“The Georgian House” is another one of those creepy tea-time children’s programmes from the ‘70s that intrigued and terrified a generation of British school kids whose memories of them have since made them highly sought-after pieces of nostalgia TV from yesteryear. There seemed to be rather a preponderance of British telly for children back in that decade which dealt with the supernatural as a theme - certainly more than there is today. “The Georgian House” is particularly beloved to many of the grown-up thirty/fortysomethings who remember seeing it at the time, perhaps because only three episodes of the seven part story are known to survive in the archives, while the remaining four are believed to have been wiped. This DVD release by Network, available exclusively from their website - www.networkdvd.co.uk - contains only those three existing episodes, then: parts one, three and seven. This partial series is released merely for the benefit of collectors of archive TV, or those who require a boost to their remembrances of this weird and wonderful tale from the ghost of TV’s past. The lucky happenstance of those surviving episodes ending up being the first, middle and last one does at least allow the viewer previously unfamiliar with the series to glean most of the major events and the general shape of the story, though.
The series - produced for HTV West - is a timeslip adventure about two teenagers who travel into a certain period in the past and become involved in some dramatic events there; in fact, one of the principle stars, Spencer Banks, also starred in that other early-seventies children’s time travelling series, “Timeslip”. Those who remember the late-seventies series “The Clifton House Mystery” (also recently made available by Network) will recognise that many of the people behind that production were also involved in various capacities with this earlier one as well, principally producer Patrick Dromgoole, but also co-writer Harry Moore and ex-Avengers producer Leonard White.
The series are very similar in their approach and style. Both are based in Bristol, and both stories attempt to awaken a sense of wonder and a fascination for history in their young audiences - particularly 18th Century history. Supernatural tales have a unique ability to educate, it seems, by dramatising the mysteries of the past and stoking the imagination of viewers in order to make them re-consider their relationship to history. Subjects such as ghosts and time travel are essentially just vehicles for exploring the strangeness and transitory nature of our lives; no matter how ephemeral or different things may appear to us when we look back into the past, we have ultimately all inherited our particular customs and way of seeing from its shadowy, intangible ghost; although trying to get a true feeling for how life was in centuries gone by seems perpetually to elude our grasp. This is one of the main ideas informing the ingenious and evocative scenario behind this tale.
Two young students - the privately educated Dan (Spencer Banks) and a comprehensive school pupil called Abbie (Adrienne Byrne), together take on a holiday job at an old Georgian-built house in Bristol, which has been preserved in its original state and is about to be opened to the public as a museum for paying visitors. The house had been formerly owned by the well-off Bristol family the Leadbetters in the late eighteen-hundreds, its patriarch having built his fortune from trading among the Country’s colonies. Abbie and Dan have to contend with the authoritarian strictures of the caretaker who has been placed in charge of the house (Jack Watson) while helping to catalogue the museum exhibits, which, to add some authenticity to the visiting experience, are arranged in exact recreations of the rooms of the house as they would have been in the 1770s, complete with life-sized dummies dressed in the clothing of the original family and their various servants and slaves.
But while examining a carved African drum in the Morning room, the artifact seems to begin to revolve, and a ghostly voice hoarsely chants the words ‘boy, boy, boy’. Dan and Abbie find themselves transported instantly through time, back to the year 1772, where they have now assumed the roles of a pretty visiting cousin (Abbie) and her lowly servant boy (Dan), dressed in the period costumes worn by two of the dummies in the museum exhibit. Here the two become involved in the affairs of a young African slave called Ngo (Brinsley Forde - who went on to become the lead singer of Aswad!), who they recognise from an old newspaper clipping which they’d previously seen in their own time. Abbie is determined to help Ngo to escape his slavedom and regain his freedom, while Dan reluctantly agrees to help. Meanwhile, with the various comings and goings to and from their own time and back again, the duo have to avoid the discovery of their strange secret by both their grumpy caretaker overseer in contemporary ’70s Bristol and the Georgian Leadbetter family - consisting of the amiable Mistress Anne (Constance Chapman), her flighty, self-centred daughter Ariadne (Janine Duvitski) and the iron-fisted Mr Leadbetter (Peter Schofield).
“The Georgian House” displays those typical low production values and stagy acting styles we now expect from this period's TV drama: it is shot entirely on video and the two young principle protagonists soon give away the ’70s origins of the production when toothy Spencer Banks turns up with a white suit and expansive hairstyle that makes him look like a lost member of The Osmonds, while Adrienne Byrne, although attempting what turns out to be a faltering ‘Bristolian’ accent, keeps slipping back into her RADA-acquired received pronunciation and gives every appearance of auditioning for a role as a presenter on that pre-school children’s television institute “Playschool”!
Making the necessary allowances for the primitive Colour Separation Overlay special effects and the broad acting styles of the period is worthwhile though, because the series uses the contrast between the periods to make some interesting dramatic points about both our own times and those of the past. In one of the missing episodes, Ngo is transported to 1970s Britain and finds the position of many contemporary immigrants to be little better than they were in the past, despite there no longer being any official slavery in existence. Poverty and many violent attitudes towards his race still combine to make their lives miserable, even so. The story is dramatically quite gentle but often very illuminating, being based more around making educational and historical social points rather than providing the kind of thrills modern audiences would perhaps expect and demand nowadays. It’s a relatively quaint nostalgia piece in that regard, but retains a charm and a certain evocative atmosphere nonetheless.
Network present the series’ three remaining episodes on this more-cheaply-priced-than-usual standard DVD disc. The first and last episode are pretty good looking and derive from the original broadcast tapes. The third episode survives only via a private home video copy, and thus is of significantly poorer quality, with video artifacts, blurry image and various audio glitches. It’s still perfectly watchable though, and these episodes include just about enough of the plot for the main ideas and the story arc to be quite apparent to anyone who hasn't seen it before.