Monday, 24 December 2012

Children of the Stones

I missed Children of the Stones when it was first broadcast, and only caught up with it about twelve years ago. That occasion was enabled by a domestic television in a medium-sized university lecture room, the province of a cult television society who cheered at every appearance of the HTV West animation. This one was served by a projection screen in the back room of a terraced house, which made the viewing much more immersive and played to the serial's claustrophobic nature.

As most British television enthusiasts of a certain vintage could recount, whether or not they had actually seen Children of the Stones, the serial recognises the stipulation that ITV franchise holders had to make programmes which reflected or represented their region. Executive producer Peter Graham Scott and producer-director Patrick Dromgoole pursued it to limits probably undreamed of by the Independent Broadcasting Authority. For seven weeks at the start of 1977, viewers of ITV children's television were given a fictionalised tour of the Wiltshire village of Avebury - here reinvented as Milbury - its stone circle and the mythology surrounding them. Woven in with the factual material, including several historical instances relating to the stones and authentic archaeological detail, were a plot inspired by contemporary speculations about astral science known to prehistoric humanity and lost to recorded history, and drawing on astronomy and astrophysics.

The plot advances slowly, but inevitably, as if a wheel is being turned tightening a snare. Young Matthew (Matt) Brake (played by Peter Demin) accompanies his father, Professor Adam Brake (Gareth Thomas, a year before Blake's 7), to Milbury, where Professor Brake intends to complete his research into magnetic fields associated with Milbury's stone circle. Almost immediately apparent is the division of the population into recent arrivals and longer-established 'Happy Ones', who hail each other with the words 'Happy Day'. As described in dialogue, it's more like a password than a greeting. Adam Brake, who is widowed, is attracted to another recent arrival, Margaret Smythe (Veronica Strong), who runs the archaeological museum. Matt finds a near soulmate in her daughter Sandra (Katharine Levy). A looming and ambivalent presence is the lord of the manor, retired astrophysicist Raphael Hendrick (Ian Cuthbertson); his counterpart, skulking on the fringe of the village, is Welsh poacher Dai (Freddie Jones).

The serial's imagery establishes early on that Milbury is a trap. Matt first meets Dai while riding a bicycle which is actually Hendrick's property; he crashes and damages the bicycle's front wheel. Later, Matt rescues a rabbit from Dai's snare (itself positioned by a stone) and replaces it with a drawing of the broken bike, both a message and a symbol of the predicament Matt is only beginning to recognise. Once Matt has established the correspondences between the network of ley lines converging on the village through the stones, his father's magnetic fields and the astronomical feature at which the stones appear to be pointing, then characters and viewer feel bound within a psychically electrified net.

In their different ways both Adam and Matthew are sensitive to the powers concentrated in the stones. On touching the stones, both experience visions before being rendered unconscious, but Matt also manifests telepathic powers associated with items of clothing, adding useful insight into what happens when newcomers to the village are invited to dinner at Hendrick's house. Neither of the Brakes succumb to irrationality. Even when captured through apparently paranormal means in episode six, Adam Brake calmly lays before Hendrick his hypotheses about having missed a "time turning" which would return Adam and Matt to "our present" before Hendrick as a fellow man of science. He leaves Hendrick to condemn himself by admitting that he exercises powers which he does not fully understand. Adam and Matt both strive to comprehend their situation before they act.

Like most other television fiction of the day, exterior scenes were shot on location, on film, while interiors were recorded in studio on videotape. Children of the Stones's location filming took place in the hot summer of 1976, and in some scenes the grass on the fields of Avebury is noticeably yellow. This is turned to advantage by the cinematography, especially in the scene at the end of episode three where Jimmo Browning, classmate of Matt and Sandra, unexpectedly takes a prominent role in a morris dance. There is something barren about the rural rituals upon which Hendrick smiles with appropriated patriarchal feeling. Though the integration of sound and image is of a high standard throughout, it's particularly powerful during the filmed sequences, which include those of the villagers standing in a circle singing the tonal hymn (the pervasively characteristic element of Sidney Sager's precise and haunting score) which provides incidental music even when it seems not to be part of the linear narrative. The line between diegesis and extradiegetic commentary is pointedly blurred.

Several important scenes early in the serial are set in the village school, a one-classroom affair of wood-panelled walls where children of all ages are taught advanced mathematics by tweed-skirted Miss Clegg (sometime Forsyte Saga heroine June Barrie). Those who perform the calculations with ease sit together on the High Table, implicitly working as a collective. Those who do not sit as individuals, like dunces, struggling to understand the equations Miss Clegg chalks out on her blackboard. At this viewing, the mathematician in the room described one equation, which served to show the transformation of Jimmo from slow learner to mathematical genius, as gibberish; but as this equation was inscribed by the actor playing Jimmo, one hopes that scientific adviser Peter Williams provided astrophysical in-jokes at least for the others.

Theme and execution have brought comments over the years that Children of the Stones is too disturbing for children's viewing. This was supposedly the view of an executive at HTV when the serial's concept was first pitched. However, its central premise is one familiar to many children, the unease which new children feel at school when facing a different set of cultural norms to those which they are accustomed. Making friends with other recent arrivals is an obvious strategy, but as they are assimilated one by one, picking up the incomprehensible local mannerisms and jargon, what happens when only you are left? The pressure to conform to the rules of the herd manifests itself as the beam of light which the viewers see burn negativity and autonomy away from Margaret and Sandra, just as a schoolchild might feel their attitudes and personality changed by interactions with new people in a new setting. Though Matt feels his psychic connection with Sandra broken as she becomes a 'Happy One', Sandra and Margaret do not become strangers to the viewers, who see them discussing the effects of the change on their mood and abilities, Sandra thereafter finding the calculations performed at school easy. In an unnerving exchange Katharine Levy's performance becomes much more mature and self-possessed, Sandra appearing preternaturally knowing in front of the now isolated Matt. Seeing Sandra and Margaret bask in their transformations is more chilling than making their changed personalities unknowable: one can believe, as Sandra says to Matt, that the villagers "will see you soon" and that there will be no escape.

The serial's atmosphere is reinforced by its reluctance to provide anything except a working hypothesis as an answer to its questions, underlined by the viewer being left with more information than its rationalist protagonists. The Roadline lorry which disappears as it turns a corner to enter the village in episode one is never seen again, perhaps the clearest indication - but only an indication - that there is a 'linear time' Milbury which luckier travellers might enter. The most enigmatic character is not Raphael Hendrick, but John Woodnutt as Link. He only appears in the final three episodes and to the Brakes appears only to be Hendrick's butler; but while a subordinate in the household, he is at least a partner in Hendrick's scheme, and possibly even the puppetmaster, disappearing into a control cubicle to operate astronomical technology while Hendrick plays the part of High Priest as part of his recruitment ritual. At the conclusion, as the time cycle restarts and Sir Joshua Lytton arrives to take possession of the house that had and had not been Hendrick's, Link appears again, but with dark hair and a moustache and in the character of an estate or land agent.

Children of the Stones advertises its sources. Entirely fictional finds are combined in Milbury's museum with those drawn from the archaeological digs of Alexander Keiller and others at Avebury. Though the production team added many of their own polystyrene 'stones' to the circle, the title sequence advertises in word and image that Milbury-Avebury is a real and dramatic part of the Wiltshire landscape. Some details are conflated - the Sanctuary of Children of the Stones is (as far as its exterior is concerned) West Kennett Long Barrow, not the real Sanctuary of the Avebury complex, south of the village by the A4 - but this does not compromise the story's imaginative response to a landscape of lost ritual. It also draws from the countercultural currents of the period, when speculation that the 'lost' knowledge of ancient civilizations might be rediscovered was rife, when extrasensory perception was a well-publicised subject of scientific study, and the ancient stone circles of the British Isles were adopted as places of worship by the emerging New Age movement. The association of the stone circle with cyclical time united both interest in the possibility that stone circles were observatories or astronomical timepieces (one drawn on explicitly by the script) and western fascination with the Buddhist bhavacakra.

The row of books in the Brakes' cottage includes at least one contemporary magical text, Elizabeth St George's The Casebook of a Working Occultist (Rigel Press, London, 1973). St George - otherwise Sandra West - was an active magical practitioner in the late twentieth century who died in 2007. Her semi-fictionalised, quasi-Sherlockian account of past projects includes an overlap with the world of fantasy television when she summons the 'thought-form' of Star Trek's Mr Spock to aid the rescue of Apollo 13 in 1970, having earlier rejected Doctor Who - 'an old man in a frock coat' - as inappropriate. If the book has any more significance than someone's idea of witty set-dressing, it's the last chapter which has relevance for Children of the Stones. There, the narrator confronts the guardian spirit of a long barrow. It's possible that this figure provided some inspiration for Dai in his role as guardian of the Sanctuary against Hendrick and the Happy Ones and against the time cycle, though ultimately it is the barrow itself, rather than Dai, which offers protection.

The conflation of archaeology, magic and knowledge of ancient or non-western civilizations marks Children of the Stones out as a late-postwar British work. Hendrick's wish to bring together the fifty-three villagers as one happy family, with himself as patriarch, can be read in terms of both imperialist and social democratic ideals, if one is so minded. Stewart Lee, in BBC Radio 4's Happy Days: Children of the Stones, has commented that revisiting the series as an adult makes him much more sympathetic to Hendrick's world view in that Hendrick wishes to take away the suffering of others by making a sacrifice of himself. However, the society which results is one where there is only one imagination left and only its posessor has any real capacity to learn. The era of the Happy Ones might seem to be that of the ultimate welfare state - the extraction of 'negative energy' has removed even ill health, as the unprocessed Dr Lyle comments - but this social security rests on disempowerment rather than democracy. To be a little more tendentious, it's tempting to imagine that for the career freelancers who wrote Children of the Stones, actor-writers Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, the overthrow of Hendrick by the Brakes might have symbolised a rebellion against corporate culture in government and business with which they identified. The Brakes' inability to save Margaret and Sandra from being turned to stone demonstrates both the limits of the gesture and attempts at a less general reading.

Children of the Stones is carved from stratum upon stratum of apprehension, a psychogeology of fears. So much of the drama takes place in blazing sunshine or under the open sky of a summer night, or in well-lit sets which stress mundanity over mystery, but this only emphasises how in Milbury the strange permeates every person, every stone (almost a tautology). The story is told deliberately between visual images which haunt and arrest, sometimes marrying film and video techniques in a fashion which is a reminder of how common a union this was in the 1970s. The viewer is left considerably less sanguine about the naturalism of television storytelling. Just as Adam and Matt Brake leave Milbury desperate for the tangible reality of the sandwich after their experiences with the uncanny, Children of the Stones itself encourages doubts about its reliability as a witness. The production's voice is closer to Hendrick's than to that of the Brakes, because it feigns not to understand itself and leaves the viewer to answer questions. Children of the Stones continues to preoccupy viewers long after most of the fare which surrounded it has been forgotten, as demonstrated by its internet following, the recent radio documentary, and the series' continued presence on Network DVD's catalogue and its role as a gateway (through a bonus disc) into HTV's other ventures into the fantastic from the period.

12 comments:

  1. Very interesting - I may well check the series out some time soon!

    Your penultimate paragraph reminds me of the interpretation of The Prisoner which sees the Prisoner as the villain of the piece, destroying a fully-functioning socialist utopia just because he personally doesn't like it (this holds best for later episodes where he seems to be the only dissident in The Village). This is an idea I intend to explore further at some point - assuming I can find the time!

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    1. Thank you!

      If you've not heard Stewart Lee's programme, it's worth listening to even if you are unfamiliar with the series. There are contributions from Gareth Thomas, Katharine Levy and Jeremy Burnham, who talks about his sequel (available for Kindle) and the opera adaptation which a composer called Robert Gross is preparing.

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    2. And not forgetting my contribution :) that was a fantastic day for us all. I met Kate Levy! Happy Day!

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  2. Hello!

    I'm the composer who is setting about on the dubious task of trying to turn this marvelous story into an opera. I must say that this is one of the most insightful readings of the series that I've encountered. I hadn't realized that the wrecked bike was symbolic of the theme of the trap, and I never noticed what was lurking on the bookshelf. How I missed these is beyond me!

    Thank you also for pointing toward the Stewart Lee programme. I'm located in Texas, so I was not able to catch the actual broadcast. I told Jeremy Burnham that I would try to tune in psychometrically, and he offered me an old sock.

    The opera adaptation is just a labor of love on my part--- it is a non-commissioned work, so we will be looking for an opera house that can give it a home. If anybody reading this knows someone who knows someone who might be interested, please have them get in touch with me. My facebook page is included here.

    Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks, Robert! I'm very pleased that you like the review, and am glad to have directed you towards the radio programme; international availability of most BBC Radio programmes is a good thing, and more efficient than psychometrics.

      Best wishes for the opera - I'd be interested to know if and when you attract some interest.

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  3. Matthew,

    I was wondering if I could consult you further regarding the Children of the Stones opera project. Is there an e-mail address by which I can contact you? Mine is tuttlemsm@hotmail.com.

    Thank you,
    Robert Gross

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  4. I would love to know more about the sequel. Where can it be found?

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    1. The book was available for Kindle only when I looked at Christmas. Fantom Publishing are preparing a print version.

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    2. Be warned, it's not really a direct sequel

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  5. The hardback version was published earlier this month.

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  6. In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded. Here are these two classes as described by James in his own words:
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2013/11/bellow-deans-december.html#.UyN3Wj9dXxA

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