Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Resisting the Happy Ones: Children of the Stones

There are a number of found objects featured significantly in HTV's (1977) series, Children of the Stones: the engraved stone found by the poacher, Dai ("It's mine! I found it!"), which seems mysteriously to match another in the museum, found a hundred years ago beside a skeleton that had been dead for hundreds more; and Matt's painting ("He found it in an old junk shop") that seems to offer the key to the strange events taking place in Milbury. Co-written by former Dr Who script editor, Trevor Ray, the series is structured like an ouroboros, almost like one of Douglas Hofstadter's strange loops. The village is apparently trapped in a "psychic bubble" or "time circle" and the discovery of these objects seems to imply a kind of fault or slippage between different cycles, different levels of the moebius strip.

Several British films and TV programmes in the 60's and 70's transpose the classic dystopian theme of an individual or small group against the ominous and threatening community from its traditional future city to a more rural, or at least far from metropolitan, setting. Children of the Stones borrows liberally from all of them: the pagan themes, masks and morris dancing from The Wicker Man; its rituals and chanting and supernatural mystery from Nigel Kneale's film, The Witches, for Hammer; and the sinister newspeak greetings shared by the community insiders ("Happy day!") from The Prisoner ("Be seeing you!"). Children of the Stones, however, was made for children's television, anticipating the pre-tea time strangeness of The Tomorrow People.

Like The Tomorrow People, one of the most extraordinary things about Children of the Stones is its music, only in this case achieved without the aid of Delia Derbyshire's VCS-3 synthesizer. Producer, Peter Graham Scott recalls hearing a piece by Penderecki on the radio while driving to the show's location in Avebury and being so inspired to suggest to composer Sidney Sager that he try something similar. Sager agreed to the use of a choir, only insisting upon adding the solo soprano voice which completes the haunting opening theme. The theme was sung by The Ambrosian Singers, started by British early music specialist Denis Stevens and famed for their pop collaborations (including the intro to 'Inside' by Stiltskin) and light music collections. It is based around the acoustic (or Lydian dominant) scale, favoured by Bartok and Franz Liszt for its tonal uncertainty.

Based on the results, the piece by Penderecki may well have been his Canticum Canticorum Salomonis (1970-73). The music shares with Penderecki's great choral work more than just its unusual technical effects - whispering, groaning, murmuring, wailing - also its post-Second Viennese School melodic leaps and cross-wise motion. We hear shades of Berg and Berio, but also Philip Glass and Meredith Monk. It's sweeter than Penderecki, warmer and more repetitive. Nonetheless, the disjuncture between the happy smiling faces of the supplicants and the eerie, strangely weightless dissonance of their chant makes up a large part of what is so uncanny about this most singular of programmes.