Sunday, 23 July 2017

Bananas, Stones And A Blade Forever Flashing - Part Two by Steve Gladwin

This month my blog goes out on a Sunday, so for those of you who are reading it and are at a bit of a loose end, here’s an idea. Get on youtube and find the complete version of Children of the Stones, an acknowledged seventies TV eerie classic.

This month I intended to re- watch favourite seventies children’s TV. I was going to again give myself the pleasure of Belle and Sebastian and The Flashing Blade, as I have copies of both. I might even have called in on The Banana Splits and The Arabian Knights segment in particular, or listened to the theme music to Freewheelers and hummed along for a bit. (If confused see last month!)

However rather typically I didn’t think about doing any of this until I realised in a mad rush a few days ago. So with thanks to the generous soul who planted it on youtube, I sat down with my partner a few days ago to watch Children of the Stones. My first and only viewing of it was when it was first transmitted in 1977. In retrospect I’m more than a little shocked to realise I was already eighteen at the time.

No I didn't know that it was a novel either.

I remember it having quite an effect on me, being enthralled by the plot and the eerie music and I also remember people saying ‘Happy Day’ all the time.
After a recent conversation with a fellow fan, (thanks Kelly) I decided to chase up the DVD - which I really must get some time - but now we’ve seen it on youtube I REALLY MUST get the DVD because let me tell you folks that Children of the Stones is still fantastic.

There are one or two weaknesses I suppose. It has a dated feel sure, but not as much as you'd expect, and one or two of the child actors are a bit MFI and the housekeeper is a wee bit clichéd and Freddie Jones as Dai the poacher does tend to mumble, but these are minor quibbles when the story, script, performances, music and effects are so good for their time. Having urged you to watch it however I have no intention of ruining the plot for you, but here’s a brief summary of the initial premise.

Adam Brake, an astrophysicist and his son Matthew move to the Avebury lookalike village of Milbury, (the series was filmed in Avebury) where they find that nearly everyone is rather alarmingly happy. In the one classroom school, Matthew finds that the children on the top table can solve alarmingly complex equations, whereas most of those new to the village don’t know where to start. These includes Matthew, who is almost as bright as his dad.

Gareth Thomas, Iain Cuthberston and the children.

It soon becomes apparent that the whole village is in some way under the control of the local squire figure Hendrick, whose house lies on a confluence of Milbury’s many ley lines. When people try to leave the village, they are first stopped by the stones and later 'assimilated'.  It turns out that everything that is happening in the village is a consequence of a long ago super nova which was actually named after Hendrick, who discovered it, and to say that it’s gone to his head is a wee bit of an under-statement.

There’s a whole lot more to it than that of course, and for a piece of so called children’s TV it is remarkably multi-layered with many concepts and ideas far ahead of their time being discussed intelligently not just by adults, but often by Matt and his dad. There is also an absence of overt cliché and just when you think it’s inevitable, the script pulls back and that’s maybe one of the reasons the whole thing ends up feeling so well rounded. Although Matt and his dad team up with Margaret, who runs the local museum and her rather odd little daughter Sandra, this story is very much about a boy and his father and the fact that one is not only a chip off the old block, but one whose opinions and skills are increasingly honoured and appreciated by his dad, adds to it considerably.

Matt is aided in his discoveries by both the old poacher Dai and particularly by an evocative painting of the stone circle itself, which he was mysteriously drawn to years before he ever heard of Milbury, (now tell me you don’t want to watch it now?).

If there is the equivalent of a leit motif in the series it is this painting which not only has the poor house keeper fainting and spilling her tray of chocolate cake, when she first sets eyes on it, but which also alters in strange ways and provides more than one clue to the developing mystery.

As my partner said, this also a very sciency series, but it’s one whose concepts you feel like you can get your heads round, (which for me is something, let me tell you!). What I really appreciated was how the real and the - pseudo but based on actual fact and religious or scientific practice - seem to meld so convincingly. And like in the best and most enduring eerie children’s classics, (The Box of Delights and The Dark is Rising for example) we ourselves are drawn in through the eyes of Matt.

I said before that Children of the Stones stops short of actual cliché and that is mainly due to the acting, particularly the adults, but it’s particularly so in the case of Iain Cuthbertson’s portrayal of Hendrick, who is urbane and smooth very much in the manner of Charles Gray in either The Devil Rides Out or as a nemesis to Bond in Diamonds are Forever. Like Charles Gray, Iain Cuthbertson understands that even in a series made for children, it is studied normality rather than hectoring bombast or piling on the slime that brings the best results. Freddie Jones just about avoids going in either direction, and both Gareth Thomas as Adam Brake and Veronica Strong, (the wife of series co-creator Jeremy Burnham) as Margaret, give solid portrayals of Everyman and Woman. The best scenes for me involve either Matt and his dad or Adam and Hendrick.

There seems to be an odd emphasis in the series on the single parent family, and of the four pairs of newcomers to the village, three are fathers and sons. Is there something they aren’t telling us? Peter Demin was actually 17 years old at the time he played Matt and perhaps that helps give the character some of the age-old wisdom he seems to have.

Another thing I noticed at the end of our two and a half hour watch is that there are so many ideas and layers here, (such as the workings of an atomic clock and the idea of free will) that it’s a wonder they could fit them all in. Apparently when the director Peter Graham-Scott first saw the script, he couldn't believe something so eerie and disturbing was meant to be for children. Most TV shows nowadays would give their eye-teeth for half of the good ideas Children of the Stones effortlessly piles up and in the last of its seven episode alone, part one ends up at the point where most other shows would seriously fizzle out. Not a bit of it with COTS, for after the break, mystery continues to be piled on mystery until perhaps the greatest of all is left right until the end.

I could go on and on about what makes COTS tick so well and in the context of the series this is a highly appropriate metaphor. It’s difficult to have something you only vaguely remember come so far past expectations, but while we were watching the series I was able to recapture just a little of my past and possibly conjure up just a little of the excitement I must have felt each week as each episode is left on an always exciting cliff-hanger. One of the series unique features by the way is how the word circle appears in all seven episodes, as follows.

Into the Circle, Circle of Fear, The Serpent in the Circle, Narrowing Circle, Charmed Circle, Squaring the Circle, Full Circle.

However, if there is one thing which makes the series stand out, (and I haven't forgotten either the incredibly eerie choral music by composer Sidney Sagar, performed so memorably by the Ambrosian Singers), it must be its unique location in the actual village in the middle of a stone circle, Avebury. Watching COTS, you simply can’t avoid either the presence of the stones, or the feel of there being a village within it. And the stones themselves are used in so many inventive and often terrifying ways, sometimes just part of the landscape we come to take for granted, and just as often symbolic of other concepts or terrifying discoveries. This is echoed equally in the ever recurring picture which depicts the original sequence of events in megalithic times now being repeated by Matt and his dad.

The painting by west country artist Les Matthews, which now lives in Avebury Manor

And that's what Children of the Stones felt like to me on only my second viewing forty years onwards. What it was to me then, it certainly remains now - an exciting voyage of discovery with a surprise around every corner. Do yourself a favour and seek it out.

'Happy Day.'   

PS If you didn't know, Jeremy Burnham wrote both a novel and this sequel.

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Penny Dolan said...

That DVD sounds tempting, as an antidote to summer holiday sun and jollity. You watched it at 18 so ignoring any "good for children, it'll be good for adults" pov, what age do you imagine appreciating it now?

Steve Gladwin said...

I think anyone would love it Penny. I suppose aged ten upwards as a guideline but it's more atmospheric than scary. It will certainly be a good antidote. Hope you get to see it.

Helen Larder said...

Really interesting. Thanks, Steve xxxx

Steve Gladwin said...

Lovely to hear from you Helen and glad you liked it. Hope you and Hayden are well. xx

Anne Booth said...

I've never heard of this - thanks. I might well look it up over the holidays. I introduced my teenagers to the TV series of Flambards a couple of years ago and they loved it.

Jay said...

Great blog Steve! Are you sure the Quod Est painting still lives in Avebury Manor? I’ve been trying to track it down for years!!