Teenage Alison Bradley (Gillian Hills) has recently lost her father, and her mother has remarried, so she has a new stepbrother, Roger (Francis Wallis), to get used to. The family go on holiday to Wales and the country house that was left to Alison by her parent, where there's not much to do but enjoy the countryside, so when she hears a scratching coming from the attic above her bedroom she is intrigued, and sends housekeeper's son Gwyn (Michael Holden) up to investigate. All he finds is a service of plates, which Alison realises features an owl pattern - but by bringing them down, they have unleashed a mysterious force...
The Owl Service was adapted by Alan Garner from his own novel for older children, one of many the esteemed writer penned over a long and distinguished career. The experience of making the series was not a happy one, however, and he wrote later of his nausea when shooting at the locations in Wales, actually being sick at some points; the fact that one of the cast was refusing to take the programme seriously was little help. After seeing a psychiatrist and working out his problems - to do with reliving his written fiction in a peculiar way - the end result was broadcast on Sunday nights over 1969 to 1970, and has haunted many of those who saw it at the time; as the background indicates this was a strange story.
Taking the lead was Hills, at that time coming to the end of the sixties and a successful career both acting and singing. Very popular in France, she was best known either for being the Beat Girl, or for taking part in the movies' first full frontal nudity with Jane Birkin in Blowup, but here she was playing a teenager again despite being in her mid-twenties at the time. Her Alison is a neatly sketched portrait of restless adolescence, obviously ready to branch out on her own but still with her family life reining in her independence, and a sexual tension develops between her, Roger and Gwyn that they begin to realise parallels with a Welsh legend of a similar love triangle that ended in death and tragedy.
Will the same thing happen to these three? And what precisely is going on anyway? You never get a straight answer to that, and the off-kilter, murky atmosphere is ironically one of the series' strengths: whereas many children's series make their plotlines as clear and easy to follow as possible, here it stuck in the memories down the years because of its very hard to pin down qualities. Indeed, many at the time and for a good while after considered the programme unsuitable for younger viewers, and its strange to think of a generation settling down in front of the television after Sunday lunch to be greeted by this confounding assault on the senses. We can tell that something is up, and even get an idea of what it is, yet most would be pushed to explain everything.
It was as if the fragile mental state of the author was translating onto the screen, as every character at some stage gets wound up into a state of hysteria, all the more unsettling because we cannot quite fathom what is up with them. A mixture of paper owls made from the design on the plates, a standing stone with a hole in it, a locked room, the fact we never see the mother though she is about, a couple of photographs that depict figures in the distance who were not there when taken - it all provides a mounting sense of dread without making any lucid points, as if the unearthly power of the countryside is sending the six inhabitants of the house round the bend. Not only that but the familiar British concerns with class inform much of the relationships, with Gwyn feeling inferior, and Roger the opposite, leaving Alison torn between them. After a while you rely on the spoken introductions for a guide, although the final episode, one of the weirdest ever broadcast on UK television (and curiously anticipating The Exorcist), edges close to baffling.