demands emotional action of all parties involved and says very plainly that relationships require understanding and patience, sure, but also strong expressions of the desire to have that relationship. The family is saying to Lucy “Come in, make yourself at home, be yourself,” but Lucy, in fact, has no self and has never had a home, and it’s up to the family to help her figure out how to do that. Unfortunately, Alice is there to pick up on their failure.
If it seems like I’m focusing more on the family dynamic than the time-travelly supernatural story, it’s because that’s the central point of the show and it’s real. The incidents with Alice function as a part of Lucy’s private journey to decompress from her experience with her great aunt and learn to not only trust people, but the wide world itself. Come Back Alice is emotionally sophisticated while still maintaining a ‘70s energy and a broad sense of chaos that makes it one of the best ‘70s kids shows I’ve seen.