The 1980’s saw a number of well remembered BBC children’s telefantasy adaptations of which The Children of Green Knowe, originally broadcast during November/December 1986, is a prime example.
It bears some superficial resemblance to The Box of Delights (1984). Both have a roughly 1950’s setting and feature as its central character a young boy who’s leaving school for the Christmas holidays. On the production side, Paul Stone – producer of Box – would act as executive producer on Green Knowe, whilst the incidental music was again provided by a stalwart of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Roger Limb on Box, Peter Howell on Green Knowe).
But although they’re both very much fantasy stories, the tone of Green Knowe is quite different to Box. Box has an air of threat and menace whilst Green Knowe, even though strange things happen, tends to exude an atmosphere of warmth and security.
The Children of Green Knowe was the first of six interconnected novels written by Lucy M. Boston which were published between 1954 and 1976. John Stadelman adapted the book into four episodes, each with a duration of between twenty five and thirty minutes.
Episode one opens with the rather strangely named Toseland (Alec Christie) alone at his boarding school. Everyone else has gone home for the holidays, but with his parents in Burma it seems inevitable he’ll have to stay within the confines of the school. But out of the blue he receives a message to say that his great-grandmother Mrs Oldknow (Daphne Oxenford) has just learnt that he’s in the country and invites him to stay at her estate, known as Green Knowe.
Toseland doesn’t look terribly keen when he’s given this news, but things look up when he eventually gets there. It’s something of a trek though – floodwaters have made it almost impossible to reach and he fears he might have to swim across to the imposing castle-like structure, before the faithful servant Boggis (George Malpas) turns up with a boat (the rain machine was clearly working overtime during those scenes).
Mrs Oldknow, who tells the boy she’ll call him Tolly, explains about the history of Green Knowe. Their family have lived there for generations and it becomes clear from very early on that the spirits of their ancestors are still with them. Tolly is intrigued by a painting which shows three children who lived during the reign of Charles the Second – Toby, Alexander and Linnet.
The serial is content to take its time. Episode one sets up the location and the basic premise, but although it seems clear that Toby (Graham McGrath), Alexander (James Trevelyan) and Linnet (Polly Maberly) will manifest themselves, they haven’t done so by the time the episode draws to a close. Tolly hears the children playing at the start of episode two, but can’t see them. Later, Mrs Oldknow asks him to “make up a great blaze, Tolly. And I’ll tell you a story.”
Her story concerns the time young Linnet fell ill and Toby (on his trusty steed Feste) set off into the dark and stormy night to get help. Once again the rain machine is pressed into service and this, together with the night recording, flashes of lightning and sound effects all helps to create the appropriate atmosphere. Later stories include when Alexander sang before the King and the time Linnet wasn’t able to join the others at Midnight Mass.
Tolly continues to be frustrated that the children won’t play with him. We catch a brief glimpse of them at the end of the second episode and again at the start of the third. When he explains this to his great-grandmother she’s not surprised and tells him that “they’re like shy animals. They don’t come just at first till they’re sure.” That she’s fully aware of what’s happening is interesting – it removes a layer of drama (you’d normally expect only the boy to be able to see and hear them) but it works in the context of the story. This may be a ghost story, but they’re ghosts of a very benign nature.
A slightly more discordant note is struck in episode four with the tale of the Green Nowe – a demon tree that’s brought tragedy to the Oldknow family over the generations. And because by then Tolly has been able to hold a brief conversation with the children, who have gradually begun to accept him, this means they’re on hand to help when the demon tree strikes (which probably looks as effective as it sounds – luckily it’s only a brief scene).
With a fairly small cast, Alec Christie has to carry a fair amount of the serial on his shoulders, but he acquits himself well and gives young Tolly an innocent and open nature. The other children are less developed, but that’s understandable since their screen time is rather limited. Daphne Oxenford (a regular during the early days of Coronation Street amongst many other credits) casts a reassuring presence as Mrs Oldknow.
The Children of Green Knowe, like other productions of this era, was shot entirely on videotape. Given the large number of video effects used on The Box of Delights it was understandable why that was an all-VT production, but since Green Knowe was very light on effects it’s a pity it wasn’t made on film.
It’s a strange sort of story – lacking any genuine threat (I can’t count the tree) or mystery it succeeds by creating an aura of warmth and Christmas cheer. But although very little actually happens it’s still a comforting watch, which I’m sure would work even better at Christmas time. For those who have memories of watching it nearly thirty years ago it probably won’t disappoint and since it’s a solid enough production there’s every likelihood it could enchant a new generation.
The Children of Green Knowe is released by Simply Media on the 28th of March 2016. RRP £19.99.