Children of the Stones

27 Jan

Britain is a country dotted with mysterious stone circles, a legacy either of its original inhabitants, fairies or aliens (depending on whom you believe). Despite intense speculation over the years, to this day no one really knows for certain what function was originally served by the standing stones at Salisbury, Avebury or any number of other sacred sites. Many of the most intriguing theories have in fact been put forward, not by scientists or historians, but by creators of film and fiction. One television series which particularly springs to mind whenever anyone mentions stone circles to me is the profoundly disturbing, yet startlingly original, Children of the Stones. Broadcast in 1976-77, this one-off serial follows astrophysicist Adam Brake and his young son Matthew after they arrive in the small village of Milbury, which is built in the midst of a megalithic stone circle. Their terrifying experiences in Milbury are recounted in seven atmospheric episodes which culminate in a chilling finale. A series which has stood the test of time, I’ve never seen anything like Children of the Stones since. Even though it was nominally created for children, there is very little that is childish about the serial, either in terms of plot, acting, script or mood. In fact Children of the Stones is frequently cited by those who remember it as one of the scariest things they ever saw as children – even the director was surprised on seeing the script that it was intended to be broadcast at teatime! This is definitely one to watch with the lights switched on…

Whilst many supernatural series start off in a fairly low-key manner, this is definitely not the case with Children of the Stones, in which you’re aware right from the start that something is very wrong. The theme music alone is enough to scare grown men witless, with its cacophony of sinister, discordant wailing voices heightening the tension from the get-go. Interestingly, these voices actually belonged to the Ambrosian Singers, who chanted in accordance with the megalithic rituals referred to in the story. Soon after Matthew and his father arrive in the village they are struck by the odd behaviour of many of the locals, who seem to exist in a blissful trance state, greeting each other with the increasingly ominous-sounding “Happy day!”. Meanwhile, the children at the local school are working on equations that would baffle most scientists and after dark the village becomes as silent and empty as a graveyard. The explanation for these odd phenomena seems to lie in the circle of prehistoric standing stones that surround the village – a circle from which there may be no escape.

Involving a temporal paradox and issues of individuality and community assimilation, the series is thematically challenging for adults, let alone its intended after-school audience. It has much more in common with grown-up shows of the time, such as The Stone Tape and Doctor Who (which was a very different programme in the seventies, genuinely scary and groundbreaking rather than the safe, crowd-pleasing fare that it has become today). One of the more complicated aspects of Children of the Stones is the concept of the ‘time circle’ and the ‘psychic bubble’. The main premise of this idea 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 faulted, 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, that within the time circle must also progress, matching the time period of the real world while still attempting to play out the events within. Hey, I said it was complicated!

All of this distracts somewhat from the more basic appeal of Children of the Stones – at it’s heart it’s just a damn good scary story. Even today, it is almost universally praised as an outstanding children’s series. There are some terrific acting performances, particularly from Iain Cuthbertson, as the sinister village leader Hendrick and Gareth Thomas, who would later find greater fame as the main character in the science fiction series Blake’s 7, as Adam Brake. The greatest plaudits, however, must go to the children in the leading roles of Matthew and Sandra, Peter Demin and Katherine Levy, who display an almost uncanny maturity and gravitas as actors (although in fairness they were 17 at the time). Whilst I was blown away when I first watched the series, what has impressed me most is the discovery, since it came out on DVD, of just how well it stands up to repeated viewings. This is television that really makes you think – you find yourself gaining a new insight on every viewing, as well as almost feeling compelled to think about the deeper themes that it addresses. Considering the age of Children of the Stones, it also holds up just as sheer entertainment: a story told with pace and atmosphere, within a great setting. It is too often the case that so called ‘classics’ revived from the past fail to live up to our modern day expectations of film and TV productions. This is one series, however, that emphatically bucks the trend with style and panache to spare, as well as proving that the old adage is sometimes true: they don’t make ’em like they used to!

14 Responses to “Children of the Stones”

  1. charlespaxton January 27, 2013 at 10:02 pm #

    Great review, Anil. I remember it being very atmospheric.

  2. Hugh Paxton January 28, 2013 at 7:22 am #

    Another very interesting post. Well done

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    It’s on its way to me, via Netflix. I look forward to it.

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