❉ The story behind a classic of children’s television drama, with insights from its screenwriter John Stadelman.
There are a number of well-loved children’s fantasy dramas made by the BBC in the 1980s. ‘The Box of Delights’ is most often cited, provoking hazy memories of the serial where, in my mind at least, Christmas is mixed with ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Blue Peter’ and people who keep telling you “The Wolves are Running”. In truth I was too young to enjoy ‘The Box of Delights’ and instead had my imagination captured in the winter of 1986 by ‘The Children of Green Knowe’.
During ‘The Children of Green Knowe’s original transmission I had moved into a new house in Somerset, having had my life uprooted from our home in Oxfordshire when Dad moved with work. The transmission of the serial therefore resonated with me. I felt a lot like Tolly, coming to a new landscape and trying to make new friends, albeit my new friends weren’t ghosts. Of course, my new house was nothing like Green Knowe and I didn’t attend a boarding school. In line with many of these fantasy dramas, it feels like the BBC took a determinedly middle class approach to showing the lives of other children: Kay Harker in ‘The Box of Delights’ is a boarding school student, as are the Pevensie children in the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ series. I can only assume this is a deliberate reaction to the twenty-four episodes of ‘Grange Hill’ that the BBC broadcast per year. 1986 was the year of the Zammo drugs storyline and you can feel the BBC wanting to distance itself from the comprehensives for a while.
The serial was an adaptation of the first of Lucy M, Boston’s Green Knowe books. Boston wrote six Green Knowe novels between 1954 and 1976 and ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ had already been adapted for ‘Jackanory’ in December 1966, where Suzannah York told the story in five consecutive days leading up to Christmas. In the story Tolly, a boarding schoolboy whose parents are living abroad, is sent to Green Knowe, a very old house in the Norfolk Fens to spend Christmas with his Great Grandmother Oldknow. It doesn’t take long for Tolly to become aware of other presences in the house and we follow his exploration over the days before Christmas as he learns more about Green Knowe’s past.
For the 1986 adaptation producer Paul Stone (also responsible for ‘The Box of Delights’, ‘Moondial’ and ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ adaptations) employed a young, unknown American screenwriter named John Stadelman. He graduated Law School, enrolled at film school at USC and to complete his Masters degree had to produce a thesis project, in this case a feature length script.
I was lucky enough to track John down online and ask him some questions, he takes the story up:
“My advisors discouraged me from working on an ‘adapted’ project, pointed out (as I was already aware) that the quiet story of ‘Children…’ would be a hard sell in the American market, and insisted (wisely) that I get written permission from both the author and publisher before I could proceed. I’m still not quite sure why I stood my ground and pursued the adaptation, because I was fully aware that atmosphere — however evocative and mysterious — was not a commodity appreciated by American film and television producers. But I had seen ‘The Spirit of the Beehive’[i], and the first half of ‘The Black Stallion[ii]’, and knew the images and rhythms ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ set up in my mind could be reproduced on film to haunting effect. I wrote both Faber & Faber, and Lucy Boston, who kindly granted permission. I still have Ms. Boston’s hand-written letter saved from that first communication.”
Following his graduation John took movie work as an ‘Art director/Set dresser/Props master’ where he could find it, including on ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’. He tried to get Hollywood interested in his adaptation, including Carroll Ballard the director of ‘The Black Stallion’, but was finally advised to try the ‘British market’. John then got on a plane and took a ‘working vacation’ in London. He stayed with friends and began taking ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ to different production companies, once again with little success. He had left the script with the BBC and tried contacting them ten days later to see if there was any response.
It was frustrating, as John says:
“When I returned, every place I’d tried was a ‘no thank you’ or a ‘we’ll let you know’. Except I couldn’t get in touch with the BBC ‘person in charge’ because he was out of town. The evening before I flew home, I tried one last time to get in touch — and there, in a phone box in Finchley — I got to talk to Paul Stone. Miracle of miracles, he was interested! Of course, he was frustrated because I couldn’t change my flight the next morning, so we couldn’t meet. But later in the process, he was able to fly out to the west coast so we could finalize the details of converting a screenplay to a television series, make some minor changes, sign contracts etc. He was wonderfully respectful and kind, and I’m still grateful to him for making that trip!”
In an interview with the Books for Keeps website, Paul Stone said on recruiting John: “The story wants memorable images, and a sense of the visual is so strong in the American tradition… It was important to retain the literate quality of writing, to keep all the English qualities.”
The final shooting script had some changes (for example it is four 22 minute episodes long, not one feature-length movie), but otherwise remains close to John’s final thesis version. Plus, it had the approval of the original author too, despite John’s doubts about the how the original story would play in Hollywood:
“My first draft of the screenplay was way too heavily influenced by my awareness of that [LA screenplay] market, and my Film School surroundings! I tried a bit too hard to keep it ‘exciting’ by, for example, creating what I thought was a juicy dramatic gloss on the story of Feste and Petronella. But Ms. Boston would have none of it! And she was absolutely right! — I had gone too far. During the re-writes –once I calmed down and shook the “it’s gotta sell!” Hollywood monkey off my back– I found more moments of silence, stillness, and visual repetitions that suggest a child’s bedtime ritual before storytelling: all right there in the book, of course. And some cool transitions where storytelling and dreaming interface. Ms. Boston approved the final draft before I submitted it as my thesis. “
At the centre of both book and screenplay was the character of Tolly. In the adaptation he is played by newcomer Alec Christie. He does an incredible job carrying nearly every scene and conveying surprise, delight, fear and even frustration with ease. His Great Grandmother is played with charm and warmth by Daphne Oxenford. Oxenford had been the voice of ‘Listen with Mother’ from the 1950s to the 1970s and had been one of the original ‘Coronation Street’ cast. A year later she would materialise as a hologram archivist in Dragonfire the last story of Doctor Who’s 24th season. She manages to balance what she knows about the house with the information that she gives Tolly. “I’m interested to see what will happen now you’re here” she tells him in episode one.
For Christie it was his first television acting, outside of some adverts and the experience for him seemed largely positive. In an interview with the British Film Institute from 2009 Christie said “It was almost magical… to arrive on set and see all these bits of kit, cameras, cables, a van with the old 1-inch reel running through it, it was all very new to me.”
As Tolly becomes attuned to the house, the ghosts of Green Knowe, the other children who inhabit the house gradually appear. This is handled with subtlety by director Colin Cant who never uses any effects to realise the children, one minute they are there, the next time not. It’s a highly engaging and effective technique. Cant was a director who had learned his craft during the 1970s on shows like ‘Crown Court’ and ‘Striker’ before moving into regular work on ‘Grange Hill’. He then directed ‘The Machine Gunners’ in 1983 and Moonfleet the following year. Both were book adaptations for the BBC and shown in the Wednesday post-‘Newsround’ slot and, once again, produced by Paul Stone. Cant was therefore well-placed to take on ‘The Children of Green Knowe’. On working with Cant, Christie said he was great at getting him to focus on what he was doing in each scene: “One thing I remember is when I was seeing the ghost of Feste for the first time and him getting me to focus on that horse, this ghost horse that suddenly appears… He was a really fantastic director, Colin.”
Despite there being only four episodes the production still had a great deal to entail. The location of Green Knowe was Crow’s Hall, a grade II listed 16th century moated manor in Debenham in Suffolk. The production called for it to be surrounded by flood water, coated in snow and the site of a battle between ancient good and evil. On top of this the production had a number of flashback sequences to film including a recreation (albeit small) of the court of Charles II. This scene is particularly effective, a memorable and sumptuous recreation of the Restoration palace within a small space. Once again the BBC’s reputation for period drama is exemplified.
As well as period pieces another genre the BBC specialised in was ghost stories and ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ evokes the MR James and other Christmas ghost stories from the BBC perhaps more than the other children’s adaptations. There are moments that are genuinely disconcerting, a pair hands wrapped around a stair banister and at one moment Tolly is dragged along the floor in a moment that echoes ‘Poltergeist’. As John Stadelman explains finding the right tone for the serial was there in the source material:
“In the book, Ms. Boston introduces the concept of these ghosts in such a way that she leads the reader (that young audience) past fear to a place where we actually want to see them. At first, Tolly thinks there are other children in the house, and he’s interested in playing with them. Then he actually gets glimpses of them, and starts to feel like they’re teasing him, playing hide-and-seek. Then comes more understanding of who they are — or rather were — then a moment of fear in the playroom, that he overcomes in daylight. By the time Tolly actually sees the ghosts — both we, and he, should be responding to them the way we respond to seeing a deer in the wild. We’re afraid to breathe in case they run away! Seeing them is like a special gift.
“My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to convey that delicious, enigmatic spookiness on the page, until I discovered that it’s the moments of silence and stillness in the books during Tolly’s wanderings that convey that eerie sense of something about to happen. Conveying this on the page meant describing action – and the pauses in that action – in such a way that the reader (hopefully your Director, DP, and Editor) – felt the length, the rhythm of those silences: ‘Tolly stands very still in the garden. He listens intently. Trees around him surge in the wind. His head turns. Crows are calling at a distance somewhere. Is it crows?’”
It is down to Stadelman’s writing and Cant’s expertise that the encounters with the ghosts are not terrifying, as this would not be appropriate for the target audience. Instead they are magical. Added to this is the lightness of Peter Howell’s music. Using the flute motif throughout, Howell expertly crafts music that is both seasonal and historic. As one of the key BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers during the 1970s through to 90s, Howell’s work crossed drama and documentary and is remembered in ‘Doctor Who’ circles as being the man who had to take-up the baton when Dudley Simpson was let go. ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ remains one of his finest works, gentle and evocative.
Sadly the talent that came together for the serial weren’t destined to work together again. Colin Cant continued directing children’s drama and was responsible for realising Russell T Davies’s excellent ‘Dark Season’ and ‘Century Falls’ in the 1990s. Paul Stone went on to produce the aforementioned Narnia serials as well as fondly remembered football series Jossy’s Giants. Alec Christie went on to do the sitcom ‘A Kind of Living’ alongside Richard Griffiths, he later became fascinated with making films and attended the same film course at the University of Warwick that I had completed, albeit earlier. John Stadelman had attempted another adaptation, this time of ‘The Princess and the Goblin’ by George MacDonald, on spec for Paul Stone and the BBC. However, this would never come to pass as an animated version from Welsh studio Siriol, who were behind ‘Superted’, was in production instead. He now runs a garden design business in Oregon called, appropriately enough, Green Man Gardens. He is also an accomplished Shakespearean stage actor.
Following a successful screening at the BFI in 2009, the series was released on DVD by Simply Media in March 2016. As John Stadelman says: “I felt like we’d done a fair job of capturing some of that Green Knowe/Lucy Boston magic!… it captured some of the delicious, spooky feeling The Children of Green Knowe gave me when I was a kid –and hopefully shared it with a lot of other people!” Without doubt, ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ is a forgotten classic of children’s television drama.
[i] 1973 Spanish drama about a child obsessed with the 1931 version of Frankenstein
[ii] 1979 movie directed by Carroll Ballard based on the 1941 classic children’s novel by Walter Farley.
❉ ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ was released on DVD by Simply Media on 26 March 2016, RRP £14.99