Back in the 1970s it seemed like you couldn’t switch on the telly without stumbling across countless instances of extremely imaginative and usually very creepy supernatural fiction being produced for and aimed at kids, most of it created by HTV. “Children of the Stones”, “The Georgian House” and “Raven” are just three examples of a once thriving genre that now seems almost to have entirely disappeared. Sure, there’s still plenty of fantasy fiction for the young ‘uns these days, but the specific kind of storytelling which these older series’ dealt in -- often voicing an existential dread of the unknown, together with a fascination for history and even mystical ideas -- feels now to be a rare thing indeed.
“Shadows” ran for three series between 1975 and 1978, and though the influence of Peter Plummer’s ground-breaking 1969 adaptation of Alan Garner’s novel “The Owl Service” is very apparent here, it’s a very fine example of the kids’ supernatural fiction genre. The title sequence alone could well have induced nightmares in the more sensitive child viewer: ominous electronic sound effects, animated shots of derelict urban environments and a staring, malevolent-looking girl whose shadow seems to have a life of its own, are among the images that set the scene for this odd set of stories – nearly all be female authors. Made by Thames TV and produced by Ruth Boswell (“Timeslip”, “The Tomorrow People”) this second volume of episodes includes six stand-alone twenty-five minute stories, all made with standard, very basic production values of the day: they’re shot on videotape, most of them with fairly small casts, but many of the stories turn out to embody an compelling and subtle exploration of teenage fears and preoccupations cast in the form of the ‘strange tale’, each of a type that evokes the spirit of authors such as Robert Aickman or Ramsey Campbell rather than the more traditional ‘spooks and haunted houses’ concerns of the run-of-the-mill ghost story. The settings are contemporary urban ones (at least initially) and the imagination and how it engages with the past and the psychological resonance of such encounters becomes an extremely strong theme throughout the series.
The alluringly titled “The Dark Streets of Kimballs Green” kicks off this intriguing anthology. Although entirely shot on videotape, the whole thing takes place out of doors – on the pavement outside rows of terraced houses or on busy traffic-congested city streets. Much of the story’s charm consists in contrasting this prosaic, unromantic setting with a sense of the uncanny and the mysterious. Little Emmeline (charmingly played by Hannah Isaacson) loves reading, and spends all her spare time at the city public library – much to the annoyance of her brash and philistine foster mother Mrs Vaughn (Barbara Keogh), who can’t see the point of having one’s nose buried in a book all day and tetchily bans the poor girl from going anywhere near the place. Emmeline is also secretly nursing a stray cat which she allows to stay in her room at night, also against Mrs Vaughn’s wishes -- protecting it from the sadistic attentions of her foster mother’s thuggish son and the gang of street toughs he leads. The girl befriends a local itinerant musician, Mr Campbell (Alex McCrindle) who gives her a book to read all about the Saxon settlement that used to exist where the busy city streets of Kimballs Green now thrive. This is a story about the imagination and how it offers hope and release from an environment dominated by drab commuter belt greyness and the threat of senseless urban violence. Here, chanting yobs roam the streets waving sticks, and beat up pensioners outside the local co-op; and little Emmeline has only her stray cat and a strange romance in the idea of confiding in that ancient king from long ago via the vandalised telephone box outside her house! It’s a strange, subtle, enchanting tale which works for keeping the supernatural content tenuous and emphasising the young protagonist’s imaginative life.
The same idea dominates the second tale in the series. “Time Out of Mind” sees Elaine Button as a bored, resentful teenager, forced by her visiting aunt and her mother to spend the day at a dull-sounding toy museum, where a Victorian dolls’ house, oddly peopled with very life-like figures, seems to merge with her reality, and she finds herself living out another life as a maid servant inside the miniature establishment while alternative versions of her mother & father and her friend Helen, live a life very different from the one she so disdains at home. The tale revolves around Eliza’s battle with the Governess (an alternative version of the aunt she dislikes so much in her 1970s life) who has been employed to teach her friend Helen, but who is clearly impeding the girl’s desire to break free of her restrictive Victorian home life and go to college, by deliberately sabotaging her lessons. Eliza’s frustrations in her ordinary life are being replayed in a nineteenth century context where the social constraints are a great deal more severe than in her own time.
The limits of Imagination and teenage frustrations in an urban environment are once again to the fore in “The Inheritance”, another subtle and moving tale, this time about town versus country, centring on the strain that builds between a young person struggling to find his own identity in the world and the wishes of a parent who has worked hard to provide opportunities for their offspring, but now see them being squandered. When Margret’s (Priscilla Morgan) elderly father (John Barrett) moves in with his daughter while seeing a specialist in town for his heart condition, he strikes up a friendship with his grandson Martin (Dougal Ross). The lad has just rejected the offer of a job in town training to be a solicitor -- a job found for him by his parents -- and wants to work in the countryside instead, maybe on a farm. Margret is distraught at the idea; she spent her whole childhood in the stultifying isolation of the country and saw it only as a limit placed on her opportunities in life. Her father, meanwhile, has continued to spend his old age living alone in the family cottage, looking after deer in the neighbouring fields; his stories about the bond he’s forged with the graceful animals over the years captures Martin’s imagination. One day, the boy experiences an hallucinatory, mystical vision in the local park, during which he witnesses the mysterious ‘Dance of the Deer’ – a strange ritual his granddad once told him about, the meaning of which is not clear, though he finds a symbolic roe’s antler on the ground afterwards. This gentle story about loss and acceptance is beautifully told; a simple three-hander between three sympathetic but very different characters struggling to understand each other.
The countryside is at the centre of the next story in the collection, “Dark Encounter”, too. This is an evocative tale that starts off in a much more traditional manner and at first feels like it’s heading for familiar territory; but the themes – about an adult’s uneasy relationship with his own childhood past – are profound and make for interesting material, although it’s arguable that the primitive production methods and the short length of the piece make it difficult to do full justice to the ideas it opens up. An actor, Jonathan Brent (Alex Scott) returns to the remote area in the countryside to which he was evacuated during the war, and while revisiting the fields he used to play in, where a big black windmill used to stand back then (now replaced by a modern housing estate according to his hotel’s receptionist) he comes across a teenage boy called Johnny (Graham Kennedy) who’s sprained his ankle trying to rescue his kite from an gnarled old oak tree that forms the imposing centrepiece of the main field. He gives the child a piggyback home and is surprised to find the windmill still in existence, populated by a family who all appear to already know all about him, and who claim that he has been chosen to face ‘the darkness’ that lurks in the heart of the old oak tree, in an eternal battle between the forces of light and dark. Brent harbours suppressed memories of an unmentioned childhood trauma, has changed his name and has hardly any recollection of anything that previously happened to him as a boy here; but now he must lead the battle against ancient dark forces.
This is one of the most ambiguous tales in the collection but the strange, all-knowing family at its heart, the time-slip idea that underpins it and the unsettling notion of unwittingly influencing one’s own past are all compelling elements of the whole that don’t quite get the time to breathe in a twenty-five minute context. The episode certainly provokes the imagination though, and continues the series’ predilection for offbeat narratives. The quirkier side of the series gets full reign in “Peronik” – a most peculiar tale about a bullied sixth former obsessed with ancient legends about the quest for the Holy Grail, particularly one about the ‘perfect fool’ Peronik. Fed up with his unsympathetic stepmother and his uncommunicative dad, the young Tom (Paul Aston) finds the humdrum events of his prosaic life becoming more and more analogous to those of Peronik and his quest to recover the Grail. This is certainly the strangest tale in the series, although perhaps not the most successful one; the atmosphere is odd and made considerably more so by its employing actors very much older than the school-age children they’re supposed to be playing, a common sight in TV of this vintage. A trip to the corner shop to buy fruit for his stepmum takes on mystical significance after a series of visions and epiphanies involving a bully and his attractive sister, and the whole thing ends with a surprising revelation at a fancy dress ball during a very glittery 1970s school disco. This episode is well-weird, but made more enjoyable for the fact that this level of surrealism was actually being produced for kids back in 1976!
The final tale is probably the scariest of the bunch, although the story feels somewhat forced and ends a little bit too tritely for true greatness. Perhaps the sheer terror evoked by some of the imagery was just too much not to end things on a more comforting note! In “The Eye” Julie Lewis plays a young girl making a mosaic in the garage of the family home from bits of broken crockery while seemingly under the influence of an Egyptian funeral urn in the living room that moves about by its self! Trying to write a brief synopsis of this maddeningly opaque story would tax the skill of the most experienced writer, so you’ll have to excuse the vagueness of this effort. Lewis and her skinny (and rather winey) brother Steve (John Sanderson) end up being assailed by strange supernatural forces and trapped in their shadowy home, while they wait for their dad to get back from the local supermarket. The manifestations might just be the spirits of the historical figures in the posters on the young girl’s wall (which include among them Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon!). Meanwhile the siblings’ dad becomes possessed by a strange force of some kind and materialises in the steamy kitchen – an ominous faceless figure dressed in motorcycle leathers and crash helmet, but with gnarled, veiny and aged hands! The story is a bit of a muddle, but once again the human imagination and the draw of history are at the centre of the tale and this really does feature some powerfully creepy material: unnerving sound effects (the motorcyclist apparition makes zombie-like groaning noises as he lurches around the house) and lighting effects that encourage a forbidding atmosphere.
None of the tales in this anthology ever quite manage to achieve the same kind of sophistication and unique strangeness as “The Owl Service”, but they’re certainly distinctive still, and redolent of a strain of British children’s supernatural fiction that is rarely encountered today; it’s very well worth a look if you’ve enjoyed previous Network releases in this genre. The six tales feature on one disc, which comes with a short toggle-thru gallery of stills from each of the stories.