Thursday, 18 February 2010

70s Children's TV Fantasy - Part Two

Sky (1975)

Sky, like Catweazle, is a children’s fantasy series whose title comes from the name of its central character who, again like Catweazle, is a visitor from another time who falls inadvertently into the present era, although Sky’s trajectory is from some ill-defined space beyond time rather from the past. The setting is, once again, rural, with a farming background, although this time with a West Country locale. The series was produced by HTV West and written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who had met and now worked in Bristol, where Baker was born and raised. There is a definite sense that they have a feel for the area, and this grounds the more fantastical elements of the story. The countryside is here painted in a very different light from that in Catweazle. We are no longer in a summer idyll. It is winter, and the trees are bare, the skies overcast and the tracks and fields churned and muddy (the children wear wellies throughout).

Roy, Jane and Arby, with Landy at the ready
The story begins with a pheasant shoot, which is observed in almost documentary style. There is a clear division established between the young protagonists, with the brother and sister Arby and Jane (a variant on Darby and Joan?), the former of whom acts as a beater and fetcher of the shot pheasants, seen as being on a lower social scale than their friend Roy, who participates in the shooting. Arby is something of an outsider and is considered to be an untrustworthy delinquent by those on the shoot. Suspicion is cast on him by default when things go slightly awry, and it is assumed that he is bagging the odd pheasant for himself and his family. Roy is the son of the retired army man Major Briggs, who runs the shoot from his manor house. The Major is another single parent bringing up his son on his own. But unlike Carrot’s father in Catweazle, who was a well-meaning if somewhat dazed and bemused man doing his best to keep his life and business afloat, the Major is seen as a pompous military buffoon. With his African masks on the wall suggestive of old school colonialism and his pom-pom-pomming of marching tunes while he pours himself another solitary gin, he seems lost in his own world. Actor Jack Watson’s familiar granite features help to physically convey the sense of a man who won’t listen to anything which falls outside of his narrowly defined view of the world and its workings. Roy seems only too happy to hop onto his trailbike and join his friends in their escapades alongside their dad’s landrover.

Sky is a mysterious stranger from another time who is almost literally unearthed by Arby during the pheasant shoot. It’s as if he himself has been shot down in a hunt in some parallel dimension. He is the boy who fell to Earth, his Icarus-like crash an accidental visitation, as opposed to David Bowie’s Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who arrives with deliberate purpose. Marc Harrison, who plays Sky, has many of Bowie’s vocal mannerisms and does in many ways seem like a junior version of his Starman. The Man Who Fell To Earth seems an obvious model, but Nicholas Roeg’s film was in fact released a year later in 1976. Sky appears a nature boy, buried beneath a drift of leaves and naked to the elements save for a covering of cottony fibrous matter such as might be found packing a seed case. This would seem to make literal his own later metaphorical account of his arrival as being akin to a seed landing in a medium in which it cannot germinate. His eyes are an unbroken blue, all iris, which adds to his air of unearthly detachment and inscrutability. He possesses supernatural, or in the context of his possible origins in a fundamentally different universe, perhaps supranatural powers. When he speaks, it is with an echo of aural shimmer, as if it is not a physical sound at all but a direct communication with the mind. Indeed, he is able to communicate telepathically with Arby, the outsider, and through patterns of colour with the mentally disturbed hospital in-patient Tom, whose madness is perhaps a result of his sensitivity to such processes.

Like Catweazle, Sky is in many ways an unsympathetic character who does nothing to disguise his feelings of superiority to those around him. The idea which he suggest at the beginning that he is like an as-yet ungerminated seed whose undiscovered powers are still growing makes him vulnerable and in need of help from those upon whom he calls, but such help is taken almost as a matter of course, the obeisance of acolytes. Unlike Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, he is not remotely seduced by the temptations of the consumer society or the technological pleasures of the present, all of which he considers and declares to be the product of a primitive culture which has chosen the wrong path. He brings a message of impending doom, issuing a curt jeremiad which condemns humanity for its disconnection from and destruction of the natural world. Whilst Catwazle is overawed by the differences between his world and this one, Sky observes everything with an overarching knowledge and draws his conclusions with a studied and emotionless neutrality.

Tor skies and prophet robes
Sky’s overview of the pre-determined pattern of time suggests a semi-divine omniscience. He resembles a Blakean figure from one of the artist/poet’s prophetic poem. The link with Blake is explicitly made by the episode titles which are derived from his verse: ‘Burning Bright’, ‘What Dread Hand’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’. During a quiet moment of refuge in a church hall, he notices a copy of Holman Hunt’s ‘Light of the World’, his depiction of Christ, the original of which hangs in St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘Is this the lord God?’ he asks. Arby equivocates, trying to tell him that this is the son of God, to which he immediately replies ‘which God?’ and ‘when did he arrive?’ Sky’s suggestion that he is one of a series of travellers who come to impart wisdom to mankind, and is therefore in the lineage of Christ and other religious prophets, takes us towards Erich von Daniken territory. Such ideas were very much in the air at the time, promulgated through mass market paperbacks which exhibited little regard for the basics of science, history and archaeology. Here, however, they are part of a fiction, and are not dressing themselves in the shabby garments of ‘hidden’ or occult knowledge. Having likened himself to Christ, Sky goes on to berate his helpers and by extension humanity (it is an all-inclusive ‘you’ to which he refers) for their repeated failure to live by the wisdom which has been granted them time and time again. His authority is enhanced by the fact that he is by now wearing a white robe very much like Christ’s in the painting. Sky does in fact go through an evolution of costume, which seems to transform after he has undergone several deaths and resurrections. These reflect his growing power and his bridging of various religious traditions. At first, he is covered only in the leaf matter of the wood, a pagan cloak. From his white, Christ-like robes he graduates to a vaguely Indian fashion of dress, a modern manifestation of Hindu deities or gurus appropriate to an era which tended to look eastward for mystical inspiration.

Accessing megalithic technology

Sky is not a particular compassionate or empathetic aspect of whatever godhead he claims kinship with, however. He uses the three children whom he calls upon for help, leaving them with nothing in return (the ‘healing’ of Arby and Jane’s mother aside). Even their memories are taken from them. He exploits his connection with the intuitively sensitive mind of Tom, a mentally disturbed patient in the hospital in which he is stranded, driving him beyond the routines which have become the stable centre of his life to possibly harmful long-term effect. Arby is left to disconsolately remind him ‘we did a lot for you’ as they are unceremoniously abandoned at Stonehenge. It is a moment of religious doubt, the realisation of a false messiah.

The series shares with much children’s TV fantasy of the early to mid-70s a fascination with the ancient landscapes of the West Country, and the idea of a latent power manifested through their megalithic structures and chalk hill figures. English science fiction writers exhibited a similar preoccupation at the time, as typified by such books as Keith Roberts’ Pavane and The Chalk Giants, Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex and Richard Cowper’s The Road to Corlay, part of his White Bird of Kinship trilogy in which the West Country has been transformed into an archipelago by rising sea levels. Programmes such as Children of the Stones, The Moon Stallion and Raven drew on the potent magic of such sites as Avebury, the White Horse of Uffington and Wayland’s Smithy. Nigel Kneale’s wearily apocalyptic Quatermass, a belated return to his famous creation, seemed to be an emblematic end to the cycle as the 70s drew to a close. It was a drama originally written during the hippie 60s, casting a sour shadow over its euphoric mysticism, and ended up as a belated marker stone to its dissolution into violent chaos. Kneale invented his own megalithic site, Ringstone Round, which had its own local mythologies and folk rhymes attached. Quatermass was a pessimistic piece of adult SF which may have rung a bell in the minds of those who’d grown up watching children’s TV earlier in the decade, and Sky in particular. In Sky, the young protagonists drive their enigmatic charge to both Glastonbury Tor and Stonehenge. The latter, unfortunately, features in one of the two episodes which have had to be sourced from off-air recordings, although these are of sufficient quality to render them perfectly watchable. It’s evident that one of these sites will be the all-important ‘Juganet’ about which Sky makes urgent enquiry as soon as he first encounters his helpers, and which will serve as the gateway through to the time in which he was intended to arrive. These megalithic circles and earthworks are markers, as they are in Kneale’s Quatermass, bearing witness to long silent alien technologies.

Disillusioned hippies
As for those who are drawn to the mystery of these places, their fumbling towards whatever truth they may reveal is blankly dismissed. The hippie couple living in a caravan in a field by the Tor, who await the return of a grail king figure foretold in ‘The Green Book of Myrddin’ (a made up tome, I assume) see him embodied in Sky. But he tells them in no uncertain terms that they are misguided, although it is good that they are seeking. He unwittingly draws the onslaught of the destructive powers of nature down on them and leaves them abandoning the physical, emotional and philosophical debris of their lives. They are seen walking along the road like refugees, with their meagre possessions on the chassis of a pram, the books which had previously inspired them left behind, their glimpse of transcendent truths now merely reminding of years of hollow hopes and wasted time. Not all revelation is welcome.

Dark force of nature
The cause of Sky’s crashing into the wrong time is never fully explained, but his presence is like a viral infection in the body of the world, and its natural forces gather themselves to reject and eliminate his unnatural presence. These forces are embodied and made manifest in the implacably malevolent form of a man who refers to himself as Goodchild. As played in an appropriate monotone performance of unnerving stillness by Robert Eddison, he is like a black-cloaked anthropomorphised raven, with pointed beard and piercing, fixed stare. Just as Catweazle is a creature of the woodlands, Sky is physically repulsed by it, pushed away. He is attacked by earth, root, leaf and branch, and the story becomes a pursuit narrative in which the children must help him get away from the Earth before it and its chthonic agents swallow him up. His violent treatment by these Gaian gangsters is somewhat ironic given the ecological messages which he brings. It’s as if his presence is an emblematic demonstration of the fate which awaits man. At one point, Roy is seen leafing briefly through a copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalogue. The Whole Earth Catalogues were the essential manuals and ‘how to’ guides of the early ecology movement. The symbolism of this being the last one would seem to affirm Sky’s gloomy prognosis. It is alarmingly prescient of our growing state of pessimistic despair and sense of personal powerlessness in the face of ecological catastrophe some 35 years later.

Post-catastrophe swamp dwellers
The future time which was Sky’s originally intended destination is briefly visited by a hapless Arby, who, unwilling to be just left by Sky without any further explanations, passes through the juganet gateway with him. The pattern of the previous episodes is inverted as he becomes the reviled stranger in a strange land, telepathically hounded and threatened with ritualistic sacrifice. The inhabitants of this future are first encountered huddling around fires in the mire of a woodland hollow, a cheerless locale which reminds us of the swamp from which Sky claimed his fellow travellers had raised humanity in the past. Sky hails these people for having regained a simple way of living and direct connection with nature that the society of Arby’s time had lost through its over-reliance on technology. And yet, their world is a depressingly grey place. They are organised around a primitive cult which worships before the shrine of a ramshackle mock-up of a rocket capsule, to which their priest intones nonsense words devolved from the language of the Apollo moon missions, which were reaching their golf-drives on the craters fag-end at this point. The chant with which all join in is a monotonously repeated NASA, with its sibilant S turned into a buzzing z, a transformation which pushes it half-way towards nazi-fication. This is perhaps appropriate given that one of the chief architects of the Saturn V launcher was Werner von Braun, who cut his teeth on German V-2 rockets before graduating to IRBMs in the USA. These scenes are reminiscent of those in Beneath the Planet of the Apes in which the mutants who live in the subterranean ruins of New York worship the atomic bomb, the progenitor of their fallen state. Sky is the demi-god of this post-catastrophe world, pledged to lead its people into a brighter future. ‘They will follow my prophecies’, he predicts. He is like a Gnostic deity whose ultimate aim is to encourage the rejection of the idea of gaining control of the world of matter, rather to transcend it altogether. Moving outwards to the stars without the use of rockets, as he puts it.

hippie facist of the future
Sky is essentially a harsh, unsparing angel, although mad Tom points out that he is ‘not on fire’ in the traditional sense, as the angel in the picture to which he points is. His visitation brings no comfort or consolation, however, no annunciation of immanent salvation. His is an unpitying insight into the final days of humanity, for whom he offers no hope. It is a vision to which those who meet him may wish they had never been exposed, and the forgetfulness which he grants them is a mercy, the bliss of continued ignorance. Only Arby is given the possibility of remembering after he has followed Sky into the future, inviting him to become his John the Baptist in the face of the coming storm. Perhaps understandably, he seems to shy away from this burden, for the time being at least. He agrees to join Roy and his sister Jane on the next pheasant shoot. Like the game hunt in Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu, this now seems to be a symbolic precursor to a wider catastrophe. The memory of his encounter with Sky remains latent, but the possibility of it being re-awakened is there.

Ultimately, Sky leaves many questions unanswered, but its air of ambiguity, of mysteries left unpenetrated, and of free-floating pessimism are strengths rather than weaknesses. It is the kind of intelligent, challenging (but also exciting and scary) children’s TV fantasy with which the 70s seemed to be so richly strewn. Eric Wetherell’s score is notable too, and also indicative of the way in which these series provided and introduction for young ears to modern classical and electronic branches of music. His Bartokian theme and his harsh electronic evocations of the wintry outdoor environment both add much to the atmosphere. The electronic sounds seem to come from the EMS synthesiser, the same variety which was nicknamed the Delaware at the Radiophonic Workshop HQ, and from which Malcolm Clarke had wrenched alien sounds of the deep in the Doctor Who serial The Sea Devils. The opening scenes of the first episode, with the swaying branches of bare trees and the wind-like wash of synthesiser noise reminded me of the Julian House film Winter Sun Wavelengths as soundtracked by Broadcast on their recent tour. The duo have indeed talked about the series as an influence in recent interviews. The young amateur cast is a bit awkward at times, but this creates a hesitancy which fits in with the natural wariness of their characters towards the events which are unfolding. It’s nice to see characters with West Country accents as protagonists, too, rather than providing background yokelry signifying rural backwardness and village idiocy. Again, Bob Baker’s Bristol childhood probably ensured that such stereotypes were given a wide berth. Baker and his writing partner Dave Martin would leave the countryside for their next non-Who fantasy, heading for the city where they would plunge their troubled young protagonist into the symbol-strewn corridors of inner space in their piece of ‘Kafka for kids’, King of the Castle.

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