It sounds like a cross between Bullingdon Club themed #Posh and #The Riot Club and the Scottish referendum which has dominated the news for the last couple of weeks, seen perhaps through the eyes of young people encountering the realities of class and power.
In fact, Alan Garner’s award-winning novel was published in 1967. It was classed as a children’s book, in the days before Young Adult became a recognisable genre, but its complexity makes it difficult to categorise.
The Owl Service tells a story based on a legend from The Mabinogion, a collection of ancient Welsh stories. It’s a love triangle between Bloddeuwedd, a woman made of flowers, who is unfaithful to her husband and plots with her lover to kill him.
The plot backfires, and the husband kills the lover. He then punishes his wife by turning her into an owl, hated by other birds and condemned to hunt at night. So far, so fairy story, you might think.
But the links between the ancient tale and the contemporary situation unfold gradually and so spookily that you’re kept on the edge of your seat as you read. You are drawn into a strange and threatening world through a series of events and references which you know add up to something, but you’re not sure what.
- A set of dinner plates with a strange pattern – which disappears
- A crack which appears in the wall of the billiard room
- A painting of a woman made of flowers – which disappears
- The sound of a motor bike in the distance
- The smell of meadowsweet in the loft
- The smell of petrol
- A housekeeper lashing out with a poker
- A shot owl locked in a stable
- A gardener who talks like a poet and prophet
This could be a list of clues waiting to be solved by, say, Hercule Poirot, except that the explanation, when it emerges, defies rationality.
Tragedy repeats itself
The key to the mystery lies in the ancient tale, which releases its force on to successive generations, forcing them to re-enact the same tragic drama over again.
However, Poirot would be at home in the setting, the 1960s, a nice big house in an isolated Welsh valley, complete with handyman and housekeeper, billiard room and stables, the whole caboodle, which recalls the traditional country house of murder mysteries.
There’s a promising cast, too. Clive and his new wife Margaret, a widow, are there for the summer. (His former wife was a notorious floozy known as the Birmingham Belle while his present one is the never-seen ’eminence gris’ whose baleful influence permeates the novel.)
With them are Clive’s son Roger and Margaret’s daughter Alison. Alison actually owns the house, inheriting it from her father, who inherited it from his cousin, who died there when she was born – something to do with a motorbike…
Add the housekeeper’s son Gwyn, and you have three adolescents thrown together for the summer, the posh boy and the working-class lad, and the weak,vulnerable girl. What could possibly go wrong?
Resonant social themes
Nearly 50 years after The Owl Service was published, the social themes still resonate.
In the novel, the masters are English and the servants are Welsh. The English owners assume superiority over the house and estate workers. But Clive isn’t quite top-drawer, and Nancy the housekeeper, who might have been at the head of the table if her role had not been determined by mythical powers, knows how to test him. She gives him a knife and fork to eat his pear. ‘It takes a gentleman to eat a pear proper,’ she says, unwittingly channelling her namesake, Nancy Mitford.
And in answer to a comment about all the empty houses in the valley, Gwyn says, ‘Who’s going to rent to us when stuffed shirts from Birmingham pay eight quid a week so they can swank about their cottage in Wales?’ The specifics may have changed, but the spirit of the remark is instantly recognisable.
You can feel the tension between the youngsters. I think you root for Gwyn, the clever funny working-class boy, whose mother is proud that he goes to the grammar school but threatens to take him away when he sides with the English toffs against her. He is culturally confused. He champions the Welsh language, but accuses his mother of talking ‘like a Welsh nationalist’, and buys a recorded course in elocution to to help him improve the way he speaks. Gwyn identifies with his background and has an instinctive knowledge of his heritage, but is torn between conflicting desires. And of course, he can’t control his destiny. Curse that myth.
The Owl Service was televised in the UK by Granada Television in 1969. It was in the Sunday afternoon tea-time slot, where its powerful blend of ancient savagery and contemporary love and jealousy seems a strange accompaniment for Birds Eye trifle and fruit cake.
Alison was played by Gillian Hills, who looked seductive and gorgeous, reprising the aura of her earlier role in the 1960 film Beat Girl. In that film, she played a middle-class girl who slunk out at night to hang out in a Soho coffee bar, all tumbling hair and thick eyeliner. Her co-star Adam Faith sang about how she sat on the coffee bar stool looking like a stick of dynamite. As Gwyn and company would tell you, she just can’t help spelling trouble.