Friday, 5 October 2012

Happy Days: The Children of the Stones

Radio 4 broadcast a great documentary on the 1977 children's TV series Children of the Stones yesterday presented by Stewart Lee, who seems to have become a cultural curator of all things weird and esoteric, having made a programme about British pioneers of electronic music a short while ago (A Sound British Adventure) and appeared on the radio 3 arts programme Night Waves with Iain Sinclair to talk about the Welsh author of eerie and occult tales Arthur Machen. These are all things which evidently loom large in his own inner cultural landscape. He talks of how watching Children of the Stones as a youngster chimed with his own concerns with non-conformity and a mixture of fear and fascination with a great numinous unknown. He also credits it with sparking a lifelong interest in stone circles and long barrows. That other modern explorer of megalithic sites and the mindset which created them, Julian Cope, is on hand to provide a singular dissenting voice. His objection centres around an unease with the either/or paradigms found in post-war stories, including Children of the Stones and The Wicker Man, which feature some sort of cultish leader – usually pagan, as he notes. He has not time for the idea that the viewer might feel sympathy for Iain Cuthbertson’s Hendrick, the controlling magus of Milbury, the village in Children of the Stones, or for Lord Summerisle, the aristocratic squire and religious revivalist of The Wicker Man. For him, they are authoritarian figures who perpetuate a religious conflict which has no part in his worldview, which seeks to transcend such divides.

Touching the stone - Adam and Margaret (Gareth Thomas and Veronica Strong
Lee travels to Avebury and meets people who were strongly affected by the series when they were young, and also talks to members of the cast. Veronica Strong and Katharine Levy, who played mother and daughter Margaret and Sandra, are both on hand to recall the making of the series in the burning summer of 1976, and Gareth Thomas, who played the astrophysicist Adam Brake, who comes to the village with his son Matthew to make a scientific study of the stones, is present via a studio interview. Levy recalls working with the marvellous Freddie Jones (whose performance as the spluttering, irascible and impressively muttonchopped Victorian spirit General Sir George Uproar, presiding over his old manor house in Richard Carpenter’s The Ghosts of Motley Hall, I am currently hugely enjoying), who played the poacher Dai, the keeper of secret knowledge who lives in the sanctuary of the long barrow, and is resistant to Hendrick’s mesmeric influence. She remembers that he at first appeared a little strange to her and her fellow child actors, before she realised that he was keeping in character throughout. Lee makes the point that the series treated children as equals, and didn’t in any way talk down to them. This can certainly be found in the two relationships between single parent and child which are central to the story, Adam with Matthew and Margaret with Sandra, which have the sense of twin halves waiting to be joined to form a completed whole. The female on the inside of the circle and the male coming in, via the avenue, from the outside.

Evil magus - Iain Cuthbertson as Hendrick
Children of the Stones was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, and Lee interviews Burnham, who is still proud of it to this day. He also reveals that he is writing a sequel, set 25 years after the events of the original. Normally, I would greet such news with a groan, seeing it as yet another example of the obsessive recycling of the past which obstructs the creation any new and innovative work. But there was something a little unsatisfying about the conclusion of Children of the Stones, which was a little throwaway. The cyclical nature of time which it seemed to propose would make a return entirely plausible, and perhaps allow for Margaret and Sandra to assert their independence from Hendrick and the ‘Happy Day’ ethos of bland, unquestioning contentment which he propagates, once more. I certainly don’t insist on happy endings, but I’ve never liked the fact that they are abandoned at the end, ossifying into pained and contorted megaliths. Veronica Strong certainly expresses a willingness to return to her role in the programme, and perhaps Katherine Levy’s participation in Lee’s documentary and her fond memories of the past indicate that she too might be willing to take part. Rather more oddly, Burnham also reveals that the American composer Robert Gross is working on turning the story into an opera – perhaps influenced by the time he spent studying in the West Country at Bristol University – which sounds as unlikely as Tod Machover’s adaptation of Philip K Dick’s strange late novel Valis into modern, electronic operatic form. I wonder whether Gross will draw on Sidney Sager’s superb, modernist vocal score for Children of the Stones, as performed by the Ambrosian Singers, who were well used to performing avant garde compositions. Drawing on the soundworlds of Berio and Ligeti, Lee talks of it as being ‘the most inappropriate children’s TV theme ever penned’, and all the better for it.

Jeremy Deller's Sacrilege - the bouncy 'enge
Lee also talks to Avebury museum curators past and present, talking about current views on the meanings of the stones for ancient people, and on the sort of people who come to the village. He puts it to one of them that ‘presumably, as the curator of the Avebury museum, you don’t feel the purpose of the circle was to harness an evil ray from space’. He also talks to James McGowan, who created a website for the programme, and who moved down to the area from Scotland. I can certainly empathise with his memories of visiting the sites in the programme. I remember going to Avebury as a child and re-enacting the scene in which Adam touches one of the stones and is filled with troubling vision before being violently thrown back (a scene presaged by one of my favourite bits of dialogue from the series, in which Margaret asks him ‘would you do something for me…touch one of the stones…I just want to see if you’re the kind of man I think you are’, to which Adam replies ‘and what kind of man is that!’) I was recently able to do this once more, in a rather more wholehearted and, I like to think, spectacular manner, when Jeremy Deller’s mobile sculpture ‘Sacrilege’, better known as the bouncy Stonehenge, came to town and provided me with 15 minutes of unbridled joy before the heavens opened.

Lee traces the influences on the programme and those which it has had on subsequent generations. He cites The Wicker Man, The Village of the Damned and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit as being in a similar vein, with the eccentric and bizarre goings on in rural settings which recurrently featured in episodes of The Avengers (some written by Burnham, who also occasionally appeared in them as an actor) also setting the scene. Burnham also quotes Thomas Tryon’s 1973 novel of modern day Paganism in a rural American town as being an influence, and there’s also something of the spirit of Charles Williams’ novels such as War in Heaven and The Greater Trumps in there. Avebury is rechristened Milbury in Children of the Stones, which might have had an influence on the naming of Ghost Box artist Jim Jupp’s musical project (and the imaginary rural town which it inhabits) Belbury Poly. Certainly, the Ghost Box ethos, with its blending of post war modernism with ancient Pagan echoes, and its recasting of the graphic art and soundworlds of 60s and 70s British television programmes in the Children of the Stones mould (‘twenty minute splurges of psychedelic madness’ as Lee characterises them), is very much of a part with the spirit of the times, as viewed from a contemporary perspective. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz is seen as exhibiting a similar sensibility to Children of the Stones, as is Gary Spencer Millidge’s comic Strangehaven, set in a Devon village which is the centre of occult activity, and from which it is difficult to leave. Its author retrospectively acknowledges the coincidental similarities, having subsequently viewed the programme. It’s an indication that the themes and concerns of Children of the Stones, as well as the power of the ancient British landscape, continues to exert a fascination. Happy Day!

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