As the sixties spilled over into the seventies, children’s television started to get very weird indeed; and, arguably, nowhere did it get weirder than at Granada Television. Always happy to prop up experimental artists, progressive musicians and local traditional folk and craft, ITV’s idiosyncratic broadcaster for the North West were only too willing to push at the creative boundaries for children’s television – after all, they were doing so for all kinds of television from ghost-hunting Coronation Street spinoff Turn Out The Lights to voluble left wing politics-driven sitcom The Dustbinmen to audience-shocking pop-art gangland thriller Big Breadwinner Hog – and one particular production is hugely celebrated to this day. Meanwhile, another very closely associated production hasn’t actually been seen from that day to this. Now, however, they’re both coming back to haunt you…
Based on Alan Garner’s award-winning novel, The Owl Service was first broadcast by ITV in the literal closing days of the sixties and feels like it; essentially the closest that you will find to a progressive rock album on television and drenched in paranormal imagery with early music stylings and full-tilt Swinging London camerawork despite being set in the far from swinging surroundings of the Welsh countryside. The Owl Service probably needs little introduction and to be honest saying anything more than it involves a set of haunted plates – or are they? – would probably be giving too much away, but alongside the beautiful high definition transfer of a beautiful looking serial you get two archive interviews with Alan Garner, an in-depth book on the making of the series and a commentary by me, taking a look at how what looks like a deeply odd production and barely suitable for its target audience now was in fact made, broadcast and received in a very different context to the one that most modern commentators understandably presume it was, with diversions regarding Syd Barrett’s solo albums, murky genre bookshops, Granada’s experimental drama and arts programming of the time, Gillian HIlls’ pop career, a couple of mysteries surrounding repeat runs of the serial and much more besides, including the story of how The Owl Service once caused me to fall off a wall. No, really.
Made by the same production team as The Owl Service in 1972, The Intruder – based on John Rowe Townsend’s novel about a mysterious stranger who shows up in a remote coastal town and claims to have an unsettling link to a local teenager – might sound like it’s a lot closer to reality, but that really would be underselling just how sinister and downright weird it is. Set against a harsh landscape straight out of an early seventies British gangster movie with decidedly ‘adult’ imagery and camerawork to match, it’s a murky and mesmerising tale of a disrupted community dashed with literal nightmare sequences and strong language, and you really would be hard pushed to understand the reasoning that went into scheduling this on Sunday afternoons. Unseen in public or private since 1974 – only the first episode has been available in any form until now – it’s a genuine thrill to have played a part in making this almost mythical holy grail of the ‘genre’ available again, and once again I’ve contributed a commentary looking at how this deeply strange series sat with the cultural and artistic trends of the day as well as the often surprising career twists and turns of the cast and crew, what actually went on in the once-inescapable BBC children’s series Kim & Co, how TV Times uneasily balanced listing unsettling programmes with competitions to win waffle pans signed by Richard O’Sullivan and just why The Intruder was out of circulation for so long, with some longstanding rumours comprehensively debunked along the way. There’s also an ITV schools programme featuring a fascinating interview with John Rowe Townsend about the making of the series, an interview with cast member – and pop star – Simon Fisher Turner, and a booklet about the production written by Andrew Pixley. Seriously, if you are interested in this kind of spooky and off-kilter children’s drama, The Intruder is a must-see and the closest you will get to seeing anything of this nature and vintage that is – to all intents and purposes – ‘new’.
Far more than – and far more interesting than – the what-were-they-thinking ‘weird’ curious that they might more normally be passed off as, The Owl Service and The Intruder are fascinating productions with a good deal to say about the era in which they were made, as well as being outstanding drama serials in their own right, and frankly have never looked better. Well, we can only assume so about The Intruder, as it hasn’t been seen in decades but it really does look stunning. Both are now available to pre-order as part of Network’s ‘Spooky Tales’ set of releases which also includes the 1978 ITV children’s serial Come Back Lucy with an accompanying documentary presented by Jill Nolan and Becky Darke from Don’t Point That Horror At Me, and the 1970 ITV horror anthology series Tales Of Unease with a booklet written by Andrew Pixley. If nothing else, you should get the complete set just so you have something else to watch on Halloween instead of bloody Ghostwatch again…
You can get The Owl Service directly from Network here and The Intruder here, and find out more about the complete ‘Spooky Tales’ set here. You can also find a feature I wrote for Network about the making of The Owl Service here.
Get The Owl Service And The Intruder
You can get The Owl Service here and The Intruder here.
You can hear more chat about Come Back Lucy with Scarfolk creator Richard Littler in Looks Unfamiliar here.
© Tim Worthington.
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