Skip to main content

It’s difficult not to speculate inside the circle.

Children of the Stones
(1977)

The reputation of Children of the Stones, as both “the scariest kids’ TV series ever” and “The Wicker Man for children” is almost entirely earned. It sits in the post-Nigel Kneale landscape where science and the ancient supernatural entwine, a captivating cocktail that flourished in the 1970s, post-von Daniken, fascination with ancient astronauts and hidden history. There is still a will to that kind of storytelling (look at Lost), but it is tempered compared to the post-hippy embrace of all things pagan. At the time Children of the Stones was made cynicism of Flower Power had taken hold, but there remains a flight to the imagination that informs it; in later decades this kind of storytelling would be one step removed, hiding behind a self-referential gauze as protection from open mockery.


Kneale would offer his take on ancient sites a few years later with The Quatermass Conclusion. He opted for Stonehenge, while Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray plumped for Avebury (so, Britain’s second best known ancient site but one iconically more open to resculpting). A couple of years later Doctor Who’s The Stones of Blood drew on pagan legends and tied them to a tale of hyperspace prison ships. The less lugubrious Rollright Stones would provide the location for this adventure.


The creators of the Children of the Stones had previously been involved in fantasy-tinged TV, The Avengers and Doctor Who respectively. And director Peter Graham Scott had also helmed episodes of The Avengers. He worked on McGoohan’s Danger Man before directing another iconic UK landmark, Portmeirion, for an episode of The Prisoner (The General). Graham Scott devised and helmed another kids’ series, Into the Labyrinth, in the early ‘80s.


It is perhaps this pedigree that ensured that the series transcends the limits of afternoon kids’ TV; Graham Scott was surprised it had been intended for such an audience, based on its tone and complexity. The serial doesn’t talk down to its audience. Indeed, the relationship between Adam (Gareth Thomas) and Matthew Brake (Peter Demin), father and son, is on an equal intellectual footing. Ironically, this brainy young tyke aspect is one of the areas that betray its intended age group.



1: Into the Circle

The first, most striking aspect of the series is the title sequence. Ominous chanting choirs (courtesy of Sidney Sager), as if performing an occult rite, are heard, as a hand-held camera roves around the titular stones. It’s as unsettling as the discordant introductory sequence of another ostensibly children’s series, The Owl Service, made seven years earlier. The serial was made in the balmiest of English summers, 1976. While it doesn’t have the sun beaten, parched quality anyone who experienced it will remember, the effect is redolently 1970s from the fashions to the pre-naturalist performances of its actors.


Gareth Thomas imbues most of his roles with a certain starchy, some would say wooden, quality. While he’s the lead adult, he’s also more often than not the straight man, which fits his general style. Why his son sounds like he’s auditioning for cockernee of the year is a different matter. Didn’t he bring him up to speak proper? It’s not as if Matthew can claim a subsistence diet of Grange Hill, since it didn’t begin until the following year. Demin isn’t a great child actor by any means, but he isn’t a disaster either.


Graham Scott isn’t interested in creating an overly stylised setting, like that other one set in a village (The Prisoner); this plays like a typical ‘70s TV drama in terms of studio staginess (at times the reactions and editing are on the perfunctory side), except when it’s time to bring on the weirdness. Which we get from the start. Matthew sees a huge stone in the road, which then turns into a woman. Later he sees a truck coming straight towards him, which is then suddenly no longer there. There’s no ready explanation for any of this, which is either a sign of confidence in a mystery to be understood over the full span of time, or an indication of random strangeness that will never gain coherence.


What is impressive about this opener is how uncompromising it is in terms of piling on the information. There isn’t much leeway if you aren’t paying attention. The facts about the stones, which Adam has arrived to study on a university grant, are poured on in a torrent of what Tom Baker would call bafflegab. There’s enough confidence in sound of the science that the accompanying mysticism feints plausibility. We learn that the stones are older than Stonehenge, and encircle the village. In addition, each of the 53 stones is a source of great magnetic power.


While Adam is established as the unblinking man of science, he shows a remarkable facility for non-linear deduction as the episodes progress. Initially he is Scully to Margaret’s (Veronica Strong) Mulder (Adam’s wife died two years earlier, so the path is clear for a precautionary love interest). The story quickly embeds a sense of fated paths and uncontrolled destinies. Our protagonists are guided by indecipherable synchronicities. Most evident is the painting that Matthew found in a junkshop. Matthew saw it “and knew he had to have it”. Immediately there is a sense that it is this, rather than a university grant, that dictated their presence in Milbury.

Mrs CrabtreeSo you’ve come to measure our stones?


The picture shows a stream of light from the heavens focussed on the stone circle, with a throng around it while several figures flee up a hill. And a snake. There is a sense of the bacchanalian but also of something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (also 1977). When housekeeper Mrs Crabtree (Ruth Dunning) sees it, she collapses. Which elicits a very dry line from Adam.

AdamI imagine that was just the effect the artist was after.


It’s at this point that Rafael Hendrick enters the scene, played by the tremendously fruity Iain Cuthbertson. Cuthbertson is my favourite sort of villain; charm personified, such that it’s impossible not to like the fellow. And again, the plot doesn’t let up for pleasantries as conversation revolves around the picture. His critique of the style (“It’s very raw, powerful”) is secondary to the translation of a script on it.


Hendrick“I deny the existence of that which exists.” A remarkably futile statement, don’t you think? Like refusing to believe that which one knows to be true.

Cryptic remarks fuel the discussion between Hendrick and Adam (“Perhaps the picture came across him”, “It’s difficult not to speculate inside the circle”). Then there’s the suggestion that Hendrick knows Adam will be staying beyond his study; even Number Six knew he was trapped. The “Happy days” greeting echoes “Be seeing you” in The Prisoner; an artificial, automatic groupthink statement, with the subtext of a society that cannot think for itself, it represents sheep obediently instructed by their shepherd.

HendrickI read your paper on megalithic lunar observatories. I was very impressed.


And the characters that are initially set up as odd or mysterious (Sandra – the very posh Katherine Levy – whom we learn is Margaret’s daughter, and Dai – Freddie Jones – who has the worrisome predilection for spying on kids through a telescope) turn out to be wholly benign. Indeed, as soon as Adam meets Margaret, and Matthew arrives at school, it becomes evident that the “normal” people are few and far between. The paranoia of difference had been well trodden over the preceding decades: the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the uncanny children of Village of the Damned, the robotic women of The Stepford Wives). Here, the loss of will and emotional variance is depicted as the death of the soul. Bob (Ian Donnelly) is the first to talk to Matthew, but it becomes obvious that he’s unusual; or rather, that the average non-savant children are the odd-ones out.


MatthewShe says funny things.
BobThat’s because she’s not a happy one.
MatthewWhat’s a happy one?
BobSomeone who’s happy, of course.

Margaret, who works at the local museum and is as much of a boffin in her own field as Adam, tells him “We need new people here”, but at this stage there’s no real sense of claustrophobic threat to the events. It could all be put down to the classic “You’re not from round these parts” rural village.


You can add Ray Bradbury to the list of possible influences. The enchanted town has a whiff of Something Wicked This Way Comes. The sense that all this might be planned is accentuated by the mirroring of Margaret and Adam (and their children). Any given phrase takes on added resonance, such as the toast  “Old times, and new”.


Matthew is thrown into a strange environment at school, whereby a classmate attempts “to find out if he was human” by taking out his leg. It appears that everyone else knows what the score is but “He doesn’t know the difference”. Later Bob informs Kevin that he has been dropped from the football team (even though he scored) because “You argue with decisions. That’s no way to be happy”. When Kevin thumps him in response, Kevin does not react emotionally.  His “See, didn’t solve anything did it?” is surely intended as a slight; he’s not a normal kid because he doesn’t start scrapping. But even if it is supposed to be creepy and weird, it’s also a revelatory moment; the ostensibly bullied kid shows himself to be morally superior.


MargaretOh, good morning.
AdamNot happy day?
MargaretDefinitely not.

The discussion that takes up much of the rest of the episode is both rather dry, in setting out the facts, and irresistibly offbeat. Adam may blanche at the idea of there being substance to the alleged properties of ley lines, but for a pronounced sceptic he is admirably willing to speculate.


MargaretI take it you’re not a believer.
AdamI’m a scientist. Scientists need proof.

But the writers manage to make Margaret seem slightly dizzy by emphasising Adam’s quick deductions; are we really supposed to believe that she hadn’t realised the number of ley lines (53) matched the number of remaining standing stones?


MargaretSome believe ley lines are power cables and the sacred places they connect are temples built as a storehouse of psychic energy.
AdamSo Milbury’s full of psychic energy, is it?

The backstory is practical (they weigh 40 tonnes each), geographical (there used to be two avenues extending from the stones, one terminating in east and a barrow known as the Serpent’s Head; the one to the south west no longer exists) and mystical (they represent avenues from the head and tail of the solar serpent, the symbol of inner truth). We also hear of the once peculiar tradition of burying a stone each year for luck, during which someone had been caught and crushed beneath one of the stones.

MargaretI don’t enjoy – being alone.
AdamDo you mean the happy day natives are unfriendly?
MargaretI mean, I’m glad you’re here.


If Matthew’s end-of-episode encounter is less than compelling (Dodgy McDodgy leaps out in front of his bike), Adam’s is much more effective.

MargaretTouch one of the stones. I just want to see if you’re the kind of man I think you are.


When Adam touches the stone he sees a vision of the kids and other villages, a blue tinted image of them screaming and rapt before the stones. And then he is thrown backwards. This is an effective opener; however dated aspects of the serial seem now, the storytelling remains first rate.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Don’t you break into like, a billion homes a year?

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
(SPOILERS) Tis the season to be schmaltzy. Except, perhaps not as insufferably so as you might think. The Christmas Chronicles feels very much like a John Hughes production, which is appropriate since it's produced by Chris Columbus, who was given his start as a director by Hughes. Think Uncle Buck, but instead of John Candy improving his nieces and nephew's lives, you've got Kurt Russell's Santa Claus bringing good cheer to the kids of the Pierce household. The latter are an indifferent duo, but they key here is Santa, and Russell brings the movie that all important irrepressible spark and then some.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You counselled him and then he shot himself.

First Reformed (2017)
(SPOILERS) This uneven at best Roman Catholic – I know, it concerns a protestant church, but who are we trying to kid? – eco-guilt picture from Paul Schrader that has been hailed as his best in years, which it probably is, but these things are relative. Schrader has made, for the first hour or so, an engrossing study of faith, doubt and despair, but his choices after that, particularly during the last half hour, undo much of the effort.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…