First broadcast in six parts from 19th September to 24th October 1976, Raven was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, the duo who also brought us Children of the Stones. And Trevor Ray has another connection to 70s kids’ telefantasy, in that he acted in an episode of Sky, playing the sinisterly avian Rex. Perhaps that gave him the seed of the idea of creating a series called Raven.

The series is named after its main character, Raven (played by Phil Daniels, best known now for Quadrophenia two years later, and Blur’s “Parklife” 17 years later), a 15 or 16 year-old orphan (found as a baby in an earthworks maze, watched over by a raven) on trial release from a borstal. He is to spend time with archeologist Professor James Young (played by Michael Aldridge, later Professor Diggory in the BBC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and his ornithologist wife (Patsy Rowlands, of Carry On fame). The Professor is currently investigating a subterranean cave system he believes to have been an ancient sacred site associated with King Arthur. (It also has a circle of standing stones above it, which he claims to be the origin of the idea of the Round Table.)

The Professor, professing

The Professor, though, only has a month to finish his work, because the government is putting plans in motion to turn the caves into a containment site for nuclear waste, and to build a reprocessing plant above it. Raven, on first hearing this from the project’s manager, Bill Telford, is all for it: “No good living in the past. Got to look after the future, right?” But the Professor is horrified. “Why are you talking like the establishment?” he demands (knowing how best to win over this rebellious young man), and gives him a pile of reading about the site, saying he should be better informed.

Raven has already had some visionary moments in which he’s seen the old professor as a bird — a merlin, in fact. Now he goes down into the caves and has a vision of himself as King Arthur, who presses his thumb to Raven’s forehead, leaving him with the astrological mark of Pluto between his eyes. From that point on, Raven is committed to saving the caves.

Phil Daniels as Raven

He falls in with local cub reporter Naomi Grant, who as well as junior reporting jobs (where she always has to follow the editorial line, however much she’s personally against it, and at the moment the paper is for the nuclear waste dump), does the paper’s horoscopes. When the professor gets her to recognise the symbols carved outside each cave as ancient versions of our modern astrological symbols (Gemini once being a giant, and Cancer a ship, apparently), she realises Bill Telford’s men are trying to tunnel between two caves whose astrological energies are in direct opposition. She’s convinced it will lead to disaster. Bill doesn’t listen — who would? — and so gets trapped in a cave when the new tunnel’s roof collapses. Naomi and Raven pick a more astrologically-harmonious route into the now-sealed cave, and though the surveyor doesn’t think it will work, it does. The rescued Bill emerges with the sign of Pluto on his forehead, converted to the anti-nuclear-waste point of view…

There’s a way of looking at Raven as a sort of reverse folk-horror. The cave site is sacred, and must be protected, and to ensure people protect it they’re forcibly initiated into its cult, usually by being trapped in the caves, leading to a vision of King Arthur pressing the mark of Pluto onto their foreheads. After this, they change their minds about the nuclear waste site. Professor Young is the head of this coven, and it seems even more folk-horror-coven-like when we learn the local vicar is one of his main allies. There’s even a night-time gathering of all the main players at the sacred stones, and a hint of ancient ritual sacrifice when a skull (of a young male of Raven’s height and age) is found in one of the inner caves.

Key to the Professor’s efforts is convincing young Raven he’s the reincarnation of King Arthur — or, at least, the latest incarnation, as “Some people believe that Arthur was the name of the office, rather than the man himself.” Raven is, at first, resistant:

[Professor Young]: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

[Raven]: “Yeah, and some thrust it right back again.”

But he comes round, not because he believes he’s King Arthur, but because he believes in the cause, and finds that other people are listening to him: “First time in my life I’ve ever felt useful.” This is the only one of these 70s’ kids’ telefantasy shows I can think of to so heavily feature the media as a necessary part of its story. Raven not only has to recruit the local newspaper to get his message across, but, through TV man Clive Castle, the general public:

[Raven]: “They’re destroying the countryside to make way for a lot of industrial garbage. They’re starting a dangerous game with no idea how it’s going to finish. And they’re dumping a lot of poisonous waste which might top us all one day…”

[Clive Castle]: “So you see yourself as the guardian of the future, as the representative of a younger generation who’s battling against the shortsightedness of your elders?”

[Raven]: “Listen, mate. We’re responsible for the kids who ain’t even born yet.”

This echoing of ancient mythic patterns in the modern world recalls The Owl Service, but in this case in mostly a benevolent way (Raven does get its replaying of the Guinevere story, though). I did find people seemed all too eager to see Raven as a new King Arthur, but for me it was the astrological stuff that was the least convincing. Perhaps if a little more effort had been made to tie modern astrology with ancient Earth-mysteries and ley line energies it might have seemed a little less ridiculous that knowing the incompatibility of two birth signs could lead to predicting a rock fall and saving someone trapped by it. Perhaps that’s just because I find one sort of nonsense (ley lines) a little less nonsensical than another (astrology), but to me it seemed Raven took the Earth-mysteries-type mysticism of Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes just a little bit too far into the ridiculous — not because it is unbelievable, but because it was too convenient, story-wise.

It’s the acting that makes Raven work. Phil Daniels is properly both annoying and charismatic as a spiky, street-wise rebel, a ne’er-do-well with his head on straight, and you never doubt he might actually become the sort of public leader he does become. It can almost make you ignore the fact that the story culminates not in the sort of exciting confrontation with dark mystical forces you find in Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes, but in a public hearing in a local government hall — and that the tactics our heroes use basically involve the sort of mind-control most often associated with the villains in this kind of story.

Was Raven starting to show the limits of this brief cycle of Earth-mystery-inspired kids’ telefantasy? I think The Moon Stallion, which came two years later, showed there was more to be mined from this particular subterranean strata, though perhaps that show’s being set in the past helped. Still, Raven’s an interesting entry in this little sub-genre.


Hammer House of Horror

One of the great British film industry successes of the 1950s and 60s, Hammer Films pretty much died after the Dennis Wheatley adaptation To the Devil a Daughter in 1976. (The final nail in the coffin was a remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, which put them fatally in the red.) Hammer Films Ltd was shut down, but its hastily-conjured doppelgänger Hammer Film Productions remained (backed, at first, by chemical company ICI), though largely to collect royalties. In an effort to regain some liquidity, they resurrected an idea first mooted in the early 70s, of having a Hammer television series, and this time it sparked to life, funded by Lew Grade’s ITC. (Who also financed Jim Henson’s Muppet movies and The Dark Crystal, before Grade was bought out and a more hard-headed businessman took over.) The thirteen (of course) episodes of Hammer House of Horror were broadcast between 13th September and 6th December 1980.

I came to the series knowing nothing about it other than that it was from Hammer, so I was expecting something in the same vein as their more well-known output, with takes on Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, most probably set in 18th Century rural Europe or 19th Century London (similar, perhaps, to the Mystery and Imagination series of classic horror adaptations on ITV in the late 60s). And the opening titles, with a big old spooky house at night, accompanied by some 60s-style theme music, didn’t do anything to disabuse me of the idea.

From “Guardian of the Abyss”

But the episodes that followed were quite different. At an hour minus ad-breaks each, they were mostly written by the TV writers of the day rather than Hammer’s own writers (the notable exception being John Elder, who’d written a slew of classic Hammers, from The Brides of Dracula to The Ghoul, and had been responsible for suggesting the studio buy the rights to the first Quatermass TV series). The script editor was Anthony Read (who’d written The Invasion of Time and Horns of the Nimon for Doctor Who, as well as episodes of The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel). He also wrote the opener, “Witching Hour”, about a modern-day couple menaced by a 17th century witch (who is at first convinced electric lights are the work of the Devil). Also writing for the series was Jeremy Burnham (co-writer of Children of the Stones and Raven, who had one Hammer film to his credit, The Horror of Frankenstein), Gerald Savory (writer of my favourite Dracula adaptation, the BBC’s 1977 Count Dracula), Murray Smith (who hadn’t written a Hammer film, but scripted the 1971 British horror Die Screaming, Marianne), David Fisher (who’d written two Doctor Who’s with Hammer-like titles, The Stones of Blood and The Creature from the Pit, as well as the less-lurid Leisure Hive). The author of perhaps the most memorable episode, “The House that Bled to Death” — memorable because its scene in which a kids’ birthday party is showered in gallons of blood turned up on Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments — is David Lloyd, and the strange thing is, it seems to be his only TV or film writing credit. (Prior to that, he was a tennis pro, and afterwards went on to found a chain of gyms and health clubs.)

The infamous children’s birthday party from “The House that Bled to Death”

It seems to me Hammer House of Horror offered something of a unique opportunity to its writers. On the one hand, with the name of Hammer behind it, audiences were primed for lurid Gothic horror with plenty of blood and pulpy shocks. (The publicity claimed they got through five gallons of fake blood a week.) And it’s true, there were werewolves (“Children of the Full Moon”), devil-worshippers (“Guardian of the Abyss”), witches (“Witching Hour”), cannibals (“The Thirteenth Reunion”), and so on. But the writers set everything in modern times, thus bringing in a more realistic feel, and often a more convincing depth of character than you’d find in a Gothic Hammer outing. (Hammer had, of course, done psychological horror, such as the excellent The Nanny, but that’s not what the studio’s name usually brings to mind.) The writers, then, seemed free to experiment with stories set in a world that mixed something very (1980s) modern and realistic with moments of lurid horror, and the results were often stranger than you’d expect from a TV horror anthology show.

In “Rude Awakening”, for instance, Denholm Elliot is an estate agent fed up with a wife who won’t divorce him, and he finds himself waking up in an apparently endless series of nightmare versions of his life in which he has murdered his wife and some supernatural retribution arrives because of it. Once he realises it’s all a series of dreams, though, he decides he might as well go ahead and get some satisfaction by murdering her — only, it turns out, this time he has actually woken up.

Ahhh, it’s Peter Cushing with a puppy.

Something more traditional was “The Silent Scream”, notable for featuring an actual Hammer star, Peter Cushing. Recently-released-from-prison Brian Cox tries to begin a new life on the outside. He goes to see the pet-shop owner (Cushing) who visited him during his time in prison, who said his own experiences in the Nazi Death Camps taught him what it was like to be in prison. But it turns out Cushing’s character wasn’t on the Jewish side of that equation, and is now working, behind the scenes, on a new system of incarceration without bars. He has been testing it on his collection of dangerous animals, but now he’s ready to move on to a human subject…

The show is full of recognisable actors from the British film and TV world of the time, including two stars of Blake’s 7 (Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow), as well as Warren Clarke, Barbara Kellerman (who’d play the White Witch in the BBC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Suzanne Danielle (a Movellan in Destiny of the Daleks, and the lead role in Carry on Emmanuelle), and Anthony Valentine (Baron de Belleme in Robin of Sherwood).

The series’ two most disturbing episodes, in my opinion, were the last two. In “The Two Faces of Evil” a family pick up a hitchhiker in the pouring rain, a man whose face they never see, because he starts fighting the husband at the wheel, causing a crash. When the wife (played by Anna Calder-Marshall, who has an excellent face for sustained terror) wakes in hospital, she’s relived to find her son and husband also survived, though her husband received an injury to his throat which means he can’t speak. She and her son go to the cottage they’d booked for their holiday, and it isn’t too long before they’re joined by her husband. She soon starts to suspect, though, that he isn’t her husband at all, but the hitchhiker whose face she never saw.

Anna Calder-Marshall — an excellent face for sustained terror

With a title like “The Mark of Satan”, I was expecting the final episode to go out in a blaze of Gothic glory, but it turns out to be more like a male version of Rosemary’s Baby. Its main character is a worker in a hospital morgue who has become convinced the recurrence of the number 9 in his life is a message that he’s been infected by “the Evil virus”, which killed his father. He’s obviously paranoid and on the verge of a breakdown, but that doesn’t mean he’s not also being pushed into selling his soul to Satan by a conspiracy of devil-worshippers.

Both of these episodes spend a lot time in the blurry territory halfway between mental illness and supernatural horror, which makes me think of the work of Ramsey Campbell — either story might have been an adaptation of his work.

“Witching Time”

Hammer House of Horror didn’t make it to a second series because of Lew Grade’s ITC being bought out, (though it was eventually followed by Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense in 1984), but it’s an unusual slice of British tele-horror, certainly more lurid than you’d normally find on the small screen in those days. It was also more experimental, and though not all the episodes were entirely successful, it was at least an interesting watch.


The X-Files

I recently re-watched the first two seasons of The X-Files, and was soon wondering why I’d never worked my way through the whole thing, all eleven seasons of it. After all, it produced some neat little bites of weird TV, like its take on The Thing in the first season episode “Ice”, or “Eve”, about a supposedly discontinued eugenics programme that turns out to be still live and in the wild, and which packs a film’s worth of story into 45 minutes. The show came up with some pretty good monsters, too, like Eugene Tooms, who could slip through narrow chimneys and ventilation ducts, as well as build himself a hibernation retreat out of newspapers and bile (Mulder: “Is there any way I can get it off my fingers quickly without betraying my cool exterior?”); or the human-sized parasite Fluke from “The Host”, the episode with my favourite line of the series, as a sewage-processing plant manager says: “Five hundred and sixty thousand people a day call my office on the porcelain telephone.” I particularly enjoyed the more comedic episodes, such as “Humbug”, about a series of murders in a community of circus performers (where Mulder, receiving a dressing-down from a dwarf for judging by appearances, gets judged in turn, and is told he looks like a government employee), or “Die Hand Die Verletzt”, about a school PTA made up entirely of Satanists. That story, as well as poking fun at itself by having Mulder and Scully caught in a shower of frogs, also contains what is perhaps the series’ most harrowing scene, as a distraught teenage girl describes, at some length, her history of ritual Satanic abuse — made no worse when it turns out to be a delusion.

But after reaching the end of season two, I knew exactly why I’d stopped watching it. Far too quickly, The X-Files clogged itself up with its own “mythology”. To my mind, the show was best when it saw itself as a sort of anthology series, like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, though one framed as a detective show, with Mulder the believer and Scully the sceptic turning up to witness the weird and tragic events in other characters’ lives each episode. (Like poor Max Fenig, a UFO-junkie who drives around the country in his camper van chasing saucer-sightings in the story “Fallen Angel”. The pathos goes up a notch when we learn Max has epilepsy and perhaps schizophrenia, and this may be the root of his lonely outsiderism; then it goes up another notch when we learn his health problems are probably a side-effect of his being ruthlessly used by aliens who simply need a living body in certain places at certain times, and don’t give a damn about the effect on Max as a human being.)

Max Fenig considers his likelihood of surviving the episode

But that the show would always have got bogged down in its own mythology, I think, was a foregone conclusion, thanks to its contradictory treatment of two key areas of interest: aliens and conspiracy theories.

Shows like Gerry Anderson’s UFO or the US series The Invaders had focused on the covert invasion of Earth before. But they set up their rules from the start: how the aliens could be told apart from humans (they have no pulse), what they wanted from Earth (to harvest human organs), and so on. In these shows, the aliens were a single species, with a single intent. The X-Files seemed to want to tackle a different aspect of aliens, the whole Fortean spectrum of weirdness surrounding them. In alien episodes in the first two seasons, there’s no consistent picture of what these beings are, what they want, or how they operate. Rather, they’re free to be as bizarre, creepy, mind-blowing and strange as each story needs them to be, making the whole alien phenomena closer to religious visions and mental illness, fairyland and dreams, than the stuff of a science fiction thriller. Aliens, in The X-Files, seemed at first to be just one more unexplained mystery, and their unexplainedness was the point.

As the show went on, though, it became obvious it also wanted aliens to be part of a government conspiracy — in other words, it wanted these weird and incomprehensible beings to have a comprehensible side: a definite plan, and therefore a definite purpose, and so a definite form, a definite technology, and so on. But they could only be so at the expense of their other role as near-supernatural incomprehensibilities. Their “comprehensible” side, then, would need to explain all the deliberately-unexplainable weirdness that made them so X-File-ish, and that was going to take a lot of explaining. Inevitably, it was also going to generate a lot of show-mythology.

The torch, not the gun, is these FBI agents’ most important weapon, but it can only ever shine a little light into the darkness

Ditto conspiracy theories. Although they appear to be explanations of the world, conspiracy theories are really about the frightening strangeness of the world, with their air of clandestine darkness, paranoia, and vast, unseen manipulative forces. The point about conspiracy theories is not that they resolve into one single set of true-but-hidden facts, but that they present a “Big Picture” fuzzy enough to absorb all the weirdness you can throw at them (all the aliens, all the motives, all the alliances and conflicts), leaving you with a sense that it adds up, so long as you don’t actually try to add it up. To do so would destroy all that crucial-but-foggy pseudo-meaningfulness the “Big Picture” provides. Ultimately, conspiracy theories aren’t about facts and final truths, they’re about freedom from facts. They’re about the momentary high of “everything you know is wrong”, and the freedom that brings. (Not freedom from government control or alien invasion, but freedom — and a temporary one, at that — from your own hangups and disappointments, limits and shortfalls, fears and normal human vulnerabilities before the incomprehensible thing that is reality.)

Mulder can’t quite get the point

In The X-Files, the idea is that the government know “the truth”, and Mulder is trying to catch up, find proof, and make them admit everything that’s going on. But when you look at how the government in the show behaves, you realise they aren’t a source of facts and confirmations, but of rumours, contradictions, betrayals, reversals, smokescreens and runarounds. They’re just one more source of weirdness, one more entrance to the labyrinth. The moment Mulder starts trying to get to the root of these hints of government conspiracy, he enters what Robert Anton Wilson called “Chapel Perilous”: the place where there are no single answers, just an endless multiplication of weirdness. And so, conspiracy theories became just another generator of never-to-be-resolved mythology for the show.

I think it would have been better if The X-Files had stuck to the ultimately weird nature of both its alien and conspiracy strands from the start. Sure, to Mulder the world contains individual cases of weirdness that he will investigate, hoping the “facts” he acquires will add up to a grand truth his shady superiors in the government already know, but we, as viewers, would see he’s got it all wrong: “The Truth” is not “out there” — it’s far out.