A good few years back I started to remember a particular programme that I’d watched as a child in the eighties. The most distinct memory I had of the show was that it had a very weird, unnerving atmosphere that didn’t feel remotely like something children should be watching. Straining my memory for specific details, I remembered that it was set in Wales, involved a girl who was obsessively making paper owls, and it’s action somehow hinged around an event in the past involving a youth on motorcycle on a hillside, and another youth throwing a spear. I remembered harp music, and oddly anachronistic episode recaps delivered in a stiff British accent over sepia stills. When I was younger, another television show – Sapphire and Steel – had scared me a lot. But with Sapphire and Steel, the scares were more direct, and more or less enjoyable in the manner of a good scary film. The show I was trying to remember, on the other hand, had a kind of cloying, psychological closeness and tension about it, and an intimation of things unspoken and under the surface, that made it unsettling rather than jump out of your seat scary.
With only those details and no name, I went on a quest to try and find the show. I asked a bunch of people of my age but nobody seemed to remember it. I tried the internet, but either because google wasn’t as clever back then as it is today, or because I wasn’t as clever at using it, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. The Great Library of Babel that made every half-remembered cultural artefact instantly retrievable had failed me, and I started to wonder if the damn thing was real at all, or just some feverish misplacing of a dream onto the television screen. Paper owls, madness, an old story from the past possessing the present – it seemed just too weird to be a legitimate kids show. The search proved to be very rewarding in an unexpected way, however. At my local specialist dvd rental store, I picked up a show called Children of the Stones hoping that it might have been what I was looking for. It was something else entirely – a show that instantly obsessed me, and became one of my all-time favourites virtually overnight. I had found other people’s shamanic childhood initiation, but not my own.
The situation remained thus for few years after that, until the hauntological scene kicked off awhile back, and suddenly weird neo-pagan transmissions like Children of the Stones re-emerged into the collective ether with a vengeance. It was a little like a speeded-up Information Age equivalent to John Aubrey and William Stukeley rediscovering Britain’s long suppressed but never quite vanquished pagan heritage in the ruins of Avebury and Stonehenge – a stirring of ancestral memory on somewhat less grandiose time scales. I figured if I was ever going to find that show, it would be now, and sure enough, I discovered a likely candidate in The Owl Service and finally hit pay-dirt. The harp, the owls, the motorcycle, the spear – they were all there, like the retrieval of a dream which had all but fled to wherever it is dreams go.
The Owl Service was a 1969 adaptation of a novel by Alan Garner. Garner had started out writing children’s fiction which was relatively conventional in form, albeit displaying a rich and genuine affinity with mythology and folklore. With 1967’s The Owl Service and 1973’s Redshift, Garner moved in a more experimental direction. These are remarkable books, and to say that they don’t talk down to their young adult audience is somewhat of an understatement – Garner’s writing is sparse and allusive almost to the point of being obtuse, and their story-lines tend towards an overall air of bleakness, ambiguity, and open-endedness. Even reading them as an adult, I found they required a considerable degree of concentration – I suspect a great many adults today wouldn’t have the patience for a book as rugged and open-ended as The Owl Service. The television adaptation – which Garner himself wrote – is a very close, almost perfectly realized translation of the novel, and shares its experimental, modernist spirit. The show utilized bold, elliptical jump-cuts, and one of its stars, Gillian Hills, had participated in an iconic monument of the experimental and permissive 60s – Antonioni’s Blowup, where her uninhibited tom-foolery with Jane Birkin was regarded by the uptight as the moral nadir of the whole film.
Twin Peaks, Children of the Stones, and The Owl Service – three shows that I discovered at different stages of my life – all share the same basic sense of the strange impinging itself upon the everyday. This characteristic is embodied in both their storylines and in their status as popular mainstream entertainments into which a surreal or subversive sensibility has been smuggled. Children of the Stones and The Owl Service already possess the incongruity of their complexity and sophistication, qualities which we don’t expect in the medium of children’s television. All three, however, share a distinct of sense of the modern world remaining subject to weird, primordial forces which are buried in its past and hidden under its familiar surfaces. To encounter these weird ideas in the cosy context of television has a subversive, revelatory quality, like something that is slipped past the censor, or whispered in your ear. Anyway, all this is by way of introduction to The Owl Service, which you watch in its entirety (in fifteen minute segments) on youtube: