Owl Service (The) (TV)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (18th April 2008).
The Show

This well-remembered but rarely-seen Granada adaptation of Alan Garner’s novel gets a welcome DVD release from Network.

Unusually for a British television drama of its vintage, The Owl Service was shot entirely on film and made heavy use of location shooting; it makes stunning use of its Welsh valley locations to tell a story that is deeply rooted in the work of the novelist Alan Garner. Network’s DVD release reinforces Garner’s position as the author of the story through the inclusion of a 1980 episode of Granada’s arts documentary series Celebration entitled ‘The Edge of the Ceiling’, in which Garner discusses the ideas behind his literature and its relationship with both his working class background and the rural myths of Britain.

In 1967, Garner’s novel The Owl Service won the Carnegie Medal book price, and a year later Granada’s eight-part television adaptation went into production; the adaptation was screened at the tail-end of 1969 and during the opening months of 1970. (Incidentally, in 2000 the book was also the subject of a radio dramatisation for BBC Radio 4.) Granada’s television adaptation captures Garner’s focus on the pagan myths of Celtic Britain, and foregrounds the way in which through his stories Garner uses these myths as metaphors for modern-day social issues. The series also refers to the conventions of the horror film, and some scenes are still quite chilling. For example, in the first episode Alison is lying on her bed when she hears a scratching from the attic. The scratching grows in intensity; the scene is as effective as many scenes in more traditionally ‘adult’ horror films. Likewise, a later scene in which the same scratching noise is heard to be coming from a locked building manages to create a strong sense of threat, and when Roger enters the building during a later episode the montage of flashbacks to events in the region’s past is almost as foreboding as the montage of flashbacks at the climax of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.

The Owl Service tells the story of Alison (played by Gillian Hills, a singer and actress who is probably most famous for her roles in Beat Girl, Blow-Up and an almost fleeting appearance in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), a young English woman who is staying at her mother Margaret’s house in the Welsh valleys. (Interestingly, the character of Margaret remains unseen throughout The Owl Service.)

After the death of her first husband, Margaret has recently married Clive Bradley (Edwin Richfield), who along with his son Roger (Francis Wallis) has moved into Margaret’s house. The grounds are tended by an enigmatic and seemingly eccentric gardener named Huw (Raymond Llewellyn), who speaks in riddles and is the subject of constant ridicule by both Clive and Roger. Also in the house is the cook Nancy (Dorothy Edwards) and her son Gwyn (Michael Holden).

Following the discovery in the attic of a set of plates with an owl design on them (the titular ‘owl service’), Alison, Gwyn and Roger each become obsessed with the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd, from the Eleventh Century book The Mabinogion (a collection of stories rooted in Celtic mythology). Blodeuwedd, whose name is a composite of the Welsh words for ‘flower’ and ‘face’, is in Welsh mythology a woman made from flowers by Gwydion as a wife for Gwydion’s nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes. However, Blodeuwedd committed adultery with the Lord of Penllyn, Gronw Pebr; Gronw and Blodeuwedd conspired to murder Lleu with a spear that Gronw spent a year making. However, Lleu survived and was healed by Gwydion. Gwydion and Lleu killed Gronw with the spear that Gronw made, the spear piercing Gronw’s chest and leaving a hole in a stone that Gronw attempted to use as a shield. The stone became known as the Stone of Gronw, and following Gronw’s death Gwydion cursed Blodeuwedd, turning her into an owl.

Following the discovery of the ‘owl service’ in the attic, Alison perceptively decodes the symbology of the pattern on the plates, whilst Huw hints at the story of Blodeuwedd, Gronw and Lleu. In the grounds of the house is a large rock with a circular hole in it, and after listening to Huw’s stories Gwyn and Alison come to the conclusion that the rock is the fabled Stone of Gronw; this seems to be confirmed when Roger develops a photograph that he has taken through the hole in the stone, which appears to show a ghostly figure holding a spear.

Meanwhile, Alison’s behaviour grows increasingly strange, and she becomes profoundly obsessed with the pattern on the plates. At the same time, Gwyn and Alison grow closer and become romantically involved. Driven heavily by both jealousy and class prejudice, Roger is disdainful of the relationship between Alison and Gwyn, and Roger and his father conspire to separate the two young lovers. The situation increasingly begins to mirror the relationship between Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw, and it seems that the myth of Blodeuwedd is echoing through the ages. More revelations follow, with Huw playing an increasingly central part in the lives of the Alison, Gwyn and Roger.

Garner’s novel was primarily written for children and on its initial screening this television adaptation was pegged in a similar way. However, the story is complex and, at times, quite dark: perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the BBFC have given this release a ’12’ certificate for its ‘moderate threat and one use of strong language’ (in episode six, Gwyn refers to the unseen Margaret as a ‘dirty-minded bitch’).

In the documentary ‘The Edge of the Ceiling’, Garner is quite candid about the aims of his work, stating that ‘I don’t make any excuses whatsoever for drawing on fantastic materials to make comments seriously about modern life’: although Garner’s novels often draw on myth and take place within the realm of the fantastical, Garner states that he aims for ‘social content and consequences’.

It’s clear that The Owl Service uses myth and fantasy as a way of commenting on prejudice and class bias. The tension between the upper middle class Roger and the working class Gwyn is based on both their class difference and the ongoing conflict between Welsh and English culture. The English (Roger, Alison, Margaret and Clive) are throughout The Owl Service depicted as colonisers who don’t understand the myths and customs of the local community: at one point, Roger dismissively refers to the Welsh myths as ‘these old yarns’, and later on Gwyn jokingly warns Alison not to ‘knock our national heritage, girly: them ropey old tales is all we got’.

Although the English have the money and authority, they are seen as outsiders: when Gwyn reminds Huw that he doesn’t ‘own the place’, Huw comments that although Margaret’s ‘name is on the books of the law […] I own the ground’. Huw tells Gwyn that although the English may own the house, Gwyn is ‘the heir, in blood’. This fact is also acknowledged by Alison, who tells Gwyn ‘I wish I was like you. You belong here [….] I’ve been spending holidays at the house all my life, but I don’t belong’. Gwyn’s relationship with the myths of the valley is instinctual, born into him. As Huw repeatedly tells him, Gwyn belongs to the valley, whereas Clive, Roger, Alison and Margaret do not—their presence is transitory. As if to underscore this conflict between the Welsh and the English ‘outsiders’, in episode five Gwyn takes delight in participating in ‘an old Welsh custom called “soaking the Saxon”’, spinning Alison a tall tale about sheep that have been specially bred for their short legs.

The conflict between the Welsh and the English is also seen as a class conflict. Several times, Gwyn ironically comments on his own lowly social status; the first time Roger and Gwyn are seen on screen together, Gwyn sarcastically states to Roger, ‘And begging your stepmother’s pardon, sir, I’ll use the front door’. Later, after Alison informs Gwyn that she has been forbidden from talking to him, Gwyn retorts by saying ‘It’s quite in order, miss; and I’ll use the tradesman’s entrance in future’.

However, despite his lowly social status Gwyn has managed to acquire a place as a student at the local grammar school and plans to become a teacher, but he is afraid that his mother will withdraw him from the school. He is also conflicted about his Welsh heritage, seeking to hide his Welsh accent: he reveals to Alison that he has bought LPs that offer recorded elocution lessons—but he doesn’t yet own a record player. When Roger discovers this fact, he humiliates Gwyn; it is also revealed that Roger's father, Clive, shares his son's prejudices, and discussing Gwyn's aspirations Clive comments that ‘brains aren’t everything, by a long chalk: you must have the background’.

Alison suggests that Roger’s dislike of Gwyn is based on jealousy, because Roger ‘can’t bear to think he’s cleverer than you’. Roger responds by admitting that Gwyn is ‘clever’, but Roger asserts that Gwyn ‘is not one of us. Never will be. He’s a yobbo, a clever yobbo’. It’s hard not to see Gwyn as a stand-in for Alan Garner, who in the accompanying documentary discusses his working class roots and claims that his formal education ‘alienated me very badly from the people I cared for’.

Nevertheless, Clive and Roger’s social standing is questioned by Nancy who, although no more than a ‘lowly’ housekeeper/cook, is able to expose Clive’s lack of understanding of correct table etiquette. Nancy refers to Clive as ‘Lord Muck’ and tells Gwyn that ‘He’s not even a gentleman [….] There are ways of catching them’, confessing that she served Clive a pear on a plate, along with a knife and a fork; betraying his lack of etiquette (a pear should be held in the hand and eaten), Clive tried to eat the pear with the knife and fork, and Nancy takes delight in declaring ‘Oh, I made him look a fool’. The scene explores the very British delight in undermining someone’s authority through exposing their lack of understanding of proper etiquette, a victory for the working class Nancy over the snobbery of the upper middle class Clive.

Alongside this social criticism, The Owl Service develops some nightmarish scenes. Early in the first episode, the build-up to the discovery of the plates in the attic manages to create a very strong sense of atmosphere through its use of sound. A similar use of sound is deployed in a later episode, when a scratching is heard from one of the outbuildings—the key to which has been lost. In fact, the use of sound in the scene building up to the discovery of the plates is reminiscent of the uncanny scratching that is heard during the first reveal of the possessed girl in Piers Haggard’s later film Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and although it was primarily aimed at children this television adaptation of The Owl Service seems heavily aligned with the trend in the late-1960s and early-1970s to make horror films which associate the supernatural and uncanny with adolescence and youthful rites-of-passage (Blood on Satan’s Claw, Twins of Evil, The Exorcist), a trend which stretches back to folk tales such as the story of Little Red Cap/Little Red Riding Hood.

The Owl Service was shot in colour, but on its initial screening it was aired in black-and-white; during the 1978 repeat, the series was finally shown in colour. Colour plays an integral role in the series: throughout the eight episodes, colour is used symbolically, the protagonists being strongly associated with specific colours—Alison is always seen in red, Roger is dressed in green and Gwyn is dressed in black.

Other aspects of the programme’s visual design are interesting and almost avant-garde. For example, The Owl Service makes strong use of unconventional editing strategies, deploying jump-cuts and symbolic montage—at a key climax within the series, the characters’ increasingly antagonistic actions are intercut with shots of an axe being used to chop down a telegraph pole. (In fact, the haunting and semi-abstract title sequence is itself reminiscent of a Man Ray film.) Furthermore, the relationship between the myth of Blodeuwedd, the family’s past and the present situation is frequently established through disorientating and highly-effective cross-cutting.

Ultimately, The Owl Service is a fascinating drama which in the tradition of Garner’s work uses fantasy as a way of exploring what Garner calls ‘social content and consequences’, reflecting Garner’s aim to draw ‘on fantastic materials to make comments seriously about modern life’. With this in mind, the series effectively marries the pagan myths of Celtic Britain to modern-day issues of class and nation.

The series is spread across two discs. Episodes one to six are on the first disc, whilst episodes seven and eight are on disc two, along with the bonus material.

Video

Network’s DVD presents The Owl Service at its original ratio of 1.33:1. The series looks surprisingly good, probably to a large part due to the fact that it was shot entirely on film. As noted above, the series makes excellent use of its Welsh locations and has a unique visual style, making good use of colour, deploying canted angles to good effect and also making strong use of montage editing. It's a visually interesting series, and Network's transfer is, for a programme of this vintage, more than satisfactory.

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Audio

The DVD contains an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono audio track, which is clear and free of problems.

Unfortunately, there are no subtitles. (Interestingly, some of the dialogue is in Welsh, with no subtitles; this positions non-Welsh speaking viewers as outsiders, along with Roger, Clive and Alison.) As some of the Welsh accents are a little heavy and the series makes use of a large amount of regional dialect, subtitles would have been a helpful addition. The addition of subtitles would also have helped viewers who aren't familiar with the Blodeuwedd/LLeu/Gronw myth to keep track of the names of the mythical figures that the characters refer to throughout the series.

Extras

Network’s DVD release contains a still gallery (1:48) and a documentary, an episode of the Granada arts documentary series Celebrations that is entitled ‘The Edge of the Ceiling’, and which focuses on the life and work of Alan Garner (24:50).

The documentary was made in 1980, and looks back on Garner’s career and his movement from writing children’s literature to his work on The Stone Book Quartet. It discusses Garner’s working practices (he confesses that he finds writing ‘a slog, it’s very hard labour’) and his motivations. Garner talks candidly about the importance of British rural/pagan myths for his work (there is a good discussion of Garner’s feelings about the myth of King Arthur) and reveals that he prides himself on the detailed research he undertakes before writing a novel. The documentary focuses heavily on the ways in which Garner uses the genre of fantasy as a means of exploring social issues, something that is very evident in Granada’s adaptation of The Owl Service.

Garner is a fascinating interviewee, and this documentary is a real gem, and it’s very handy in helping the viewer to understand the television dramatisation of The Owl Service.

The release also comes with a booklet containing notes by Chris Lynch and Kim Newman. At the time of writing, the booklet is unavailable for review.

Overall

The Owl Service is a real treat for fans of classic British television: it’s dark and thought-provoking, and demonstrates a level of complexity that is rare in modern television. At times, it is also almost avant-garde, shot in a very interesting style and making good use of its locations. It’s a potent mix of mythology, the conventions of the horror film and an exploration of modern social issues. Aside from the lack of subtitles, Network’s DVD release is very good, and the accompanying documentary is a great addition for fans of both Garner and this particular television adaptation of one of his most highly-regarded novels. For anyone interested in British television, this release comes with a strong recommendation.


For more info, please visit the homepage of Network DVD

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