Back in the 70s, kids TV was full of the weird and wonderful. Whether it was on ITV or BBC1/BBC2 (youngsters: we only had three channels back then), you could come home from school, turn on the TV and pretty much be guaranteed some mentalist of a commissioner had ordered up 25 minutes of LSD-fuelled lunacy that seven PhD students couldn't decipher the plot of but which was sure-fire certain to scar you for the rest of your life.
We could go through the list without too much trouble for quite some time and still not be complete: The Tomorrow People, Ace of Wands, King of the Castle, Timeslip, Sky, Catweazle, The Feathered Serpent, Escape into Night, The Jensen Code, Raven, Into the Labyrinth, Michael Bentine's Potty Time, Pipkins, Robert's Robots, The Owl Service.
See what I mean? And I haven't even started, really.
One of the most complicated, clever, "scare the sh*t out the kids", yet hard-to-fathom shows was the seven-part serial Children of the Stones. This followed the adventures of astrophysicist Adam Brake (Gareth Thomas of Blakes 7) and his son Matthew after they arrive in the small village of Milbury, which is built in the middle of a megalithic stone circle. There they meet village squire and noted astronomer Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson) and possibly the most well behaved bunch of kids in the world, almost all of whom are doing quite well in quantum mechanics at the village school.
As you do.
Yes, there is something rotten in the heart of this village Eden, and it's not just the quantum mechanics. There are mysterious deaths, Matthew seems to have a psychic link with a mysterious painting, there's the mysterious stone circle that somehow seems to prevent them leaving the village, there's the mysterious housekeeper, there's the mysterious personality changes of anyone who goes to dinner with Hendrick. You get the idea. It's all very mysterious.
Cue the mysterious, weird and soul-chilling title sequence, followed by the first ten minutes of the first episode.
Trying to explain the rest of Children of the Stones is a tricky task. Basically (and might I just add SPOILER ALERT here and for the next paragraph or ten) the main premise is that the village within the stone circle exists in a time rift, where the same actions are played out (with minor variations), over and over again, with the end result being that the power of the circle will eventually be released to the outside world. Whenever this is stopped, however, the time circle resets and the same events attempt again to unfold. However, since time is passing in the outside world in a normal way, time within the time circle must then catch up to match the time period of the real world while still attempting to play out the events within.
So here goes try two. Once upon a time, a bunch of people built a stone circle. Then there was a supernova. The druid leading the people realised (somehow) that by using psychic powers and the power of the stone circle to beam energy from his people towards the black hole in the supernova, he would be able to control the people. Which he did.
Unfortunately for him, two travellers came to the circle, pretended to be under his control and messed it all up. They escaped, but everyone else turned to stone - joining the stone circle. This whole thing, through folk memory or something else, then gets depicted as a painting.
Flashforward a few millennia and noted astronomer and expert on the black hole, Hendrick, discovered an old druid text referring to the mysterious properties of the supernova. He then uses the stone circle and science to repeat what the druid did and takes over the village, simultaneously creating a time rift.
Enter Matthew and his dad. Slowly, over time, they find out what Hendrick's managed to do, while simultaneously seeing the remaining, uncontrolled members of the village get switched over to the dark side. Because of the time rift, they can't escape the village, so when they realise they're next, they're able to mess with Hendrick's clocks, which he uses to determine when he can harness the black hole's power. They're able to convince him they're converted when they're not.
The whole thing then blows up in Hendrick's face, and the time rift is broken. Time reverts to normal and people largely have no memory of what happened and are in fact leading completely different lives from the ones they had before, lives in which Hendrick doesn't exit.
Cue the end where no sooner have Brake and Matthew departed the village than a man who looks identical to Hendrick drives to his old house where he meets with Link, Hendrick’s former butler. He's Joshua Litton, former professor at Cambridge University who has come to Milbury from London. He comments on what a nice place it will be to retire and that he will be very happy there.
The time circle has reset and the events of Children of the Stones have begun again
Now, I never watched this the first time round - too young - but I've since watched it on DVD and I have to say it really holds up well. Sure, it's quite 70s in production, acting, fashions etc (but guess what, it was shot in the 70s, so quelle surprise there), but it's smart, constantly demands the attention, never really lapses into cliché, has some very scary moments and has a great ending. Adults can enjoy it happily and kids can have the crap scared out them.
Look, even blog god Stewart Lee agrees.
So, if you can find the time, give it a watch, and then despair, along with Stewart Lee, about what children's TV has become. I've embedded the whole thing as a YouTube playlist below, so you don't even have to spend cash if you don't want to.
- July 12, 2012: Nostalgia corner: Casting The Runes (1979)
A look back at the ITV Playhouse adaptation of MR James' Casting The Runes by Clive Exton
- May 10, 2013: Your handy guide to true religions on TV
Your handy guide to true religions on TV
- May 13, 2013: Your handy guide to true religions on TV - Celtic, Western and Northern Germanic religions + Wicca
All the scripted shows on Western, English-language TV that have not just featured Celtic, Western or Northern Germanic religions or Wicca, but have actually shown them to be true in some way or other
- November 13, 2014: Weird old title sequences: Near and Far (1975-1988)
A look at the weird old title sequence of Near and FGar
- July 21, 2015: Kneale Before Nigel: Quatermass/The Quatermass Conclusion (1979)
A review of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass