Sunday 20 November 2011

The Owl Service
(Peter Plummer, 1969/70)

Perfect viewing for chill British autumn (even though it’s set during the summer), I’ve recently found myself revisiting the 1969 Granada TV adaptation of Alan Garner’s ‘The Owl Service’, scripted by the author in collaboration with director and producer Peter Plummer.

Although memories of this series and its accompanying aesthetic have been extensively excavated by the Ghost Box/hauntology mob in recent years, to the point where it’s become a pretty obligatory signifier of ‘that sorta thing’, Garner’s story still holds a special place in my imagination. I’m far too young of course to have seen the series when it was first broadcast, or even when it was repeated in colour during the ‘80s.* At some point during my childhood though, my dad decided to read the book to me as a bedtime story – an endeavour he was forced to abandon about a third of the way through, because it was scaring the bejesus out of me.

I remember being completely engrossed by the tangled mystery of the whole thing – the magical dinner plates, book-destroying telekinetic outbursts, rediscovered medieval frescoes and creepy Celtic myths – but at the same time, it was clearly all a bit much for me. Used to dealing with far more straightforward narratives, I just didn’t know what to make of it all. You know that feeling - of being absolutely fascinated by the possibilities that these disparate elements seem to imply, yet terrified by the dark secrets that might be revealed in the process? For me it all started here.

Apparently my dad was under the impression that it was a children’s book – indeed, it was published as such. Many aspects of the story though - from the stifling atmosphere of familial conflict, to the deeply uncomfortable sexual undertones and the quite complex treatment of the class and ethnic identity – strike me as decidedly grown-up.

Raised in the Welsh countryside and sometimes subject to broadly similar concerns, ‘The Owl Service’ holds an obvious resonance for me, but it sticks with me above all because it provided me with perhaps my first real exposure to the kind of unresolved, emotionally resonant mystery that I’ve ended up prizing above all things in film and literature, and that has subsequently led me to Lovecraft, Machen (an unavoidable touchstone here), Nigel Kneale, David Lynch and any number of incomprehensible European horror films.

One of the things that most struck me when revisiting the TV series is how perfect the casting is. Each of the actors, simply in manner and appearance, is a perfect encapsulation of the kind of archetypal figure he or she is portraying… as I suppose befits a story in which modern, self-motivated individuals find themselves pushed into assuming inescapable roles within a reoccurring cycle of mythic fate; a kind of pre-gothic romantic tragedy imposing itself upon the contemporary world, even as its participants struggle not to succumb to their attendant stereotypes.

Every gothic of course needs a tempestuous female focal point, and I doubt Gillian Hills ever bettered her performance here as Alison, her character unmoored and never quite settled, shifting scene by scene between a manipulative brat, a childlike innocent and a naïve, natural mystic tapping into some undefined, destructive force. Although Gardner’s story remains rather coy about such things (the direction and costume choices in the TV series somewhat less so), it is clear that Alison, much like Mia Farrow’s character in ‘The Secret Ceremony’, is in the process of being simultaneously defined and strangled by her emerging sexuality, torn between the pull of childhood and adulthood, and unsure how to deal with either.

Hills herself had of course experienced what we can only assume was a pretty tempestuous teenhood, having allegedly been scouted out by Playboy at the age of 14(!), she appeared in Roger Vadim’s ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ in 1959 before playing the lead in classic Brit-exploitation flick ‘Beat Girl’ a year later. It’s certainly pretty unnerving seeing her convincingly playing a seventeen year old in ‘The Owl Service’, a full decade after her first starring role and several years after her brief but memorable turn in ‘Blow Up’ helped open the floodgates for full frontal nudity in international cinema, and it’s probably not that much of a leap to assume that she incorporated some of the anxieties of her recent past into a fairly astonishing performance here.

It goes without saying I suppose that such a character should become ground zero for an old-fashioned ‘possession’ narrative – one of the many generic threads that makes up ‘The Owl Service’s distinctly odd fabric, and one that could (some would probably say should) have been merely implied by the series, rather than thrown straight at us. Garner and Prosser’s decision to literally depict Alison’s possession is still one of the most startling aspects of the series, and must have seemed outright astonishing in the context of British TV in 1969, when such supernatural grotesquery very much did NOT sit at the same table as the ‘serious’, Pinter-esque drama of the rest of the series.

As Alison’s opposite number, the ill-fated Michael Holden (who died under mysterious circumstances in a London bar in 1977) is also very good as Gwyn – his character something of a representative of a new amalgamated Welsh identity, smart and sensitive and looking to move beyond his roots in the inward-looking rural working class - a late-blooming Welsh counterpart to the Northern heroes of the late ‘50s kitchen sink new wave novels, perhaps? Whether by accident or design, Gwyn also ends up becoming the only fully welcoming, sympathetic presence in the story. Not that any of the other characters are outright dislikeable, but as in any well-composed character drama, there are no villains here. All of them embody a certain mixture of sympathy and threat - as in Pinter, we feel sorry for them in their assorted misfortunes even as we recoil from their assorted minor cruelties. But somewhat uniquely here, we also feel anxious about the damage they might wreak on the unfolding narrative itself. Will Clive’s well-meaning conniving or Roger’s frustrated bullying stir things up too quickly, forcing the dissolution of the status quo and derailing the ‘investigation’, before the secrets of the house and the land beneath it can be revealed…? Not that they’ll ever be revealed, we implicitly understand, but still, somehow, we must know, dammit.

Maybe I’ve just been watching too many cheap horrors recently, but it’s nice to encounter a story in which secondary and purely ‘functional’ characters gradually move beyond their allotted roles, attaining unexpected depth - one dimensional orges unfolding like a kaleidoscope as the psychic battles heat up. Gwynne’s mother Nancy, excellently played by TV actress Dorothy Edwards, is particularly noteworthy in this regard, as she gradually opens up about the personal history that led her back to the house, providing one of ‘The Owl Service’s several reminders that we should never be too quick to dismiss a character as a sour-faced fishwife or an empty-headed lunk - for even the most utilitarian fictional placeholder can hide revelations as vital as those of our fiery protagonists and instigators, if only the pen and camera dare grant them time.

Witness the exemplary presence of moron/sorcerer Huw Halfbacon, played by veteran Welsh actor Ray Llewellyn, through whom ‘The Owl Service’ attains a level of cracked, sinister poetry. Reminiscent of the italicized, uknowable jabber mouthed by Lovecraft’s characters in their last moments, the cadences of his outbursts still raise goose-flesh, and have clearly touched many legions of psyche-folky souls over the years, passing into the wider lexicon of those who’d seem to evoke the essence of this particular cultural backwater. “I am a stag of seven times, I am a fire upon a hill,” he exclaims at one point, stumbling backward against a gnarled treetrunk, possessed with a startling mixture of fear and exultation; “I am a hawk in the sun’s tears, I am the wolf in every mind!” Stirring stuff indeed.

Likewise, the decision to never show the character of Alison’s mother on-screen is unusual and strangely effective - emblematic of the numerous odd, seemingly random decisions made by the TV adaptation. There is no immediate practical reason why we shouldn’t see her, but as the other characters constantly discuss her and act upon her thoughts and wishes, she becomes an ever more imposing, almost fantastical presence in the narrative, always watching and commanding, always unseen.

On a more prosaic level, I really liked the strict colour coding of the story’s central trio – Alison = red, Gwyn = blue/black, Roger = green. You probably don’t need to spend too long consulting works on emotional symbolism to figure out what’s going on there, but apparently the colour scheme was devised to mirror the then-current conventions of electrical wiring (red=live, black=neutral, green=earth I believe, but best not put it to the test by asking me to rewire any old plugs), helping to explain Gwyn’s otherwise slightly perplexing comments about plug wiring in the early episodes, and also casting interesting light (so to speak) on the fact that the house in which the story is set still lacks mains electricity – a decision taken by Alison’s mother to preserve its historical ‘authenticity’ – a stance mocked by Roger when he complains of the ‘phoniness’ of rigging up an electrical doorbell for guests.

Aside from anything else, this colour-coding provides a great example of the lengths the production team went to get the most the most out of the new colour TV technology, cramming just about every shot with bright primary colours and rich natural textures, to the extent that some of the costuming in particular has an almost absurd, hyper-real quality to it, hammering home the red/blue/green dynamic until it becomes unmistakable even to a casual viewer.

Shot on 16mm film rather than the video that swiftly became the norm for colour TV productions, ‘The Owl Service’ easily overcomes such over-indulgences, and the series overall has a beautifully grainy, kinda timeless look to it that easily matches up to most late ‘60s feature films. Although very much OF its time, the aesthetic of the series seems to OWN its time rather than being owned by it, if you see what I mean.

Above all though, rewatching The Owl Service got me thinking about WHY these kind of open-ended spiritual mysteries – confusing, esoteric stories with no crowd-pleasing gimmicks and no satisfactory conclusions - were so popular on British TV during the ‘70s. Penda’s Fen, The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones etc. – it is genuinely extraordinary to think that there was a time when these troubling works were broadcast to the nation on ITV and BBC1 – the shadows of Arthur Machen and William Morris writ large across prime-time entertainment. Why, of all things, would the nationally broadcast TV series – that most conservative and closely scrutinised of media – become such a willing conduit for this kind of deliberately inexplicable product..? Was there something in the air during these years? Something in the water at Television Central?

I suppose that, much like ‘Twin Peaks’ in the USA all those years later, the success of ‘The Owl Service’ (and ‘Quatermass’ and ‘The Prisoner’ before it) proved to TV programmers that this kind of demanding, elusive drama can serve to grab the public’s imagination far more powerfully than the usual dumbed-down logic would tend to assume – a lesson that we could well do with relearning, if the past few decades’ utter collapse of creativity or expertise in British TV is anything to go by.**

And speaking of ‘Twin Peaks’ (gratuitously comparing stuff to ‘Twin Peaks’ being a bit of a preoccupation of mine it seems), the similarities – conscious or otherwise – between ‘The Owl Service’ and Lynch & Frost’s series are surely worth a mention. The nexuses of fairytale-like imagery that feature heavily in both series, repeated and expanded upon with almost ritualistic regularity as the story progresses; the sublimination of unspeakable sexual and familial troubles into supernatural form; the carefully-guarded secrets passed between members of a small rural community, understanding that they must ‘protect’ themselves from some force they sense but can’t really define; the forest-dwelling idiot-savant…. could ‘Twin Peaks’ owe more of a debt to vintage British folk-creep than is generally appreciated?

After all, the unsettling conclusion to ‘The Owl Service’ only serves to remind us of what ‘Twin Peaks’ states aloud: the owls are not what they seem.

*Shot in colour on 16mm film to show off the possibilities of incoming colour TV technology – and looking absolutely beautiful for it on the DVD - ‘The Owl Service’ was initially broadcast in black & white due to some kind of union dispute with technical staff.

**I know, I know – I’m sure those more forgiving of modernity can point me toward X, Y and Z that’s really, really good, but after so long without watching TV just turning the damn thing on gets my back up. I mean, do they not even have editors any more? Every programme looks like they’ve just fed the raw footage into some sort of application that turns it into generic cheesy montages and reaction shots fitted to canned music and… I’m sorry, I could go on for days…


Fearlono said...

Really enjoyed your evaluation of this classic; and couldn't agree more with your views on the decline of British television.
Speaking as someone who is in no way "forgiving of modernity", I thought you might like to know that I cut the end off my television aerial about 7 years ago to protect myself from accidental exposure to the bollocks that passes for programming these days.
Best move I ever made; and a visual diet of vintage Play For Today episodes, and eerie 1970's dramas, makes an ideal substitute to whatever dross is spewing forth into front rooms across the UK.
When Dennis Potter died, so did British television.

Ben said...

Yes, same here - I don't have a TV aerial or cable box. I do listen to BBC radio a lot and, whilst it's far from perfect, I'm always amazed when I visit other people's house and see how vapid their current TV programming is in comparison.

Not that TV in the '60s and '70s was exactly a goldmine of brilliance on a day-to-day basis, but it at least seems like back then they could, say, make a documentary that actually had interesting footage of stuff happening, rather than constantly focusing on some smug presenter harping on about what a profound experience he or she is experiencing on his/her poorly edited 'journey' to whatever, and....

...see what I mean? Could go on for days. : D

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid, I read every Alan Garner novel as it came out. The Wierdstone of Brisingamen appealed to me because I already knew Alderley Edge and its underground secrets.

I was thrilled by his next book, The Moon Of Gomrath. Same characters but all a little stranger.

Then Elidor, still set in a regognisable landscape to me as a Mancunian.

Then The Owl Service.

Haunted by the book, haunted by the TV envisioning. I still don't find the endings satisfying emotionally or aesthetically but I trust them as they are and wouldn't have them any different.

Recently tracked down a copy via the internet and watching it again was very struck by its imagination and creativity and honesty.

I don't subscribe to the "They Don't Make Them Like That Any More" mentality, though. That's a sign of older people losing perspective and not being bothered to keep up.

robin said...

I just grabbed the DVD and watched this with my wife. Far from perfect but truly amazing nonetheless! Thanks for the write-up.