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Owl Service, The

1 9 6 9 (UK)
8 x 30 minute episodes

Recently bereaved teenager Alison Bradley (Gillian Hills) goes with her new stepbrother Roger (Francis Wallis) to stay for the summer in the quiet retreat of a relatives house in the Welsh Valleys.

After hearing a scratching noise coming from the roof of the house, Alison discovers some dusty old dinner plates in the attic which have a flowered owl pattern. The design disappears when traced and made into paper owls by Alison.

What is the connection between this, Huw the loony gardener (Raymond Llewellyn), the angry housekeeper, Nancy (Dorothy Edwards) and the legend of the old village magician who made a wife out of flowers (called Blodeuwedd) who was later turned into an owl when she betrayed him?

The series was a sexually-charged tale of adolescent jealousy, produced by Granada TV and based on the unsettling, fantasy-tinged book by Alan Garner which was awarded the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Award for Children’s Fiction in 1967.

Upper-class Alison, her haughty public school stepbrother Roger and working-class Welsh boy Gwyn (Michael Holden) are locked into a triangle of love and hate that threatens to destroy them.

Sexual jealousy had never been the topic of a children’s drama before. The camera, like Roger and Gwyn, lusts after Alison, with close-ups of bare thighs glimpsed underneath her nightshirt and a scene that shows her undress while Gwyn watches through the window.

There is even implied teenage sex when, in episode three, Gwyn and Alison spend the night alone in a small outhouse. Their expressions the next morning are the subject of much conjecture, more so than in the novel in fact. Shown in a Sunday teatime slot, controversy was inevitable.

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Within the triangle, a simmering class struggle is also playing out. Alison and Roger are resolutely upper middle class, almost unpleasantly so; Alison’s life is run by ‘Mummy’ and Roger will be expected to follow his father into the family business.

Roger considers Gwyn, with his jumper worn through at the elbows, to be “a clever yobbo” at best, not “one of us”. He and Alison are the landed gentry of this valley, the English owners of the holiday house, while the Welsh – like Gwyn, his ‘Mam’ Nancy and the gardener Huw – are employed as their domestics.

Gwyn has bought elocution records in order to lose his Welsh accent and wants to go to university but complains that his mother’s horizons are “three inches high”. His attempt to escape the never-ending valley in episode six is an obviously metaphorical one.

Gwyn later learns Huw is actually the father he’s never known and discovers that his mother was once possessed by the same old plates Alison uncovered in the attic.

This was the first fully-scripted drama to be made entirely in colour by Granada Television, although it was shown in black and white on its original runs and not seen in colour until its 1978 repeat.

This ruined the visual joke of Alison, Gwyn and Roger always wearing respectively red, black and green outfits – the colours of electrical wiring at the time – hinting at the power the three could unleash.

The serial was shot in and around Dinas Mawddwy, North Wales, between Apil and June 1969 although the kitchen scenes in the series were filmed at the Marfords Remand Home in Bromborough, Merseyside. The owners of Bryn Hall where Garner had written and set the novel had refused filming permission.

Alison Bradley
Gillian Hills 
Roger Bradley 

Francis Wallis 
Gwyn 

Michael Holden 
Nancy 

Dorothy Edwards
Huw Halfbacon 

Raymond Llewellyn
Clive Bradley

Edwin Richfield

Episodes

The Owl Service | The Mystery Deepens | A Strange Picture | The Plates are Hidden | Betrayal | The Missing Key | Who Is There? | The Legend Unravels