Thursday 24 August 2017

We Don't Go Back #60: The Owl Service (1969)

She wants to be flowers, but you made her owls.

The thing about mythology, or at any rate the mythology of place, is that it is cyclic, is that it is doomed to repeat itself, over and over. It writes itself into the story of the community, and it's always the tragedies that seem to cling the tightest to the land, wrapping themselves around the remnants of something very old.

Here is a stone with a hole in it. Here is a service of plates with a floral design reminiscent of owls. The story of Math Son of Mathonwy, fourth branch of the Mabinogion ends with an account of how Lleu Llaw Gyffes, cursed by his mother Arianrhod to have no human wife, marries Blodeuwedd, who the magician-king Math1 made from flowers. But Blodeuwedd is unfaithful, falling in love with Gronw Pebyr of Penllyn. She convinces Gronw to kill Lleu with a poisoned spear, but Lleu shrugs off the dying, poisoned flesh and becomes an eagle. The magician Gwydion restores him to life. He comes to take revenge on Gronw. Gronw hides behind a stone, but Lleu hurls his spear with such force it makes a neat hole through the stone and breaks Gronw's back, killing him. Blodeuwedd's punishment for infidelity and murder (and it's only one more incident in a tale soaked from the start in blood, murder and rape) is to become an owl, forever. The stone, a hole through it, remains.

This is the setting of Alan Garner's novel The Owl Service, adapted for TV by the author in 1969.
The phantom owls on the plates scratch on the ceiling.
She wants to be flowers, but you made her owls.

Clive (Edwin Richfield), a wealthy Englishman, has come to a holiday home in the valley with his son Roger (Francis Wallis), his new wife Margaret (present but never seen on screen) and her daughter Alison (Gillian Hills). Clive's first wife, Roger's mother, was unfaithful; while Clive is healing, Roger is not over it. The housekeeper, Nancy (Dorothy Edwards), seems almost resentful that she is even there, and it's not helped by her son Gwyn,  who is spending a lot of time around Alison, something that neither Nancy nor Margaret approve of. The addled, strange gardener, Huw Halfbacon (Raymond Llewellyn) hovers around the edges, never quite making himself clear.

Led by the sound of scratching claws in the ceiling, Gwyn and Alison find the plates in the attic; Alison becomes obsessed with them, tracing the patterns and making paper owls. Her behaviour becomes more erratic. The design on the plates vanishes. Some power overshadows the three teenagers. While the three of them begin on quite friendly terms, Gwyn's increasing closeness to Alison begins to gnaw at Roger, whose feelings towards Alison are, to put it kindly, conflicted (as in, it's not illegal or technically immoral to fancy your step sister, but it is still most definitely considered to be really weird and without a doubt feels pretty weird too).

The stone still waits by the river. Roger, an amateur film photographer, takes photographs of the mountain through the hole in the stone. He captures a picture of a ghost.

Roger, Alison and Gwyn begin to re-enact the old love triangle, initially unaware that it has already happened a generation before. They are haunted by the land.
It's an owl.
Something scratches in the walls. A painting appears beneath a broken panel. Everything draws the teenagers into their fate with an inexorable gravity. 

Everything is slightly stilted, theatrical. Everything is intentional. Alison always wears red; Roger always wears green; Gwyn is always in black. Alison and Roger wear a variety of nice clothes; Gwyn wears an old jumper with holes in the elbows. The direction (by Peter Plummer) is always impeccable, and some scenes, especially in those places where the protagonists become lost in the countryside, have a delirious feel to them. The sound and light of The Owl Service is infectious.

It isn't made to be watched in one sitting, and you probably shouldn't. I watched it with my kids – who, to be fair, adored it – in three sittings over the space of a week, and that seems reasonable, but of course it was made to be doled out in 25 minute weekly portions, each one with a break in the middle and a recap at the start in case you missed one, since the idea of a video recorder would have been a mere dream. Viewers expecting a constant string of inexplicable occurrences should look elsewhere — this is a relationship drama with a few tactically deployed fantastical elements.  The mythology is the context of the conflict between two privileged teens and a poor one

Of course it's dated; if Roger's short shorts and Alison's miniskirts look quaint, if Roger dismisses the mythology as "flower power", or the rest of the dialogue gets a bit condescending, a bit Famous Five from time to time, that's to be expected, it's of its time, but let's not kid ourselves: this is a TV series made for kids nearly 50 years ago that still managed to hold the undivided attention of three kids with an inextinguishable enthusiasm for Minecraft. It's very much a product of 1969, but it's got something nonetheless. 
The Stone.
She wants to be flowers, but you made her owls.

It didn't hit me so hard when I read the book, but the ending made me pretty angry. Very angry. Really, really angry. Wanting-to-letter-bomb-a-holiday-home angry. Roger, as portrayed by Wallis, is vile, a complete prick and (I'll grant that this is my own hot button) the worst sort of snob, the sort of person who unironically calls someone an "oik". That in the end, he's the one who turns out to be the better man, who breaks the curse by just telling Alison she's flowers, while Gwyn stews in his (justified) anger and (justified) hurt and does not escape, seems fated to be stuck here in this valley and become another Huw Halfbacon, that seemed unjust, unearned.

But then, isn't that true? Isn't that how it happens in real life? This is how England relates to Wales (hell, you only need to look at recent news coverage in England of Wales' language laws, from outlets that you'd think should know a whole lot fucking better). England sweeps in, and then when it's done it leaves the pieces behind.

Roger recognises, perfectly reasonably, that he and Alison have always had the power to escape the curse, because they're from England, and England has always stifled the narratives of Wales. It's what England does, has always done. The vassal nation has no power over its master. The power is with the colonial ruler, and that's exactly what Margaret's holiday home is, a site of colonial rule (and precisely why it was the sort of place that militant nationalists used to target in their arson attacks).
Roger and Alison have stories that didn't start here and don't end here. They can escape the stranglehold of mythology in a way that poor Gwyn cannot, simply because they can leave. This was always a holiday jaunt for Roger and Alison. Alison is Gwyn's obsession; for Alison, Gwyn is a pastime until she goes back to school. Is that sexist, or is it an acknowlegement that mythology is itself sexist? Does Alison's role necessarily reflect her?2 They're going to go back to their lives and live comfortably forever.

But Gwyn is trapped here. Gwyn's hopes of leaving were always fragile, always depending on his mother not only permitting him to finish his education but on actively supporting it, and not demanding he work behind a shop counter. His mother has gone now, but that only ties him to this valley. He will never leave, and he will end up seeing, as the closing shot of the final episode suggests, the cycle of mythology begin anew.
Gwyn: Don't knock our national heritage, girlie! Them ropy old tales is all we got!
When all you have is mythology, it seems doubly unjust when the children of privilege play with it for a season and then swan off to their homes, leaving you in its wreckage.

OK, look. I'm working very hard towards talking myself into liking The Owl Service. This is a full-on redemptive reading, because I don't think the ending would have made me as angry as it did if I hadn't seen quality in the writing, the performances, the look of the thing.
You were always flowers.
The Owl Service, you see, can't just be about young people caught up by mythology, because Roger and Alison aren't caught by it. They're having a summer holiday in the mythological realm, and they'll go home. Gwyn, he has to live there. When Roger, punchable as ever, says that Gwyn won't ever be one of "us", the fact is, he's telling the truth, because that's how class works, and like a lot of the good folk horror, The Owl Service shines a light on class, and on the way that England and its vassal neighbours relate. Class is one of the weirdest, most inevitable forms of black magic that curses our culture. Class is the folk horror we live with in the real world.

1The TV version of The Owl Service mangles the mythology a little, gets the mythological names a bit mixed up, but since the explanation of the mythology is put into the mouth of Alison who doesn't really understand it, that's OK. (back)

2I suppose I should note that the trope or, if you prefer, cliché of a flighty girl who strings along two lovers is also one of the themes of Garner's other significant TV script, Red Shift. (back)