DONNA CUTTRESS looks back on The Owl Service, the award-winning British ghost novel made into a supernatural 1970s TV series…
‘The Owl Service’, a supernatural novel and later a much-regarded TV series, was written by Alan Garner and published by Collins in 1967. It is a story that Garner himself proclaimed as ‘as a kind of ghost story, in real life as well as on the page’.
It was written after a holiday he and his wife had in Wales, with themes of welsh myths, possession, ghosts and a haunted dinner service that has been locked away in an attic.
The book won the Carnegie medal and the Guardian Award, and was classed as a children’s novel despite its young adult themes.
The fast-paced story and dialogue allow the plot to develop quickly.
The possession of the main characters of stepbrother and sister, Allison and Roger and the housekeeper’s son Glyn and their relationship, is revealed after the discovery of the dinner service.
It has a pattern on it, that when traced can be assembled into the model of an owl, thus releasing the spirit of Blodeuwedd.
The myth is that Blodeuwedd was turned into an Owl after having an affair with Gronw which upset her husband Lleu. All of which is related by the gardener, Huw ‘Halfbacon’, who speaks in riddles about the myth and the haunted ‘Stone of Gronw’.
The novel not only tells of supernatural possession but of adolescence, the conflicting class system and the divide between the English and Welsh.
The TV series was recorded by Granada, produced and directed by Pete Plummer, and shown first in December 1969.
Alan Garner also wrote the screenplay. It was shown in eight half-hour episodes with a recap at the beginning of each one and was classed as a children’s TV series but later reclassified for teenagers.
It was filmed in Dinas Mawddwy in Wales, where Garner had holidayed and taken inspiration for the novel. The interior and grounds shots were filmed in Poulton House near Runcorn.
The actors playing the lead roles all seem to be older than what they are depicted in the novel and the daddy/stepdaughter relationship is uneasy to watch.
The dynamic between the main characters played by Gillian Hills, Frances Wallis and Michael Holden are well played even though sometimes each episode can appear stretched, with long pauses in the dialogue.
Nature and the woodlands are used to enhance the mythical qualities of the novel, the scratching of the owls in the attic being particularly effective and creepy. ‘The Stone of Gronw’ becomes a portal to show the ghosts of the past and the reenactment of the myth at the heart of the story.
The filming of the series has been said to have affected the cast, some carrying the intense feelings with them long after they had finished. Raymond Llewellyn who played Huw the gardener said the part had haunted him all his life. The series was repeated in 1978 without mention of the tragic murder of the lead actor Michael Holden the previous year.