Combining ancient mythology with modern science fiction, adding elements of Village of the Damned, Quatermass, and a fascination with stone circles that had prompted previous films and television shows such as Night of the Demon (1957), The Owl Service (1969), Escape Into Night (1972), The Wicker Man (1973), Sky (1975) and, later still, the Doctor Who story The Stones of Blood (1978), and the dark comedy Sightseers (2012), Children of the Stones, a tense psychological drama where the horror is always implied but never shown, is regarded as one of the creepiest and most unnerving children's show ever made. SFX magazine rates it as one of the scariest stories in the history of television. When originally broadcast some critics thought it had overstepped the mark for a teatime serial.
The serial's creators were Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, both actors and screenwriters. Burnham had appeared in many popular TV series such as The Saint, Danger Man, The Avengers and The Persuaders, usually cast as a villain. It was, whilst working on The Avengers that he told Patrick Manee that he'd like to try his hand at writing a script for the series. At Mcnee's suggestion he went to see Brian Clemens, the producer, who happened to be looking for writers. Brian liked the story idea Burnham mentioned and commissioned the script. This, too, met with his approval, which led to a two-year contract to write for the show.
Trevor Ray had begun working as script editor Terrance Dicks' assistant on Doctor Who in 1969 before joining former 'Who' producers Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin to work on another BBC series, Paul Temple. It was on this series that he met Burnham and the two writers became friends, often meeting up in North London (where they both lived) to throw around ideas. One of the inspirations for Children of the Stones came from a book called The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins, a book on Ley Lines which investigates the possibilities on whether they are the legacy of a prehistoric scientific knowledge which is now all but lost, and whether or not their purpose was secular or religious.
Having fleshed out the idea for the story and obtained a commission from HTV, the writers began looking for suitable locations and visited Avebury in Wiltshire where there is a Neolithic henge monument containing three stone circles. One of the best known prehistoric sites in Britain, it contains the largest megalithic stone circle in the world. Burnham later said that the two of them visited Avebury before they'd even started writing, "-and seeing a large crow alighting on the back of a ram, after which both of them remained motionless. We knew then that this was the sort of place where strange things happen."
The story begins when widower Adam Brake (Gareth Thomas – Blake’s 7), an astrophysicist, and his son Matthew (Peter Demin) arrive in the quiet village of Milbury to study its ancient stone circle and to make a fresh start by settling into the local community. The village has an odd feel about it, but they pass it off as just the eerie presence of the many megaliths that Adam has come to investigate. Matthew (Matt) begins school where he meets and befriends Margaret (Veronica Strong – Virgin of the Secret Service), curator of Milbury's Museum. Margaret invites Adam to touch one of the stones and receives a shock and falls unconscious. Matt receives a warning from a stranger man, Dai (Freddie Jones - Emmerdale) about the circle of stones but he laughs it off. That night the villagers gather outside and begin to sing an incantation. Matt finds himself in the circle of townspeople which leads him and his father to ask questions of their new friends and soon afterwards he notices radical changes in behaviour in some of his acquaintances who became part of the 'Happy Day' group.
It transpires that the village within the stone circle exists in a time rift in which actions of the past are played over and over again. The end result would be that the power of the circle will be unleashed on the outside world, but each time it is 'faulted' it resets time, and the same events unfold again. It reset in the 1970s when astronomer Rafael Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson - Budgie) uncovered an ancient Latin test about a Druid priest and discovered the location of a supernova that became a black hole. Hendrick tracked the location to Milbury and learned to harness the energy, a light beam, in order to 'brainwash' the villagers into becoming what he called "Happy Ones", their zombie like happiness being nothing more than psychic enslavement.
Adam and Matt work out what is going on and fool Hendrick into being blasted by the light beam. When this happens, the villagers are turned to stone. The following morning everything has been returned to normal. Villagers that had perished are now living their normal lives as if nothing had happened. Wondering if the Time Circle has reset and the events they have recently witnessed will happen again, Adam and Matthew decide to leave Milbury. As they are driving out of the village a man with an uncanny likeness to Hendrick is driving in the opposite direction. He drives to Hendrick's old house where he introduces himself as Sir Joshua Litton who has come to Milbury from London. He comments on what a nice place Milbury will be to retire to and says that he will be very happy there.
Children of the Stones begins at a gentle pace but quickly builds up the intrigue. It also never spoke down to its audience. "It may have been a children's story," said producer/director Peter Graham Scott when interviewed for TV Zone magazine in 1995, "but it was about something beyond our conception, an idea that in a way we are ruled not only by the stars, but by these stones erected by people in Neolithic times. There was some reason behind it, like the reason behind the pyramids."
The series was filmed during the record-breaking heatwave summer of 1976. "It was wonderful to be shooting that year." Said Scott. "We could pick a moment when the sun would be shafting past a stone and give us a peculiar brilliant light." Despite having ready-made 'props' to film, Scott added some extra polystyrene stones to make some scenes look more dramatic. "That led to a Dutch lady tourist, who didn't speak any English, being asked by an assistant director to move please because she was in a shot. She didn't understand, he waved her away, she bounced against one of the stones and it fell over. She nearly had a heart attack!"
Another aspect of the series which is very well remembered is the startlingly eerie and atmospheric theme tune. "That came about because I was listening to the car radio and some music came on by the Polish composer Penderecki, a theme for voices without words. I argued that we didn't know what Neolithic language was, but they must have somehow communicated or else how else could they have put up the stones? I wanted to create a sound like a work song, where they're heaving away. Sidney Sager (the composer) obtained the Penderecki and heard exactly what I wanted. We booked the Ambrosian singers who really went into the spirit of it. The notes they echoed really sounded quite chilling."
Published on March 7th, 2022. Written by Malcolm Alexander for Television Heaven.