Les Anderson reviews this 1970s children’s fantasy drama series also created by Doctor Who stalwarts Bob Baker and Dave Martin…
Following the success of Sky in 1975, HTV producer Patrick Dromgoole and writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin followed this up in 1976 with King of the Castle a new children’s fantasy serial. Unlike Sky which is a straightforward Clarke-esque sci-fi story with 70s mystical trappings, King of the Castle is pure fantasy. It uses one of the oldest archetypal story formats in Western culture – a young protagonist is removed from their everyday life and has to undergo a series of trials in an exotic setting before returning to their daily existence. This format can be found in some of the oldest narratives known to us – eg The Odyssey, Theseus and Jason in Classical times through Medieval quest tales to Victorian times with perhaps the greatest example of all Alice in Wonderland. The format still pops up regularly in modern times – Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes being a particularly apt contemporary example. And elements of all these stories (except for the last two, of course) pop up in King of the Castle.
However the text which strikes me as being the most influential on this show is the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz. In both we have an adolescent protagonist on the verge of adulthood who retreats from the difficulties of humdrum daily life by means of a traumatic event into a fantasy world populated by surreal and exaggerated representations of the people from their daily life. The hero/ine’s over-riding desire is to return home and to achieve this must acquire certain objects by means of a journey through an exotic realm while overcoming various trials and temptations. Ultimately the protagonist achieves their goal, the accomplishment of which was considerably easier than expected. Thus the journey itself becomes significant and represents the process of maturing into adulthood which allows the hero/ine to understand better their lives in the real world and to take responsibility for them. But in King of the Castle the protagonist is a boy who doesn’t wear gingham and doesn’t have a dog. And doesn’t wear sparkly red shoes. But he does sing. And I’m sure you get the drift.
In this serial the protagonist is Roland (and the choice of name is not random), a teenage chorister who has reluctantly taken up a scholarship place in a rather creepy choir school run by a flamboyantly-coiffed and superciliously critical Fulton Mackay. To afford this Roland’s rock-musician father (a Frank Zappa lookalike) and mousy stepmother (Angela Richards) have moved into the top floor of a slightly rundown tower block. On his way home he discovers via the seedy caretaker Mr Vine (Talfryn Thomas) that the lift is broken and he has a run-in with the gang of kids who claim the stairs as their territory and extort anyone who dares to pass them. Later in the evening he has another confrontation with the gang and ends up taking shelter in the out-of-order lift cabin. The doors promptly close and the lift plummets down to basement level. When he forces the doors open he finds himself in a spooky underground labyrinth where he is greeted by the vampire-like castellan Vein (Talfryn Thomas again). Thus endeth the first episode.
The remaining six episodes follow Roland through the surreal underground world of The Castle, trying to find his way out. Guided by Vein, he encounters various scenarios populated by people he knows but in strange and often hostile incarnations. He undergoes various trials and faces occasional temptations and grows from a timid boy to a confident young man as he progresses. Meanwhile, in the real world, rescue attempts by the lift engineers, police and caretaker continue apace. I think it best not to describe Roland’s adventures in any detail because one of the great pleasures I derived from this show, not having seen it before, was wondering just what was going to happen in each succeeding episode. Each one takes place in a different setting with different characters and each challenge is quite different to the one before.
Of the cast, Philip Da Costa delivers a fairly limited performance as Roland. The character as written is tenacious, daring and resourceful. However his open face and one-note delivery do confer an air of innocence and simplicity to him that works effectively against the more broadly-drawn performances of other cast members. Chief amongst which is Fulton Mackay as both the flamboyant Spurgeon, head of the choir school, and the Frankenstein-like mad scientist Hawkspur. He chews the scenery quite magnificently while tossing around his mane of silver hair. But the one performance that stands out from every other, for me, is Talfryn Thomas as Vein – the castellan and general factotum. Thomas was a stalwart of British television in the 60s and 70s. Instantly recognisable with his Ken Dodd teeth and strong Welsh accent, he was usually cast as seedy tramps or sinister sidekicks. He is probably best remembered by genre fans as the unfortunate Tom Price in Terry Nation’s Survivors. In King of the Castle he delivers a performance of great range and skill and enlivens every scene he is in.
Although recorded in 1976, the serial wasn’t aired until Spring 1977 because, according to various sources, ITV felt the content was a bit too scary to be transmitted in the normal weekday slot. There are moments which, nowadays, would be considered excessively perilous or graphically violent in which to depict a child and this is reflected in the disc’s ‘12’ certificate in the UK.
The serial consists of seven 25-minute episodes. Each episode is split into six chapters which are not menu-accessible. The picture quality is consistent with other Network releases from this period. There is no obvious damage and the image is clear and stable. Episode three no longer exists in the studio archive so has been taken from an off-air VHS recording. As you would imagine, picture and sound quality are noticeably inferior to the other episodes but are watchable enough once the eye adjusts. As was standard practice at the time, the episodes were shot on a mixture of grainy 16mm film on location and video in the studio. What is quite unusual, and is something I haven’t seen on any other archive releases, is the way the different aesthetics and filming practices of film and video were used for stylistic purposes. All of the ‘real-life’ scenes are shot on film on location whereas all of the fantasy scenes are shot in the studio on video.
For the first episode, shot almost entirely on film, director Peter Hammond opts to use an exaggerated style with deep-focus compositions and canted framings coupled with fashionably spooky music and heightened performances to achieve an unsettling effect. In fact, if it weren’t for the teenage protagonist, the first episode could pass for an instalment of an adult supernatural thriller. For the second episode, set mostly in Hawkspur’s laboratory, he opts for various video effects that would not have been unfamiliar to viewers of Top of the Pops at the time but which are quite unsettlingly spooky, particularly coupled with the level of physical peril Roland experiences. Unfortunately, Hammond’s participation ends at this point and the remaining five episodes, directed by Terry Harding and Leonard White, display much less stylistic flair and rely more upon the script and performances for their effects. Having said that, there is an extended fight sequence that climaxes episode five which is lit entirely by strobe light – Be Warned.
Just the usual mono soundtrack which is clear enough, except for episode three which is quite muffled, as already mentioned. I should also point out that in episode four the background sound is so loud on occasion that some of the dialogue is not very clear so, without subtitles, you’ll just have to listen harder.
None at all
A forgotten gem. This serial is a cut above most others of the time and is certainly far above most of the effects-laden dross pouring out of our screens that passes for children’s fantasy entertainment nowadays. Baker and Martin have taken one of the oldest plots known to humanity and employed a palette of sophisticated cultural references (Vein even quotes a line from Browning’s Childe Roland!) to weave a captivating tale of one young man’s transition to adulthood. The quality of scripting and performance is such that most scenes could easily have been lifted from an adult drama of the period. I loved it.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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