❉ Ken Shinn on the cult series that ushered in a cycle of ITV-broadcast Junior Folk Horror in the ’70s and ’80s.
“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.”
So, what exactly is The Owl Service?
Well, in the beginning, it was a book written by Alan Garner in 1967. The author, also well-known for such tales of the uncanny as Elidor, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and Red Shift, to name but a few, went on to see his tale win great acclaim and rewards – the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Award for Children’s Literature. As with any popular tale, he suddenly found himself in the situation where many rivals were vying to bring it to the screen, and – in 1968 – Granada Television won the prize, planning to transmute his words into a television serial. Also, it was to be the first full-colour scripted production that they had ever made. And, just to put the capper on it, they wanted Garner to adapt his own work.
It was one of the earliest examples of what was to become a fruitful vein of ideas and imagery for many other ITV series to follow: from the malevolent, sentient stones of Escape Into Night and Mother Earth herself sending antibodies to eliminate an unwitting alien ‘disease’ in Sky, to the sinister plan to gain immortality achieved through Superstition and Science of Children Of The Stones, and thence to the living statue and attendant sorceresses of The Witches And The Grinnygog and the centuries-spanning link between a modern young girl and a 17th Century witch of Shadow Of The Stone. And those were just a few examples of what followed: factor in the similar works of the BBC such as Lizzie Dripping and The Changes, or even Bagpuss, and what started as a small but refreshing spring became a veritable, powerful, torrent.
Long before such a phrase became fashionable, all of these programmes, in their own idiosyncratic ways, created an enormous, vital canon of Folk Horror. The most marvellous thing of all? All of them were intended for children. It must be said, though, that we are definitely talking about older, wiser, more intelligent children, here.
Case in point: I’m old enough to remember pre-publicity about The Owl Service appearing before its first run, from 1969 to 1970, in TV Times. I was just on the verge of starting primary school, and thus already had an awareness of both Gerry Anderson shows and James Bond. Any sort of service, to me, meant the Secret Service, in some form or another. I tuned in eagerly, saw a boring programme about three youngsters brooding around mountains and barns – no gun battles, no spaceships coming out the pool, no derring-do – and quickly lost interest. Ah, the imagination – and the naivete – of the very young.
Thankfully, there’s one thing about old stories, old legends. They wait. Until the time has arrived for them to reach out once again to inquiring but more experienced young souls, and to truly make their influence felt.
Watched with those slightly older eyes, even the opening titles become genuinely bewitching, and unnerving. Beautiful harp glissandos are interrupted by harsh, echoing wails: the coughing roar of a motorcycle engine; in the final moments, one more soothing ripple on the harp accompanies a picture of one of the titular pieces of crockery. Suddenly, shockingly, talon-like gouges rip its image to pieces: and on the soundtrack, we hear an equally abrupt tearing sound. A few silent moments later, it is heard again…
The story of The Owl Service, at heart, is simplicity itself. Rooted in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, or Mabinogion, it re-tells the tale of King Math, his magician Gwydion, the two young men Lleu and Gronw, and of Bloduwedd, the young woman created from flowers, whose desire for Gronw leads her to tempt him into killing Lleu, upon which she is transformed into an owl as punishment.
We even see Alison – Bloduwedd’s reincarnation – reading the Mabinogion, just to make things clear to the slightly slower-on-the-uptake among the audience. Because what is happening here is a very real case of History repeating itself, again and again. Alison – along with her stepbrother Roger and the son of the cook at their new Welsh home, Gwyn, respective re-embodiments of Lleu and Gronw – are increasingly snared in the mesh of the stories of the Past, as indeed are many of their own forebears: that cook, Nancy, and the groundsman, Huw Halfbacon, as well as Nancy’s now-dead husband Bertram. The cycle seems to be set to repeat without end – love, jealousy, infidelity, murder, and punishment: and, throughout it all, Bloduwedd seems forever doomed to become the owl, the lonely, vengeful hunter. Can a way be found to break the wheel, to allow her to become beautiful, joyous, loving flowers once more? That is very much the question…
As should also be clear from that description, yes, this is very much a tale for older children. I suspect that any child below the age of, say, ten would probably greet it with a mixture of boredom, bewilderment, and fear, because it truly speaks to those on the cusp of, or recently entered into, puberty, and the whole dawning awareness of the physical side of Love beyond courtly tales of knights and princesses and simple, harmless classroom crushes. Love, it concludes, is wonderful, and also horrifying: capable of great happiness, and shocking tragedy. The tale from the Mabinogion becomes, as much as anything else, a cautionary tale about the potential destructiveness of true Lust and Love.
Stories on such grand themes may be expected to be suitably huge, even operatic: here, Garner’s genius lies in his ability to confine the story, to concentrate it down into a powerful distillation. He makes it small-scale, subtle, and suitably intimate. This approach gives the telling a real ability to get under your skin and make itself felt, hooking into you like an owl’s talons, which will linger long after showier, shallower tales have faded from memory.
The cast is reflective of this approach: other than a few briefly-seen villager and child extras, only six characters carry the whole eight-part serial. The three older ones – Edwin Richfield as Clive, father and stepfather to Roger and Alison: Dorothy Edwards as Nancy, Gwyn’s mother; Raymond Llewellyn as the enigmatic Huw – all acquit themselves to fine effect, but the whole thing truly belongs to the three youngsters. Francis Wallis as Roger has perhaps the most thankless role, as Roger is often stuffy, snobbish and rude, but he’s never less than convincing and his final key role in resolving the story is a marvellous moment of revelation.
Michael Holden, who died tragically young, is the image of frustrated, passionate longing not just for Alison, but for a better, wiser life in general (the one thing that he truly seems to fear is ending up being trapped behind a till at the Co-Op) as Gwyn; and Gillian Hills as Alison is simply magnetic. You can believe that she’d be the object of fascination that she is to both Roger and Gwyn, and again she’s remarkably brave in her performance, not afraid to be seen as harsh or unsympathetic, or even scantily-clad or outright naked (albeit beneath the soap suds of a bubble bath). Often, an ensemble cast can be seen as having a weak link, but there is no such thing on display here.
In Peter Plummer, the serial had the perfect overseer. His production makes the Welsh location (Dinas Mawddwy) everything that the story needs them to be: beautiful, foreboding, bleak and enrapturing by turn, from panoramic, overwhelming mountains to quaint yet sinister village streets. His carefully-judged creation of the whole succeeds perfectly at forever hinting at the dark magic of the Past as an unseen but overwhelming undercurrent in the apparently calmly-flowing river of the Present, one all too ready to drag down the unwary into its unforgiving depths.
I’ve heard some people, Kim Newman included, praising the serial for its ambiguity. It’s held up, in that regard, as something of an equal to Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn Of The Screw, The Innocents – a tale where it’s never entirely clear whether the Supernatural is at work, or whether everything has a perfectly rational (if still unsettling) explanation. I’m going to be an awkward bastard and beg to differ.
There is clearly magic at work here.
It’s heard in the supposed noises of rats and mice in the attic that are too loud, too savage, for any small rodent: in the unexplained, off-screen disappearance of the owls-and-flowers patterns from the titular dinner service; from the appearance of unexpected figures that all resonate disturbingly with the Past in Roger’s photographs – glibly explained away as being chance images captured from the Present, but unconvincingly: and note how our final sight of Nancy has her transformed into just another such image; via the way in which both elderly villagers and local children, in silent, eerie unison, set about making it very hard for those that they wish to ensnare to just escape; by the sudden appearance of pagan face-decoration around Alison’s Lolita-esque sunglasses, which both Roger and Gwyn appear to see, not to mention the scratches and feathers that appear on her face during the terrifying climax. If there is a lesson here, then it is that we deny the Past at our own risk.
Both the novel and the television serial end on a similarly-abrupt yet somehow optimistic note. Has the ancient, cursed cycle finally been broken? Maybe, maybe not…but I for one hope that, somewhere, Alison, Roger and Gwyn are all still alive, well, and living in a slightly odd but very loving menage a trois. But then I always was a sucker for a happy ending.
The very final moments of the serial are an interesting foreshadowing of the ending of the final Quatermass story some ten years later: a small group of children, contentedly playing and chattering near an ancient stone monument. But in Quatermass, the feeling is of lingering menace, of terror that may yet occur again: while, in The Owl Service, there is a sensation of assurance, of comfort, of a hard-earned but no less genuine benevolence (and the fact that all three children – the next Bloduwedd, Lleu, and Gronw, perhaps?) – are all speaking untranslated Welsh is rather wonderful Part of me wants to go off and find out what they’re saying. Part of me feels happier leaving it as a mystery. (Oh, and that standing stone – carved by stonemason Edward Rowlands – can still be found by the River Dyfi in Wales. He carved his name on it so that it wouldn’t be mistaken for a genuine ancient monument. Yes, it is that convincing.)
An intriguing, intelligent, and ultimately humane tale of the Fantastic, The Owl Service stands as fine proof that, in the final reckoning, Courage, Curiosity and Kindness are far greater weapons and shields than any magic spells or enchanted ancient broadswords. It tells us that, yes, Love can conquer all – as long as we are brave, clever, and merciful enough. In the end, that’s not such a bad message to have.
On a sidenote: I can’t finish this piece with a mention of the recently-gone, but already much-missed, Network, whose loving, painstaking work in the preservation and restoration of the more obscure audio-visual joys of the Past included a definitive Blu-Ray release of the whole thing with contributions from, among others, Alan Garner, Tim Worthington, and the aforementioned Kim Newman.
Although the company itself has ceased trading, the Blu-Ray should still be comparatively easy to find, and – if you want to remind yourself of how marvellous Network was – then it’s a prime example of that. Let us just hope that, like the ancient legend of Bloduwedd, some worthy successor arises in the not-too-distant Future, to restore the delights of the Past to our forgetful Present.
❉ A Granada Television production, ‘The Owl Service’ was originally broadcast on ITV on Sunday evenings from 21 December 1969 – 8 February 1970. ‘The Owl Service’ was released by Network Distributing on Blu-ray 17 October 2022 and is available from most online retailers.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 58 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.