"Doctor Who" connections abound in this intriguing 1977 six-part children's serial from ATV: Director Michael Hart helmed the 1969 Patrick Troughton adventure "The Space Pirates", whilst co-writer Trevor Ray not only script edited the show during its change-over period from Troughton to Jon Pertwee, as well as the former comic actor's ensuing first season in the role of the Doctor during which Ray also found time to write "The Ambassadors of Death" along the way - but he also appeared briefly on screen in a cameo role playing a ticket inspector in "The Silurians". He and his writing partner Jeremy Burnham are better known, though, for creating and writing the cult 70s children's serial "The Children of the Stones" - a piece of work renowned for its uncanny atmosphere and an ambiguous plot that refused to explain itself neatly or simplify its complications for its young audience.
"Raven" is the little-seen follow-up by the two writers, and inhabits pretty much the same areas of concern: ancient British history and its legends form a compelling and atmospheric backdrop to a tale filled with mysticism, astrology and the paranormal as well as a large dose of environmentalism that expresses itself in the contemporary concern with the issue of nuclear reprocessing. Standing stones with ancient power play equally as important a role in both stories and it looks very much to me like the same misshapen fake prop stones have been carried over from "Children of the Stones" into "Raven". Both series also feature imposing professorial authority figures who turn out to be the nexus of ancient forces that might appear irrational to the modern mind and are certainly completely at odds with these characters' scientific roles in the everyday world, but which are very much rooted here in a progressive eco-mindedness.
The series is a showcase for what turns out to be a stand out performances from the teenage Phil Daniels, still at the beginning of his career here, who plays the lithe title character Raven: an orphaned Borstal boy who, at the start of episode one, gets ferried out to the countryside on a rehabilitation programme where he is to spend some quality time in the fresh air with wheelchair-bound archaeological expert, Professor Young (Michael Aldridge) and his kindly ornithologist wife (Patsy Rowlands). Daniels, of course, was to make something of a habit of playing these unruly delinquent characters in numerous '70s TV and film roles, but the part of Raven encompasses much more subtlety than just the yob-who-comes-to-see-the-error-of-his-ways plot form. Raven is tough and independent and has possibly been involved in organised crime in the past (he knows all about sawn-off 'shooters', for instance), but he is also intelligent and versatile and full of a youthful exuberance. His quality of character is to come ever more to the fore as each episode unfolds. Pitched into the rarified world of the Youngs' quaint cottage farmhouse existence, he soon becomes involved in the excavations of a nearby cave system where carved symbols and ancient artifacts have been found all of which seem to bear out the Professor's theory that the myth of King Arthur was based in historical truth, and that the site (near a circle of ancient stones) was once a sacred place which may have been of importance to a succession of figures who each played a part in forming the legend of England's legendary Kingly defender.
Raven is at first perplexed and not much interested in all this; and worst of all, from the irascible Professor Young's point of view, he takes the side of Government geologist Bill Telford (James Kerry), whose been sent down to oversee a project to use the caves as a natural underground storage facility for the plutonium waste from a nuclear reprocessing plant that is to be built nearby. With the encouragement of the Professor - as well as that of the attractive junior reporter Naomi Grant from the local newspaper (Shirley Cheriton), who opposes the plan despite it being against the editorial policy of her paper to do so - Raven comes to see that the caves are special indeed, and should be preserved. Soon it becomes noticeable that there are strange forces at work though, and Professor Young seems to be deeply involved in them. Raven himself begins to suspect along with the viewer that he may have been brought to the place for a purpose; the strange circumstances surrounding his past hold one clue - Raven was so-named because he was discovered as a baby on the site of an earthwork maze with a Raven perched beside him, and an example of the species - called a Merlin - still seems to follow him wherever he goes. He starts to experience strange visions, on of them in the Professor's study during which he imagines that the Professor himself turns into a Merlin!
“Raven” is really a story of self-realisation and self-transformation but told in terms of a mysterious supernatural drama with '70s mod trappings. As Raven's consciousness is raised about underlying ecological concerns and the historical significance of the site, his destiny as envisioned by the Professor and those around him who are set to become his modern day 'knights' becomes more apparent to both him and the viewer. The metaphorical element of the plot, in which the professor is the modern incarnation of Merlin who helps the new Arthur fulfil his latest quest to defend England from the forces of bureaucratic Government as well as a misguided 'progress' - is introduced with great subtlety and mystery, and the story is filled with interesting characters who also turn out to have a specific role to play in the unravellings of Raven's fate - most notably Hugh Thomas's camp, safari-suited TV personality Clive Castle, who turns up with a national news team in tow when Raven distinguishes himself by his decisive action during a cave-in in the underground tunnels.
Burnham and Ray's screenplay is notable for presenting a host of fully rounded and sympathetic characters; even James Kerry's Bill Telford - who is in charge of the plan to turn the cave system into a storage facility for nuclear waste, is basically a good man; and he and Raven develop a strong bond despite being on opposite sides in the dispute. The rather large role that astrology plays in the plot dates the production somewhat more than even Raven's stripy rainbow tank top, and it's doubtful any scriptwriter would resort to such a dubious device these days. Shirley Cheriton (later to become well-known during the early years of popular weekday soap "Eastenders") who plays pretty news reporter Naomi, turns out to be an expert in the subject simply by way of writing the horoscope for the local newspaper, and ancient astrological symbols turn up in the visions that both Raven and Bill Telford experience in the caves. Meanwhile, "Last of the Summer Wine"s Michael Aldridge gives a marvelous performance as the mysterious crippled Professor and "Carry On" star Patsy Rowlands is charming in the role of his bird watching wife. As was the case with "The Children of the Stones" the story is nuanced and poetic and often deeply unsettling (especially for a young audience) and the extra atmosphere generated by an supremely creepy sound design adds a great deal to the overall effect of a series that any fan of classic telefantasy will undoubtedly swoon over.
Network Releasing have unearthed this gem (from beneath an ancient standing stone, perhaps?) and it is receiving its first ever release on DVD here. The whole thing was shot on video, even the exteriors, and it seems to have held up pretty well over the years - it looks as good here as the day it was first broadcast. The disc is a Network web exclusive and can currently be bought only from www.networkdvd.co.uk