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Category Archives: Children’s TV

K9 & Company: A Girl’s Best Friend

To this day, fans of Doctor Who regard K9 and Company as an infamous relation whose name is not to be mentioned in polite company. This is hardly surprising: although the viewing figures were respectable, the pilot episode was a critical flop and a full series was never commissioned—a small mercy for which many were thankful. The horrific theme-tune alone—just one of the many crimes Ian Levine has perpetrated against Who fandom—is enough to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder in some viewers. However, with the exception of the title sequence, K9 and Company isn’t actively bad; merely uninspiring. Whilst such banality cannot be excused, it’s now interesting to view the episode in the context of “folk-horror”—a sub-genre which has received much critical attention recently.

One of the reasons K9 and Company fails to gel is the bizarre decision to remove the eponymous mechanical hound from an overtly sci-fi landscape: with the exception of K9 himself, there is no other fantastical element to the programme—which has the effect of undermining the credibility of the primary folk-horror narrative, and leaving K9 an incongruous inclusion in his own series. As a vehicle for Sarah Jane Smith, the episode is fine; as a showcase for K9, it is disastrous. The problem is compounded by the introduction of Brendan—one of those smug child-geniuses of whom John Nathan-Turner was so fond—who further detracts attention from the star whilst being utterly infuriating in his own right. The character’s only virtue is to offer a welcome inversion of gender-roles where getting captured is concerned.

Even as folk-horror, K9 and Company is thin gruel. The plot—such as it is—is a familiar one: an insular village is home to a witchcraft coven who require human sacrifice to ensure the crops do not fail. Even by 1981, this particularly motif had been flogged to death and the episode offers no radical twist on the formula. The pagan pageantry is effectively handled, but the coven never feels to be much of a threat. Although the ever-reliable Colin Jeavons imbues his character with both the required cowardice and menace, there is little suspense regarding the identity of the coven leaders and the actors they chose to play the part lack the gravitas provided by the likes of Bernard Hepton (Robin Redbreast) or Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man).

The philosophy of witchcraft as portrayed in the episode is as inconsistent as the rest of it: it’s implied that the coven has a long tradition in the village; yet they worship Hecate—who as an ancient Greek goddess is unlikely to have been worshipped by a genuine folk-tradition in the Cotswolds. Perhaps this reflects the syncretic influence of writers such as Robert Graves, Margaret Murray, James Frazer and Gerald Gardner, who attempted to identify many ancient female deities with a single “Great Goddess”. The Wicker Man, for instance, admits that Summerisle’s pagan tradition was largely invented by a Victorian antiquarian. However, there is no such clarification here. Doubtless the origin-myths of Wicca were so insidious at the time that even the writers were confused on such points of authenticity.

If the episode has a saving grace, it is the character of Sarah Jane Smith. In the parent series, she was too often relegated to a subordinate role, whose purpose was to ask questions, scream, fall over, and get captured. Here she is written as the character was originally intended: proactive, resourceful and confident; a reminder of just why Sarah Jane is DW’s most fondly remembered regular. Indeed, one of the reasons there is so little sense of threat in the episode is not merely that we do not particularly care about the fates of Aunt Lavinia or Brendan, but that a common-or-garden witches’ coven seems no match for the character. Needless to say, she is played with verve by Liz Sladen. Even amidst such mediocrity, her performance shines: watched today, it only emphasises the tragedy of her early death in 2011.

Produced by BBC Television : originally transmitted on 28th December 1981

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The Watch House (1988)

Based on a 1977 novel by prolific children’s author Robert Westall, The Watch House was adapted for television in 1988 by BBC North-East. The three-part series is set in “Garmouth”: a thinly-veiled pseudonym for Tynemouth, where the series was actually filmed. Children’s television drama had a penchant for going further afield than London and the Home Counties in this period—think Moondial, The Snow Spider, Century Falls, Earthfasts, Elidor and more—a trend which often yielded a potent atmosphere missing from series with more narrow horizons. The Watch House is especially successful in its evocation of the genius loci, thanks to its loving use of the ruins of Tynemouth Priory and the eponymous Watch House of the First Volunteer Life Brigade.

Like Moondial, The Watch House was originally written with a real location in mind and mercifully the BBC budget stretched to filming there. But that is not the only similarity: both dramas open with an adolescent girl being fobbed off into the care of some distant relative she has never really met and supernatural events throughout act as a counterpoint to personal trauma. Sadly, this strategy isn’t as deftly accomplished as it was in Moondial and Ann—the protagonist—is a more prickly character than Minty ever was. The ebb-and-flow of the narrative is also poorly handled; a number of emotional beats seem to happen off-screen between episodes and so each part starts at a moment of high tension which seems disconnected from the conclusion of the preceding installment. The effect is quite jarring.

The supernatural aspect of the plot concerns a haunting at the titular life-brigade watch-house which Ann must resolve before she can achieve her own emotional closure. Its motifs are far less unique than Moondial but thankfully the terror delivers: I originally watched the story aged five and it traumatised me thoroughly. The double-haunting makes a clever twist and the malevolence of one ghost is particularly well conveyed. If the jump scares seem muted today they certainly weren’t at the time. Even now the way the camera focuses on the dusty skull is particularly eerie, although the image I most vividly remember being disturbed by is the ship’s figurehead carved into a representation of a Hoplite—especially its final destruction.

Watched as an adult, it is undoubtedly the sense of place which is most vividly communicated and the watch-house itself is probably the most powerful presence in the serial; an abandoned, cobwebbed building full of strange and forgotten artifacts—it evokes a potent melancholy which is emphasised by the mournful incidental music. The conclusion ties things up rather neatly so as to provide the closure that will prevent years of nightmares; thus, the serial does not haunt us in the way we might like. However, it was not made for adults, and the fact that a number of images lingered with me over so many years is a mark of its success as children’s supernatural drama. There is always need for such entry-level supernatural drama; and whilst it may not hold up as well as Moondial for an adult audience, there remains much to enjoy for those attuned to the genius loci.

Produced by BBC1 : originally transmitted 7th – 21st December 1988

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2014 in 1980s, BBC Television, Children's TV

 

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Mr. Humphreys & His Inheritance (1976)

I have to confess that I’ve never regarded ‘Mr. Humphreys & His Inheritance’ as amongst the most substantial works in the M.R. James canon. It certainly comes as no surprise to discover that it was only written to fill up his second volume, the imaginatively titled ‘More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ (1911). Essentially, this is a Jamesian ghost story by numbers, despite the pleasing motif of the maze (the inheritance of the title). Indeed, the fundamental problem with the story is that the maze qua maze is largely incidental to the narrative. Despite James’s credentials as an antiquarian, little is made of the symbolism and mythology of the labyrinth and we are left with scarcely more than standard James plot built around some rather arbitrary motifs.

Thus it is a surprise that anybody thought the story worth adapting. Or rather it would be were it not rather a peculiar dramatisation, designed not as a work in its own right but as a means to demonstrate the use of incidental music for dramatic effect in television, complete with an introduction from the composer himself. This is rather ironic when you consider that one of the defining aspects of the Ghost Story for Christmas adaptations, for example, is the very sparseness of their scores. Silence, and sudden eruptions out of it, are far more effective tools in the evocation of the supernatural. There are certainly numerous points here where these techniques would have been far more successful in creating ‘dramatic effect’ than all those oboes and clarinets constantly burbling away in counterpoint.

As the adaptation was produced only to serve this educational purpose, it is a mere twenty minutes long and I doubt the story could’ve sustained much longer. The direction is surprisingly effective considering the presumable production limitations. There are a number of atmospheric shots of the maze itself and some serviceable animation at the rather abrupt climax. However, there is little of the tension so essential to such an adaptation and doubtless this would have been greatly limited by its status as a schools programme. The two lead performances, from actors unlikely to prompt recognition even in 1976, are functional but not especially distinguished. Nobody here achieves the same haunted dread so potently conveyed by Denholm Elliot in ‘The Signalman’ or Peter Vaughan in ‘A Warning to the Curious.’

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know in what regard to hold this adaptation. On one hand, it’s pleasing that such an obscure work has been afforded a measure of immortality on screen. Yet conversely, it is impossible to deny that it’s far from the most chilling of James’s stories in the first place and that the constraints of the production could not help but contribute to creating a predominantly bloodless affair. Notorious obscuritan that I am, I’m inevitably predisposed towards the former perspective but there is still a substantial difference between being glad that I have something on my shelf and feeling the desire to view it again. Undoubtedly its brevity helps in that respect but it is never going to transcend its status of minor curiosity as opposed to buried treasure.

Originally transmitted on 21st June 1976
Produced by Yorkshire Television for ITV Schools

 

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