UK, 21 December 1969-8 February 1970
1 series, 8 episodes, average 25m each
A British fantasy television series written by Alan Garner based on his novel.
Teenager Alison and her step brother goes to stay in remote house in the Welsh Valleys and are disturbed by a mysterious scratching noise coming from the attic. Investigating, Alison finds a collection of old dinner plates decorated with an owl pattern design that seems to have a connection with a local legend about a woman created from flowers by a wizard.
21 December 1969
28 December 1969
4 January 1970
11 January 1970
18 January 1970
25 January 1970
1 February 1970
8 February 1970
The TV version of The Owl Service was seeded in 1960 when Peter Plummer, then a researcher for Granada Television, was sent to interview author Alan Garner about his recently published novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The two men hit it off and formed a friendship and working relationship that saw them collaborating on news stories for various news and magazine programmes being made by the independent television company Granada.
Nine years later, Garner had written a fantasy novel inspired by his love of Celtic myths and legends, The Owl Service, first published in 1967 and the recipient of both the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Carnegie Medal in Literature. In the summer of 1968, Granada successfully bid for the screen rights to the novel which they intended to be their first production shot entirely on film, all on location and all in colour. When Garner himself agreed to produce the scripts it seemed sensible to assign Peter Plummer to the producer and director seats.
With Garner working on whet was originally planned as a six part adaptation, Plummer set off for Wales in search of the real locations mentioned in the book. the production hit a hitch when the owners of Bryn Hall, which plays a key role in the story, refused to let the production film there and they had to use Poulton Hall in Liverpool instead, fortuitously owned by a friend of Garner's.
With that hurdle overcome, the cast was the next concern for the production. The three leading characters needed to be young and the first to catch Plummer's eye was Gillian Hills who he had seen in the recent Play of the Month episode Maigret at Bay and who was still the subject of much public interest having taken part in the first full frontal nude scene in British cinema, in Michaelangelo Antonionis Blowup (1966). “Peter Plummer asked to meet me,” Gillian recalled in 2008. “There was a fog of people around a large table. I did a reading and was offered the part on the spot.”
Michael Holden was cast as Gwyn, coming straight from drama school in London, as did Francis Wallis who was cast as the last of the young leads, Roger. Raymond Llewellyn, who was cast as Huw Halfbacon, the half mad gardener. Interestingly, the production opted not to cast anyone as Margaret, Alison's mother, who is referred to in the book but never really appears.
On 10 April 1969, cast and crew convened at Granada Television Centre in Manchester for a first read through and costume fitting and the following day they were driven to see Poulton Hall for the first time. Full rehearsals began on 17 April before filming actually began on Monday 21st.
Unusually, writer Alan Garner was present through much of the filming, director Peter Plummer happy to have the author on hand to advise and rewrite where necessary. Lead actress Gillian Hills remembers that: “Throughout the filming Alan was discretion itself. Generally I would realize he had been around after the fact. At the very beginning before we began shooting he asked us to gather in a particular bedroom of the house and talked about the plates, the shape of the room. The claustrophobia. He was enthusiastic, he sort of shone from inside and had intense blue eyes. He willed us to become his characters. We were meant to live our parts. I don't remember Alan asking me to make any changes. He knew what he wanted and Peter Plummer was the enabler. Peter was patient, persuasive and warm. The crew, impeccable.”
Indeed it has been noted that the shoot for The Owl Service was a generally happy and good humoured one. In the article The Legend Unravelled, published in issue 10 of Time Screen magazine (Winter 1987/1988), Stephen McKay quotes chargehand electrician James Green as saying to Peter Plummer “I never thought I would say this, but I've really come to look forward to Monday mornings.”
In the book I've Seen a Ghost, Peter Plummer told of supposedly creepy goings-on during the production though whether this was true or just canny hyperbole to promote the series is unclear. Certainly Hills remembers no supernatural manifestations during her time in Wales: “I have not read Peter's book I've Seen a Ghost. I was unaware of it…and maybe I should not read it. My grand father, the superlative Polish poet Boleslaw Lesmian, was ruled by his exceeding ‘superstitiousness,' so the family was too. Artists are sensitive to this in varying degrees. I am glad I focused on Alison. But if something unusual happened I would keep it to myself. I prefer to believe I am contemplating the cosiness of a blanket than a levitating counterpane.”
If the other side was indeed trying to make itself felt during production, the cast and crew managed to get through to the end of the shoot unscathed and on Friday 20 June 1969, they packed their bags with the majority of the story – now extended to eight episodes – in the can. The serial began broadcasting on ITV on 21 December 1969 to generally good audiences, though union disagreements about the switch-over from black and white to colour meant that ITV was forced to transmit Granada's first colour production in black and white.
Despite the fact that the target audience seemed to love the show, there were questions raised about whether it really was suitable for teenagers and children, particularly it's very noticeable representation of sexual jealousy and tension between the lead characters. Speaking in 2008, Gillian Hills said: “I never thought The Owl Service was for children only. It felt as if it fit a larger audience. That's what made it special. Because it also belongs somewhere where the memory of one's own adolescence lies. It is super-real to the extent that it becomes unreal. Wagnerian. And too, like an old film it unreels itself repeatedly, then begins again. Any criticism that the series was unsuitably adult for children is untrue. Never underestimate the child; it is pure, it observes, makes up its own mind. But then is taught to see things otherwise.”
Not everyone agreed however and when the show was nominated as the British entry for the Prix Jeunesse in 1970, Peter Plummer said that the jury found it “‘deeply disturbing' and questioned whether it was not indeed reprehensible to offer such material to young people.” (Time Screen). Hills: “It is the adult with its crooked mind that is the trouble: as with the criticism coming from the jury. It is a good sign for a piece of work to be labelled ‘deeply disturbing'. This means here is something unusual. Remember Saatchi's show ‘Sensation”. Now Chris Offili is an established artist, as with many of the others from that show.”
The Owl Service survived the storm in a tea cup and was shown again on Channel Four in the late 80s to even greater acclaim. It slowly accrued a loyal cult following that was eventually rewarded with a DVD release in 2008.
Gillian Hills on The Owl Service
“The Owl Service was much admired but because I could never bear to watch myself I have seen it only now. Father's very proper English family frowned at having an actress in the family yet they watched the first episode to see what I was like and followed the whole series. That was a huge compliment. The Owl Service was a magnificent gift that allowed me to haul back a slice of my lost youth. It had fallen by the wayside at fourteen when I was ‘discovered' by Roger Vadim. No more contact with kids my age meant there was a chink in my learning compass. So my memory is not of anecdotes, stories. I was totally engrossed with the feel of Alison. In effect, Alison allowed me to become while she too was unfolding.
It also played a part in changing the course of my life. The graphics designer for The Owl Service came while we were filming and I told him how curious I was about his work: when I was a recording artist in Paris I'd go round to see my friends at the music magazine Salut Les Copains – I adored the way the magazine was being put together. The designer invited me to visit the TV centre where they produced the visuals, soon I began at St Martins, but work was always taking me away, then Sir John Cass, Saturdays – but I was filming a lot. Throughout my childhood I was always drawing. My grandmother was a painter but we never met. When I began acting I gave up drawing. Three years after The Owl Service I would plunge into illustrating.”
The Owl Service is a peculiar work. Singular. Mesmerizing. It stands out as a one off.”
With thanks to Gillian Hills.
English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema by Jonathan Rigby pp.368
Serials on British Television 1950-1994 by Ellen Baskin p.98 – credits, synopsis