Break in the Sun

The Hill and Beyond by McGown and DochertySome time ago I bought Alistair D McGown & Mark J Docherty’s The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama — An Encyclopedia (published in 2003 by the BFI), and one of the things I was hoping to find out from it, aside from as many obscure telefantasy offerings as I could, was the name of a serial I remembered watching in the early 1980s, about a young girl running away from home, which I remembered as having quite a bleak, realistic feel to it (compared to other kids’ serials of the time, anyway), and which had made enough of an impression that I was still thinking about it more than thirty years later. It turned out to be Break in the Sun, but I had to wait till the BBC Store made it available last year to watch it again.

Based on a 1980 novel by Brian Ashley, and adapted for TV by Alan England, it was shown in six parts between 11th February and 18th March 1981. It starts with Patsy Bligh (played by Nicola Cowper), living with her mother, stepfather and new baby half-brother in a tower block in London somewhere close to the Thames. Patsy, whose terror of her take-no-nonsense stepfather has resulted in a cycle of wetting the bed because of worrying about being hit for wetting the bed, longs for the days when it was just her and her mum living in Margate, in the house of the grandmotherly Mrs Broadley. One day, walking home from school, she gets talking to a young woman on a boat who’s part of a travelling actors’ troupe. They’re in need of a girl to play a minor part, and Patsy tricks her stepfather into writing a letter (she tells him it’s so she can go on a school trip), which she uses to convince the troupe she can spend half-term with them. Her ultimate aim is to get to Margate and live with Mrs Broadley once again.

A Break in the Sun - Eddie and Kenny

Although I mainly remember it being about Patsy, the story actually follows a pair of plot strands. On the one hand, we’ve got Patsy developing as an actor while trying to keep her fellow troupe-members from finding out that she’s run away from home, and on the other we have her stepfather, Eddie Green (played by Brian “My karate means a lot to me, Mr Fawlty” Hall), setting off after her with her schoolfriend Kenny (who’s there because he’s the only one who can recognise the boat Patsy went off on). As they make their way Margate, Eddie reminisces about his own childhood, how he feared and hated his father, and how it led him into playing some pretty dangerous games as a way of either proving to himself he was worth something despite what his father thought of him, or, if nothing else, as a way of ending his childhood misery for good. It still takes, of course, young Kenny to point out the obvious to Eddie right near the end — that he’s been acting towards Patsy exactly as his own father did towards him, and that’s why she’s run away — but at least it means that, rather than simply being the story of a young girl running away from a monstrous, abusive step-parent, it’s about both sides coming to understand each other better, and overcoming the problem together.

A Break in the Sun

It certainly makes for a highly dramatic (Patsy threatens to throw herself off the top of a tall slide in an amusement park when finally cornered by her stepfather) and emotionally satisfying ending, without seeming cloying or unrealistic. Patsy’s frequent lapses into silence are, no doubt, what gave the series its bleak, thoroughly convincing air when I first saw it, but on this second watch, Eddie’s bluff, laddish lack of self-reflection adds a welcome second strand, preparing you for his ultimate rehabilitation.

McGown and Docherty say that “Break in the Sun was almost certainly the toughest serial made for children by the BBC up to that point. What makes it so affecting is that the dramatic threat comes not from a bank robber or smuggler [as was common in kids’ adventure serials of the time] but from within an unstable family unit.” And it certainly feels, apart from being in colour, like a direct descendent of the Kitchen Sink dramas of the 60s, without, at any point, overplaying the misery card.

Marianne Dreams and Paperhouse

Marianne Dreams, from Faber & FaberCatherine Storr’s 1958 novel Marianne Dreams contains a perfect example of what Humphrey Carpenter calls the “Secret Garden”, found in so many classic kids’ books from Alice in Wonderland onwards — those Arcadian pocket-worlds that encapsulate an idealised childhood, part fantastic imagination, part golden-tinged nostalgia. In Storr’s book, the “Secret Garden” is a dream world 10-year-old Marianne creates through drawings made in her waking life. Bed-bound for weeks after an unspecified illness, she finds a special pencil (“one of those pencils that are simply asking to be written or drawn with”), thereafter referred to as The Pencil, in her grandmother’s button box. With it, she draws a standard child-style house, and when she sleeps, dreams of walking up to this very house, but being unable to get in. When she wakes, she adds a knocker to the door, and, for someone to answer it, a face at an upper window. Both details have been added to the house when she next dreams, but the boy at the window can’t answer her knock because the house has no stairs inside and (something he doesn’t admit immediately) he can’t walk. So Marianne starts working on interior drawings, too. In her waking life, because she can’t attend school till she’s well again, she’s being taught by a governess, who mentions another home-visit pupil, a boy called Mark whose illness has left him too weak to walk. When Marianne learns the boy in the dream-house is also called Mark, she realises her dream world isn’t entirely her own.

Marianne in the dream-world. Illustration by Marjorie-Ann Watts

Marianne in the dream world. Illustration by Marjorie-Ann Watts

In the dream world, though, the two children don’t exactly hit it off. Both are tetchy from being bed-bound for so long, and Mark is resentful of the idea he might be living in a world Marianne has created. After a particularly heated spat, she punishes the dream-Mark by scribbling him out (though this only puts bars over his window) and, worse, by adding a single, watching eye to each of the boulders she drew outside the house. When she next dreams, she finds Mark terrified of “THEM”, the watching rock-creatures crowding the house. Regretting her anger, but unable to undo it (what she draws with The Pencil can’t be erased), the story comes to be about Marianne encouraging Mark to regain the physical strength and will to walk so they can escape the house and the watching, threatening presences.

Marianne and Mark. Illustration by Marjorie-Ann Watts

Marianne and Mark. Illustration by Marjorie-Ann Watts

Aside from its dream world fitting neatly into Humphrey Carpenter’s idea of the “Secret Garden”, Marianne Dreams has other similarities to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel from which Carpenter got the name. In Burnett’s book, the slightly spoiled 10-year-old Mary Lennox, orphaned and sent to live with a reclusive uncle, discovers an abandoned, walled rose garden and in it comes to not only befriend her withdrawn and seemingly crippled cousin Colin (who, like Mark, can’t, or won’t, walk), but to engage in a wholesale healing of the family: Colin of belief in his physical frailty, herself of her spoiled nature, and her uncle of both his extreme grief over the death of his wife and his estrangement from his son. The main difference between the two novels is that, while Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden is basically working at healing the adult world (where Uncle Archibald’s mourning for his wife is the cause of all the other problems) in Marianne Dreams the focus is entirely on the children, not just in recovering from their illnesses, but in their working together to overcome the self-centredness which their long periods of convalescence have led to. There’s a feeling that they’re taking a step away from the dependence of childhood towards taking a fuller responsibility for their own lives.

Vikki Chambers as Marianne in Escape into Night

Vikki Chambers as Marianne in Escape into Night

Storr’s book has been adapted a few times. The author turned it into an opera libretto in 1999. In 1972 it was adapted for television as Escape into Night (made in colour, but only surviving in black & white). This six-part series stuck faithfully to the book — perhaps too faithfully, as the story of Marianne’s coming to understand the relationship between her drawings and the dream world inevitably leads to a lot of similar-seeming scenes, though perhaps I only feel this because I watched them back-to-back — but it also comes across as slightly darker, as, somehow, showing the bizarre one-eyed stones surrounding the house makes them that much creepier. My first encounter with the story, though, was in a very different form, the 1988 film Paperhouse.

Charlotte Burke as Anna in Paperhouse

Charlotte Burke as Anna in Paperhouse

I can’t think of many children’s books which, when adapted, turn into films for adults — and I wonder if that was always the intent for Paperhouse (rated 15 in the UK), because, though it ups the scares of Catherine Storr’s novel, it doesn’t do the usual horror cliché of turning childhood itself into a scary world — there’s no tinkly toy piano music, or ghostly nursery rhymes echoing down empty corridors — so it’s still a story that’s for children rather than being about them. In fact, apart from the level of scares (always a difficult thing to judge), I think it would actually be a good film for young adolescents, as it’s very much about their experience — about the first tentative moves towards forging deeper emotional attachments away from mum & dad, and about the tug-of-war between growing up and remaining a child. (Now I come to think of it, the two main characters’ lingering in bed after their illnesses could well be a metaphor for lingering in a state of dependent childhood, putting off the first steps into independence and adulthood.)

Anna and Marc (Elliott Spiers)

Anna and Marc (Elliott Spiers)

Marianne from Storr’s novel is now Anna, a girl very much on the verge of adolescence. One moment she’s bunking off school to try on makeup and ask her friend about snogging (“Like kissing a vacuum cleaner”), the next she’s playing hide-and-seek. In contrast to the book (where the mother is pretty much a cipher), in the film, Anna’s relationship with her mother is strained by some very teenage tantrums. The real transformation from novel to film, though, is the father. In the novel, though he’s living at home, the father is all but absent — he pops into the story only briefly, to do those things a standard father of the 1950s was expected to do, i.e., authorise a few key decisions and knock in a nail. In Escape into Night, his irrelevance to the plot is smoothed over by having him working abroad. In Paperhouse, not only is he working abroad, but Anna is torn between feeling abandoned by him and being grateful he’s not there because of how he scares her sometimes when he drinks. In the film’s dream world, the stones-with-eyes (“THEM”) central to the novel’s sense of threat are replaced by a blinded father figure wielding a hammer. (This, more than anything, must be what makes it a 15 certificate, the way it turns the threat into a very real, domestic one, rather than a generalised, fantasy version of anxiety.)

Paperhouse_08

All this brings a muted aspect of the novel to the fore. Anna’s ambivalence about her father is an ambivalence about males in general. Sitting up in bed after a checkup from the doctor (here, a woman — Anna’s world, including teachers and friends, is almost entirely female), she says, “I don’t like boys,” then immediately adds one at the window of the house she’s drawing, as though her unconscious has other things to say on the matter. Far more powerful than the horror element of the film is the sense that Anna is learning to transfer the complex feelings she has for her father to a more fitting male figure of her own age. Paperhouse’s scares and dream world shocks can seem a bit over the top — as can Anna’s teenage histrionics, though “OTT” may well be the definition of teenage histrionics — but the film ends with a real sense of combined loss and gain, all because of how Anna has matured from a self-centred child to someone who can start to have fuller, more mature relationships.

Catherine Storr was, at the time she wrote Marianne Dreams, married to Anthony Storr, author of some of my favourite books about psychology — his The Dynamics of Creation (1972) and Solitude (1988) are both very readable and interesting delves into the complexities of two subjects Marianne Dreams also touches on: creativity (Marianne, in the novel, is not great at drawing, and her frustrations at how her lack of skill has a real effect on the dream world make up one of the novel’s strands), and the pleasures and pains of being alone.

The Moon Stallion

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).

Sarah Sutton in The Moon Stallion

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.

Diana and Todman, The Moon Stallion

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…”

The Green King, from The Moon Stallion

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.)

The Moon Stallion

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.

The Moon Stallion

(Full cast & credits at The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and Television here; also, details of a comic strip adaptation of The Moon Stallion from the girls’ comic Tammy.)

Children of the Stones

Oops, a bit more 70s TV. This 1977 series belongs to that subgenre of horror/science fiction stories (which includes John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon, and the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story The Daemons) in which a village is isolated by a magical barrier, so that some evil/alien force can gather its strength before moving on to take over the rest of the world. With Children of the Stones, the evil force is, oddly enough, happiness; those villagers affected greet each other with a “Happy Day”, know what each other is thinking, and tend to be inordinately good at maths. But of course the reason this happiness is evil is that it’s one man’s idea of happiness, imposed on its subjects without their consent.

It’s the end of this 7-part series that really makes it a children’s serial. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just that you need to have a certain amount of awestruck credulity (or childlike sense of wonder) to accept the final explanation for what’s going on. The bowl-shaped rock beneath the village is a transmitter for pure evil? So that it can be sent towards a black hole? Right.

I’m not ruining the story by revealing this, because Children of the Stones is best accepted as you’d accept a weird dream — for its sense of mystery and menace, not its logic. This is particularly true for the way the story comes to an end, because I really have no idea what happened there. Something to do with time. All very odd. But before that you have plenty of the sort of thrills and weird chills any devotee of 70s horror TV and film will love: a mysterious stone circle, an old painting depicting an ancient ritual being held there, a mad lord-of-the-manor type with an oddly purposeful interest in astrophysics, a boy with burgeoning psychic visionary powers…

Peter Demin and Gareth Thomas as son and father in Children of the Stones

For me, the best part of the series was the relationship between the two main characters, the father and son who arrive as outsiders in the village. There’s something very affecting about the way they get on with each other, how naturally they work together, and the trust they have in each other, that takes their characters that little step beyond the usual sort of stock relationships encountered in this type of story.

And here’s a nice little YouTube clip of Stewart Lee using Children of the Stones and The Changes (reviewed on a previous Mewsings) to discuss how the representation of teenagers on TV has changed from the 70s.