The Owl Service (1969) – Review
By Sarah Morgan
Who could ever have imagined that a story that starts with the discovery of a dinner service could become one of the most revered children’s stories of all time?
And if you suggested to a youngster that they should read a book where that happens, they’d probably laugh in your face. After all, it’s rather, well, inauspicious to say the least.
Nevertheless, the novel The Owl Service has been bewitching teenagers and young adults since it was first published back in 1967. It won both a Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for its author, Alan Garner, whose work brings ancient folklore into the modern age.
Garner has been in the literary news more recently following the appearance of his most recent book, Treacle Walker, on the shortlist for the 2022 Booker Prize; now 87 he is the oldest writer to make it onto the list.
The nomination has sparked a renewed interest in his work, so now is perhaps an ideal time to watch the much-lauded Granada TV adaptation of The Owl Service, which originally aired in 1969, not long after the novel’s publication.
Partly inspired by the story of mythical Welsh woman Blodeuwedd, it stars Michael Holden, Francis Wallis and Gillian Hills as teenagers Gwyn, Roger and Alison, respectively. Their paths cross when step-siblings Roger and Alison (his father has recently married her mother) embark on a family holiday in a remote manor house where Gwyn’s unhinged mother Nancy is the housekeeper.
It transpires that Nancy has a long history with the property, and is hiding secrets about the place which are also tied to her son’s origins. But it’s Gwyn’s discovery of the dinner service that sets in motion a disturbing series of events.
Alison seemingly becomes bewitched by it and the legends that haunt the area around the manor house. She and Gwyn are fatefully drawn together, a situation that drives a jealous Roger to distraction.
Local man Huw believes the trio are re-enacting an old myth, just as he, Nancy and Bertram, the former owner of the estate, did before them. Matters come to a head during a devastating storm, during which the fight for a now possessed Alison’s soul takes place.
During its original broadcast, a critic writing for The Observer described The Owl Service as “far more than an ordinary children’s story,” and they were right.
There’s certainly no attempt to speak down to youngsters (although Granada did insist on putting recaps at the start of each episode in an attempt to make sure everyone could follow the complex and ambiguous story), while some of the themes are very disturbing, particularly the feelings shared between the adolescents – as the actors were far older than the characters they were playing, there’s an added sexual tension to some scenes.
Whether today’s teens would appreciate it remains to be seen, but for lovers of the strange and otherworldly, there is much to be admired.