Monday, 10 October 2016

The Owl Service (1969)

The Owl Service is a 1969 mini-series from Britain’s Granada Television. It’s a children’s program although it’s obviously aimed at what would probably today be described as the young adult market. In fact it deals with a few concepts that very definitely qualify as adult themes. It’s a fantasy series in a contemporary setting although the supernatural elements are subtle and ambiguous. 

Alan Garner wrote all eight half-hour episodes. He adapted the series from his own novel.

Clive (Edwin Richfield )and his new wife Margaret are holidaying in a remote very rural Welsh valley. Both had been married before. Clive has a teenage son, Roger (Francis Wallis), from his previous marriage while Margaret also has a teenager, Alison (Gillian Hills), from her previous marriage.  Their housekeeper Nancy (Dorothy Edwards) and Nancy’s son Gwyn (Michael Holden) complete the household, apart from a gardener named Huw (Raymond Llewellyn), a strange character who may be a bit touched in the head.

Investigating odd scratching noises coming from the attic Alison and Gwyn discover an old dinner service (this is the owl service of the title). The pattern on the plates is a little puzzling but after tracing the design Alison finds that it comprises flowers and that when put together the flowers make an owl. She starts, rather obsessively, to make paper owls from the tracings. The paper owl models seem to have a rather disturbing effect on Alison.

The plates have some kind of connection to a local legend involving a romantic triangle that ended in a strange double murder, one of the murders being committed by a dead man. There’s also a mysterious stone near the house with a hole through it, allegedly made by a spear cast and also connected with the legend. This legend also tells of a woman made from flowers who turns into an owl.

The plates have a surprising property. After Alison copies the design on one of the plates the design disappears from the plate.

There’s a good deal of tension between the various characters, at least some of this tension being emotional or sexual in nature. There’s an obvious attraction between Alison and Gwyn while the relationships between Alison and some of the other characters are slightly unsettling (I did say this series touched on some adult themes).

There are other complications with roots in both the distant and the recent past.

The pacing is leisurely, which is a polite way of saying that it’s slow. I’m inclined to think this story might have worked better as a six-part rather than an eight-part series. There’s not quite enough plot to sustain eight episodes and while it’s useful to develop the characters and the atmosphere of unease at a deliberate pace it really is unnecessarily slow.

Of course a potential problem with a series in which the key characters are children or teenagers is that it makes heavy demands on inexperienced actors. The big problem here is Francis Wallis who fails completely to get a handle on his performance as Roger. Roger ends up being not only a character the viewer doesn’t care about - we also can’t imagine any of the other characters caring about him or even bothering to notice his existence. Michael Holden gets the brooding intensity right as Gwyn. Gillian Hills (who at 25 should have been much too old to be playing a teenager) does pretty well in what is a formidably demanding role.

In some ways The Owl Service strikes me as the kind of series that adults would imagine that teenagers would like. I suspect that actual teenagers might have preferred a bit more spookiness or a bit more excitement, and possibly just a touch of humour. As it stands the series has at times a bit of a dour kitchen-sink drama feel to it. There’s a teen romance angle that would obviously appeal to girls but I can’t imagine most teenage boys lasting beyond the first couple of episodes. That’s not to say that this is a bad series. It’s just terribly serious and intense, and slow.

At the time there were those who felt that the series was quite unsuitable for children and I have to say I agree with them. It’s wildly unsuitable material. Alan Garner’s original novel was apparently not actually intended as a children’s novel although it ended up being labelled as such. It’s probably better (and less disturbing) not to regard The Owl Service as a children’s series at all.

It also has a feature that is, alas, rather common in British television of its era - it pits cruel snobby wicked upper-class people against a noble long-suffering working-class hero. This is always tiresome and in this case it also seems like an unnecessary distraction from the main story.

The inspiration for both the novel and the TV series was a Welsh legend from The Mabinogion. A wizard creates a woman named Blodeuwedd out of flowers, and as a punishment for betraying her husband (and causing two murders) she is turned into an owl. The central premise of The Owl Service is that the tragic romantic triangle of the legend is destined to repeat itself over and over again.

Rather surprisingly for the period this series was shot mostly on location in Wales. It was also shot in colour at a time when this was still unusual for British television. Unfortunately it went to air in December 1969 in black-and-white and was not seen in colour until 1978.

Network’s DVD release contains all eight episodes and image quality is pretty good. There are some worthwhile extras as well. There’s a documentary film on Alan Garner which left me determined not to read any of his books. More interestingly is the accompanying booklet which includes an incredibly detailed essay on the production of the series, interviews with Gillian Hills and Raymond Llewellyn and a brief but enthusiastic appreciation by Kim Newman.

The Owl Service was a wildly ambitious project. Not surprisingly it’s not always a complete success. Producer-director Peter Plummer approaches the series more in the spirit of an art film than a popular television series and on occasion he gets a little carried away (the surreal touches in the final episode seem out of place). At times it’s heavy going and it has severe pacing problems but it’s still a fascinating if somewhat pretentious attempt to do something different in the field of television fantasy. If you have a higher tolerance than I have for artiness and you can overlook some clumsy “social commentary” then it’s worth a look.

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