Children of the Stones – Paganism, Primitivism and Repetition

Children of the Stones was a horror television series made for children in the mid 1970s, and it is often claimed that people remember it as the most frightening thing that they saw as children in the 1970s. Which begs me to ask: what people were watching? Certainly, if the limits of their experience were Blue Peter (or rather, as this was on ITV, Magpie), this might possibly be true. But anyone who had even the most minor acquaintance with Dr Who during this period would have been used to far more juicy red meat.

Which isn’t to claim that there weren’t pleasure in Children of the Stones. It could be generally creepy and had some nice ideas (see more next week); and most intriguingly, it sits between two great Nigel Kneale classics: one of which it echos; and one of which it prefigures.

The Stone Tape is something that I remember as one of the scariest things that I saw as a kid (by which I mean the scariest television program not even the scariest thing that I saw on television). Like The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones tells a story of ancient stones that endlessly replay the past, a repetition that is dark, malevolent and seemly inescapable. And both have a very strong sense of pagan, pre-Christian powers that seem almost rooted in the landscape – and over which Christianity is mere insubstantial window-dressing.

Actually many of the MR James stories that the BBC used for their Christmas Ghost Stories also featured this sort of thing, too; and it turns up again in Kneale’s weird return to the Quatermass stories in the late 1970s, Quatermass (which featured the old professor on ITV for the first time). This series also features ancients stones, ancient evil and Kneale’s customary questioning of modernity (see my article, ‘An Unidentified Species: Horror, the Body and Early Television Drama’).

In fact, Quatermass even centers its evil on the same kinds of ancient stone circles that feature in Children of the Stones.

Next Week: Children of the Stones – Scary or Baffling?

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Peter Cushing, Hammer and Television

So, right, we all know that Peter Cushing was a major star of the horror film, a pillar of the Hammer productions, and a perennial figure in British horror films beyond Hammer. But what has all this got to do with television? Well, Hammer wasn’t quite the transgressive producer of cinematic horror that it is now remembered as being. On the contrary, its association with television was vital to its early years.

Before the release of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), it has even specialized in film versions of BBC radio and television shows. From 1948, it had made three film versions of Dick Barton, Secret Agent and, by the 1950s, it would achieve considerable success by adapting Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment and its follow-up, Quatermass II, into films.

So what has any of this got to do with dear old Peter Cushing? In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Cushing may have made films in Hollywood with figures such as Laurel and Hardy, but he was also known as a serious actor, and even appeared in Olivier’s Gothic film version of Hamlet in 1948, the American posters for which proclaimed: ‘Shrouded mist, clad in rusty armor, a horrifying spectre stalks the great stone battlements of the ancient castle. Its one command is . . .  kill . . .  kill . . . KILL!’.

By the 1950s, however, Cushing was dividing his time between Hollywood historical films such The Black Knight (1954, with Alan Ladd) and Alexander the Great (1956, with Richard Burton) on the one hand, and prestigious BBC television dramas on the other: Cushing even played Darcy in a 1952 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

However, the drama that was probably most central to his casting in The Curse of Frankenstein was his starring role as Winston Smith in the Nigel Kneale adaptation of 1984 in 1954, a production that was highly controversial and explicitly referred to as an example of television horror at the time.

Indeed, Hammer followed up The Curse of Frankenstein with another Cushing vehicle (NOT The Horror of Dracula, 1958) but an adaptation of another Nigel Kneale television play, The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Nor was this the end of the relationship between Cushing and Hammer on the one hand, and television on the other. In the 1960s, Cushing would appear on television in a Sherlock Holmes series that developed the role that he had played for Hammer in 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles; and in 1965 and 1966 he would appear in film versions of BBC’s Dr. Who (in Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth – 2150 A.D., the latter being a particular favorite of mine).

Actually, the two Dr. Who films weren’t made by Hammer, but by one of its rivals, Amicus, but they still illustrate that Hammer and its rivals clearly sought to associate themselves with television, long before the supposed decline into ventures such as On the Buses in 1971.

Doomwatch – The Future Looks Bleak … Again

One of the shows that had a real impact on me as a youth, and which is strangely under-appreciated today, was Doomwatch, in which a team of British investigators look into the disturbing side-effects of contemporary science. Created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pendler, who had previously worked on Doctor Who, the series concerned a government unit led by Professor Quist, a deeply moral figure who spends most of the series fighting the dark forces of the British establishment.

There is a film version and some later spin-offs but the key period (for me at least) was three series that ran in the early seventies, and featured weekly stories in which Quist and his team battle bureaucracy, big business and killer rats.

The first episode, “The Plastic Eaters”, featured a new microbe that gets out of hand (it is developed to eliminate waste) and develops an appetite for plastic. Planes start falling out of the skies and all manner of other mayhem ensues. It is a wonderfully apocalyptic scenario, but was followed each week by a succession of potentially world-destroying scientific mysteries for the team.

Which brings me to the killer rats. The episode that I remember the best was “Tomorrow, The Rat”, in which science creates a race of super-rats that threaten to overwhelm humanity. One of the reasons that it was so effective was that it was around the time of panics over the side-effects of warfarin on rats – in that context, the idea of the world being taken over by super-rats was particularly and James Herbert’s The Rats would come out only a few years later (1974).

Why this show isn’t available on DVD is a complete mystery to me. Okay, so there are missing episodes, but that is no excuse. What is the BBC thinking?

Ace of Wands (1970-1972) – British Television Horror for Kids

There is a whole wealth of fantasy stuff that was produced for British kids in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a strange story. On one hand, it is worth remembering that some of the first films sold to television were the old Universal horror films, which were transmitted as part of children’s entertainment in late 1950s America. These films were already seen as dated when compared to the horror films that were being produced at the time: these films were being sold to television at around the same time as Hammer was having its first successes, Les Diaboliques was drawing huge crowds to art cinemas, and only a short time before Hitchcock and Michael Powell would make (respectively) Psycho and Peeping Tom.

So what does this tell us? Well, that the relationship between children and fantasy is an odd one: on the one hand, horror and fantasy are often associated with children, partly because they are seen as ‘childish’ and ‘silly’ when compare to more ‘adult’ and ‘serious’ forms such as social realism; but. on the other, they are often seen as worrying in relation to children. Fairy tales and Father Christmas are usually alright for the children, while the rest of us know that they are nonsense; but many people worry that children’s imaginations are fragile things that can’t handle things like the rest of us; and that they therefore can’t distinguish fiction from reality and might be traumatized by horror and fantasy.

Consequently, while horror is often seen as only fit for children, it is also often restricted to adults; and children’s horror is either derided for not being scary enough, or for being too scary. Even Dr Who provoked the censors in the 1960s and 1970s.

Anyhow, British television produced a whole slew of fantasy and horror television for kids in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of it was great, like Doctor Who; some of it was wonderfully awful (what the hell was Martin Landau doing in Space 1999); and some of it was wonderfully weird, like Ace of Wands.

In this series, Tarot is a a mystic magician who battles all manner of weird and wonderful menaces with his supernatural powers – you know, telepathy and all that kind of stuff. He is also supported by two assistants (like the good doctor) and an owl called Ozymandias. In the first two series, the assistants were Sam and Lulli, but they were replaced in the third season by brother and sister, Chas and Mikki. Although it should be mentioned that there were strong parallels between the both sets of assistants. For example, both Lulli and Mikki shared a telepathic link with Tarot (and had similar names).

Unfortunately, there aren’t many of the episodes left, although series three is available on DVD, and is well worth a gander. It’s the counter-culture for kids, sort of…

In one story, the local market is being driven into decline by some strange curse, but it also becomes clear that the situation is being manipulated by an evil corporate figure who lives in a strange, white, sealed office at the top of a large modern tower-block that overlooks the market: critiques of gentrification and corporate capitalism in a show for kiddies. Of course, the politics of the show as a whole is a little more odd: the corporate bigwig commands via a counter-cultural gang, who terrorize the market; and, in another story, Tarot and his assistants combat an evil threat to NATO, in which old ladies are the enemy! And then, in yet another story, the menace are a group of beautiful young people who are giving away expensive domestic appliances to the elderly but turn out to be plotting something dastardly that involves the old folk being endangered by their appliances, or something…

I am not claiming that Ace of Wands is a work of genius, but its great fun, and demonstrates that Dr Who was far from being the only game in town during the period. In fact, the period was a fertile one for children’s fantasy television, and we write these stories out of the history of horror and fantasy television at our peril!

Next Week: Kindred: The Embraced (1996): The 1990s that You May Have Chosen to Forget!