The 1977 ITV children's series "Children of the Stones" cleverly blends science and magic to weave a chilling tale of ancient rituals, lost individuality, and inescapable fate. Three decades after British viewers first encountered it (Americans would later discover it as part of Nickelodeon's paranormal anthology "The Third Eye"), it still holds up remarkably well, thanks to the writers' insistence that the show assume a certain intelligence and maturity on the part of its young audience.
"Stones" is, after all, a complicated story; plot points hinge on supernovae and atomic clocks and prehistoric religion and temporal paradoxes, and the finale is deliriously baffling. But the complications are well explained (without dumbing down), and the ending's baffling nature makes it all the more exciting, making the series entertaining for kids and parents alike.
Astrophysicist Adam Brake (Gareth Thomas, best remembered for the title role in "Blake's 7") and his young son Matthew (Peter Demin) have moved to the remote village of Milbury to study the magnetic effects of an ancient stone circle. The stones surround the village, and does that play a part in the strange behavior of some of the townsfolk? Many of the villagers seem a bit... off, with an uneasy oddness behind their politeness, an unnerving manner behind their quaint greetings of "happy day."
When Matt's classmate Sandra (Katharine Levy) is introduced as not "a happy one," we quickly realize, as Matt does, she may be one to trust. Meanwhile, Adam befriends Sandra's mother, Margaret (Veronica Strong), curator of the local museum, herself a recent arrival to the town. Margaret tells Adam of the hypothesized existence of numerous psychic "ley lines" crossing through Milbury; could they have something to do with the stones' unusual magnetic forces?
Other questions arise: What mystical forces caused Matt to be drawn, one year earlier, to an old painting of a pagan ritual held at the Milbury circle? Why does Adam's new landlord, Mr. Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson) seem convinced Adam and Matt will remain in Milbury permanently? And what psychic forces overwhelm Adam when he touches one of the stones?
All of this unfolds in the first of the series' seven episodes. To reveal more would be to spoil many of the show's fabulous mysteries - mysteries which will leave you pondering an intricate web of "time circles" and "psychic bubbles." Penned by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, "Stones" excels on the script level, a fact which reveals itself strongest in retrospect, as we realize just how intricately the writers have crafted a backstory for the village and its stones, and just how tightly that history connects with the current events of the series. As the show deals with a history doomed to repeat itself, an inescapable loop of fate, it's fun to see how the characters line up with parallels in the Milbury's past.
"Stones" is also a terrific exercise in mood. Producer/director Peter Graham Scott wisely foregoes flashy visual tricks in favor of a steady, ominous pacing where the real terror lies in minute changes in those around you. Granted, the lack of effects footage is more a budgetary concern than a stylistic choice, but Scott makes this work to his advantage, forcing the tension to become more personal, more intimate. When key characters become "happy ones," their gentle smiles and innocent friendliness take on a deeper eeriness than any effects work could provide.
The series was shot partially on location at Avebury, the village that inspired the screenplay. (Much of Milbury's history is borrowed from Avebury's, including the legend of the "barber-surgeon of Avebury," who centuries ago was crushed by one of the massive stones; his remains play a clever role in the series' plot.) The series gets great mileage from the stones as props; not only does the location provide an instant realism, but the juxtaposition of the enigmatic stones with a peaceful village allows Scott to craft a mysterious vibe out of the commonplace - as the series rolls on, the sheer normalcy of the village is played to haunting effect, a quaint remote town turned into an insular, soulless, too-perfect place that the rare outsider has good reason to fear.
Assisting the chills further is Sidney Sager's haunting musical score, comprised mostly of wordless vocal grunts, howls, and faux-pagan chants. This music works its way into the story itself - the finale involves villagers circled together, united in the ritual of an almost unnatural chant-song.
All of this allows for a timeless quality that keeps the series fresh - and frightening (if in a kid-friendly way) - years later. It's rough, to be certain, in that charming way all older British series always are, and the script's habit of rehashing exposition is admittedly silly at times, but the overall effect remains. "Stones" is a brilliant work of sinister mood, aimed at children without talking down to them. Youths will thrill to the uncanny adventure, and their parents will delight in the story's complex ideas.
Long unavailable on Region 1 home video, "Children of the Stones" finally arrives in a one-disc edition from Acorn Media. The disc collects all seven of the series' twenty-five minute episodes, presented in order: "Into the Circle," "Circle of Fear," "Serpent in the Circle," "Narrowing the Circle," "Charmed Circle," "Squaring the Circle," and "Full Circle."
Video & Audio
While the uneven roughness of the series' look remains (dated video for indoor/studio shots, 16mm film for location shooting), as presented here, the show hasn't aged nearly as much as I would have expected. Considering the show never looked that great, what we get here is quite acceptable. Detail is fine throughout, despite the unavoidable grain, and colors come across nicely, only slightly muted, but not much beyond how they were upon original broadcast. Presented in the series' original 1.33:1 broadcast format.
The soundtrack is a simple Dolby mono affair, effectively capturing the original sound of the series. Dialogue is solid, and Sager's unforgettable music comes through splendidly. No subtitles are provided.
The disc boasts two recent interviews, one with Gareth Thomas (15:26; 1.33:1) and one with Peter Graham Scott (15:10; 1.33:1). Both have fond memories of the production and of Avebury - and both spin fun anecdotes of tourists fooled by fake stones whipped up by the production department.
A batch of text-only Production Notes and Series Trivia offers plenty of behind-the-scenes information.
A slideshow of production photos and promotional stills (2:07; 1.33:1) plays with the creepy theme song as accompaniment.
Previews for other Acorn releases play as the disc loads.
"Children of the Stones" is fantastic, in more ways than one. It's as suspenseful and as intelligent as ever, and those with fond memories will surely enjoy the chance to share it with their kids. Highly Recommended.