“ Genre: Television / Suitable for 12 years and over / Director: Peter Graham Scott / Actors: Gareth Thomas, Iain Cuthbertson, Peter Demin, Veronica Strong, Katherine Levy ... / DVD released 2011-10-17 at Network / Features of the DVD: PAL „
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This two-disk set from Network is about £12 on amazon at present.
This is a legendary children's drama serial from the early 1970s. While the BBC had the spooky kids' science fiction slot sewn up with Doctor Who, ITV made various attempts to challenge them. Children of the Stones was made by ITV company HTV, which made quite a few series like it (some are sampled on disk two of this set). Children of the Stones was just before my time, but it is said to have had a chilling effect on kids old enough to watch it.
Astrophysicist Adam Brake moves to the village of Milbury to investigate the electromagnetic properties of the standing stones there (the village is ringed by megalithic stones). With him is his teenaged son, Matt. Adam and Matt realise pretty quickly that almost everyone in the village acts bizarrely, seeming to be happy all the time, and a bit too fond of morris dancing. The children at the local school are supernaturally good at astrophysics, with the exception of a few other newcomers. Adam befriends Margaret, the curator of the village's tiny museum, and Matt becomes friends with her daughter, Sandra. Meanwhile, local lord of the manor, the sinister Hendrick, clearly knows more than he's letting on, as does the furtive poacher, Dai.
Like a lot of 70s horror, this is fairly derivative. The main sources are probably Dr Who (it has a fair few similarities to the story 'The Daemons', broadcast a few years earlier); and Nigel Kneale, especially his classic TV play The Stone Tape (1972). There are arguably some Wicker Man similarities too, but without the nudity and folk singing. (The modern Dr Who in return borrowed the plot device of having ultra-intelligent children being used to make something cosmic happen in the episode 'School Reunion'.) Without giving too much away, the plot involves telepathy, time (not quite time travel, but almost, sort of, kinda), black holes and standing stones that are weird to the touch.
This is actually incredibly complicated for a children's show. I was left scratching my head by the last episode, and had to rely on the internet to tell me what actually happened. To be honest, I'm still not completely sure how we're meant to work it all out - probably we're not. It feels like slightly more exposition would have helped enormously. I've no problem with a series that keeps its secrets, especially if it's still dramatically satisfying (which this by and large is). Some things would probably suffer from too much explanation, like the nature of Dai's relationship to the Neolithic 'barber surgeon', a skeleton at the museum. But at one point in the last episode Adam suddenly knows what's going on, and I've still no idea how he figured it out. That, for me, feels like a forced bit of plot contrivance by writers who realised they'd just run out of episodes.
Anyway, having admitted to being baffled by a children's TV series from the 1970s, I should probably say whether it's any good or not. It's not bad. I can understand why it freaked people out at the time - that'll be largely down to the music, an amazing sequence of gasps and moans and yells. It's really quite unsettling, and fits the tone the series is aiming for perfectly. I only wish there was a soundtrack album.
Apart from that? Well, it might have scared me a bit as a child, but there's probably not enough in there to be actually scary now. It's too obviously a product of its time. The story is oddly light on actual spooky incident, and doesn't generate quite enough sinister mood. It is reasonably effective at slowly isolating Adam and Matt, as their few normal friends are gradually made weird by exposure to the village, but it doesn't go for the ultimate horror and have the father and son separated - that might have made for a more urgent climax.
There are some very endearing performances, though. Gareth Thomas is Brake (he's best known now for playing the similarly named Blake in Blake's Seven), and he gives a winning performance. Iain Cuthbertson is on good, sinister form as Hendrick, and best of all, Freddie Jones gives a classic Freddie Jones performance as Dai, the inarticulate poacher.
The child actors aren't too bad, although Matt and Sandra over-enunciate their dialogue in the way a lot of child actors did in those days. (The reason that Doctor Who has aged rather better than most children's TV is that it very, very rarely features kids as characters.) Veronica Strong as Margaret is also a bit weak; her performance screams 'I'm in a kids' show, so I have to deliver my lines in the most obvious way imaginable!' Perhaps the biggest criticism, though, which has little to do with the acting, is that the children and adults are basically interchangeable, dialogue wise. There's very little reason for there to be adult characters at all, apart from to feed information to the viewer. While Adam and Margaret seem to have a chaste romance going (as, maybe, do Matt and Sandra), this is never brought to the forefront.
The few special effects are lame, but aren't overused. The location is nice (it was filmed in Avebury, inevitably). The silliest thing about it is the way the actors have to stand very still with the same expression on their faces when the programme announces an ad break. It's like something out of Police Squad. Could they not freeze frame things? And why does the school have a football team when there are apparently only about eight children there? Why would geniuses want to play football anyway? And why are all the kids in the village the same age?
Although I've sounded quite critical of this, I'd still cautiously recommend it for those with an interest in old television. Clunky it may be, but if you don't try to watch it all at once, it's quite fun. Trying to guess where the story will go is challenging. It is old TV, though, so the picture quality isn't brilliant.
The second disk gives sample episodes of other 'cult' kids' TV shows from the same company - all of which are available on DVD too, as we're helpful informed. There's a good leaflet that comes with the set, explaining the context of all this.
Sky seems to be about a kid from the future sent back in time to... I dunno, presumably put us on the right path or something. It's written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who wrote some of the sillier 70s Dr Who stories. It mostly involves a David Bowie lookalike with blue eyes talking cryptic gibberish to blankly uncomprehending West Country teenagers.
King of the Castle, from the same writers, is a bit more promising. A ginger kid in a grim tower block goes too far down in the lift and ends up in a creepy dungeon populated by odd caricatured figures played by doughty performers like Milton Johns, Talfryn Thomas and Fulton Mackay. This feels a bit like a dry run for Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (not that that's necessarily a point in its favour), and if I were going to buy any of these series (I'm not), it would likely be this one.
The Clifton House Mystery is a fairly basic time travel story, with modern kids ending up in the past. This is dull, and everyone talks too posh. It isn't very interesting, and really doesn't inspire me to seek out more. Into the Labyrinth has some kids lost in a big cave, where they find Ron Moody on good ranty form; he apparently has magical powers. Apart from some mildly entertaining psychedelic video effects, this is also nothing special.
The problem with all these sample episodes is that they're part of a larger story (invariably the second episode, as that's where things usually get moving). It's very difficult to judge whether any of them would be worth watching in their entirety from the single episode we get, but my immediate reaction is not to bother.
But then I'd probably have said that about Children of the Stones if all I'd seen was the second episode. Like I said, it's probably worth looking at if you're into that kind of thing. Definitely nothing to go out of your way for, though.