In the 1970s, there wasn’t really anything akin to a blank check in British TV sci-fi and fantasy, but if there was, writer/producers Trevor Ray and Jeremy Burnham would likely have had one after scoring a success with their first project, Children Of The Stones, produced at regional broadcaster HTV West and aired nationwide by ITV. Based partly on the real lore behind a Neolithic stone circle in Avebury, Wiltshire, which also happened to be the primary filming location, Children Of The Stones was a masterpiece of mood. Even if its plot – which ended up involving a cult whose purpose was to focus the energy of a black hole upon the Earth, and a time loop that trapped everyone within the fictional village of Milbury – was a bit convoluted, the sheer atmosphere – helped along by possibly the creepiest TV theme tune ever – was palpable.
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What could Burnham & Ray possibly do to top that? They were already working on it at the time Children Of The Stones was going out over the air. The answer: England’s most legendary figure would return, as lore often said he would, at the country’s time of greatest need.
Raven, starring very young future EastEnders soap stars Phil Daniels and Shirley Cheriton, involved an attitudinal juvenile delinquent named Raven, sent to an archeological dig sit on a work-release program. The dig is in its final days, however, as the caves being studied by Raven’s host, Professor Young, will soon be evacuated to serve as a dumping ground for potentially hazardous nuclear waste.
Raven begins experiencing visions of a bird, and of himself – in robes and a crown – and is amused when Professor Young’s wife, herself a noted ornithologist, tells him that, judging by his descriptions, the bird he keeps imagining is known as a merlin. Can you see where this is going?
If not, the show’s six episodes waste little time in hammering it home. With six half-hours to tell its story, Raven has to be as subtle as a jackhammer at times with its Arthurian parallels. Worse yet, the show’s two writers can’t decide if Raven is going to rail against the destiny that seems to have been decided for him, or if he will embrace it and indeed become the reincarnated leader of legend, back from the dead to lead his country away from an ecological disaster in the making. There’s little consistency to the character – one moment he’s rallying followers who truly believe he is Arthur reborn, and the next he’s complaining about the role to which everyone nearby seems to be assigning him.
By the end of watching Network’s meticulously restored DVD* of the series, I couldn’t decide if Raven needed six more episodes to play out its story…or if it didn’t quite have enough story to fill the six episodes it had. Sadly, there’s no bonus documentary covering the show’s genesis and execution – and this is a show that really could’ve used some explanatory material along those lines.
Like Children Of The Stones, Raven is a triumph of style over substance, but there’s not quite enough style to disguise the plot holes and seemingly random character evolution. As a rule, if a show needs a commentary track or a documentary to explain itself, the scripts probably needed more time to cook.
That may be why even American kids remember Children Of The Stones and not Raven – the former show was selected as one of the UK imports that aired on cable in the U.S. as part of Nickelodeon’s “Third Eye” programming block, which also included such classics as The Tomorrow People. Raven wasn’t so lucky. Maybe its Arthurian mythology made it “too British” to make the jump across the Atlantic (though, let’s be fair, that’s never stopped any other attempt to play with or modernize the Arthurian myth), or maybe it confused even the people selecting programming at early Nickelodeon.
Raven is fondly remembered by those who saw it air in late 1977, though it’s definitely an obscure minor footnote in the pantheon of British sci-fi and fantasy series – a fleeting, momentary memory. Like a bird.
Network’s Raven DVD release is only available as a Region 2 / PAL release.