DVD Review: Children of the Stones

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In amidst all the furore surrounding the BBC’s proposed service and job cuts announced recently was the barely-noticed decision to shunt the remainder of BBC1’s children’s programming over to the digital service CBBC. Here then is the end of an era which has been quietly dying for years and those of us whose youthful imaginations were fired by the apparently-incessant stream of adventure and science-fiction serials churned out by the BBC and, surprisingly, ITV in the 1960s and the 1970s and increasingly occasionally thereafter, retire to our shelves full of vintage TV DVDs and wonder sadly just where the next generation of TV storytellers will be coming from…

As a child of the 1960s, TV treated me well. ‘Doctor Who’ and the Gerry Anderson puppet shows were staples of my TV diet, of course, and later in the decade American shows like ‘Batman’ and the Irwin Allen series (’Lost in Space’ and ‘Land of the Giants’ especially) with their bigger budgets and better special effects started to elbow their way into my affections. But there were other shows, too, ITV series like ‘Timeslip‘, ‘The Tomorrow People’, ‘Freewheelers’, ‘Ace of Wands’… teatime TV treats often created by Thames TV in London or ATV in the Midlands which made running home from school a must. By the mid-1970s HTV, operating out of Cardiff and Bristol, were forging a name for themselves too by creating short-run, tense imaginative dramas like ‘King of the Castle’, ‘Sky’ and ‘Children of the Stones’, the latter in particular burning itself into the memories of its contemporary audiences to the extent that it’s still recalled as one of the best and most terrifying weekday teatime serials of them all. Released on DVD some years ago the show’s been deleted and unavailable for ages but Network DVD, who specialise in exhuming sometimes the most arcane and obscure archive TV material, are putting it out on a new 2-disc set so it can be rediscovered by those who saw it at the time (as well as any curious newcomers) and hopefully this time it can claim its rightful place as a classic, if inevitably dated, piece of children’s TV. Happy day.

Astrophysicist Adam Brake (Gareth Thomas) and his son Matt arrive in the Wiltshire village of Milbury to conduct research on the village’s ring of ancient monolithic stones, bringing with them an old painting of the stones with a huge beam of light shooting into the sky. The locals are a mixed bunch; most of them are docile to the point of being spaced-out whilst others, like village museum curator Margaret Smythe and her daughter Sandra and eccentric poacher Dai seem to exercise a bit more free will. Also on the scene is the sinister but charming Lord of the Manor Raphael Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson) who has his own very special secret connection to the stone circle. Before long both Matt and his father are experiencing extreme psychic disorientation on contact with the stones and slowly they’re drawn into an eerie mystery which encompasses the power of a black hole and the phenomenon of a very special kind of time travel as Adam and Matt discover that no-one seems to be able to leave Milbury.

‘Children of the Stones’ is in many ways a junior amalgam of the likes of ‘The Wicker Man’ - isolated community in the thrall of ancient ritual - and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ - a population rendered calm and unnaturally contented - and manages to be as disturbing and disquieting as both without ever managing to be graphically horrific simply by virtue of the fact that it’s a 1970’s kid’s TV show. What looks at first blush as if it’s going to become some mystical mumbo-jumbo involving chanting, Druids and assorted supernatural shenanigans becomes, brilliantly, a story with some very hard science-fiction concepts lodged right in the middle of it.

Beautifully-plotted and written with a maturity and confidence many modern adult British series can only dream of, ‘Children of the Stones’, despite the over-earnest (ie not really very good) performances of the youngsters in the cast, is a powerful and atmospheric show which never patronises or talks down to its intended audience. There are big ideas here, not just the well-explained hard sci-fi stuff, but more identifiable themes such as loss of identity, the fear of the ‘outsider’ and the drive towards a sort of bland and faceless conformity where everyone thinks and behaves in exactly the same way. Gareth Thomas, a year away from his defining role in 'Blake's Seven', blusters his way through his role as the slightly-pompous and all-knowing and yet likable Adam and the late Iain Cuthbertson is suitably creepy (in an after-school sort of way) as the scheming, almost Satannic Hendrick. The real stars here, though, are the standing stones themselves, in reality to be found at Avebury in Wiltshire, dotted around the village and the surrounding landscape like silent secret sentinels.

'Children of the Stones' is a slow-burn series but becomes increasingly-gripping across its seven episodes as it weaves a clever and intricate time travel/alternative reality narrative in amongst what initially appears to be  a load of mystical new age mumbo-jumbo about ley lines. The series ends with the suggestion that whilst everything that's happened to Adam and Matt at Milbury has been happening in some 'other Universe' they've slipped into, familiar events may be about to be played out in the 'real' world too as we see Hendrick arrive at Milbury for the first time with the intention of buying into the community and taking up a new role as Lord of the Manor...  Bold, intelligent and genuinely creepy for the nippers, 'Children of the Stones' deserves its reputation and if you're a fan of the golden age of classic kid's TV, it's an essential purchase.

Extras: It's a two-disc set, the first of which includes all seven episodes of the series and an 'image gallery' whilst the bonus second disc has random episodes from other HTV serials of the time, most of which are available directly from Network's online facility. 'Sky' and 'The Georgian House Mystery' are worth your time but the first episode of 1980s series 'Into the Labyrinth' by veteran 'Doctor Who' writer Bob Baker (he co-created K9 for his sins) is an embarrassment of really lousy acting, dodgy special effects, clumpy sets and a 'what-was-I-thinking-of?' performance form Ron Moody as some sort of wizard trapped in a cave. Hilariously naff.

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'Children of the Stones' is available on DVD from Network on 17th October.

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