You thought those kids from the corn were creepy? Just the theme music from this delightfully creepy U.K. kids’ show will give you the screaming heebie-jeebies.
In the 1970s, Harlech Television (HTV), a regional broadcaster serving Wales and England’s West Country, turned out a run of sci-fi and fantasy series for kids that are fondly remembered by those who saw them at that age. These shows also seemed to be trying to reset the registers of how creepy a show made for kids could be. One fine exhibit in that category is the short-lived 1977 series Children Of The Stones.
Created by writers Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray (who later collaborated on another HTV series, Raven), Children Of The Stones follows recently widowed astrophysicist Adam Brake and his son Matthew as they move into the quaint (and fictional) village of Millbury, home to a neolithic stone circle…and, of course, some terrible secrets. When Matthew buys, and subsequently obsesses over, a painting of some kind of cataclysmic ritual taking place in the stone circle, he also begins momentarily seeing some of his neighbors as free-standing stones even away from the circle. When Adam touches one of the stones in the circle, he experiences a vision of what may be the same ritual in the painting…except that he sees the townsfolk, including his own son, screaming. Is the painting a depiction of events in the past…or Millbury’s future?
What follows, over the seven episodes of the series, is a trip into an increasingly unsettling series of secrets about Millbury. Only two men, village leader Hendrick and the homeless Dai, seem to know all of those secrets. Hendrick isn’t talking; Dai can’t stop talking, but can’t get anyone to heed his warnings seriously – until he befriends Matthew. But from the moment it seems that Dai has finally found someone who will listen, it seems his life is in danger. The townsfolk, who respond to every turn of events with the Stepford-ish cheerfulness of cult members, seem to be unaware that anything’s amiss…or are they? By the end of the last episode, we’re left to question whether time is passing at the same rate outside of Millbury as within it…and we’re not even sure it’s possible for anyone to escape the village at all.
Children Of The Stones boasts a stellar cast. The late Welsh actor Gareth Thomas (of Blake’s 7 and Star Maidens fame) plays Adam Brake with powerful conviction, determined to get to the heart of the mystery, and even more determined to prevent his son from coming to any harm. His verbal sparring partner for the entire series is Iain Cuthbertson, fresh off of a four-year run in the starring role of the BBC legal drama Sutherland’s Law, playing Hendrick with disturbing zeal. If Millbury seems suspiciously cultish, Hendrick is undoubtedly the leader of that cult. Special mention also has to be made of Freddie Jones as Dai; he would go on to roles in The Elephant Man, Krull, David Lynch’s Dune, and Firefox, among others. His haunted portrayal of Dai really lends weight to the feeling that the unusually knowledgeable “town bum” is living on borrowed time.
With outdoor scenes shot on location near (and in) the very real neolithic stone circle in Avebury, the feel of the series is designed – successfully, it should be pointed out – to make your hair stand on end. (Avebury’s stone circle – which isn’t terribly far from Stonehenge, by the way – has since received protected historic site status, meaning there’s no way anything similar to Children Of The Stones could be filmed there today.) Elements of the mythology revealed by Dai, such as the Barber Surgeon stone, are actually real…though the show’s writers take off running in a much more fantasy-oriented direction from that local history.
Also deeply unsettling, whether you’re a kid or not, is the show’s opening theme music. When seen with the opening credits’ series of unnerving camera angles on the stone circle, the entirely choral composition (written by Sidney Sager and performed by the Ambrosian Singers) culminates in a shrieking exclamation point that’s not easy to forget.
Were Burnham and Ray trying to educate young viewers in local folklore? Just trying to entertain them? Or trying to scare the pants off of them?
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things – even American audiences got a taste of Children Of The Stones, thanks to its inclusion in an early Nickelodeon sci-fi/supernatural programming block called The Third Eye. Children Of The Stones was featured prominently alongside other U.K. imports like The Tomorrow People and a later HTV-produced stablemate, Into The Labyrinth, as well as the New Zealand-produced fantasy series Under The Mountain. That theme music has probably scared the pants off of kids around the world.
Maybe you were one of them. You’ll be relieved to know that the entire series is still available on DVD – happy day, a return visit to Millbury is only a shiny round thing away. It’s time to check in on the Brakes to see if they ever escaped…or if they’re still there.