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.

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Out of my way, you lubberly oaf, or I’ll slit your gullet and shove it down your gizzard!

The Princess and the Pirate (1944) (SPOILERS) As I suggested when revisiting The Lemon Drop Kid , you’re unlikely to find many confessing to liking Bob Hope movies these days. Even Chevy Chase gets higher approval ratings. If asked to attest to the excruciating stand-up comedy Hope, the presenter and host, I doubt even diehards would proffer an endorsement. Probably even fewer would admit to having a hankering for Hope, were they aware of, or further still gave credence to, alleged MKUltra activities. But the movie comedy Hope, the fourth-wall breaking, Road -travelling quipster-coward of (loosely) 1939-1952? That Hope’s a funny guy, mostly, and many of his movies during that period are hugely inventive, creative comedies that are too easily dismissed under the “Bob Hope sucks” banner. The Princess and the Pirate is one of them.

My hands hurt from galloping.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) (SPOILERS) Say what you like about the 2016 reboot, at least it wasn’t labouring under the illusion it was an Amblin movie. Ghostbusters 3.5 features the odd laugh, but it isn’t funny, and it most definitely isn’t scary. It is, however, shamelessly nostalgic for, and reverential towards, the original(s), which appears to have granted it a free pass in fan circles. It didn’t deserve one.

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocat

I’ve heard the dancing’s amazing, but the music sucks.

Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) (SPOILERS) At one point in Tick, Tick… Boom! – which really ought to have been the title of an early ’90s Steven Seagal vehicle – Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson is given some sage advice on how to find success in his chosen field: “ On the next, maybe try writing about what you know ”. Unfortunately, the very autobiographical, very-meta result – I’m only surprised the musical doesn’t end with Larson finishing writing this musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical… – takes that acutely literally.

Who gave you the crusade franchise? Tell me that.

The Star Chamber (1983) (SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.