sun 23/06/2024

Blu-ray: The Owl Service | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: The Owl Service

Blu-ray: The Owl Service

Unsettling, mesmerising mixture of teenage angst and folk horror

'I wanted a holiday, not a breakdown' - the three protagonists of 'The Owl Service' in happier times

The Owl Service is instantly unsettling, Bridget Appleby’s credit sequence cutting between flickering candles and shadow puppets while a plaintive Welsh folksong is drowned out by the sound of a motorcycle. Alan Garner’s uncompromising 1967 fantasy novel is a spare, elegant fable told mostly through dialogue; in Philip Pullman’s words, “everything we need is there, and nothing we don’t need.”

Granada TV’s eight-part 1969 adaptation boasts a screenplay by Garner and was directed and produced by Peter Plummer, the series filmed, unusually, on location in North Wales in full colour, though a technicians’ strike meant that it was originally transmitted in black and white.

Owl ServiceGarner’s story follows a trio of teenagers on holiday in rural Wales who find themselves unwittingly re-enacting a bloody tale taken from the 11th century book of the Mabinogion. It’s vintage folk horror, wholly unsuitable for adaptation as a children’s drama series; quite how such a bold, suggestive drama was thought suitable for family viewing is a mystery. Think Penda's Fen or The Wicker Man. Garner’s genius lay in giving his medieval source material so much contemporary relevance. Clive (Edwin Richfield) has recently remarried, his new wife Margaret referred to but mysteriously never seen. His pompous son Roger (Francis Wallis) has feelings for his new stepsister Alison (Gillian Hills), as does the working-class local boy and "clever yobbo" Gwyn (Michael Holden), whose sharp-tongued mother has been hired as housekeeper. Alison and Gwyn’s discovery of the titular dinner service in a dusty attic, to use a cliché, unleashes dark forces beyond their comprehension and control, the characters gradually making sense of what’s happening to them as we do. The Owl Service was first shown in 25-minute weekly instalments, not bingeable like a Netflix box set. Test audiences found the series difficult to follow, so monochrome flashback sequences were placed at the start of each episode. These both clarify and bemuse, occasionally showing scenes and images not actually seen previously. It’s a wild ride.

The three leads are too old for their roles but give their all, Hills (who had previously starred in Antonioni’s Blow Up) later commenting that “it was all so real, it was frightening.” There’s a superb turn from Raymond Llewellyn as the enigmatic gardener Huw, increasingly important as the drama unfolds. Clive’s physical closeness to Alison is uncomfortable to watch, as are scenes showing (separately) Alison and Roger bathing. Plummer’s jump cuts and oblique camera angles are shrewdly deployed and the final episode’s brutal climax is extraordinary. After which, abruptly but aptly, The Owl Service ends. I’m reluctant to give away much more; if you’re a fan of the book, this Blu-ray issue is mandatory viewing. Network’s restored image looks and sounds good, and older viewers will enjoy seeing the Granada indent at the start of each episode. Extras include two 1960s interviews with Garner and three enthusiastic episode commentaries from writer Tim Worthington. The set is being released along with three other dark 1970s series, one of which, The Intruder, was also directed by Plummer.


Garner’s genius lay in giving his medieval source material so much contemporary relevance


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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