I feel that the blog has been too sensible of late, we’ve had conference reports, cfp’s, notices of conferences and research posts – all very appropriate to a histories of archaeology research network, but also a bit, well, sensible. So this week I bring you the first in a series of archaeology TV (the series may be long or short, it depends how often I think I can get away with watching telly and calling it ‘work). Not a review of Chris Naunton’s excellent programme on Flinders Petrie, but instead programmes I remember from my childhood that had archaeology as a theme or sub-theme, and, in the case of Children of the Stones, terrified me to such a degree that even before I watched it on youtube I could remember the outlines of the plot 40 years on – just listen to the theme.
The very wonderful Stewart Lee talks about it here, and the whole bonkersness that was children’s television in the 1970s, he also mentions The Changes which I don’t remember – despite reading and re-reading the books – and Raven which I remember very clearly, not least because at the age of 11 I fell madly in love with Raven, played by the pre-Quadrophenia and Scum Phil Daniels.
Anyway, back to Children of the Stones. I was reminded of its existence in an obituary of Gareth Thomas, who famously played Blake in Blake’s 7 – another fondly remembered series. That one line ‘He earned a legion of young fans as Adam Brake, an astrophysicist who brings his son to the strange village of Milbury to study standing stones in eerie ITV children’s drama The Children of the Stones’ was enough to set me off reminiscing and hunting on youtube. Back in 1977 Children of the Stones was hugely popular and influential, you had to watch it to have any hope of having any primary school playground chic, Children of the Stones was terrifying in a way that Doctor Who rarely was.
The premise of the series? Good question, as I recall it all made perfect sense when I was 10, but watching it again I was somewhat confused. Anyway, here goes – the village of Milbury (aka Avebury) is built within a stone circle and since prehistory it has existed outside ordinary time or in a time rift, I’m not entirely clear which, but it doesn’t occupy the same time as anywhere else. The cause of this timelessness is a supernova that then became a black hole and allied with the power of the stones/people of Milbury this somehow can be controlled to give the controller power over everyone who has been inducted. I realise this is less than clear but it is a children’s TV programme and therefore doesn’t have to be logical, also it’s a result of 70s physics and astrophysics meeting a woman who doesn’t understand why electricity doesn’t leak out of empty light sockets. Controlling this time rift/black hole power is a priest, in the 1970s cycle this is played, superbly, by Iain Cuthbertson
as Rafael Hendrick, a famous Cambridge astronomer who discovered the supernova/black hole. I’d just like to say here that re-watching the series I wanted to be Rafael Hendrick, he’s a suave, sinister, smirking villain, has all the best lines, not only controls the minds of all the villagers but also has a preposterous throne and an obsequious man-servant. Admittedly the rite he recites is a bit naff and feeble, but it’s a small price to pay for domination. Who wouldn’t want to be him?
Rafael Hendricks and his throne – I forgot to mention he also gets to wear a frilly shirt and bow-tie.
There is one villager outside his control – Dai the poacher, played by Freddy Jones, who is somehow linked to the barber surgeon and lives in the ‘Sanctuary’ which, confusingly to anyone who knows the Avebury landscape, is a long barrow.
This is the set-up when Professor Brake and his son Matt appear in the village to conduct research into the magnetism of the stones. Adam Brake is armed with a magnetometer
but really he doesn’t need any equipment because when he touches the stones he gets such a powerful electric shock it temporarily knocks him out
(I will confess that on my first visit to Avebury many years later I, very hesitantly, touched one of the stones, just to check it didn’t contain a massive electric charge).
Professor Brake’s son, Matt, has a picture he picked up in a junk shop long before they’d heard of Milbury which appears to show people becoming the stones, a serpent, a mysterious column of energy, two fleeing figures and, in Latin, the words ‘I deny the existence of that which exists’
This gnomic inscription doesn’t seem to play any further part in the storyline, but the people turning into stones and the stone circle as solar serpent are key parts of the plot. When Adam and Matt arrive in the village and when they break the circle in the final episode we see the villagers turn to stone. The serpent meanwhile, in a rather Stukeley-esque interpretation, is both the stone circle and a symbol of protection – it appears on an amulet Dai possesses, is carved on one of the stones, is painted on the font in the church and another, partial, amulet was found with the barber surgeon.
Over the course of what appears to be a few days, Matt and Adam discover that the villagers, with the exception of some other incomers, all appear a bit strange. The strangeness is evidenced by their greeting ‘Happy Day’, they appear to be telepathic, and, in the case of the children, they can solve improbable equations – why being brainwashed and rid of sin means you can do really hard sums is never explained, pure maths for the pure in mind? Who knows? It quickly becomes obvious that Rafael Hendrick is the baddie and picking off the newcomers one by one, however, without Matt’s psychometry (?) we wouldn’t have a clue what was happening. Adam and Matt’s best friends in the village Margaret, the curator of the world’s smallest museum, and her daughter Sandra are the last to be indoctrinated,
but Matt has taken Sandra’s scarf so he can ‘see’ everything that happens to them. Adam, who has abandoned all scientific rigour and cynicism, decides they’re leaving the village regardless of his unfinished research – and the grant he’s been paid and already spent. Matt attempts to get his picture back from the museum but sees Hendrick leaving the, deconsecrated, church, breaking in via the coal cellar Matt discovers a computer in the church basement. And, can I say, it’s a proper computer, it takes up all of the basement and has oscillating tapes and flashing lights, nothing like this pathetic laptop I’m typing on. Obviously Hendrick is mapping the course of his black hole/power source, Hendrick catches Matt and returns with him to the cottage where he calmly accepts Adam’s announcement they’re leaving. It’s almost as if he knows they’ll be unsuccessful. . .
Leaving the village, Adam and Matt appear to crash into a stone/Mrs Crabtree their housekeeper and wake up much later but unharmed in Mr Hendrick’s house. They are obviously to be the next victims! Hendrick tells them they will join him for dinner in 55 minutes, Adam and Matt realise that the black hole will then be alignment with the stones or house or something – I confess at this point I got a bit distracted by the mention of there ‘obviously’ being an atomic clock in the church crypt and how it must run on ammonia. (Turns out this is plausible, again, who knew?) Adam and Matt daringly change the time on the digital clocks that are all round the house – foolishly Hendrick and the obsequious manservant haven’t confiscated any of their equipment, why do villains always make that mistake? – so when Hendrick intones the rite he does so 5 minutes early, nor, as he turns his throne away does he realise that nothing is happening behind him. Adam and Matt pretend to have been ‘happied’ and go out to join the ring of villagers, but as soon as they clasp hands with the happy ones the circle is broken, time is out of joint and the heavens are aligned, Hendrick is hit by the black hole/stones/villager power and the villagers get turned to stone (just like they do in Matt’s picture!) including Margaret and Sandra, despite Adam and Matt trying to save them.
Adam and Matt flee to the Sanctuary and when they wake up Milbury has changed. Dai – who died in episode 4 – is alive again but now is a knife and scissor (barber surgeon alert) grinder, Margaret is alive again, as is Mrs Crabtree. The only person missing is Hendrick. Adam and Matt leave the village, successfully this time, and as they drive away they pass a smart sports car going in the opposite direction. It’s Sir Joshua Litton, the new owner of Milbury Manor, and yes, he is the spitting image of Rafael Hendrick! The cycle has begun again, mwah ha ha ha!
So there we have it, Avebury is not simply a megalithic stone circle, but a way of channelling the power of supernovas and black holes in order to brainwash your serfs. Now, what I want to know is – was it only Britain and only in the 70s that such programmes were made for children? Or was it a world-wide madness that decided the way to entertain children was to terrify them? Do let me know.
And, while you’re pondering that I shall tell you that Iain Cuthbertson has another archaeology link – he played Louis Leakey in Gorillas in the Mist.
Julia – always there when you need a pointless fact.