Divorcee Clive (Edwin Richfield) and widow Margaret have just married, and with his son Roger (Francis Wallis) and her daughter Alison (Gillian Hills) are on holiday in North Wales as Alison recovers from an illness. Keeping house for them are Nancy (Dorothy Edwards) and her son Gwyn (Michael Holden) while Huw (Raymond Llewellyn) tends to the garden. One day, while investigating strange noises in the attic, Gwyn and Alison find an old set of dinner plates with a distinctive owl design. Alison traces the patterns…and finds that once she has done so, the patterns on the plates have gone…
Alan Garner (born 1934) has for the most part been published as a children’s writer, though as with the best of them, he has always had a following amongst adults. Much of his work is challenging and more “difficult” than more supposedly adult fiction, not least due to the increased compression of his writing style. His novels rework old, archetypal templates derived from myth and legend, modern-day reworkings of stories of love and loss and courage. The Owl Service, published in 1967, was Garner’s fourth novel, and it won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award. Its storyline is based on a legend from the Mabinogion. Blodeuwedd is a woman made from flowers as a gift to Lleu Llaw. She falls in love with Gronw. Gronw is killed by a spear which penetrates a stone (leaving a hole) and Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl as a punishment.
This old legend, which apparently took place in the Welsh valley where the family are staying, is less of a story than psychic energy which becomes pent up and has to be discharged. It’s hinted that Nancy participated in a previous reworking of the story which ended tragically, and this is why she is so angry when Gwyn and Alison find the plates, the “owl service” of the title. In an epilogue not in the novel, Garner hints that the story will work itself out again, as three young children, two boys and a girl, play round the Stone of Gronw. Alison, Gwyn and Roger, all three in their teens, find themselves embroiled in a fully adult drama of love and jealousy and threatened violence. The adults look on, helpless to intervene. And what is Huw’s role in all this?
Two years after the novel was published, Garner adapted it himself as an eight-part serial for Granada Television. For the most part there are only six characters on screen: in an oddity shared with the novel, Margaret is present throughout the action and even has some influence on the plot but never appears. (Huw does not appear in Episode Four and Clive not in Episode Eight. Otherwise, the only credited cast are some villagers and three children in the final episode.) The serial was shot on 16mm colour film, a very early colour production, and was broadcast from December 1969 to February 1970 on the ITV network. That first broadcast was in black and white, even though ITV had begun colour transmissions the month before. This was due to a technicians' strike - not that most viewers would have noticed as very few had colour sets then. Black and white rather negates the colour-coding of the main characters : red for Alison, black for Gwyn, green for Roger, as Gwyn points out the colours of electrical wiring...and which one is the earth? The serial had its first colour broadcast in 1978 (with that year as the copyright date for some reason) and again on Channel 4 in 1987.
As the BBC realised when they started repeating Pertwee-era Doctor Who, the serial of six or more half-hour episodes (twenty-five minutes plus commercials) is a form increasingly of the past. It relies on an audience tuning in at the same time each week, and the series cannot easily be moved to make way for a sports event or the like. The trend nowadays is for shorter, faster-paced stories. There’s no doubt that The Owl Service is very slow-burning by present-day standards, though that’s certainly no bad thing. It needs a little patience, but it soon casts its eerie spell. It stands in a tradition of semi-mystical, gloriously “strange” television SF and fantasy for children that carried on well into the following decade, such as the BBC serial The Changes and the ITV Sky. (And can we have DVD releases of those two, please? And while we’re at it, how about the other major Garner adaptation, the BBC’s Play for Today version of Red Shift, scripted by the author and directed by John McKenzie, shown once only in 1978 – though you can view it for free at the Mediatheque at the BFI Southbank in London.)
The actors playing the three teenagers were actually in their twenties. Gillian Hills had something of a sexy reputation preceding her, including the lead role as girl-gone-bad in Beat Girl and pushing back the frontiers of screen nudity in Blowup. This is very likely her best performance, and she’s completely convincing. Francis Wallis’s credits run out in the mid 70s. Michael Holden does not appear to have done anything since, and he was murdered in 1977. Dorothy Edwards also appears to have ceased acting, though Edwin Richfield (who died in 1990) and Raymond Llewellyn (still alive) were working actors with extensive credits. Peter Plummer’s avant-garde-influenced direction adds to the strange atmosphere, and there’s a wonderfully disconcerting opening credits sequence. Garner and Plummer make cameo appearances: the former as a villager the latter in a photograph as the dead Bertram. The colour camerawork by Ray Goode and David Wood (the latter’s death prompted the 1978 repeat) is often striking as well.
Like the novel – which in its surface detail is set squarely in the mid 1960s – the TV serial of The Owl Service seems the product of another time. But adjust to its pace and it still tells a compelling story. It’s probably not best for younger children: it’s an indicator of changing times that what was once unproblematic teatime viewing now merits a 12 certificate (for moderate threat and one use of strong language – presumably “bitch”).
The Owl Service is released by Network as a two-disc set. The first six episodes are on a DVD-9, with the remaining two and the extras on a DVD-5. The discs are encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only.
As this is television from the pre-widescreen era, it’s no surprise that the episodes are transferred in 4:3. Back then, 16mm filming tended to give a programme a touch of class, particularly compared to video shooting. Nowadays, things have moved on, and 70s 16mm – let alone late 60s 16mm– looks soft and grainy. There’s also some print damage, especially at the beginnings of each episode. The serial is presented complete with the “Granada Colour Production” logos at the beginnings and ends, the story recaps at the start of episodes two to eight (in sepia, with a voiceover), and the “End of Part One”/”Part Two” captions which went either side of the commercial break. There are also “Play All” options on both discs.
The soundtrack is mono and is clear and well-balanced. The dialogue is almost all in English, though some brief exchanges in Welsh are intentionally unsubtitled. More regrettably, there are no subtitles in English for the heard-of-hearing.
Disc Two’s main extra is “The Edge of the Ceiling” (24:50), a short profile of Garner made to coincide with the 1978 repeat. Despite its short length, this is remarkably in-depth and avoids the usual approach of a runthrough of the novels plus interviews with admirers. We see Garner in his home, which he bought in the late 1950s with a loan of £500 from his father. (He still lives there, with two kinds of prehistoric remains in the garden.) We walk with him around the local places – the hill of Alderley Edge, Jodrell Bank – that have played such a part of his fiction. For Garner, writing is a process of finding rather than creation. Ideas come to him unbidden, and a more associated with a kind of psychic energy given off by somewhere. Then comes a period, sometimes many years, when he reads around a subject until he can do no more…then the actual writing starts. In retrospect, this documentary captures Garner at a turning point. He regards his five children’s novels as an apprenticeship, and he had just published the four short stories that make up The Stone Book Quartet: non-fantasy but clearly showing the same themes as his earlier work. Then came a long silence, partly due to a breakdown which provoked a diagnosis of manic depression, also due to the twelve years it took Garner to write his first adult novel, the difficult but striking Strandloper, published in 1996. (He has since published another novel, Thursbitch, in 2003, which in some ways harks back to Red Shift.)
Also on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (1:48), featuring both black and white and colour shots: a mixture of production stills, behind-the-scenes photos and ending with book covers and the owl service design itself. On the DVD are four items in PDF format: a press release for the 1978 repeat, Granada’s programme information, a 76-page rehearsal and shooting schedule, and an article from January 1970.
Included in the package, but not supplied for review, is a booklet. This details the making of the serial, interviews Gillian Hills and Raymond Llewellyn, and has a review by Kim Newman.