The Feathered Serpent Review
One of the most striking features of the so-called Golden Age of British TV drama (the 60s and 70s) is the, at times, breathtaking scope of many of the series offered up to the great viewing public. Unconstrained by modern requirements such as cinematic aesthetics, location shooting, ethnically-correct casting and historical verisimilitude, scriptwriters and directors were happy to explore the most exotic and ambitious settings and storylines they could come up with – look at early Doctor Who or the numerous 26-hour adaptations of epic Victorian novels. Within the studio-bound theatrical aesthetic of the time, anything went. This was also the time when much children’s drama had a depth sorely lacking in many of today’s efforts. It’s quite easy to imagine the reaction today if someone were to pitch the basic idea of The Feathered Serpent - ‘I’d like to do a six-episode drama for children about political intrigue and religious factions in a royal court in which the Emperor plans to introduce a new era of peace by marrying his daughter to the leader of a rival kingdom who worship the benign old gods. This is opposed by an ambitious and ruthless high priest who stops at nothing to keep the newer bloodthirsty gods (and himself) in control of the people. And it’ll be set in Aztec-era Mexico.’ Hmmm.
Well it didn’t stop John Kane (the writer) and Vic Hughes (the producer and director) in 1976 and the result ran to two series, became one of the most fondly-remembered children’s dramas of the time and has been on many people’s DVD wishlist for some time. Thanks to Network DVD it is now available to watch again. So how does it stand up to modern scrutiny?
The first season was transmitted weekly on ITV in June and July 1976. It comprised six 25-minute episodes and told the story as laid out above set against the backdrop of a transitional period in 11th Century Aztec Mexico when the older benign gods were being supplanted by the newer bloodthirsty gods who demanded human sacrifice and plenty of it. The Emperor Kukulkhan (played by an impressively regal Tony Steedman) is growing weary of conquest and the blood sacrifices demanded by the high priest Nasca (Patrick Troughton) to appease his god Tescala. He decides to marry his beautiful young daughter Chimalma (Diane Keen) to Prince Heumac (Brian Deacon) of the neighbouring Toltec state (who worship the old benign god Quala) in an attempt to re-introduce the old ways and end the human sacrifices. The power-hungry Nasca, who stands to lose his position of influence, stops at nothing (including regicide) to prevent this marriage and remove Heumac and his Toltec army from the scene. Fortunately, and after much conniving, his plans are foiled by Heumac’s loyal teenage servant Tozo (Richard Willis).
The court of Emperor Kukulkhan
It has to be said that the Aztec setting really is just used as exotic background colour. There is little historically-specific content and the same story of sectarian conflict and corrupt priests could be played out with little change in, say, a 16th Century European court during the Reformation. The cast is made up of English character actors plastered in fake tan and wearing glossy black wigs and too much eye make-up. The action is confined to a few studio sets which represent the royal chambers and the temple of Tescala, decorated with Aztec-style glyphs and frescoes. The plot relies heavily on the use of such hoary old devices as secret passages and coded maps, the staple of Blytonesque children’s thrillers since the 1930s. The script is Shakespearean in aspiration and delivered in that elevated theatrical tone so loved of period TV drama at the time. The costumes are suitably elaborate but liberal use of gold spray-paint does result in many of the larger items such as head-dresses and breastplates looking like leftovers from a Blue Peter ‘make’.
And yet, despite all this, the series is genuinely gripping drama, largely due to superbly-cast principals and, in particular, a masterly performance of genuine villainy by Patrick Troughton as the evil, ambitious high priest Nasca. Although on paper a black-hat villain, Troughton breathes life into him as a duplicitous, wheedling, ruthless manipulator and his performance is at the very core of this series. Also of note is Diane Keen’s contribution as the Princess, later Empress Chimalma. The character is no silly teenager – Keen was 29 at the time of recording which would certainly prevent her from being cast in a similar role nowadays. She is at once beautiful and regal, is the only woman in the cast and could have been used as mere decoration but as the plot progresses, she rises to its demands and delivers a performance every bit as subtle and commanding as Troughton’s. While wearing even more make-up than he does which is quite something.
Nasca does a bit of eavesdropping.
As you would expect, in comparison with today’s breathlessly-paced children’s dramas, the pacing is languorous and talky but, as mentioned in other reviews, this allows the actors to build tension by delivering a performance rather than having to rely on lickety-split editing to provide the drama. The confrontation scene at the end of episode five is superbly played and the episode cliffhanger would have had me on the edge of my seat impatient for the week to pass to see the resolution. One other significant element, frequently mentioned by fans, is the music by David Fanshawe, a prolific TV and classical composer of the time. The opening credits with the blaring fanfares and discordant voices set a tone of unease which carries on throughout the episodes with incidental ‘ethnic’ music in a similar vein.
The subject matter of political and religious intrigue would never make it past the script stage these days as most modern children’s fantasy or historical drama seems to concern itself almost entirely with family (watch The Sarah Jane Adventures) or peer group relationships. Indeed the only concession made by The Feathered Serpent to its target audience (apart from the use of Blytonesque plot devices) is the inclusion of a teenage character, Tozo, who ultimately saves the day. Just for trivia fans, imdb’s listing for Richard Willis who plays Tozo and was nineteen at the time says he was briefly married to Kate O’Mara (18 years his senior) in the 90s...
The second series of (again) six 25-minute episodes with the same principal cast did not air until two years after the original but the drama begins just moments after the end of the first series. The characters did find time though, in those intervening moments, to acquire new wardrobes and in Tozo’s case grow noticeably older. Several new characters are introduced including two new villains who aid Nasty Nasca. These are the Lord Xipec (Granville Saxton) a Noel Fielding lookalike with a hypnotically mellifluous voice and a neat line in suave villainy, and his sidekick Keelag (Sheila Burrell) a gurning old hag of a witch who resurrects Nasca from the dead during episode one. Yup, unlike series one which was a fairly straightforward political thriller, series two is a revenge melodrama with an overt supernatural theme. And, it has to be said, a more violent, horrific tone.
I am Sunflash!
The plotting is more diffuse than in the first series which results in some seemingly-irrelevant diversions such as Prince Heumac’s Crystal Maze-type trials of courage and ingenuity in episode two. While dressed in just a pair of white bikini briefs. There is also a good deal more (fake-tanned) skin on show this time round. A near-naked Tozo is flogged and then staked-out to die in the sun by an enjoying-it-all-a- bit-too-much Xipec. And now Chimalma is Empress, she decides to flash a lot more cleavage and midriff than before. Having said that, the wardrobe (such as it is) is now of a significantly higher standard than season one with most of the spray-painted cardboard collars and aprons replaced by more expensive padded gold lame. Unfortunately all these elements combine to contribute a rather camp feel to the series which was absent (thankfully) from series one.
They got a good deal on that gold fabric at the market...
The less tightly-focussed plot and the extra characters do make series two more of a mixed bag than series one. The overt supernatural elements don’t really grate but, in comparison to season one’s more practical thriller approach, they seem superfluous affectations. However, Granville Saxton’s moustache-twirling (if he had any to twirl) Xipec is a most enjoyable villain but he does take attention away from Patrick Troughton who is less commanding within the plot than before but still every bit as compelling. The direction (by Vic Hughes who produced and directed season one, and Stan Woodward) uses the series one sets more imaginatively than before with some striking new set-pieces.
In terms of picture quality series two looks better than series one. Neither seem to have been treated to any kind of image restoration, nor do they need to be, but series two has a noticeably sharper, brighter image. This may be just down to the significant gap of two years between production and the use of more modern recording equipment in 1978? Because of series one’s slightly inferior image quality, there are a couple of moments in dimly-lit scenes where, due to digital data compression, faces appear to become detached from their surroundings and float free for a second. This is one of the biggest dangers when transferring these old analogue sources to DVD and, for example, is particularly bad in the night-time scenes on the BBC’s transfer of its old The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - which is a lesson on how not to do it. However such moments are extremely rare and don’t occur at all in series two with its better quality images. The titles and credit backgrounds, derived from film stock, appear marked and dirty and, for series two, noticeably scratched. But the studio video footage is practically damage-free, apart from a few little tape drop-outs at one point in season one and the obligatory camera burn-in caused by the various naked flames on view. One plus point is the complete absence in both series of location footage on 16mm film which gives the drama a consistent visual look across the board.
Each series, approx 150 minutes in total, has a whole disc to itself with attractive menu screens but no subtitles are provided.
Strictly mono on both discs but clear and audible. These old actors know how to enunciate and this is long before the days of swooping sound effects and crashing symphony orchestras were added to the mix. There are some unobtrusive ambient sound effects and the incidental music is spare and effective.
This release is almost as bare-bones as you could get. There is a short gallery on disc one of production and publicity stills which runs for 1m 37s. And that’s it – no commentaries or interviews which is disappointing considering that, with the exception of Troughton, most of the principal cast are still around and working (Diane Keen can be seen in BBC One’s afternoon series The Doctors). This is such a contrast to Network’s treatment of Ace of Wands last year which was a fan’s wet dream with its exhaustive booklet, commentaries and documentaries including interviews with the entire principal cast. However we should still be glad it’s available to enjoy once more.
If, like me, you have fond memories of the original transmissions, then it is certainly worthwhile getting this set but don’t go expecting anything in the way of extras. At an RRP of £19.99 it’s overpriced, certainly in comparison with other sets such as Ace of Wands as already mentioned. But it is a nostalgia blast. If you’re a younger connoisseur of cult kids’ telly from the past then give it a go, you won’t be disappointed but wait until the price comes down a bit. And finally... just when are the BBC going to get round to releasing those Colin Cant series from the same period in the 70s like Striker and Out of Bounds?
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