Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Two Children's Programmes: The Owl Service and The Flockton Flyer

Reflections on some 1970s children's TV programmes today, which I'm putting in a single post because I don't think my jaundiced meanderings on each are substantial enough for one post. It's a funny thing, because even though I am a 70s baby, I almost never remember the children's programmes of the 70s which are eulogised in the reviews on Amazon. I periodically watch one of them and have posted here about the ones which take my fancy.
The first of the two I have in mind today is The Owl Service, adapted for screen from his own novel by Alan Garner. If there is one thing that can truthfully be said about The Owl Service, it is that it is guaranteed to leave its viewer uncomfortable. For a start, the book it is based on wasn't intended for children originally. And of course on adaptation the book doesn't really make a convincing children's programme, since to adult eyes it is quite incredibly sexy. I mean real, proper, all but showing it, young sexy stuff. I see that it is a 12 certificate, but frankly it is the sort of television which most twelve year olds would watch later in life and suddenly understand what was going on.
Apart from the sexiness The Owl Service is some heavy-duty television. It is based on an ancient Welsh myth, and is the sort of high-quality drama which would attract rave reviews from the critics if aimed at adults. What is just plain bizarre but never explained is that you never actually see the mother of the family, although she is referred to often and so has a role in the drama. Until you realise that that is what is happening it makes the cast very confusing indeed. Something which is perhaps not commented on enough in the blogosphere is that the three main young people are dressed in signature colours which at the time were the colours of UK domestic wiring, although no longer, of red (Neutral), green (Earth) and black (neutral), which gives a certain ready relatedness to their characters. Where it falls down somewhat was that the actors playing teenagers were actually in their early twenties, which makes it look a bit wrong.
I see from the reviews on the internet that Alan Garner himself seems to have an ambivalent impact on people. On reviewer (I'm afraid I cannot now for the life of me find this again) commented that after watching the extra about Garner which is included on the DVD, he decided to take no interest in Garner or anything he had done ever again. He didn't give a reason apart from taking a dislike to him. I like the extra about Garner, actually, it shows his own home, which is a classic of 1970s interior design a la Terence Conran's House Book. What I would say about that documentary is that you would get the impression from it that Garner was a complete loner and lived alone. I was surprised to find after watching it that he has been married twice and has five children!
The main thing which is 'wrong' with the Owl Service is that in a sense it is outside its time. It is a heavy-duty drama, which would require heavy work to appreciate it. It is the work of a man who is obviously very intelligent and educated to a level which just doesn't exist for most people nowadays. Certainly I would doubt that today's children would have the patience to deal with The Own Service, although I see his books are still in print. The series is paced probably rather slowly and is probably two too many episodes: if it were fewer with less recapping, it would seem snappier but not overly hurried. Since this is actually my only real criticism of this show, I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in magic, supernatural, mythology, and what have you.
Of quite a different sort is The Flockton Flyer, which is another one I didn't see at the time despite being alive, and which I am still watching so it may be that I have to revise this post after I have seen the whole thing. I see that at the time it was broadcast it was very popular (although of course we only had three stations at the time so popular was as popular did), making it to a second series. This is the stuff of which dream childhood television is made of. Who wouldn't have dreamt at the time of having parents cool enough, when dad was made redundant from his mechanic's job, to take up his interest of the railways full time by moving into the local abandoned railway station?
There is a sense in which while The Owl Service draws upon a very specific literary myth (which wouldn't have been readily available to all viewers) The Flockton Flyer taps into major themes in everyone's psyche. Apart from having parents cool enough to move to a whole new life on the railway, what's not to love about being around trains in and of itself? What child watching this in the depressing days of 1978 wouldn't have been jealous of the children's relatively care-free lives? There is also a sense in which all of the cultural references invoked in the railways, for example ghosts, are brought into play.
I suppose youcould say that what The Good Life is to adult television, The Flockton Flyer is to children's television, at least as far as giving up the rat race for something you love is concerned. The 1970s was also relatively early in the preservationists' battle to prevent the wholesale destruction of our past, and that is part of the zeitgeist of the time which The Flockton Flyer perfectly plugs into. There is also a sense in which it is a more classically-plotted story than The Owl Service, because while obviously there are stresses and strains along the way, this show has a much more comfortable feeling, and you have a sensation that everything is going to be OK.
The Flockton Flyer has a slightly different story each episode, so that it doesn't require the sort of extended attention which The Owl Service does. It is also much more straightforward with none of the complex subtexts in the other piece. The story moves rather faster, and it manages to feel more modern. I keep wanting to say that (in UK schooling language) it feels more as if it is at a CSE level than at an O Level, but I don't mean by that that it is dumbed down at all. There are complx issues of adult motivation and decisions discussed in this show, and yet it wears this discussion much more lightly than the complex relationships of The Owl Service. I think one of the things I like best about it is that the Commander's patrician tones are voiced by Anthony Sharp, one of my all-time favourite actors, and I do not extend my usual criticism of familiar faces to him. Arbitrary, I know, but this is my blog and I reserve the right to be consistent or not.
I'm actually finding it very difficult to find a criticism of this show! And so I would recommend both of these shows to my readers, just for slightly different reasons and probably to different groups of people with different expectations! Certainly if asked to choose between them I would find it very difficult because they are such different creatures.

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