Pamela Lonsdale is a hugely important name in the history of the development of British children’s television drama in the 1970s. As well as creating much-loved puppet-based pre-school series “Rainbow” and introducing an ever after thankful world to the lovely Bungle, George and Zippy in the process, Lonsdale’s name can usually be found attached to some of the most memorable children’s supernatural or fantasy fiction of the decade. “Ace of Wands”, “Dramarama” and the excellent ITV adaptation of John Wyndham’s alien possession drama “Chocky” and its follow-up “Chocky’s Children”, are just a few of the ones that spring immediately to mind. Several series started out life as single play episodes in the anthology series “Shadows” which ran for three series between 1975 and 1978 and which Lonsdale also produced. The series can thus be seen as something of a test-bed for children’s fantasy fiction during that time. The third and final batch of episodes now come to DVD thanks to Network Releasing, presenting nostalgia buffs with seven more studio-based ghostly adventures to enjoy, although the quality of the dramas is noticeably more variable than in the previous two series and the tales seem more concerned with magic than traditional tales of hauntings.
“Eleven O’Clock” sees Ronald Hines and Tina Heath in a small-scale drama which takes place in a holiday cottage in France which just so happens to be situated near a trench that marks what would have been a British battle line during the Great War of 1914-18. Charged with awaiting the arrival of her host’s carrier pigeon in the cobwebby attic of the cottage, Linda (Heath) passes the time in a game of darts with her dad; but the old, broken Grandfather clock in the corner has other ideas and starts interfering in their game in uncanny ways! This is another ghostly story about remembering that the past in our history books was once an everyday reality for real people -- and in this case the reality of one relationship and how it was prematurely cut short by war forms the crux of this particular haunting. The small cast, the mostly one room location and the rather sentimental handling of the potentially serious subject matter, which concerns the mass slaughter of World War 1 and remembering the (then) 60th anniversary of its conclusion (a dove of peace materialises in a gilded cage at one point) makes the play a rather dry and sombre beginning to the series but it has suitably atmospheric moments even if the story never really develops its themes and is more concerned with making a point than actually being scary.
The second story here is odd to say the least. Former Playschool presenter Christopher Lillicrap plays a TV researcher who turns up at a small village in Dorset to research the life of reclusive ballerina Rose Collard in “The Rose of Puddle Fratrum”. He meets Mr & Mrs Donn, the husband and wife owners of the local inn (played by Brian Pringle and June ‘Dot Cotton’ Brown) who tell him of the curse that Rose placed on her most famous ballet, ‘The Rose and the Nightingale’, after an accident with a carelessly disposed of banana skin caused her to slip during a performance and injure herself; ‘Mortification set in … they had to take the leg off,’ intones Mrs Donn, sepulchrally. The ballet has not been performed in the sixty years since. Every time someone has attempted to stage another production disaster has struck, this being the 1970s, usually because of industrial action! It turns out that as part of the programme he’s making about Rose Collard’s life, Rod wants to have another go at putting on the ballet, this time for TV. The researcher has travelled to the former witch-turned-ballerina’s home village hoping to track her down and persuade her to lift the curse. To help him in this endeavour, he has a highly sophisticated thinking computer called Fred – which looks like a large, steel drinks cabinet, inset with switches, flashing lights and spinning tape spools, and an oscilloscope that produces a wave pattern every time Fred intones in a radio-robotic artificial voice backed with a twittering frequency. Where a lowly TV researcher would get such a device from is never explained, but no one seems in the least put out by it! Eventually, Rod does indeed come face to face with Rose Collard (Joan Greenwood), who now lives Miss Havisham-like in a cottage surrounded by roses and habited by nightingales! Mrs Collard is chuffed to hear that her curse has been so effective, but attempts to lift it prove difficult and the conditions required in order to end the curse, one of which is that the ballet must be performed by a troupe of one-legged ballerinas, would appear to be insurmountable … that is until supercomputer Fred comes up with a solution. This is a whimsical tale that feels like a try-out for a full TV series that doesn’t quite come off. There are a few stylistic flourishes which make it noticeable though: such as the robot becoming the narrator of the tale and beginning the story with all the characters appearing as cardboard cut-outs which then come to life. The episode also includes some staged sequences of ballet, which adds to the otherworldly fairy tale atmosphere.
“And For My Next Trick …” sees Clive Swift as a washed-up magician, Mr Devine, who lives in a lonely ill-lit bedsit, attempting to scrape a living by performing to general indifference if not outright hostility at children’s birthday parties held in his middle-class clients’ over bright homes. After being turfed out of a raucous party where the bored kids run off halfway through his act (the hostess is the unmistakable Jacqueline Pierce of “Blake’s 7” fame), Devine returns home, finally ready to admit he’s had his day, and his tame form of magic is no longer saleable. But then three ornately decorated eggs mysteriously materialise on his dusty living room table. They seem able to move about as though possessed of some intelligence of their own and Devine realises that they could be made the centrepiece of an amazing magic act. Enlisting the aid of his landlady’s daughter Marion (Caroline Embling) as his assistant, Devine returns to his last client’s house and insists on being allowed to continue his act. The once bored kids are soon left amazed by a series of amazing feats in which the strange sentient eggs levitate and perform all sorts of flashy stunts. But Marion is worried. Every time Devine performs another stunt with the uncanny eggs, another of his traditional stage props at home vanishes into thin air. An exchange is clearly being made but Devine is too enamoured of his newfound popularity to contemplate what it means. For what happens when he has nothing left to barter? This is an early tale by “Sapphire & Steel” creator Peter Hammond, and you can see the seeds of the author’s peculiar knack for the uncanny in this deceptively menacing tale which is rendered all the more effective for not providing any rationale at all for the supernatural goings on.
Next up is an episode which actually did spawn its own TV series. “The Boy Merlin” is an adaptation of a tale told as part of the Arthurian legends first set down in an 11th century chronicle by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Here, Merlin (Ian Rowlands) is pictured growing up in the wilds of Carmarthen, Wales, under the foster care of blacksmith Dafydd (Donald Huston) and his wife Blodwin (Margret John). In reality he is the fatherless son of the Welsh princess Iamena (Cassandra Harris), but the prophetic fore-knowledge of his Grandmother, Myfanwy (Rachel Thomas), who is also schooling the young apprentice in the art of ancient magic, has him fated as being instrumental in the rise of the court of King Arthur. One day, Merlin’s real mother arrives on horseback disguised as a nun, to warn that the king of the Britons, Vortigen, has been advised by his court magicians that a great tower he is planning on building will only stand if the mortar is mixed with the blood of a fatherless child. Accordingly, being aware of rumours concerning the Carmarthen prince’s foster-hood, the king has dispatched a knight called Octa (Archie Tew) to track Merlin down and bring him to Winchester to be sacrificed. When Octa arrives at the Blacksmith’s dwelling, he isn’t fooled for a second by the false backstory Dafydd and Blodwin use to try to excuse Merlin’s presence. The boy magician will have to put all his fledgling powers to the test if he is to succeed in thwarting Vortigen’s plans for him, but he will require some help from his wise old Grandmother as well. This likable tale shows few signs of seeding a likely series spin-off; it’s very exposition heavy, relying on the small cast of actors delivering long monologues of explanatory backstory to enable the viewer to understand the thrust of the plot. The tale eventually reduces to a battle of wits between the boy Merlin, his cunning Grandmother, and the ruthless Octa -- with the vicious Briton soon succumbing to clever Welsh magic.
“The Man Who Hated Children” takes us back to the whimsical mode of earlier tales in the series, but the ending provides a truly terrifying image that must have haunted a few young viewers at the time. British TV veteran George A. Cooper plays bad tempered, child-hating councillor Higgs, who wages a one-man war against local kids by confiscating their possessions in the park. Higgs is written, and played by Cooper, as a broadly comic caricature, something you might find among the pages of a Roald Dahl story. We see him at the start of the episode contentedly hoarding cricket bats and toys while two youngsters, Tom and Willie (William Smoker and Tom Watson) plot a guerrilla campaign of attrition with the aid of one of Higgs’ old boots and some smoke bombs. In the echoing chamber of the local town hall, an ancient councillor rheumily reminisces about his childhood meeting with the author of Peter Pan, James Barrie, and requests that an investigation be launched into two missing stone plaques commemorating Peter Pan and Wendy, which have recently disappeared from the park grounds. Higgs dismisses the old codger’s dusty pontificating that the stones had magical powers that could make wishes come true and instead secretly plots with fellow councillor Sliggs (Brian Wilde) to get his own back on Tom and Willie by breaking into the park at night, vandalising some flowerbeds and the kids’ playground and planting some evidence to implicate the two lads in the attack. First of all, the two councillors mug their young targets -- donning plastic micky mouse masks to disguise their identity (a weirdly inappropriate idea for a tea time children’s programme – adults shown assaulting children: I suspect it would never occur these days!). Having obtained a pencil and a bus pass during the mugging, each object with one of the child’s names on it to be planted at the scene of the crime -- Higgs delightedly sets about smashing up the park with all the gleeful vindictiveness of a very immature child himself. But nervous Sliggs (Wilde bringing to the part all the jitteriness one associates with his role as Mr Barrowclough in “Porridge”) witnesses magical goings on after Higgs departs: the trees and flowerbeds are miraculously restored and a small boy consults a talking swan on the park pond! Meanwhile, the two boys find all their appropriated toys have materialised in their secret den and, not knowing that the missing plaques are actually beneath their feet as they speak, wish that Higgs would change … into anything. Cue one of the most haunting images in ‘70s Children’s TV fiction, made all the more potent for the rest of the episode being played in such a broadly comic tone, as Higgs begins to sprout roots and turn into a living tree! This peculiar episode ends on a note of macabre that feels more like a scene from the Theatre of the Absurd.
“The Silver Apple” takes the traditional children’s fairy tale approach to story telling, making use of what was then state-of-the-art Colour Separation Overlay (CSO) to combine the actors and various studio props with backdrops sketched and painted in crude watercolours to create the impression of a storybook come to life. A pedlar (Brian Peck) stops on his route along a dusty road outside a magnificent kingdom, to tell the story of its two Princes, each vying for the right of kingship after the death of their father leaves their lands open to invasion. Their mother, the queen (Rachel Herbert), sets them a task in order to find out which of them is fit to rule, since there was apparently a mix-up in the court nursery and it isn’t known which Prince is the eldest! Prince Felix (Simon Duncan) is gifted a magic compass by a mute dwarf (George Claydon) that points the way to a mysterious shadow tree; while his haughty brother Prince Milton (Simon Turner) meets the pedlar narrating the tale on the road outside the gates of the castle, and is given a magic carpet and a magic telescope that allows one to see ‘beyond’ the next horizon. Felix gains access to a strange otherworld after circling the Shadow Tree three times. This world does not know sun light and so is bathed in a perpetual twilight. But there is a beautiful girl there called Iona (Prue Clarke), who gives Felix a silver apple which has the power to keep him from injury, harm or disease -- yet she herself will not leave the shadow realm because her uncle is an evil magician who uses the eyes of the dead sprinkled in the treetops to spy on her! When he leaves this secret world, Felix meets his brother again, and with Prince Milton’s magic telescope they learn that their mother the Queen is dying. With the aid of the magic carpet, they arrive at her death bed just in time for Felix to use his silver apple to save her life. The rest of the story concerns Felix’s attempt to claim Iona as his Princess and thus having to pit himself in a battle of wits and magic against her evil uncle in a magical maze in order to win the right to take her away from the shadow lands. The climax sees the Queen having to make her decision as to who should take up the king’s crown in view of the fact that both brothers helped equally in saving her life. The production design and painted animation backdrops help to give this episode a seasonal flavour of the Christmas pantomime tradition, and it’s weird to see the presenter Peter Duncan from children’s magazine programme “Blue Peter” clad in revealing tights; but the slightly macabre atmosphere (the idea of the eyes of people who have died in the twilight world beyond the shadow tree being used to spy on the living, is a uniquely evocative one) lent by its storybook trappings make this a noticeable episode despite the traditional nature of its contents.
The last tale here, “Honeyann”, is directed as well as produced by Pamela Lonsdale and features a story by author Fay Weldon. The set-up is typically involved and unusual, yet weirdly specific. Unemployed Teenager Honeyann (a young Gwyneth Strong from “Only Fools and Horses”) is given a job as an assistant home help in the household of former rock star Roddy Magee (Paul Angelis) by his wife Candy (Adrienne Posta), but finds that the huge, rambling mansion is dominated by the presence of a matronly nanny (Madge Ryan) employed to look after the couple’s baby, who will brook no interference from the other staff. According to Candy and Roddy’s young son Saffrey (Joshua White), she might well be a witch: anyone who crosses her seems to fall mysteriously ill and Candy is always too tired to play any role in the raising of her own child, leaving nanny to take full control over the running of the entire household. The usual Weldon themes of dominant patriarchy and female complicity through old ways of doing things (which are here associated with witchery, thus reversing the usual pattern in which witches are the outcasts and rejects of femininity) are at the centre of the tale, with a modern mother succumbing to the atmosphere of the dusty mansion that the family still live in while her husband is perpetually away (in this case because he’s on tour with his aging glam rock band) and finding herself living out a nineteenth century conception of a mother’s role thanks to the interference of the officious nanny. ‘She’s a poor old lady trying to hang on to a job she can’t do anymore,’ Honeyann insists, after Saffrey tries to persuade her that nanny is the malign supernatural presence he’s discerned her to be. Eventually, the old ways meet a new age form of traditional magic, as Honeyann is forced to pit her white magic against the black of Nanny’s after the hard-hearted matron tries to get her sacked. This is quietly the most eccentric tale from what is quite an incongruous bunch, but it also has the most subtext and repays repeat viewing more than any other episode included here.
This third collection of “Shadows” tales is probably not the best of the children’s anthology series, and if you prefer the traditional ghost story you won’t find much in that vein here. Yet the diverse set of stories provides great variety in subject matter and tone and should provide at least some entertainment for fans of cult children’s supernatural fiction. This set features seven 25 minute episodes on one disc accompanied by a short animated gallery of production stills.