Monday, 24 December 2012
Children of the Stones
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.