Saturday 26 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #16: Teatime Paganism for Kids

Children of the Stones (1977), The Moon Stallion (1978)

We take for granted our TV, but as a medium it is in constant flux. Formats die out; new formats come in. The television play and the anthology series are no more; instead, the episodic arc drama and the on-demand boxset have created new methods of storytelling. Back in the 1970s, there were no video recorders and few repeats, and no guarantee that you'd have seen the previous episode, so for example in every episode of a Doctor Who serial you might hear a line like "...and of course we can't get out of here until we find the teleporter ring and get back to the TARDIS! Isn't that right, Doctor?" And this sounds a bit clunky, but you needed it back then. The unavailability of a means of keeping a programme, and the expectation that you wouldn't, made for a very different experience. It moulded the form. 

One extinct format that hasn't been seen for a good twenty years now is the one-and-done children's drama serial. You had a single story told over the space of six weeks or so, broadcast at some point between four and six in the evening, beginning, middle, end. From the late 60s right through to the mid-90s, British children's TV depended on it. I was pretty much brought up by the TV, and kids' TV from about 1981 to 1993 is a fund of memories for me.

I have clear memories of kitchen sink crime drama Running Scared (1986), which had Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" as its theme tune. Post-apocalyptic dystopias, such a Cold War obsession, even for kids, were well-represented: The Tripods (1984-5) adapted two of John Christopher's three alien apocalypse novels, and The Knights of God (1985) sticks in my mind as particularly bleak and gritty. Wartime dramas, often about evacuees, such as The Machine Gunners (1983) were also a thing, and growing up in a military town as I did, I found that books about evacuees were pretty much the only thing in my primary school library.

And, for reasons that I've gone into before, many of these dramas tapped into the obsessions of folk horror. In my own childhood, I recall The Children of Green Knowe (1986), where a boy became tangled up with ghosts from the seventeenth century and the sublimely creepy Moondial (1988), whose teenage heroine was at the mercy of a time-bending haunting centred on a garden sundial that worked only at night. In Century Falls (1993), an early credit for Russell T Davies, the aftermath of a pagan ceremony has consequences that last for decades. These serials are often pretty disturbing.1 
World's creepiest dinner setting.
The gold standard for kids' folk horror was Children of the Stones, which was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, and broadcast on ITV in the early months of 1977. I was too little to remember it, being barely 18 months old when it broadcast, so I watched it for the first time this last week. In a lot of ways, it is a product of its time. The performances seem a little staid, a little controlled. But it is eerie as hell.

Professor of astrophysics Adam Brake (Gareth Thomas) and his teenage son Matthew (Peter Demin) move to the village of Milbury, which is surrounded by a stone circle. Strange events overtake them. The children of the village are bizarrely well-behaved, and capable of unnatural academic feats. The villagers, too, are pleasant, enthusiastically welcoming, and always happy, aside from a few families who find the majority's cheerfulness unsettling, a local poacher named Dai (Freddie Jones) and the ebullient but sinister squire Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson). The stones manifest weird electrical phenomena; inside the circle, Matthew begins to exhibit psychic powers. And then it becomes increasingly clear that no one can leave and the squire is using the power of the stone circle for his own ends. Adam and Matthew, along with museum curator Margaret Smythe and her daughter Sandra, try desperately to get to the bottom of it.
Psychic Matthew.
The stones are aligned with a black hole in space, and have created a parallel pocket universe around the village.
More and more of the villagers succumb to the psychic control exhibited over the others by the squire, becoming happy and docile, until only the Brakes and the Smythes are left. Margaret and Sandra get invited to dinner by the squire, and it's revealed that Hendrick is using the inherent power of the stones and the black hole to brainwash them into being his "Happy Ones", who poor Margaret and Sandra eventually end up joining.
The magus
Of course Adam and Matthew stop Hendrick – that was never in doubt, it's a kids' TV show – but the implication is that although they get away, the whole cycle will begin again.

It isn't for nothing that Children of the Stones has been called the scariest British children's programme ever made. The music, as has so often been the case with the films in this project, is excellent, the wordless avant-garde choral compositions by Sidney Sagar making it at times really unnerving. The Great Avebury Henge is a real stone circle (it's really impressive and I recommend visiting it) and the production makes extensive use of the locale to great effect. Shots of the stones from different angles give the whole thing a menacing aspect. The plot is complex and while Adam and Matthew win the day with science, they can't explain why the stones have the power; they escape the reality-warping effect of the circle but can't change it. Iain Cuthbertson, Freddie Jones and Gareth Thomas all give great performances.

Stones appear and vanish, and you can't be sure of direction or time. People turn to stone. Time warps in strange ways. And unlike many of these serials which cease to be so scary once the mystery is revealed, Children of the Stones has an atmosphere which only intensifies. Its final episode is about as good as 1970s TV drama gets.

Back in the 70s and early 80s, there were only three channels on terrestrial British TV; BBC1 and 2, which had no commercials, and the British commercial television channel, ITV, which was subdivided into regional franchise holders. And ITV shows, particularly kids' programmes, were of a different flavour to BBC ones; BBC programming was often somehow safer, more middle class, while ITV programming was seen as more populist, and as far as kids' shows went, more edgy. ITV had genuinely subversive things like Educating Marmalade and Your Mother Wouldn't Like It2; the BBC had worthy long-running school drama Grange Hill3 and cute football comedy Jossy's Giants (and also several shows featuring Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile, but no one mentions those anymore). ITV had Roland Rat; the BBC had Gordon the Gopher. 

And Children of the Stones is very much an ITV show. In an indefinable way, there is a certain edge to it that even the great BBC dramas, and don't get me wrong, some of them were really great, just didn't have.
By contrast, let's look at The Moon Stallion, broadcast on BBC1 in 1978.

Like Children of the Stones, The Moon Stallion uses an English landmark; it makes a great deal of being set around the Uffington White Horse, a huge chalk horse design on the side of a hill in Berkshire. It's set at the beginning of the Edwardian era. Archaeologist Professor Purwell (James Greene) brings his daughter Diana (Sarah Sutton, a few years before her more famous regular role in Doctor Who) and son Paul (David Pullan) to a huge manor house owned by Sir George Mortenhurze  (John Abineri) to see if he can find the site of Mount Badon, where King Arthur fought the Saxons. It becomes apparent that Sir George and his squire, Todman (David Haig) are on the hunt for the Moon Stallion, the fleshly manifestation of the White Horse; Sir George wants to possess it for his own. However, Diana, who is blind (and yes, it's a sighted actor playing a blind character, and it shows), begins to have visions of the horse, and of King Arthur himself, and realises that Sir George and his creepy stableman must not possess the animal.
The eye of the horse.
I was caught by surprise. You think that a show about a Nice Victorian Girl befriending a Magic Horse is going to go in a certain direction. But. For something that's so very Girl's Own and so safe in its presentation – and even if I hadn't known already, I could have told you which of these serials was BBC and which was ITV – The Moon Stallion has quite dark undertones.

Sir George wants the supernatural horse because he wants revenge on it. His wife saw the mythical beast under a harvest noon, and the horse is a harbinger of death, and so she died. Todman is well-versed in folk magic; he makes talismans out of animal bones. He knows the art of horse whispering. When, in Episode 4, Sir George practises the magical incantation that will bring the Moon Stallion under his power, the words he intones are not unfamiliar to anyone who's read anything about the Western Occult Tradition. Even Professor Purwell, on a couple of occasions, talks to his children about King Arthur and before you know it, he's explaining in a very matter-of-fact manner about human sacrifices on Beltane. Diana recognises that her own name is identified with the horse-goddess Epona. And exactly halfway through the series, the horse takes her on a midnight ride to Wayland's Smithy.
Once and Future King.

The Moon Stallion is one of the most quietly pagan pieces of children's television I have ever seen. It's not particularly disturbing, certainly not in the way that Children of the Stones is, and it's definitely not folk horror. But like Children of the Stones, The Moon Stallion has a strong connection with English psychogeography and touches on themes pagan and occult alike.

It was written by Brian Hayles, who wrote a bunch of early Doctor Who and who also wrote Warlords of Atlantis, and you might remember how approvingly I wrote of the latter's approach to Atlantis's occult mythology.

In Warlords of Atlantis, an occult figure shows the future of the century to the protagonist. But while Hayles' Atlanteans are the heralds of a terrible future, Wayland is a sign of hope. 
Here, too, Hayles uses the occult to reflect on the course of the twentieth century, and just as in
Diana: Was there iron in these hills?
Wayland: Yes. Iron, that made man the arbiter of life and death. Yours is the new Iron Age.
Diana: The twentieth century is the age of science and discovery!
Wayland: One name and many names. 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 Moon Stallion, Episode 4
Episode 4 is gripping and really strange. I can't imagine what it must have been like to tune in on a teatime, and having watched this very staid series for three weeks, have seen it turn into something so mystical. It sits in a similar place philosophically to Penda's Fen, its plural paganisms used to explore issues of grounding, history and responsibility.
The Moon Stallion.

These shows both express something about how much paganism is part of the blood of a certain generation of Britons. It was snuck by us. We consumed it every Wednesday and Sunday teatime.

1It's generally thought that TV now is more explicit than it ever was, but it's more complex than that. Nowadays, with stuff like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones consigned to the cable and on-demand channels, the mainstream networks have dialled back on the disturbing and the difficult. In fact, the 1970s and 1980s were the time when violent and sexual content were most on British screens, and that included children's TV, which for all that it seems stilted and wonky by comparison to current programming, was often significantly more disturbing and direct than anything you'd see on kids' TV today. The futuristic theofascists in The Knights of God mow people down with machine guns and consign them to concentration camps. The alien masters of The Tripods subjugate humanity by branding their skulls at puberty with mind-controlling "caps" that can't be removed without killing them. In Running Scared, a girl goes on the run from criminals who will kill her if they catch her; her friend's family, Asian, face violent racial abuse.

Compared to currently broadcast shows like The Dumping Ground, Eve and So Awkward, all of which are watched by my own kids, and none of which are bad, the drama serials of my youth are significantly darker, significantly more violent and bleak.  (back)

2She bloody hated it, in fact. (back)

3Grange Hill of course became renowned for its "issue" storylines, particularly the storyline where Zammo got into heroin, which was a Big Thing in 1986, so much so that the kids from the show even did an anti-drugs single which I hadn't heard for decades until I went to find it on YouTube, and I could still sing every word of. Even the embarrassing rap bit.  

Grange Hill won all the awards, and ITV used to take merciless shots at it. In Educating Marmalade, lethal tearaway Marmalade Atkins (Charlotte Coleman, who tragically died at 32 of an asthma attack) got sent to Cringe Hall by a clueless, patronising social worker (and there's the difference between the channels right there – you'd never have a social worker on the BBC being anything other than a saint); Your Mother Wouldn't Like It had Palace Hill, where Wills and Harry (that Wills and Harry, and again, would you get the BBC ripping into the Royals? Nope) get sent to an inner city school. Palace Hill even spun off into its own series, and it was hilarious. Nice kids (like my Beloved, in fact) often weren't allowed to watch ITV kids' programmes.

The BBC still has a tendency to make kids' TV that's designed to win awards, prestigious, beautiful, comforting things that are so dull they just. make. you want. to die. Like, who actually watches the new version of The Clangers? You know what I'm saying. ITV doesn't really have originated kids' TV anymore, but when it did, it had no pretentions. It was cheap, cheerful, and often wickedly funny. (back)