Broadcast on ITV during June and July 1976, it’s a little difficult to believe that The Feathered Serpent was a children’s series. Throw in a little gratuitous nudity and it wouldn’t have looked too dissimilar to the later prime-time serial The Cleopatras.
Set in Ancient Mexico, the early episodes of series one of The Feathered Serpent revolve around the power struggle between the Emperor Kukulkhan (Tony Steedman) and the High Priest Nasca (Patrick Troughton). Kukulkhan is a wise and enlightened man who’s grown tired of conquest and bloodshed. He knows that the more territories they conquer, the more difficult it will become to keep their subjugated peoples suppressed, which in turn will mean that more and more brutal methods of punishment and domination will have to be found. This doesn’t concern Nasca – he’s a man who revels in death and destruction and was instrumental in ensuring that Kukulkhan’s people turned away from worshipping Quala, a god of peace, in favour of Teshcata, a god who demands human sacrifice.
It should go without saying, but Troughton is mesmerising as Nasca. He can do eye-rolling villainy with the best of them, but he’s also capable of stillness and subtlety. The moment, early on here, when he plaintively asks Teshcata why he no longer speaks to him is one such example. And his realisation that his god will only be satisfied with blood – and royal blood at that – is chilling.
This initial episode covers a lot of ground. We meet Nasca and Kukulkhan and are quickly made aware that they have diametrically opposing views – basically offering a choice between darkness and light. Kukulkhan’s daughter, Princess Chimalma (Diane Keen) also enters the frame. If Troughton’s one reason for watching these two serials, then Keen is most certainly another. Although Chimalma has a certain doe-eyed beauty, she’s also a woman of spirit. Kukulkan is keen to marry her off to Prince Heumac (Brian Deacon) a member of a rival tribe who still worships the old, peaceful, god Quala.
Kukulkhan hopes that their union will not only help to bring peace between their two tribes but will also lead his people back to the worship of Quala. This begs one question – since Kukulkhan, even though he’s just and fair, has total autocratic power, why did he allow Nasca to replace Quala with Teshcata? Like Troughton and Keen, Tony Steedman offers an impressive performance, raising the studio roof with an powerful display of histrionics.
One person who’s far from happy with the news of Chimalma and Heumac’s intended nuptials is Mahoutec (Robert Gary). He’s the brave, if not particularly diplomatic, leader of Kukulkhan’s army. Mahoutec has always believed that he would marry Chimalma, so when Nasca gleefully tells him what Kukulkhan intends, it’s plain that sparks will fly.
Tozo (Richard Willis) is a young boy in the employ of Heumac. Outspoken and aggressive, it seems impossible for him to keep out of trouble. Tozo serves as the audience identification figure, being the one younger member of the cast.
Despite being studio-bound, it’s plain that a little more money than usual for a children’s series was thrown at The Feathered Serpent. The sets are substantial and impressive, although the harsh studio lighting – no doubt intended to simulate bright sunshine – does tend to give some scenes a rather theatrical, unreal air. Night-time sequences, when the lighting can be brought right down, are naturally much more atmospheric.
With lashings of make-up (and that’s just on the men) and some odd-looking costumes, on one level this is a series that looks faintly ridiculous. But the quality of the story and the core cast ensures that by the end of episode one most viewers should be firmly hooked.