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 to 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.

Two more Doctors

After the first three, here’s the next two. Tom Baker:

And Peter Davison:

“So you’re my replacements! A dandy and a clown!”

“So you’re my replacements! A dandy and a clown! Have you done anything?”

“Uh, well we’ve assessed the situation—”

“Just as I thought! Nothing.”

In which I track down intelligent life

Hawkwind’s 1999 album In Your Area is a bit of a hodgepodge, being half live, half studio, and with most of the original material consisting of instrumentals rather than original songs. As a result it never really creates that unique identity, that particular atmosphere an album needs to bring you back to it again and again. But after buying it I had it on pretty much constant play for a couple of weeks, largely because of a 44-second track halfway through, called “The Nazca”. A typical Hawkwind weirdie, it consists of the usual electronic synth wooshiness and what I thought, at first, must be a sample from some classic sci-fi film:

“Intelligent life is so very rare. The rarest thing in creation, but the most precious. It is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. Without it, nothing begins, nothing ends…”

Something about that quote grabbed me. It seemed cosmic, tragic, and hopeful all at once. I really wanted to know where it came from, but for once a Google search turned up absolutely no results, and despite having seen a good many classic SF films (and having read about a good few more) I couldn’t imagine which one it might come from. (The title was no help. It refers to the Nazca lines in Peru — those large-scale ground-doodles made, about one and a half thousand years ago, for the amusement of the gods, or any other sky-flying entity that happens to be passing.)

Things got even more intriguing when the same voice (and therefore, I assumed, an extract from the same quote) appeared in a few more Hawkwind tracks, speaking some different lines. One version of Tim Blake’s solo piece, “Lighthouse”, for instance, has:

“We are a very old people, from a very old planet compared to yours. If we are to survive we must colonise…”

Finally, a couple of months ago, I got the answer. The quote wasn’t from an old SF film, it’s from John Wyndham’s 1968 novel Chocky.

Assuming it was from the 1984 TV adaptation (which I missed at the time it was first shown, probably because it was on ITV, and I tended to watch BBC), I put it on my LoveFILM rental list. But that turned out only to feature a very shortened version of the “Intelligent Life” speech, and in a totally different voice. (It had good theme music, though. A little reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “Sparrowfall (2)” from Music For Films (1978), but excusably so, because I suspect the melody was designed to echo the word “Chocky”, and it’s the melody that makes it sound similar to the Eno track.) There’s also a 1967 BBC radio adaptation (which can be found at Archive.org), but there the “Intelligent Life” speech is equally short.

I’m going to keep searching, but I suspect it must have been recorded by Mr Brock and co. themselves. Either way, here’s some more of the quote from the novel (all the dot-dot-dots are present in the original):

“But intelligent life is rare… very rare indeed… the rarest thing in creation…

“But the most precious…

“For intelligent life is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. It is a holy thing, to be fostered and treasured.

“Without it nothing begins, nothings ends, there can be nothing through all eternity but the mindless babbling of chaos…

“Therefore, the nurture of all intelligent forms is a sacred duty. Even the merest spark of reason must be fanned in the hope of a flame.”

Which I absolutely agree with.

It’s a nice little novel, mildly satirical of the comfortable middle-classes it is also so obviously addressed to. Although ostensibly about a little boy who is contacted telepathically by a far advanced alien being, Chocky could equally be taken as a tale about the emergence of a creative talent, and about the way the conventionalities, and even the kindnesses, of a civilised society do their best to stifle, embarrass, disapprove of, and generally shut it up.

The Changes

In a previous Mewsings I wrote about King of the Castle, one of two kids’ TV series I had vague but persistent memories of seeing in the early 70s, but which I hadn’t seen or heard of since. The other one, The Changes, isn’t out on DVD, so I didn’t think I’d get a chance to revisit it, till Paul left a comment to my King of the Castle post, directing me to SurrealMoviez, which has links to download all ten parts (from one of The Changes‘ rare reruns, on UK Gold). I duly downloaded them, burned them onto a pair of DVDs, and have just finished watching them.

First off, the main thing I remembered about the show (which was broadcast between January and March 1975, meaning I’d have been three and a half years old at the time — amazing that I remember any of it at all, but then again I remember Tom Baker’s first Doctor Who episode, which was a few months earlier) was a shot, from below, of an electricity pylon, along with some weird music, which I found particularly scary at the time. I thought, from the way this image had stuck in my head, that it was going to turn out to be part of the title sequence, but actually the pylons only really feature in one of the early episodes, along with a brief reprise in a psychedelic montage in the final episode. It’s funny to think how one very brief (and, in the story, not particularly important) moment can stick with you for so long. (Though it was at the end of an episode, so it may just be that it was left hanging, with all its attendant anxiety, in my young brain.) Something similar happened with Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which I read for the first time at primary school. For years after, I had a distinct memory of there being a long, involved chase through some rhododendron bushes, but rereading the book in my twenties, I was puzzled to find that rhododendron bushes were only mentioned very briefly. I have the sneaking suspicion that, at that young age, I didn’t so much follow the stories of TV programmes and books, but just used them as a springboard for creating my own fantasy worlds and stories… (And as far as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is concerned — a book, incidentally, which is celebrating its half-centenary this year — I wonder if it was just the encounter with that wonderful word, rhododendron, so peculiarly yet aptly spelled, that caught my imagination!)

Back to The Changes. The series is very much part of that “cosy catastrophe” tradition of disaster SF, which I certainly have a fondness for, though it features one of the strangest types of “disaster” I’ve come across: people develop a sudden, uncontrollable hatred for all the products of technology, driven by waves of a strange noise that drives them to attack all machines. Even the mention of technology threatens to drive people into a rage. Some flee the country (it seems to be only Britain that is affected, though no help arrives from the outside), leaving the country mostly depopulated. The main character, a young teen called Nicky, gets separated from her parents, who manage to get on a boat to France, and so she is left to fend for herself in de-technologised Britain.

The story breaks down into three sections. (This turns out to reflect the series’ origin in a trilogy of novels written by Peter Dickinson.) In the first, Nicky accompanies a group of Sikhs, who are unaffected by the anti-technological rages, but who are shunned as “Devil’s Children” by the now superstitious English. In the second section, Nicky leaves the Sikhs to try and rejoin her parents in France, but finds herself waylaid and accused of witchcraft by a religious fundamentalist who’s gained a hold on one community. The final section sees Nicky discovering the source of the anti-technological rages that have been gripping the nation, and finally understanding why they happened. After nine episodes of build-up (in which the reason for the “Changes” is never really addressed), the potential for the final explanation to be a let-down was all too possible, but I was pleased to find the programme’s makers managed an explanation that answered all the questions but still preserved enough mystery to be satisfying on all counts (and which took a seemingly science-fictional series into fantasy territory, which may have disappointed some, but I always prefer it when the ultimate explanation isn’t entirely rational, or entirely resolved).

Watched today, it’s inevitable that The Changes seems slower-paced than what we’re used to seeing now (or even when compared to contemporaneous Doctor Who), but I didn’t find it quite as awkwardly paced as King of the Castle — perhaps because it was less reliant on just the one young actor, but also perhaps because the gentler pace fits the story’s theme of regression to a pre-technological age. There were a few genuinely gripping moments, for instance when I wondered how the characters were going to get out of this or that situation. Aside from the initial premise, there are no fantastical elements in The Changes, so all threats and challenges the characters face have to be solved by them thinking their way through and coming up with a plan, which I like in a story, because it allows me, as reader/listener, to think my own way through the situation, and try to work out what I’d do in the protagonist’s place. (Always a good way of involving the reader in the story, I think.) Plus, there’s lots of location work placing the story quite firmly in the English countryside — something I’ve always loved in UK film & TV shows.

Another good point about the show is that, despite the anti-technology premise, the series isn’t itself anti-technology. It may even have come from a sort of reaction against the rather fuzzy-minded hippie thinking that if only we could get rid of all that nasty modern stuff, everyone would be a lot happier. It’s quite obvious in The Changes that any such clearout would result in a lot less ease in our day-to-day lives, not to mention the potential to regress into superstitious, even fascistic, ways.

Now, next up on my long-lost wanna-see list: if only I could find a DVD or download of Fantastic Journey. All I remember from that is Roddy McDowall with a glowing fork, and I want to see more!

Seeing Things by Oliver Postgate

cover to Seeing Things by Oliver PostgateIt’s been a while since I bought a book on impulse, but I came back from town last Sunday with Seeing Things: A Memoir by Oliver Postgate, partly because of the wonderful look & feel of the book itself. It’s a hardback, but it doesn’t have a dustjacket; the cover picture is printed directly onto the cloth, which as a result has a wonderful, and appropriately old-fashioned, canvas-like texture to it.

(As an aside, I hate dustjackets. They get in the way of reading, I worry about them tearing or getting scuffed, and the books often look better on the shelf without them, anyway. I actually used to take them off and throw them away (!) — which is what booksellers once did, or so I’ve heard, back when dustjackets were simply there to protect the book from wear in the shop — till I realised I was throwing away a good part of the book’s value, should I ever decide to sell it. Now I dutifully protect them in clear, non-sticky plastic, or store them away in a folder.)

Oliver Postgate is, of course, the man who, with Peter Firmin, created Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and other perennial favourites of children’s TV. But it was only in 2008, when he died, that I realised those programmes I’d loved watching while growing up were made by the same person. Back when I was actually watching them, I didn’t think about TV programmes being made at all, and if I had, I’d have found it bewildering that one person could make two different ones, let alone a whole slew of them. (In fact, Postgate & Firmin created twelve “worlds” altogether, as Postgate puts it.) But if I had thought about them being made, Postgate’s would be the method I’d have expected them to be made with. No large, white-floored studios with multiple technicians and a lot of high-tech equipment, just one man in a converted cowshed, using equipment he’d either invented himself or adapted for the purpose with plenty of odd-sized brass screws, strips of Mechano, and a liberal application of sticky-backed plastic.

Postgate’s memoir reveals him to be primarily an inventor, in whose world no problem is too small to be pondered for a practical solution, nor too big. So, he invents goggles with mini windscreen wipers for bikers (and wears them), and mechanical skeletons to fit inside knitted Clangers; or, in the 1980s, he invents a whole new way of thinking about nuclear weapons (they’re not weapons — you can’t use them to defend yourself or attack others, you can only use them to initiate mass suicide), which makes such simple sense, it’s a pity the anti-nuclear movement didn’t take it up and popularise it.

I couldn’t help but feel, while I was reading this book, that Postgate was the sort of creator we’re likely to see much less of nowadays. (Or at least find more rare & valuable when we do.) I remember, when we got our first home computer (a ZX Spectrum), feeling that this was a great leveller, that it gave the hobbyist as much power as any corporation — and for a while that was true, which was how you got such weird and wacky games as Manic Miner, created by weird and wacky individuals at home (and, quite often, after school). Nowadays, with games being a corporate industry on the same level as the movies, you’ll never have that again. Postgate seemed to exist in a similar relationship to early TV. He got into the medium by building mechanical props (“I hear you can make a collapsible soufflé?”), and then, when he had an idea for a story, simply went to the BBC, proposed the idea, and got taken on.

Thinking back on the programmes of his that I actually watched, the main thing I remember is the narration. Postgate’s voice was calm, friendly and understated, presenting the weird world of the Clangers, or the fact that Ivor the Engine had a baby dragon in his furnace, with exactly the sort of low-key authority required to make the fantasy believable. His, and Michael Hordern’s (who narrated Paddington Bear), are the two voices I remember most from my early TV watching. In his introduction to Seeing Things, Stephen Fry says, “During bouts of childhood theism, I always supposed that if God had a voice it would be that of Oliver Postgate”. While I’d certainly like to live in any world where God had the voice of Oliver Postgate, I think that if there is such a world, it isn’t this one. If anything, it’s the very unobtrusiveness, the un-God-likeness, of his voice — which has a storyteller’s authority, but nothing as oppressive as Divine Authority — that made it work so well. Far too companionable and human to be god-like, it was like a parent reading you a story, and was instantly not that of a stranger.

What became of Postgate and Firmin’s brand of children’s tellyfantasy? At some point, they were told that “impeccable American educational sociologists had established that in order to prevent a child switching channels (and thus transferring the rating to another channel), a programme had to have a hook (i.e., an incident sufficiently violent to re-attract the attention) every three and a half seconds. Our programmes did not have this characteristic and consequently, whatever other qualities they may or may not have had, they were not to be considered suitable for television transmission.”

But the thing that kept you watching Postgate’s films was the story first of all (surely hook enough), and the atmosphere, which certainly wasn’t one of loud, fast whizzbangs, but was quiet, understated, companionable whimsy. It wasn’t trying to be flash and impress you, it was just telling you a story, and that’s where its power lay. The style of TV described in the above quote sounds more like hypnotism than entertainment, and I can’t help lapsing into “things ain’t like they used to be” mode when I read it, because the simple reliance on storytelling — and, preferably, subtle storytelling, which engages the imagination and emotions instead of merely stimulating the relevant brain-centres — is something I miss even in adult TV nowadays, most of which I find unwatchable because of the constant (and frankly distracting) demands it makes, like a boorish show-off always trying to impress, rather than a genuinely interesting person who actually deserves your attention. Which may be why I tend to turn off altogether — switching channels just gets you the same sort of soup, served with a slightly different flavour. Thank heavens for BBC4, where they at least show some nice documentaries — including, recently, one about Oliver Postgate, funnily enough.

King of the Castle

There are two children’s TV programmes I really remember being frightened by as a kid. (Doctor Who, oddly enough, isn’t one of them, even though I distinctly remember seeing episodes when I was as young as three or four. My mum did once tell me I used to hide behind the sofa to watch it, but I can’t see how, as our sofa was against the wall!) Of one of the programmes, all I can remember are scary shots of power lines and pylons, along with some weird music. A little online research reveals that it must have been The Changes, shown in 1975. Judging by the plot description, that’s one I’d really love to see again, but there’s no DVD release. The other programme I remember, though, has been brought out by Network DVD, earlier this year, so I thought I’d give it a go.

All I remembered from King of the Castle was its basic premise: a kid gets in a lift, which plummets down to some sub-basement level, stranding him in a weird, underground fantasy world. That was enough to scare me back in 1977! And, of course, to make me want to watch it. (The series was planned to be shown during the week, but apparently it was thought too scary, so was moved to the Sunday teatime slot when kids would be watching with their parents. This has long been a traditional time for TV fantasy, usually on the BBC. King of the Castle, though, was ITV.)

KingoftheCastle_lift

Watching the programme now, of course, I wonder what on Earth I found scary about it. Probably, just the opening sequence with its plummeting lift — all that metallic-electric menace is enough for an imaginative kid to start scaring himself silly. The rest of the programme is a bit like a slightly dark Alice in Wonderland, as young Roland (named after the knight in Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, which gets quoted at one point) starts journeying his way upwards from the dungeons of the Castle into which he has fallen, encountering its weird denizens on the way, and having to elude their attempts to capture him, enslave him, or just plain kill him. The twist I probably missed back in 1977 is that each of the characters Roland meets in the Castle is a warped, nightmare version of someone from his daily life — his choirmaster becomes a mad scientist who tries to steal his voice, his stepmother becomes an evil sorceress who wants to make him forget his real life and remain with her, and so on. The early episodes all feel a bit, well, episodic — unrelated, and not adding up to an overall story — till we get to the last two or three parts (of seven), when Roland finally reaches the top of the castle and makes himself its king. It’s only then that you get a sense of the journey he’s been on having a more meaningful plot, as all the old characters come back for an Alice in Wonderland-ish trial. Episode two does have a rather effective chase sequence, though, where overlapped images give the scene a fittingly nightmarish confusion:

KingoftheCastle_chase

Throughout, Roland is helped (in various, not always obviously helpful, ways) by Vein, the keeper of the keys (played by the wonderfully Welsh Talfryn Thomas), who serves a role somewhere between the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, with perhaps a bit of Mad Hatter thrown in. It’s he who sees Roland through the journey, even opposing him when he becomes king, which is where the series really picks up. (Unfortunately, that’s right near the end.)

Talfryn Thomas as Vein

It turns out, of course, to be a rites-of-passage growing up story, as Roland learns to stand up for himself against the people keeping him down in the real world, including a rather pantomime-style bully (who crumbles unconvincingly when Roland finally stands up to him). I was a bit disappointed that Roland demonstrated his new grown-up status by throwing away his comics. Howard the Duck, I’m sure I’d have agreed with, but what about those old copies of Hammer Horror?

KingoftheCastle_comics

And scary moments? The things that seem scary to a kid are quite different from what seems scary to an adult. As I say, at the time the thing that most scared me was the idea of being stuck in that underground world via a plummeting lift. Watching the programme again, the thing I found most scary was the creature that the scientist Hawkspur (played by Fulton Mackay) creates. His attempts to steal Roland’s voice and give it to his creation results in a weird, semi-electronic honking coming out whenever the creature opens its mouth. That seems far more frightening, now, but I probably just found it funny as a kid…

KingoftheCastle_Ergon