In January and February 1977, Children of the Stones was broadcast and imprinted itself on the minds of countless young viewers. Decades on, Stewart Lee has professed his love of the series on more than one occasion, and it continues to enrapture new viewers, myself included. Matthew (Peter Demin) and his father Adam (Gareth Thomas) move to Milbury (Avebury, Wiltshire) for the sake of Adam’s astronomical research. Something amiss is in the village. Its inhabitants are not behaving normally. The mysterious Mr Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson) is putting a sinister plan into operation. And magic and science collide as frightening powers lurk around an ancient stone circle. Intelligent, evocative and unsettling, Children of the Stones is everything a children’s fantasy should be.
It is not possible to overstate how vital Sidney Sager’s music is to the success of the programme. Watch the opening titles above. A choir leads, discordant vocal slides offering no comfort, no certainty. Indecipherable lyrics bubble up ferociously, burst into a cry, die away. An eerie resolution comes – a false, folk docility masking the frightening pagan forces stirring within the village. There’s something very Wicker Man about all this. And the music is bound to location by the economy of the title sequence. More and more static shots of the standing stones of Avebury, as the music grows in intensity – perhaps the stones are singing to us. It feels bold in its simplicity, and it makes you pine for something so straightforward and stark in fantasy series now. Oh, for the bare confidence of a limited budget’s pragmatic necessity.
For all the simplicity of the titles, the programme as a whole is very sophisticated. As echoed by later classic The Demon Headmaster (another show about children who don’t fit in), the first sign something’s amiss comes in a school lesson. Some of the children know inexplicably more than someone of their age. This isn’t to denigrate intelligence. Matthew is very able at equations and is incredibly helpful with his father’s research. But the children in this school are machine-like in their efficiency, their lack of humour, of individuality. The children watching at home can perceive it easily: there are worse things than not conforming.
A common trait in some children’s fantasy is that our young protagonists, ignored by stubborn, unimaginative grown-ups, have to confront a problem alone. I like that Children of the Stones is one of those exceptions where parents trust and battle alongside their children, as well as having their own distinct lives. Matthew and Sandra’s (Katherine Levy) respective parents Adam and Margaret (Veronica Strong) have conversations and scenes to themselves. Scenes that help advance the plot. And they tell jokes to each – jokes that are funny!
This shouldn’t feel as refreshing as it does. That the adults in a children’s drama are not purely secondary characters, defined by their children’s adventures, but are intelligent individual agents of the story in their own right. They trust and help their children, and ask for their trust and help in return. It’s a very mature view of adults presented by a series that expects children will know and understand their customs and intentions. It’s clear in the copious amounts of whiskey we see being drunk over seven half-hours, and in the fact that Matthew almost immediately trusts Dai (Freddie Jones), a dishevelled man who up to this point has only been seen spying on him with a telescope. Very 20th century.
In one sense, anyway, Children of the Stones a more mature approach to adults than normal. It’s similarly remarkable in the sophistication of the ideas it puts to children. It owes a lot to Nigel Kneale’s seminal Quatermass and the Pit, where an ancient threat of apparently supernatural origin is ultimately understood and defeated by scientific application. The stone circle, and the enormous flat stone at its foundation are revealed to constitute an ancient transmitter – broadcasting the mental energy of its pagan cult of followers within the village.
They gather en masse, forming the unearthly choir we hear over the opening titles, at one of the programme’s various disturbing cliffhangers. It calls to mind Kneale’s 1979 Quatermass serial, written before but made after Children of the Stones. That, more specifically, also finds a science-fiction explanation (and a very sinister one, at that) for stone circles. New-age and hippy movements, and a renewed fascination with British folklore, pervade much of the science-fiction of this era. Like the deceitfully soothing music, the brainwashed villagers’ sinister Morris dance could be something out of The Wicker Man – and actually is something out of the joint-best Doctor Who story of 1971. Jon Pertwee extravaganza The Dæmons buries an ancient alien menace within the supernatural too, and, like Children of the Stones, shows us a villain’s plan spiral out of control, with disastrous consequences for himself and his acolytes.
Where Children of the Stones diverges from these near-contemporaries is in perhaps its most sophisticated aspect, namely how it considers the concept of time. It plays a vital part in the resolution of the series, but like another great example of the genre, Alan Garner’s Red Shift (part of the BBC’s Play for Today strand in 1983, a far cry from children’s TV), Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray’s script gives very little exposition to clarify proceedings. All the protagonists are caught up within events, and we have to piece together for ourselves the exact nature of the story’s ending.
Time would seem to reverse at a climactic point and release our heroes, but when they meet characters again in this renewed pocket of existence, some of whom we’ve seen meet a terrible end, we cannot tell to what extent they are the same people they were before. Are they on a new path or not? We have a hint in the final scene that events are doomed to repeat themselves, and so perhaps these people we’ve grown to like are trapped in this perpetual cycle. While the series to some extent offers a resolution to the puzzle of its plot, it does not offer the same luxury to the story of its characters. Its ending is deeply ambiguous, melancholic, refusing to provide the relief we crave from this disturbing chain of events.
Here, most of all, Children of the Stones displays a bravery, maturity and sophistication that I suspect, in this more responsible age of television, might not enjoy quite the same freedom to flourish. It remains, therefore, one of the most refreshingly challenging pieces of children’s television our country has produced, and one of the finest examples of the genre we have.