Tuesday, 9 February 2010

70s Children's TV Fantasy - part one


I’ve recently been watching some great children’s TV fantasy series from the late 60s and 1970s. Diverse as they are, they seem to share a certain spirit, a delight in the play of the imagination which nonetheless remains anchored in the experiences of the children who are the protagonists. The programmes in question are Catweazle (1969), Sky (1975), and King of the Castle (1977), the former written by Richard Carpenter, and the latter from the writing partnership of Bob Baker and Dave Martin. They feature two visitations to rural communities from other times (one from the past, one the future) and one journey into inner space launched from the lift shaft of an urban high-rise.

First up is the 1969 series Catweazle, the titular character of which is a highly eccentric magician from the 11th century whose spell cast to evade some hostile Normans propels him rather further than he’d bargained for, landing him in the twentieth century present day. The series plays out in classic timeslip fantasy style, with the disjuncture between worlds causing a catalogue of mishaps and misunderstandings. Catweazle is a disruptive force in the quiet and uneventful village in which he arrives. He fails to observe the social mores of the time and finds everyday experiences perplexing and nonsensical. His outsider perspective leads us to look at the behaviours and assumptions we take for granted and view them as if unfamiliar. Catweazle is particularly awestruck by twentieth century technology, which he views as magic, and there is much delightful wordplay as he linguistically recasts everyday appliances and devices according to his own perception of them. It is like the Martian poetry of Craig Raine and others; looking at the familiar as if it were strange. So electricity becomes ‘elec-trickery’; a light bulb holds ‘the sun in a bottle’; matches are ‘little fire sticks’; a camera is an ‘enchanting box’ which enslaves him by capturing his image; and the telephone is a ‘telling bone’. The delight in language extends to Catweazle’s wide repertoire of arcane curses, which generally invoke the baser creatures of the woodland floor. Hence, ‘thou legless lizard, thou wriggling grub, thou soft-backed beetle’ and my favourite ‘saucey snail’. All easily adaptable for the playground (and beyond).

Wild man of the woods
Catweazle himself is a strikingly wayward central figure. He is a self-styled ‘master of the black arts, follower of the secret path’ and can be heard chanting demonic names which could equally have been solemnly intoned by Christopher Lee in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out a couple of years earlier. Hardly the typical loveable children’s character. He is frequently unlikeable, being self-pitying, selfish, scheming and greedy, and looks convincingly grubby and grime-encrusted (and foul-smelling with it). As marvellously played by Geoffrey Bayldon, he is also an animalistic creature, with a diverse range of semi-vocalised yelps, hisses and whines, alongside a series of bodily tics and twitches. He is most at ease (and most honest) when addressing his familiar, Touchwood, a toad (for whom he provides a personal chariot in the form of a discarded roller skate). He finds his retreat from the fearsome noise of the modern world in a water tower in the middle of the woods, and it becomes his keep, which he grandly names Castle Saburac. Thus he returns to being a solitary hermit of the woods, a creature of the old forest, not quite human. He is fortunate in having arrived in a rural corner of England which has remained largely undeveloped. Catweazle in the city would have been a different story altogether. Already in the time from which he had come, he was being rooted out, hunted and harassed by the Normans. Perhaps the writer, Richard Carpenter, is hinting at the origin of our modern society in the control of common land exerted by the Normans. He did go on to write Robin of Sherwood, after all.

Castle Saburac
The domestic setting into which Catweazle stumbles is nicely written and observed by Richard Carpenter. Catweazle was Carpenter’s major writing debut after his previous existence as an actor. The boy who befriends Catweazle (if that’s the word) is called Edward, but is known to one and all as Carrot, due to his red hair. He’s played with great ease and humour by Robin Davies, who’d previously appeared in If…, knocking together a very unappealing fry-up with the lower orders downstairs. He would also later appear in another rural setting as one of the children of a woodland village who fall under the devil's spell in ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ (a film well worth looking beyond the lurid title for). There’s a lovely line when they first meet. Catweazle, still fearing his pursuers and unaware that he has left them far, far in the past asks him ‘art thou Norman’. Carrot, addressing him as if he were an idiot, replies ‘no, I’m Edward’. This exchange is later reversed when Carrot tells him ‘you’re crackers’ and he replies, with a look of confusion, ‘nay, I am Catweazle’. Davies had to have his hair dyed for the role, which trouble suggests that the red hair is an indicator of Carrot’s difference, his sense of being apart in the world which makes his companionship with Catweazle so important to him. Catweazle calls him ‘brother’ for his apparent mastery of the ‘magic’ of the age, but for Carrot, this brotherhood serves a different need. He lives on Hexwood Farm with his dad, who is pleasant but has an air of distraction, seeming slightly dazed at times. It’s never directly stated, but we get the feeling that Carrot’s mum has died in the recent past, and his dad is struggling to cope. Reading the introduction to the character in the novelization affirms that this was the background detail that Carpenter had in mind.

The Catweazle family
The hired hand on the farm, Sam Woodyard, is a gentle giant of a man, simple and open-hearted, played with sensitivity by Neil McCarthy, whose large stature usually reduced him to playing the heavy or the lumbering comedic simpleton. There’s a little of the latter here, but there’s much more to his character than being the head-scratching object of Carrot’s increasingly desperate attempts to keep Catweazle hidden. He spends a good deal of time with Carrot and is alert to his changing moods. With his guileless good nature and lack of self-aggrandising ambition, he is the heart of the farm, and both Carrot and his father are dismayed when he declares that he wants to move on and see more of the world. Much farcical to and fro is had in the early episodes around Sam’s almost coming across Catweazle. The two are such opposites, and yet play such similar roles in Carrot’s life that for them to meet would be unthinkable. Some sort of matter/anti-matter reaction would ensue, and both would disappear in an implosion of smoke. Sam continues to play an active role throughout the series, and we get to see his awful, tyrannical mother, observe his enthusiastic preparations for participation in the local pageant (as a Norman, of course) and his optimistic attempts at running a vintage car. Sadly, Neil McCarthy, whose performance here is of such kindly good nature that its difficult to believe that it doesn’t reflect something of his own personality, was struck down by motor neurone disease in 1985.

There are great cameo opportunities for a series of instantly recognisable British character actors. Hattie Jacques plays Madame Rosa, a fag-smoking ‘seer’ for whom the magic arts are part of the daily grind, an overfamiliar act of routine charlatanry. Until Catweazle turns up to gaze into her crystal ball, of course. Another Carry On stalwart, Peter Butterworth, puts in a marvellous turn as Colonel Upshaw, a completely barking retired colonial who lost his marbles in the African heat some time ago. Brian Wilde, better known as the nervous screw Mr Barrowclough in Porridge, puts in a similar turn as a befuddled vicar who rescues Catweazle from his church steeple and introduces him to the ‘telling bone’. John Junkin, familiar from the Marty Feldman show and A Hard Day’s Night, is the overly officious new police officer from the city, Sergeant Bottle, who is like a precursor to Simon Pegg’s character in Hot Fuzz, looking for village covens and seeing signs of witchcraft at every corner. Sergeant Bottle is uncharacteristic in his suspicion and readiness to persecute the eccentric and weird, and as such is seen as a fair target for Catweazle’s bewitchments, an ironic victim of the non-existent witchcraft he sought to uncover amongst the villagers.

Indeed, the village of Westbourne in which the series is set seems to be a haven of tolerance. The owner of the local antique shop is a character called Leslie Milton, played by Aubrey Morris, a face well known from films such as The Wicker Man, A Clockwork Orange and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. He is fairly evidently gay (although I tend to be wary of the automatic camp=gay equation) but this is an incidental detail of characterisation, and he is not subjected to the usual ridiculing remarks and belittling asides. Similarly, there is a couple who could well be interpreted as being lesbian (the photographer and her sighing partner) but nothing is made of this. By not drawing attention to these details, it offers the utopian possibility of a world in which it really doesn’t matter. Not even on a prurient ‘ooh, are they or aren’t they’ level. In the last episode, Mr Bennett (Carrot’s father) is lying up in bed waiting for his GP, an old fellow approaching retirement. When he is in stead visited by his stand in and eventual replacement, a woman in early middle age, there is no spluttering ‘b-b-but you’re a woman’ disbelief which would have been the default reaction in other comedies and dramas of the time. After a brief initial expression of mild surprise that she is not who he expected, her authority is accepted immediately and without fuss. There really does seem to be something of the bucolic eden about the surroundings, a pocket garden paradise only tangentially connected to the modern world. Perhaps Catweazle would do better to remain here rather than return to his time and be hunted down once more by the knights of the Norman barons.

Robin Davies as Carrot
Catweazle is the opposite of Sam; treacherous, unreliable and always seeking a way to return to his own time. Carrot’s relationship with Catweazle reflects the context of the relationships within the family farm. Catweazle takes on various different guises, and Carrot has to adapt accordingly. He is father when Catweazle acts with unruly childishness, supportive brother when conspiring in his schemes, and boss in his assertion of superior ‘magic’ in order to enlist the truculent wizard’s reluctant aid. Carrot learns something of the adult world and how to act within it through his acquaintance with Catweazle. He grows in character as a result, whereas Catweazle remains essentially a child in adult form. For Carrot, he is half-way between an imaginary friend and a pet. When he does eventually succeed in returning to his own time, we watch Carrot wander disconsolately back towards the farm along the edge of a lake. But for all his sorrow at parting, we sense that he has grown out of his need for a magical friend and is ready to meet the world on its own terms. For Carrot, Catweazle’s return to the past is like the end of a long dream of summer after which, in the manner of such tales, life will never be the same again.

1 comment:

Felicia said...

I am quite interesting in this topic hope you will elaborate more on it in future posts.