Children of the Stones 1.3 – Serpent in the Circle

This is really entertaining, although just a little bit above our son’s six year-old head. We’re having to recap a little of the action to make sure it’s all sinking in. This time, the four newest kids to the village of Milbury, the four who haven’t become all smiley math wizards saying “Happy day,” become three. One of them suddenly understands the incredibly complex math class and the episode ends with the little malcontent joining the village Morris dancers with a vacant grin on his face.

In between, Adam gets confirmation from America that the stone circle is aligned with a black hole. It’s more “folk science fiction” than “folk horror,” and while it’s not completely appealing to our son, it’s the sort of thing that kids in the fifth or sixth grade certainly would have gobbled up once upon a time.

Children of the Stones was shown in the US as one-fifth of a daily anthology program called The Third Eye which ran on Nickelodeon for about 16 months or so in 1983-84, around the same time that The Tomorrow People began its lengthy American run. There were 68 People installments and exactly half as many Third Eye episodes; maybe that’s why they axed it first. You could see them all in just over a month. It would seem that Children of the Stones was shown here at least a dozen times.

The series within The Third Eye all dealt with paranormal experiences or psychic phenomena or witchcraft and folklore, and they all had young protagonists, making them perfect purchases for Nickelodeon. The other components of the anthology were an eight-part serial from New Zealand called Under the Mountain and three other British shows: The Haunting of Cassie Palmer, The Witches and the Grinnygog, and just the first series of Into the Labyrinth. There were another 14 episodes of Labyrinth that they could have bought, but didn’t, for some reason.

Stones, Mountain, and Labyrinth (all of it) have been released on DVD, and there’s even a feature film version of Mountain starring Sam Neill. Unfortunately, and this will blow your mind, The Haunting of Cassie Palmer is not believed to exist any longer, and Grinnygog is only known to exist on home-taped copies. These two shows were made by one of Britain’s commercial networks, TVS, which closed down in 1992. In between all the various media companies that have since licensed or purchased their archive, many of TVS’s master tapes were destroyed.

This was in the 1990s, people. A TV show that was made in 1982 was completely wiped about a decade later. That’s insane.

Even more weirdly, TVS was the original home of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, which ran from 1987-2000. All the TVS episodes from series one through six at least exist, but are not available for syndication or sale. It’s only series seven through twelve that anyone can distribute today.

Anyway, we didn’t get Nickelodeon at my house. When we had cable installed in 1981 or so, the guy was short a converter box and asked my dad to swing by and pick one up, and Dad never did, because he only wanted “cable” for HBO, which we could get on channel 7 on the VHF dial. Five years later, when I used a giant second-hand top-loading Panasonic VCR that weighed seventy-seven pounds to tune in to Nick and MTV and other channels, Dad blew his top because the cable company was going to find out and start charging us. Nobody ever talked about The Third Eye at my school, so I didn’t know I was missing anything.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I heard of The Third Eye, and that blasted Roger Fulton book I mentioned a couple of chapters ago didn’t have listings for three of the five shows. I’ve always been a little fascinated by The Third Eye because it’s something that some of my friends got to absorb and love that I missed completely, even though it’s taken me another – hell! – twenty-eight years to get around to watching one of them.

We might do Into the Labyrinth for the blog; I haven’t decided. Kind of going back and forth between ordering that and The Ghosts of Motley Hall. It’s just a damn idiotic shame that Grinnygog is not available and that Cassie Palmer may be gone forever.

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Children of the Stones 1.2 – Circle of Fear

Well, this is just delightfully creepy. I’m enjoying this, and our son says it’s very weird. I am pretty sure that he’s having a little trouble with the accents, though, because I certainly am! This episode introduces a village poacher called Dai played by Freddie Jones who speaks with a very thick Welsh accent. I missed some of what he said, but I definitely caught the part where he warns Matthew “nobody ever leaves.” Brrrrr.

I really appreciate that Adam and Matthew are tackling their investigation of the circle with scientific curiosity. It’s really nice to see a teenage boy who’s interested in science and math as the hero. In this episode, Matthew builds a sextant because he has a hypothesis about the stones gradually sinking on one side that he wants to test! It turns out he’s mistaken, which opens up more questions.

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Children of the Stones 1.1 – Into the Circle

I’ve always been a little envious of people my age who got to see this strange seven-part serial when it was shown in America. I first read about Children of the Stones in Roger Fulton’s Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction, and started telling people how interesting so many of these unfamiliar British programs sounded. This was about 1990, there wasn’t any Wikipedia then. Surprisingly, some friends remembered this show from their childhood. If they’d forgotten it, they remembered it in a hurry. “Geez, that was a creepy show,” people would say in hushed tones. This stunned me. You mean this was shown in the US and I missed it?! More on this later in the week.

It has always enjoyed a cult following in the UK, where it was first shown in early 1977. It was made by HTV, the old company that serviced Wales and the west of England, and was filmed on location in the well-known village of Avebury. Its prehistoric stone circles became the setting for the fictional Milbury, where Adam Brake and his teenage son Matthew are staying for a few months. Dr. Brake is an astrophysicist doing research into the 53 stones of Milbury.

Matthew and Adam quickly learn that Milbury is a very strange place. Matthew has strange hallucinations almost upon arrival, many of the villagers greet each other with vacant smiles and “happy day,” some of the schoolkids are tackling unbelievably complex algebra, and when Adam touches one of the stones in the incredibly neat climax to episode one, he has a bizarre vision and is thrown about three feet backward.

Children of the Stones has a great cast, featuring Gareth Thomas as Adam and Peter Demin as Matthew. Iain Cuthberson plays the landlord, and Veronica Strong is another new arrival to the village, having recently become curator of the museum. Katharine Levy plays her daughter, Sandra, who has been here long enough to know that some of the other children are very, very strange. The show was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray. Burnham had written a few episodes in the final season of The Avengers – not, sadly, any of my favorites, but we won’t hold it against him! The duo collaborated on writing another children’s serial about myths and legends and the present day, Raven, later in 1977 for ATV.

This didn’t blow our son away or anything, but he does find it interesting and curious. The children in the show aren’t so old that he can’t identify with them, though I do think he was unhappy about the class bully. I think the slow, creepy, unpacking of the mystery is going to make this a very satisfying slow burner, and we’ll see what happens next tomorrow night.

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Catweazle 2.2 – Duck Halt

Catweazle acquires a new home in this episode, a disused railway station called Duck Halt. He also obtains his second sign of the Zodiac: a literal sign of “The Bull” which a pub by that name has discarded in favor of something more modern, “a bit Picasso.”

There’s the usual very amusing goofball slapstick and wordplay. The high point is Catweazle’s first trip on a bicycle and not knowing how to stop. But our son was probably most pleased by my solving a mystery I didn’t know needed clearing. The pub sign is removed by a “rag and bone man” played by Bill Owen. Owen would later find fame as Compo over about a quarter-century in the long-running Last of the Summer Wine, but he’d been acting for about twenty years at this point already, including a stint as Lestrade in the BBC’s 1951 version of Sherlock Holmes opposite Alan Wheatley.

The side of Owen’s truck reads “Scrap Metal Rags,” but our son complained that much of his stock wasn’t metal. I explained what a rag and bone man was and he was very pleased. There’s a rag and bone man in one of his Beano Books and that never made sense to him before now!

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The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

I read about this film and decided that I’d give it a spin by myself before showing the last segment to our son. I understood that the movie, written by Robert Bloch, was comprised of four segments: three traditional horror episodes before ending with one a little more lighthearted. This is true, and I enjoyed the heck out of it, but those first three are way too frightening for our gentle son. The last one, though, was just right.

The sadly defunct Amicus studio was Hammer’s biggest rival in making horror films between 1965 and 1974. Amicus’s big specialty was the “portmanteau,” an anthology film with four segments and a framing story. In The House That Dripped Blood, a police inspector from Scotland Yard comes to investigate the disappearance of a movie star. A local sergeant and the home’s estate agent tell him three terrifying tales that took place in the same house, setting up stories that star Denholm Elliot and Joanna Dunham, Peter Cushing and Joss Ackland, and Christopher Lee and Nyree Dawn Porter. Amicus could get these big name actors in because each segment took maybe a week or ten days to film. And they’re hugely entertaining, although far too frightening for our kid at this age!

The fourth story is just right, and it has a completely terrific cast full of faces he’s seen recently. The movie star is Jon Pertwee and he buys his cursed cloak from Geoffrey Bayldon! Plus, there’s Ingrid Pitt, who he’s seen in “The Time Monster,” and Roy Evans, from “The Green Death” and “The Monster of Peladon.” The police inspector is John Bennett, from “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” This segment was made in between Pertwee and Bayldon’s first seasons of Doctor Who and Catweazle, and of course the actors would be reunited about eight years later in Worzel Gummidge, playing the scarecrow and his creator.

…not, of course, that our kid actually recognized anybody other than Pertwee, even with a heads-up at dinner about who to look out for!

The whole movie is really entertaining, and it builds really well, with each episode more fun than the previous one. Pertwee is having a hoot as a temperamental, egotistical movie star who has nothing kind to say about the low-budget movie that’s hired him, with a former – gasp – television director in charge. The sets are too flimsy, the costumes are too new, and horror films are no good anymore anyway. This “new fellow” they’ve got playing Dracula these days isn’t a patch on Bela Lugosi.

The movie star buys his own cloak for thirteen shillings from a strange costumier to bring a little authenticity to this silly movie – it’s called Curse of the Bloodsuckers – and then things start getting a little weird. The story builds to an amusing twist, and the police inspector goes to this blasted cottage to see what he can find there.

That’s where I left it. I did want our son to get a good night’s sleep! But should you, dear reader, investigate this house for yourself, do continue on and see what comes next. Pleasant dreams!

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Pippi on the Run (1970 / 1977)

One day when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, I was at the Lewis A. Ray Public Library using their incredibly neat microfiche machine to see all the books in the Cobb system. Well, all the books that I knew to look for, anyway. I seem to remember that this largely consisted of me verifying that every book I’d already read or owned was in the system for other people to read. So I put the “authors” page where Astrid Lindgren could be found under the glass, and confirmed that they had all three of the Pippi Longstocking books.

They had four. There was a fourth book called Pippi on the Run which not only I’d never heard of, the other three books didn’t list in their “read the other books in this series” page. One of the other branches had it, and they could transfer it to ours. I’m not going to claim this was like Calvin waiting impatiently for six to eight weeks for his propeller beanie, but I was probably very cranky for the four or five days it took for this book to get from Acworth or Marietta or Antarctica or wherever it was to us in Smyrna.

When the book arrived, I’m not sure whether I was disappointed or amazed, but I was certainly surprised. After the success of the 13 episode Pippi Longstocking TV series, the producers went to work on two feature films. The first was an adaptation of Lindgren’s novel Pippi in the South Seas and the second was based on an original story that Lindgren provided them to make fairly inexpensively. The book was a hardcover photo album that told the movie’s story, with dozens of color pictures from the movie. The blog Silver Shoes & Rabbit Holes has a delightful post about the very book I mean, although my memory swears that the cover of the edition I read was a little bit different. You should check that out!

I’m also not sure whether I ever saw this movie before. I know the library showed South Seas and one and maybe both of the compilation films during their summer kiddie festivals, but maybe I saw this one before and maybe I didn’t. Who knows?

Anyway, the plot this time is that Annika and Tommy decide to run away, and their mother, because she isn’t actually a very good parent, asks Pippi to go with them and make sure they don’t get hurt on their escapades. This is Pippi Longstocking we’re talking about. Of course the kids aren’t going to get hurt, but Pippi’s also going to lose track of them while she’s going over waterfalls in a barrel, and they’re going to get their clothes eaten by cows, and Pippi’s going to build a flying car powered by rainwater and super glue that falls apart in the sky.

Pippi on the Run wasn’t released in America until 1977, in another dub job by Fred Ladd’s outfit. Bizarrely, he gets credited as the movie’s director over Olle Hellbom. The movie is certainly pretty, but it’s about as exciting as a trip to a petting zoo. I’m not kidding. This is a film that lingers over lots of footage of woodland creatures and goats, pigs, and chickens on a farm. It’s a movie for kids who are still at the age where the sight of baby horses is a fun little thrill. There’s a great bit where Ladd’s translation misidentifies badgers as ground hogs, and the fact that I’m calling that a “great bit” lets you know how dull this movie is.

Our son wasn’t as taken with this as he might have been a year earlier. Granted, this is a far weaker and simpler movie than South Seas, but outside of a few sight gags built around Pippi doing impossible things, there’s just not a lot of meat to this story, and no real sense of importance to anything that happens. There isn’t a plot; they just wander around having mild adventures until Annika and Tommy give in and want to go home. Our son did have a great laugh when the cows eat their clothes, leaving them stuck in grain sacks until Pippi can raise some money to buy them new things, but overall this is a pretty weak movie on which the franchise would end. I wish they’d have gone out on a higher note than a trip to the petting zoo!

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A Grand Day Out (1989)

Six is a very good age for a kid to meet Wallace and Gromit. A Grand Day Out is certainly the least of their adventures, but it still brings a smile to anybody’s face, and the little bit of slapstick that we see when our intrepid duo build their rocket had our son laughing out loud.

I saw the second film before this one, and have always been curious about Nick Park’s direction for the characters. The later productions feel more fully formed and confident, but that doesn’t mean that this one is lacking, or that it feels like he’s flexing his muscles. A Grand Day Out would have been a memorable and satisfying bit of whimsy, absolutely deserving of its accolades, if he’d never followed it up with more. It just suffers in comparison with how ridiculous and madcap their other adventures would be.

I like how the central silliness of the odd robot on the moon is never addressed. Who built this policeman – slash – janitor, and why does it require 10p coins to do anything? I love how it communicates with its arms, just as Gromit communicates with his eyebrow. It’s such genius to express all that character through body language when the bodies are so restricted. And of course, all the mice in Wallace’s cellar have sunglasses, which is lovely.

It’s a huge pleasure to reacquaint ourselves with these two. We’ll be watching a few more of their adventures over the next few months.

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Catweazle 2.1 – The Magic Riddle

There was a rather huge change when Catweazle returned for a second series: the entire supporting cast was new. In part because there’s only so much you can do on a farm and in part to spotlight a little of that upper class toffery that international audiences were said to enjoy, when Catweazle returned to the 20th Century for thirteen more episodes filmed in the summer and autumn of 1970, it was around the grounds of the estate of Lord and Lady Collingford, played by Moray Watson and Elspet Gray.

The Collingsfords’ son, Cedric, is home from his school and becomes Catweazle’s new ally in learning magic. This time, he’s trying to find all the symbols of the Zodiac to fuel a spell to fly. And there seems to be another grownup who will be suspicious of what Cedric is up to, a combination groundskeeper and tour guide played by Peter Butterworth.

Interestingly, there’s a delightfully detailed booklet that comes with Network’s DVD issue of Catweazle that explains that LWT suggested the country house and aristocrats to appeal to American audiences because they hoped to sell the show here and British culture and accents were still very trendy back then. Catweazle would have fit in as a Saturday morning show just perfectly. The BBC had actually presold their kids’ series Here Come the Double Deckers to ABC before they finished filming it; that show debuted in September 1970 and its 17 episodes ran for two years, while The Bugaloos, an American production starring four British teen idols, took off on NBC the same day.

This is pure speculation, but Catweazle might have been under consideration by ABC as well for the fall of 1971, but in the end the program was never shown here. If ABC was thinking about buying it, that would mean that they eventually passed it up in favor of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Lidsville, which is by far my least favorite of all the Kroffts’ programs. There must have been some deeply bad magic behind a result that tragic.

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