The Owl Service by Alan Garner on screen and leaf
1969 was a tough year for a deeply indoctrinated young teenager. Hormones were heavily over-riding holy communion in their influence on the soul and the sight of a bare-legged young woman writhing on her bed, apparently alone, and blatantly infected by a blend of desire and discomfort triggered an irresistible fascination.
It was clear that the woman had been impregnated by something unseen and the clue to the perpetrator must have something to do with the scratching in the attic she’d heard, and was probably also connected with the plates that had been discovered there.
The plates had a curious pattern around the edge and Alison had traced the design and cleverly assembled the component motifs into three-dimensional paper owls. Once the pattern had been traced, it disappeared from the plate. Alison became addicted. She couldn’t rest until all the plates were cleared. She certainly couldn’t rest after that.
The Owl Service was the first scripted drama series that Granada Television filmed in full colour. Ironically, a strike by technicians meant the first broadcast in the winter of 1969 was only in black and white. If anything, that added to the sinister feel of the haunting tale.
Alan Garner’s Carnegie Medal winning novel had been published two years earlier. The Times Educational Supplement said it contained qualities that created literature that will be read and read again. The Catholic boy can confess to that.
Both book and series received multiple plaudits and rightly so. The book is spare in form but thick in thematic texture, astute in character and heady in atmosphere. The TV series was structurally adventurous, and lauded as being avant-garde in its techniques. Both were questioned regarding their suitability for young audiences and it was several years before the series was purchased for screening in other countries.
Set in Wales during summer the story hits home on several levels. Alison is thrown together with her new step-brother following the recent marriage of her mother to his father. The awkward dynamic is abjectly set against the stiff upper brim of middle class brinkmanship, as the inarticulate groundsman, viper-tongued housekeeper and her cynical son shoulder their chips while serving food, sweeping gravel, and storing perilous secrets.
Class tensions were still very real at the end of the sixties, and over the following two decades the Welsh nationalists became so incensed that they resorted to defacing road signs and burning holiday homes. Elements of the seeds of that escalation are evident in this work. Clive, his ever present but never seen wife, son Roger, and step-daughter Alison are sometimes quintessentially, sometimes unintentionally, colonially English. All the other characters are the financially subservient, yet naturally superior, offspring of the dragon-flagged nation. Gwyn constantly jibes Alison regarding his supposed inferiority, and while she dismisses that difference, the bitterness within the Welsh boy refuses to be put down. He resents his relative lack of opportunity for continuing education and meaningful employment. Alison’s mother, from the hidden prompt corner of this superbly staged work, forbids their association.
Clive’s weary cheerfulness delicately describes the multiple pains of marital separation and the soreness of building new bonds with collaterally damaged children. This is a family trying to repair its wounds with emotional Elastoplast and privately educated bravado. Meanwhile the mythological might of the valley lies in wait.
It is the magical subtext of this tale that casts the biggest spell. In the book it is magnificently under-written, and while the climaxes are fantastical they are so skilfully crafted that they remain credible on one level or another. Unlike religious mythology the meaning does not depend on dogma. The reader, or viewer, can accept the story on their own terms.
The thirteen-year-old Catholic boy found a new testament with the seminal transmission of the original series. The myths were more than fantasies; they were true. The forces at work in Alison were as much rooted in her humanity as they were in the aesthetic she transcribed. The histories of her companions may have chimed in harmony with age-old legends but they were also the consequence of perennial instincts. We are the progeny of Mother Nature and the playmates of the sprites and demons that hide in what we now call DNA. We can’t escape; but there may be alternative paths through the genetic briars.
Alison traced owls. She could have found another pattern. It would have given her a different perspective. There would have been fewer feathers.
The Owl Service has had a pervasive influence on a wide range of my word scratchings. The essential notion that myth is inextricably bound to mind and body via inherited memory and innate vigilance has resisted exorcism, and triggered many a musing regarding just how much autonomy we have.
The strongest influences from this text are to be traced in several of the stories in The Atheist’s Prayer Book especially Over Wenlock Edge.
The screenshots above are from Episode One of the Owl Service as broadcast by Granada Television.