'The Owl Service' - the Novel and Television Serial Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'The Owl Service' - the Novel and Television Serial

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First published in 1967, Alan Garner's The Owl Service is a Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children's Fiction Prize-winning novel. It inspired a 1969 television adaptation that soon gained a reputation for being one of the scariest children's television serials ever made. It is a Welsh folk horror based on the legend of Blodeuwedd and a service of spooky, owl-patterned plates.

The Mabinogion: The Legend of Lleu and Blodeuwedd

The legend of Lleu and Blodeuwedd is a small part of the collection of Welsh legends known as Y Mabinogi or the Mabinogion1. The tale tells of Llew Llaw Gyffes, meaning 'Llew with a skilful hand', who was cursed by his mother, virgin goddess Aranrhod, because she had given birth to him during a magical virginity test. This curse prevented him from ever marrying a human. After a series of adventures his uncle, Aranrhod's brother, the powerful wizard Gwydion, took pity on him, and gathered

the flowers of the oak and the flowers of the broom and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those the called forth the very fairest and best endowed maiden that mortal ever saw.

Llew then married this maiden who was called Blodeuwedd, which means 'flower face'. Yet though Blodeuwedd was made specifically to be his wife she did not love Llew, instead desiring Gronw Pebr, Lord of Penllyn. Though she was a beautiful flower, like a rose has thorns Blodeuwedd had a thorny personality; she encouraged Gronw to kill her husband.

As Llew could only be killed by a spear that took a whole year to make (provided it was only made on Sundays) if he had one foot on a goat's back and one foot in water, his assassination was difficult to plan. After Gronw spent a year making the spear, Blodeuwedd persuaded her husband to take a bath by a river, where there was a handy goat to stand on. Yet when Gronw hurled the spear at Llew's back, Llew had lifted his foot off the goat, so instead of him being killed, he was transformed into an eagle.

After a year of searching for his nephew, Gwydion discovered Llew, now an almost-dying eagle. Gwydion transformed Llew back and healed him. When Llew was recovered he challenged Gronw to stand where he had and let him throw a spear at Gronw in return. Gronw was forced to agree, but asked to place a large stone between him and where Llew was throwing the spear from. Llew consented, but his spear drilled a hole right through the rock and into Gronw, who was killed. Gwydion then transformed Blodeuwedd into an owl as punishment, and from that time every bird shunned her.

Plot

The Owl Service is set in the 1960s in the valley in which the legend took place. Alison's upper-class mother, Margaret, whose first husband died in mysterious circumstances, has just married Clive, Roger's wealthy middle-class father. The newly blended family are spending their first holiday together in a large old house in Wales that Alison had inherited from her father, which had been left to her to avoid paying death duty. He had previously inherited the house from his cousin Bertram, who had previously died in mysterious circumstances about 15 years earlier.

The house has been looked after by a handyman and gardener known as Huw Halfbacon, who recommended that the family employ Nancy as housemaid. She had been the house's former cook when Bertram lived there and had left shortly after his death, fleeing to Aberystwyth. Nancy has a Welsh working-class son called Gwyn, who is about the same age as Alison and Roger. As Gwyn had grown up hearing all about the area he feels that he knows the valley as if he had lived there all his life, but wonders why his mam had never mentioned Huw. At the bottom of the house's grounds runs a river, and next to it is a monolith pierced with a hole at heart-height. Is this the real Stone of Gronw?

When Alison is ill she keeps hearing scratches in the attic above her bedroom: the louder the scratches, the sicker she feels. After she persuades Gwyn to go in the attic and put traps down to catch what they assume are mice or rats, the only thing Gwyn finds are a set of plates decorated with a floral pattern, and an overwhelming meadowsweet scent. Gwyn brings a plate down to show Alison, who immediately spots that the floral pattern resembles an owl's head and an owl's body, and can be used, if traced onto card, to make an owl.

Obsessed with the plates, Alison traces and makes paper owls from the patterns. When Nancy learns that her son has been in the attic and found a plate she loses her temper, barges into Alison's room and searches for the plate, yet when she uncovers it from under Alison's pillow, the pattern has gone. Alison feels compelled to bring all the plates down and trace and make owl after owl, but after she has traced the pattern the plates become blank and all the paper owls she has made disappear. Meanwhile in the billiard room a false wall begins to crumble, revealing at first a pair of sinister eyes and later an entire hidden-away portrait of a woman made of flowers.

Why does the attic contain a secret dinner service and what is the service's secret? Why is Alison obsessed with paper owls that disappear? Why are tensions in the house rising? Why does Nancy want her son to avoid Huw? Should Alison avoid speaking to Gwyn because he is beneath her social standing? Can Roger accept that his mother ran off and left them, and that he has a new stepmother? Why do photographs taken through the Stone of Gronw seem to show ghostly images of someone throwing a spear and someone else riding a motorcycle when there was nobody there? Are Alison, Gwyn and Roger becoming possessed by Blodeuwedd, Gronw and Llew? Will the cycle of love triangles, tragedy and hate be re-enacted over and over and over again or can a way be found to break the curse?

The Novel

Alan Garner OBE was inspired to write the novel The Owl Service in 1960, when he discovered some plates that belonged to the mother of his fiancée Griselda. Griselda showed how these plates were patterned so that they could be seen as either flowers or owls, which brought to his mind the Welsh legend of Blodeuwedd, the woman made from flowers who became an owl. He then began drafting a story in which three characters are forced to retrace the steps of Llew, Gronw and Blodeuwedd, but something was missing.

An owl from flowers. A woman made from flowers and changed into an owl. I saw at once that here, in this dinner service, was my modern story, based on the legend. But even so, for a long time nothing else would come.

Three years later Garner went to Dinas Nawddwy in North Wales on holiday, staying at Bryn Hall, an old, reportedly haunted house he was renting from a friend, which he described with the words:

Within hours of arriving I knew that I had found the setting for the story, or the setting had found me. Its atmosphere fitted both the original legend and the nature of the dinner service. Ideas began to grow. Suppose three people came here to this house and found the plates. Suppose the plates held the power of the legend, like batteries. The story took shape.

The location inspired him to write and finish the story within a month. Published in 1967, although the novel had not been intended to be a children's novel, as the three main characters were children it was entered and won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for children's literature. This made it the first of, to date, only six novels to win both of Britain's major children's literary awards2. The screen rights were not unnaturally considered hot property, with three companies interested in purchasing them. Granada Television made the successful bid.

The Television Serial

Alan Garner had been close friends with Granada Television's Peter Plummer since 1960 and Plummer had visited him when he was writing The Owl Service. This close relationship helped ensure Granada Television, who held the ITV franchise for Lancashire, won the screen rights; it was agreed that Alan Garner would write the seven episodes while Plummer produced and directed. As an indication of how prestigious this production was considered to be, it was planned to be Granada Television's second ever colour production with location filming, rather than studio-based recording on black and white videotape as was standard for children's serials of the time.

The major change for television was to have Margaret, Alison's mother and Clive's wife, as an off-screen presence who never appears. She had appeared briefly in the novel.

Cast

CharacterActor
Alison BradleyGillian Hills
GwynMichael Holden
Roger BradleyFrancis Wallis
NancyDorothy Edwards
Huw HalfbaconRaymond Llewellyn
Clive BradleyEdwin Richfield

For the television serial the three main characters, Alison, Gwyn and Roger, were meant to be 17, and so young adults were cast in the roles. Each of the three main characters was assigned a colour based on the colours of the international wiring code, to represent the power in the valley. 25-year-old Gillian Hills who played Alison, whose colour was red, was by far the most famous. She had been cast following her key role in Maigret at Bay (1969) and had an established career, not only acting in Britain but also singing in France. She had starred in Beat Girl (1960) and the year after The Owl Service she appeared in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Hills described her character by saying:

I felt very close to the role of Alison, because I'd lived such a cooped-up life with my mother. I knew what it was like to feel restricted, and the kids in that book are brought up not to realise they can look after themselves, so they're being manipulated by the adults.

She also played a large part in ending film censorship in America when she infamously participated in the threesome scene in Blowup (1966). This featured British film's first uncensored, filmed, full female frontal nudity. This scene led to the film being banned outright by America's Motion Picture Production Code censors, only for it to be sneakily released through a loophole anyway, to huge financial success. This led to the Production Code being replaced by the MPAA rating system.

Francis Wallis was 22 when he played Roger, whose colour was green while Welsh actor Michael Holden who played Gwyn, represented by black, was 19 in what was his first job following drama school. Edwin Richfield as Clive was another well-established actor. Best known for starring in The Man From Interpol, other than Patrick Macnee he was the only actor to appear in all six series of The Avengers, playing a different role each time.

Filming and Unfolding

One of the earliest setbacks was that the owners of Bryn Hall, which had inspired the novel, refused to grant permission to film there. Instead Poulton Hall on the Wirral, which was owned by author Roger Lancelyn Green3 and his family, was used. They moved out of the house while filming took place inside, including in his son's bedroom, which doubled for Alison's bedroom. As Poulton Hall did not have a billiard room, a billiard table was placed in the conservatory. It also did not have a suitable loft, so the attic scenes were instead filmed at the Buckley Arms Hotel's attic in Wales; the hotel also provided Nancy's room, the larder and the stable where the vintage motorbike was stored. The kitchen scenes were filmed at Marford's Remand Home in Bromborough on the Wirral. The village of Dinas Mawddwy was used as the Welsh village, including the Packhorse Bridge. Outdoor locations including Troed-y-Foel Bridge, Cwm Cywarch, Bwlch-y-Groes and the Bryn (hill) were near Bryn Hall. Only the darkroom scenes were filmed in Granada's studios.

A nationwide search for more examples of the owl-patterned plates was instigated following an appeal in the TV Times. However, only three more were found. Granada's design department therefore made several replica plates to the same pattern.

The key outdoor prop was the Stone of Gronw. This was sculpted by Edward Rowlands and emplaced next to the River Dovey in Wales. After filming finished the stone was left in place and by all accounts is still there today.

Although the story was set in summer, filming took place in spring, leading to an army of volunteers being needed to remove flowering daffodils from shots. When the storm scenes were due to be filmed, the valley experienced a heatwave unlike any in recent memory, which meant that when the fire brigade tried to use their hoses to simulate the terrible storm, the water kept evaporating and turning into clouds of steam instead.

Michael Holden described filming with the words:

It was an incredible experience for all of us. It was as if we personally were really living the thing. The legend, the spirit of the valley was so strong that we became obsessed by it. I felt very close to the whole thing. The area was so much like where I grew up in Bethesda – and it was nice to go back to being outnumbered by sheep.

Assembling

The Owl Service was made on time and on budget, much to the delight of Granada Television who felt confident enough to commission more colour serials in the following years.

Alan Garner wrote some extra scenes for Huw during production and one surprising development was that when the programme was being assembled it was decided to edit the footage into eight, rather than the intended seven, episodes. This did not affect the first and last episodes but the middle episodes had the intended climactic cliffhangers taking place in the middle of the episodes instead.

One of the novel's strengths was the way it kept all the events mysterious and open to interpretation, encouraging multiple readings. For the television series, each episode started with a detailed recap. These recaps, whether added as padding when the series was expanded into eight episodes or for other reasons, explain all that has happened before and detract from the mystery.

Broadcast and Reception

The Owl Service was first broadcast from December 1969 to February 1970. Sadly, the broadcast was affected by one of the ITV Colour Strikes, during which due to a pay dispute, ITV technicians refused to work with colour television equipment. Programmes such as The Owl Service that had been recorded on colour film were broadcast in black and white by blocking the telecine's colour settings when the film was processed onto videotape for transmitting.

Despite this, critics highly praised the serial and it was nominated to be the British entry for the 1970 Prix Jeunesse. The international jury, however, were horrified that such a drama had been made for children, considering it too adult and disturbing. The Owl Service was first broadcast in colour in Britain in 1978. It has since been released on home video and is rated 12.

Opening Sequence

The bizarre opening sequence was created by Bridget Appleby. Designed to reflect the serial's disturbing nature, it begins with a harp playing Welsh folk tune 'Ton Alarch' before being interrupted by snippets of different incidental music, sound effects of motorbikes, bird noises and a loud ripping noise. The images too are no less bizarre, with flickering candles, the hill overlooking the valley and hand-shadow birds all rushing towards the viewer.

Review

One of the important themes is that of identity, both personal identity and how everyone views each other. Gwyn is at a point when he is trying to define his own identity; he closely associates with the valley, considering it his home and knowing every part of it. His mam Nancy takes pains to prevent him getting to know this area too well, forbidding him from speaking Welsh because she says it is 'speaking like a labourer'. She sees her son's future as working in a shop. Alison is forbidden from getting to know Gwyn too well as her mother considers him beneath her as he is her social inferior, with Clive agreeing that Gwyn is unsuitable because 'brains aren't everything, there's also background'. Gwyn himself is torn. Though he loves the valley deeply, despite only having recently seen it, he resents being seen as inferior because of his homeland and accent. He knows he has more potential than working behind the counter in a shop, which leads him to desperately purchase elocution lessons on record, although he does not have a record player.

Nancy looks down on Clive, considering him to be 'new money' who is unable to eat a pear with a knife and fork properly like a gentleman. She is also bitter as she too had been a former victim of the house's haunting, being the centre of the previous love triangle which led to the death of Bartram, with whom she was in love.

The family identity is also important; just as Blodeuwedd had no say in becoming Llew's wife, Alison has had no say in having Clive and Roger as suddenly part of her family. She thinks Clive is 'sweet' but a rough diamond, having earned rather than inherited his money.

In order to tie in with the themes from The Mabinogion, parents and especially mothers are portrayed as destructive forces of oppression. Each parent tries to determine their child's future, with only Gwyn having the strength to challenge parental authority and want to decide his own destiny. Nancy spends most of her time shouting at Gwyn, especially whenever he seeks guidance from her. The off-screen Margaret is also guilty. Margaret spies on her daughter and decides who her daughter can and cannot befriend, judging people on their background. Despite having only recently married Margaret, Clive spends his time away from her, especially fishing by the river on his own, and his chief concern is placating his wife so that nothing upsets her. Lacking in maternal instinct, she wishes to send her daughter abroad for a year. Clive, meanwhile, wants to keep Roger with him and plans that he will work with him.

As the story continues the three children's behaviour becomes increasingly disturbed. Alison begins to lose her own identity, becoming increasingly what those around her want her to be and feeling torn between what her mother expects and what Gwyn wants. Though in love, she avoids Gwyn when she is told that if she speaks to him she will not have her tennis club membership renewed, with Gwyn left hurt that tennis appears more important to her than he is. She also increasingly identifies with Blodeuwedd, realising that loneliness has made her cruel. The spirit of Blodeuwedd longs to return to be flowers, but again and again she is forced into becoming an owl. Yet as an owl her instinct is to hunt prey and kill.

1Pronounced Mabin-O-gian, these originate from the White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425) before being combined and published in seven volumes by Lady Charlotte Guest (1838-1845). The tales also include early references to King Arthur.2The others were Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams, A Pack of Lies (1988) by Geraldine McCaughrean, Goggle-Eyes (1989) by Anne Fine, His Dark Materials: Northern Lights (1995) aka The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman and Junk (1996) aka Smack by Melvin Burgess.3Part of the Inklings literary group with CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he is best known for writing books based on ancient myths and biographies of other children's authors.

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