I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of The Owl Service in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic. But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness.
The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of The Owl Service came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he never wrote for children, I quite believe him. His lead characters may be youngsters, but there’s no hint of patronisation or tempering of material for the ease of susceptible young minds. That’s probably why children respond to his work so strongly (although it’s a chicken-and-egg thing if an author is consigned a genre label), and why some parents wonder if they aren’t slightly inappropriate without ever quite putting their fingers on why.
The TV adaptation of The Owl Service, written by Garner and produced and directed by Peter Plummer only two years after the novel was published, may not have garnered the lasting acclaim of another mythical children’s series (Children of the Stones, produced nearly a decade later) - it’s a bit creaky in places, and shows it’s age - but it retains an enticing unconventionality. The lack of concessions to an inattentive audience (or, at least, one demanding a little more joining of the dots) resulted in a nervous Granada including expository recaps with each new episode (“So that’s what the was about!”) And, despite the slow pace, there’s only a limited attempt to spell things out in the episodes themselves. That, and the often-experimental direction, ensured the serial stood out from traditional children’s fare and attracted some criticism that it was unsuitable for kiddies.
Right from the title sequence, we’re being warned that this won’t be cosy Sunday evening family programming. The succession of images and sounds is choppy and unwelcoming. Discordant scratching and the revving of a motorbike punctuate the harp theme (Ton Alarch). We see minimalist animations of a flickering candle and a bird created by hand shadowing; be prepared for things to get weird.
Garner based his story on the Welsh legend of Mabinogion; the love triangle of the myth is re-enacted by the trio of kids (and, we learn, was re-enacted before by another trio; all of this is cyclic). After his mother curses Llew Llaw Gyffes to live without a human wife, wizards Gwydion and Math create a woman for him from flowers (nice sidestep). But Blodeuwedd (the flower girl) falls in love with lord Gronw Pebr and they hatch a plot to kill her husband. It seems that Llew can only be felled under extraordinarily convoluted circumstances, which probably explains why he transforms into an eagle (!) and escapes when Gronw attempts to spear him. As punishment, Gwydion and Math turn Blodeuwedd into an owl (a bird hated by all others, that doesn’t dare show its face by the light of day). Llew confronts Gronw, who pleads for mercy. Llew allows Gronw to position a large stone between himself and the spear point he’s due to receive; it’s all to nought, as the spear pitches through the stone and kills Gronw. A stone with a hole in remains, known as the Llech Ronw (this is the stone discovered by Roger).
The first thing to discuss is the cast, who seem to provoke mixed responses. Some of the adults have a tendency to grandstand, while the youngsters (although none is less than 19) sometimes show their inexperience. Gillian Hills is note-perfect as Alison, however. She was 25 when The Owl Service was made, and had already taken a number of adult roles; she memorably disrobed in the previous year’s Blow-up. She’d do so again a couple of years later in A Clockwork Orange (so at least her stripping was in the aid of arty smut). Consequently, she carries herself as an extremely nubile teenager and Plummer plays up the sexually provocative side of Alison (whether she is supposed to be witting or not). When Roger walks in on her, as she trances out on her bed, her state suggests bacchic fevers; especially as it ends in violence (she scratches Roger’s cheek). Plummer also makes a point of capturing her shapely legs.
I found Francis Wallis’ rather stuffy public school lad Roger, old before his time, quite amusing. He comes on like a young Christopher Barrie, priggish and very-un ‘60s (although he has some interesting ties). Poor Wallis is also stuck wearing a pair of short shorts that would make even Graeme Garden in The Goodies’ Scoutrageous blanche. Michael Holden as Gwyn (the youngest cast member) is less successful, but even he never plummets to Matthew Waterhouse levels of amateurishness (it’s just very apparent that, when he shares scenes with Hills, she’s out of his league as a performer).
Heading up the adults, Edwin Richfield is an instantly recognisable face and it’s not much of a stretch to see a family resemblance with son Roger (Clive has recently married Alison’s mother, and they are staying in Alison’s house, left to her by an uncle to avoid death duties). Clive’s role is to be the essentially well-meaning but unperceptive parent (there must be a rational explanation somewhere). Richfield has a number of genre credits to his name, including The Avengers (six episodes, no less), UFO, Adam Adamant Lives!, the film version of Quatermass and the Pit and Doctor Who (The Sea Devils and, less auspiciously, Mestor the giant slug in The Twin Dilemma).
Raymond Llewellyn, as touched gardener Huw “half-baked” Halfbacon lives under the influence of past traumas. One foot is firmly rooted in the Mabinogion. Llewellyn appeared in one of Doctor Who’s first explorations of the possession theme two years earlier (The Abominable Snowmen). Rounding out the cast is Dorothy Edwards’ Nancy (Gwyn’s mum and the housekeeper). She’s the stock character given to oblique doom mongering, as she too was involved in the events that so affect Huw (“You been up in that roof, boy?”) Alison’s mother Margaret remains unseen, an “’Er indoors” spectral version of Arthur Daley’s missus.
The mesmeric qualities of the plates are the key inspiration on Garner’s part; the hows or whys of The Owl Service are unclear (who made them, if Nancy is so fearful of them why didn’t she destroy them?) but this is to the benefit of an episode shot through with odd and unsettling developments. There’s the scratching in the attic, the disappearing motif on the plates (as Alison traces the owls, so the plates are left unadorned) and Alison’s extreme reaction to anyone interfering with her paper owls (“Don’t do that! Don’t touch her!”) Plummer doesn’t always hit the bull’s-eye with his direction, but his choices are usually interesting (in particular Roger’s discovery of the hole in the stone, paralleled with the discovery of the plates).