Thursday, 4 March 2010

70s Children's TV Fantasy - Part Three

King of the Castle (1977)

King of the Castle turns away from the ‘we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’ ethos of much 70s fantasy, with its rural backdrops, and strands its central character in the unforgiving urban environment or a poorly managed and ill-maintained high-rise block; The type of building which came to seem emblematic of the failure of post-war utopian dreams and far more in keeping with the spirit of place of Britain as it hobbled towards the declining years of the decade. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin referred to it as Kafka for kids, although they could equally have gone with Ballard for boys, as this is a drama which sets the controls for inner space. The opening episode takes place in the ‘mundane’ world and introduces us to all the characters and elements which will go towards creating and populating the world of the imagination into which the protagonist, Roland, is plunged. The mannerisms and characters of people in the real world get translated into their names, status and symbolic roles in the world of the imagination. So Fulton Mackay’s scornful, authoritarian headmaster at the cathedral choir school, with his birdlike head movements and interrogatory prodding, becomes Hawkspur, a Frankensteinian scientist whose experiments set out to recreate his own ideas of what is right and good. The bully whom Roland has to confront, identified only by the nickname Ripper spelt out in studs on the back of his jacket, becomes the functionally named Warrior, the guttural, monosyllabic guardian of the stairways between the levels of the castle of the mind.

The series draws upon many literary influences and there are allusions to various of them throughout. There is a nod to Susan Hill’s novel I’m the King of the Castle, with its depiction of childhood bullying, in the title. Roland is tormented by Ripper, the tyrant of the high-rise stairways and his cadre of cronies in the opening episode, which plays out in deceptively straightforward social realist style. Kafka is, however, the writer whose influence is most explicitly referenced. The narrative drive of the story can be seen as an inversion of that of The Castle. The protagonist of that novel, K, is attempting to gain access to the inner sanctum of the castle as opposed to Roland, who is inside looking for a way out. The pointless maze of officialdom through which Roland is forced to run in order to progress is akin to the bewildering bureaucratic processes and indeterminately menacing interrogations to which Josef K is subjected in The Trial. There is an atmosphere redolent of the absurdist theatre of Pinter and Beckett too, with its gnomic, evasively circling dialogue and sense of existential angst combined with a vaguely vaudevillian air. The white faced, top-hatted vein could certainly have stepped from the pages of a Beckett play, and the deadpan double act of the lift engineers/basement chefs, with their repetition of each other’s phrases and obfuscatory language, are very Pinteresque. There is much of the topsy-turvy logic and linguistic legerdemain of Alice in Wonderland too, with its feel of a world where madness is the norm. Roland shrinkage to a diminutive self after drinking the queen’s proferred draught (or ‘squash’) and observation of sudden shifts in scale echoes Alice’s similarly disorienting experiences at the bottom of the rabbit hole. Indeed, his fall down the lift shaft can be seen as a modern variant of Alice’s dream descent. Roland’s name is probably chosen for its allusion to Robert Browning’s visionary poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, in which that title provides the tantalising final line, as if the whole narrative is a prelude to the real adventure. If Browning leaves Roland at the gates of the tower, Bob Baker and Dave Martin plunge him straight into its dark depths.

Roland’s confrontation with the bully Ripper and the subsequent retreat from the police who intervene lead him to run into the lift which we have learnt from several previous encounters is out of order and in the process of being repaired. Roland’s pressing of the button shuts him in its confined space and sends him plummeting down to the bottom of the shaft and into a strange imaginary world. The series predominantly takes place within this world, but the occasional insertion of scenes from the real world follow the efforts to reach him and the reactions of his parents and the other characters involved to his predicament. These interludes underline the correlations between the worlds, and the parallels between inner and outer realities, with progress in each being of equal importance. The inner world reflects that of the outer, but as in a distorting mirror which recasts everything into grotesque forms of exaggerated symbolism. Just as he is confined in a literal sense within the claustrophobic space of the lift, so Roland’s imaginary world is contained within the walls of the castle tower in the basement of which he finds himself after his accident. The castle takes its form from the tower block and its architectural cues from the stone corridors and arching roofs of the cathedral school which Roland attends, as well as the dream structures from the fantasy posters which adorn his walls. Of these posters, one is by Rodney Matthews and depicts orc-like creatures running up the staircase winding around a turret; and the other is by Roger Dean, the cover of a Greenslade LP, which depicts a multi-armed, green-skinned man with a ramshackle city of precipitously stacked dwellings receding into the distance behind him. The camera lingers over this roofscape for several seconds, as if to fix it in our minds and suggest to us the building blocks which go towards constructing Roland’s interior world.

Vertiginous distance
The stairs in the castle coil around upon themselves as they rise into the vertiginous distance. They bring to mind the stairway in A Matter of Life and Death as it threads across the starry gulfs of space, its diminishing perspective creating a sense of vastness, or in this case an interior space which contains a whole world. This idea of the castle as a self-contained world unto itself is very reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, a resemblance further enhanced by the distorted gargoyle faces carved into the rock around the stairway passages and the grotesque and theatrically exaggerated nature of its inhabitants. As in Gormenghast, there are different social zones in the castle, areas which serve the needs of a large enclosed community. This reflects the mechanics of the social and administrative workings of the tower block and school, but also, by extension, of the British Isles in their isolationist, Little England fashion. The castle is both high-rise and cathedral school, reflecting both modernity and tradition, and bridging the opposite ends of the social spectrum. The royal crest of the castle, with its crenellated tower, is the same as that of Roland’s school. His ascent to the top of the tower (to be King of the Castle) is an emblematic reclamation of the badge which is torn from his blazer in a self-characteristic act by Ripper, the stairwell bully.

Gothic Vein
In the fashion of video games yet to come, Roland must work his way from the basement in which he awakes and ascend through various levels until he reaches the top and finds the way out. With each encounter on the way he will learn something which will provide him with the key, both literal and figurative, to find his way to the next stage. By implication, his escape will lead to his re-awakening to consciousness in the real world. But it will also be a form of rebirth. His ascent to self-awareness in this inner castle will help him to define his place on the outside. He is guided in his quest by the ambiguous figure of Vein, a character analogous to the testy, grudgeful caretaker Vine in the real world. As Vine seems to regard the high-rise as his domain, so Vein may have motives of his own behind his offers of aid. He resembles a funeral director who has applied his own techniques upon himself. This fits in with the general gothic cast of the inner world, an atmosphere which is given justification by the horror comics which Roland reads and the model of Frankenstein which he has in his bedroom. This was a time when the spirit of Hammer and Universal horror films lived on in plastic model kits and bubblegum cards which made them common currency in the playground amongst children who’d probably never seen the pictures from which they originated.

The structure of the series, following the initial establishing episode, follows Roland through the various levels of his ascent of the tower and the trials which he undergoes at each in order to learn, which, as Vein repeatedly informs him, is the purpose behind his progress. Each episode takes place on a different level and serves to reflect a particular aspect of the outside world which has seeped through into Roland’s subconscious to spread fear and anxiety. The first level finds him encountering the mad scientist Hawkspur and his pitiful creation Ergon, figures analogous with his headmaster at the cathedral school, Spurgeon and his nervy, subordinate lacky Hawker. Hawkspur’s laboratory centres around a sparking piece of machinery in the traditional Frankensteinian syle which is designed to remove a voice (in this case Roland’s) in order to imprint it upon his dumb, childlike creation. This expresses Roland’s anxieties about his singing and the scholarship it has granted him as a chorister, something to which he is not as committed as those who would use his talents (all the while telling him how grateful he should be for such a privilege). He teaches the monster Ergon to defy his master, and its half-absorbed, electronically distorted voice utters nothing other than the idiot phrase ‘I won’t’. It’s a fairly useless rebellion, limited in its reflexive nature, and the creature sustains cumulative injuries as it repeatedly plunges down the shaft of the tower in the course of its lumbering attempts to break free, never learning better. For Roland, this is a start, a piece of displaced defiance. A refusal to be moulded through the imposition of another’s values, to allow his voice to be appropriated for their ends.

Warrior of the stairways - jazz collage backdrop
After a confrontation with the warrior on the stairs, who repeatedly obstructs his upwards progress, the second level involves an encounter with the ‘Lady’ of the castle, who is analogous with Roland’s step-mother June. He is seduced with the temptation of luxury and an enveloping care, the promise that all his needs will be met. A drink of the Lady’s ‘squash’ reduces him to a pocket-sized figure for whom her doll’s house awaits. She offers a suffocating, imprisoning form of possessive love. In the real world, June is tentative in her approach to Roland, anxious as a new member of the family not to impose herself on him and attempt to replace his mother, or to act as a go-between for Roland and his father. Her cautious concern and worry over how she should treat Roland are reflected and inverted in her mirror self, which is also a projection of Roland’s uncertain feelings about this new mother figure. The third level is that of authority, represented by the Governor of the castle, who derives from the police sergeant who sent him running into the lift and thus to his imprisonment. Roland is literally sent down to hard labour at meaningless drudgery in the kitchen dungeons. Here, everyone goes through repetitive cycles, neither knowing nor caring what they are producing or who, if anyone, will actually get to eat it. The child labour all derives from the kids on the high-rise estate, the cohorts and hangers on of Ripper. They are at the bottom of the pile here in the castle, and represent a condition of aimless, unquestioning serfdom, of an acceptance of predestined fate which Roland is determined to rise above. His efforts to set them free are greeted with resentment, since they are comfortable in their slavery, relieved at not having the burden of choice thrust upon them. In a wider political sense, the kitchen dungeons stand for a Britain in decline, overcome with apathy and despondency, and which no longer offers any meaningful labour. It is a place whose old-fashioned values seem increasingly hollow and tokenistic.

Bureaucratic maze
The fourth level is a bureaucratic maze in which any request for information or civic permission leads to a proliferating paperchase of self-generating forms issued by self-important clerks until eventually you begin to lose sight of what you were after in the first place and your identity becomes ever more worn away. The bureaucrat, encountered in many thinly disguised forms, is identified by his desk placard as Voysey. His counterpart in the real world is Voss, the harried-looking building manager for whom everything is too much trouble. His evasion of responsibility ensures that the environment in which Roland lives continues to deteriorate and become the territorial kingdom of violent gangs. He is a representative of a social order which has slipped beyond the control of the general populace and into brute survivalism. He castigates the individual for his own entrapment whilst administering the mechanisms which ensure that such a state endures.

Headphone crown
The final level, the pinnacle of the tower, finds Roland confronting and usurping the power of the Lord of the castle, having first defeated his warrior guard, the samurai version of Ripper who appears once more before the last set of stairs. The Lord is analgous to Roland’s father, Ron, a deliberate similarity in names suggesting the centrality of their relationship to the story. Roland thus completes the reversed (and slightly watered down) Oedipal path which had begun with his encounter with his new mother. In the outer world, Ron is a musician wholly pre-occupied with his ‘sounds’ who lives largely in a headphone world, cut off from communication. In the castle, on his throne, his crown incorporates his headphones and he initially dashes off before Roland can ask his advice. Prompted by a seemingly duplicitous Vein, he forces him to give up the key around his neck at swordpoint, thus acceding to the position of king of the castle. The next episode follows Roland as he attempts to exercise his new found power to make right all the injustices and inequalities which he has encountered along the way. He finds that there is considerable resistance to the imposition of his new systems, logical and enlightened though they might be. His predicament addresses the problems of what to do once have earned the freedom of choice; how do you go about introducing your ideas into the world and affecting change, and what happens when it chooses to resist. The adult world, with its responsibilities and requirements, has to be navigated through negotiation and compromise.

The invisible jury - addressing nobody
The last episode sees Roland put on trial, held responsible for the trail of consequences which lie in the wake of his progress through the tower. This trial scenes conjure a particularly absurdist world and are perhaps what Bob Baker and Dave Martin had in mind when they coined their Kafka for Kids caption. There is certainly an air of Kafka’s Trial about this one. It is also vaguely reminiscent, albeit on a far less grand scale, of the trial at the climax of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. As with David Niven’s airman in that film, who is simultaneously undergoing a critical operation on his brain, the implication is that Roland’s own safe return to the world is dependant on the outcome. The trial ultimately forces Roland to confront himself and be the judge of his own worth, as the vanishing jury suggests.

Upon returning to the real world, Roland goes about putting the lessons which he has learned into practice, facing up to the twin bullies of the headmaster in the cathedral school and Ripper in the high-rise and establishing the possibility of a closer relationship with his father. He also puts away childish things, which in this case consists of his monster models and magazines (including a copy of Hammer House of Horror magazine, I couldn’t help but notice. I wonder if he enjoyed John Bolton’s Father Shandor strip). It is through the resources of his imagination that he has come to feel stronger and more self-reliant in the world at large, however, so they have served their purpose. In this sense, the story is at least in part an argument in favour of the value of the literature and fiction of the fantastic. It acknowledges the dangers of a wholesale retreat into escapism, whilst suggesting that a temporary retreat into an imaginary world can help bring a renewed perspective to the real. He’s also got rid of his Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews posters. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to read this as a rejection of the fag-end of the prog-rock triple-gatefold era, particularly with Roland sporting a punkish sleeveless T-shirt. Anyway, having asked his dad whether he minds calling him Roland rather than the non-committal ‘son’, the frame freezes (in Quatre Cents Coups style) on his face, and we are left with the image of him smiling. There is a feeling that in the end is a new beginning

King of the Castle
King of the Castle is a remarkably ambitious piece of writing by Baker and Martin, a series whose coherence and thematic richness bears repeated viewing. The inclusion of all the elements which will go into the construction of the fantastic world in the first, real world episode is very skilfully and unobtrusively achieved. The direction is interesting at times, too, particulary at the ends of episodes, where a shot is held and an element of the scene zoomed in upon in short incremental steps. The acting is a little variable, which is understandable given the youth of much of the cast, but serves its purpose. Talfryn Thomas is particularly excellent as Vein (in many ways the major character besides Roland) in a role which gives him a break from his customary comedy Welshmen (he’s good in Doctor Who and the Green Death too, mind). The theme tune is a good, off-kilter version of the I’m The King of the Castle nursery rhyme, with crashing, Messiaen organ chords intruding when the lift is seen to malfunction in a shower of sparks at the end of the credits. King of the Castle was nominated for a BAFTA in 1977 but lost out to another type of children’s story entirely: Oliver Postgate’s colour retellings of the tales of Ivor the Engine. At least they lost out to the best. Bob Baker would eventually collect his BAFTA some twenty-two years later for a similarly hand-crafted piece of animation featuring the characters who he had helped to create (and whose adventures he had scripted from the start): Wallace and Gromit in ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’. Baker’s writing partner Dave Martin sadly passed away in 2007, but their co-creation K-9 looks set for a revival in the near future. Find out more, and read about his other projects, at Bob Baker’s entertaining web site.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ive been trying to remember this series to my hubby, found it now, it was brilliant cant wait to show him this page