The Moon Stallion was first broadcast on the BBC at the end of 1978. I don’t remember seeing it, though I may have caught it when it was repeated in 1980, on the Sunday teatime slot I so associate with BBC kids’ fantasy (perhaps because of the Narnia adaptations they showed in the late 80s). Anyway, I may not have seen it at the time, but sitting down to watch it now, I certainly feel I know it: it’s archetypal kids’/young teen fantasy of the sort the 1970s did so well (see The Changes, King of the Castle, and Children of the Stones earlier on this blog). Perhaps the fact it’s set in Victwardian times — or BBC costume drama times, anyway — that helps to recall so much classic, E Nesbit-style magical mystery romps, but The Moon Stallion isn’t an adaptation, it was written for the TV by Brian Hayles, the creator of the Ice Warriors and the planet Peladon for Doctor Who, as well as the scriptwriter of Warlords of Atlantis (also on this blog).
The other key Doctor Who connection, of course, is that it stars Sarah Sutton (later to play Nyssa of Traken) as the blind girl Diana. Visiting the home of Sir George Mortenhurze along with her younger brother and her father (an archaeologist brought in by Sir George to help prove a local King Arthur connection), Diana, though blind, sees the Moon Stallion, a wild horse of supernatural repute that, it turns out, Sir George and — even more — his groom and would-be “horse warlock” Todman have designs on capturing. Sir George wants the Moon Stallion because his wife died shortly after seeing it; Todman wants the Stallion so he can control the Moon Goddess, ride into Tir na Nog, and gain magical power. Dismissive at first of Diana’s link with the Moon Stallion, Todman later uses her to try and capture it. Throughout, Sutton plays Diana with a great deal of dignity, which really adds to her vulnerability at the key moments when she’s threatened.
In The Hill and Beyond, their encyclopedia of children’s TV drama, Alistair D McGown and Mark J Docherty say The Moon Stallion “in the final examination is no more than an entertaining hotchpotch of enticing legends and myths… a wonderful piece of light melodrama fit for any Sunday afternoon… a looker, then, but rather directionless as a story.” But David Pringle, in The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, says “Hayles’s script was one of the most accomplished fantasies specially written for television.” I’d certainly say it was better than McGown and Docherty imply — The Moon Stallion may feel a little too made to seem like an adaptation of a classic kids’ book that never was, but I think it has a lot going for it. True, some of that may be nostalgia on my part. Recently, I’ve had a craving for that whole 1970s mystical-magic kids’ adventure thing, with its gleeful pick’n’mix of folk legends, King Arthur, standing stones (also, in this case, the White Horse of Uffington and the nearby Wayland’s Forge), magical moonlight, stately homes with family secrets and windswept moors by night, and The Moon Stallion was my latest fix. (I had to track it down on a German DVD, as it’s not available in the UK.) Like The Changes and Children of the Stones, The Moon Stallion (briefly) ties science up with magic, equating the two and implying that modern man’s loss of connection with the land, and his loss of respect for old beliefs, will lead to his undoing. As the Green King, a mystical figure who guards the way to Tir na Nog, tells Diana after giving her a future-vision of Concorde and a nuclear mushroom cloud:
“Your science is the magic of ancient times, forgotten, in darkness, now rediscovered and, not understanding its past, rushing into self-destruction, as so many times before…”
And this, ultimately, is the substance to the tale that Docherty and McGown say it lacks. They say: “…the discovery of strange magic by a vulnerable and pretty young virgin is usually a metaphor for sexual awakening in the gothic novel but Hayles deploys Diana on a purely surface level.” But, although Diana does spend a lot of the tale at one remove from the action — necessarily, perhaps, because her visionary connection with the Moon Stallion, and the Green King, can short-cut the tension — the tale is ultimately not about her coming-of-age, but about a much wider confrontation with, and acceptance of, death. Sir George wants revenge on the Moon Stallion for his wife’s death; Todman wants power, and that includes power over death. As the Green King says, “the wolf in man’s” lust for power so often ends in his own destruction, and it is only once these greedy figures have been done away with that it can be set back to rights. At the end, it is Sir George’s daughter who inherits his home and lands; the whole story has a feeling that what’s needed is a little less male power-grabbing, and a little more of the Moon Goddess’s feminine influence, and respect for what cannot be controlled. (Even Sir George’s demand that local evidence for King Arthur be found and confirmed feels like him trying to dominate and control elements of myth and legend, rather than feel any reverence for them.)
It’s not the story that lingers in the mind, anyway, but the magical and visionary feel of a connection with things of the imagination — things of moonlight, and of the ancient past — along with a lot of shots of people riding horses over magnificent rolling countryside, and down hedgerowed lanes, in flowing gowns and cloaks. Perhaps it’s best watched as a welcome dose of nostalgia, but, then again, fantasy is all about magic from the past.