Reflections on Children's TV Inspired by The Feathered Serpent
'Starring Diane Keen and Patrick Troughton, The Feathered Serpent is a story of murder, intrigue and political manoeuvring set amid the splendour and turmoil of ancient Mexico. This release comprises every episode of the children's drama series from Thames Television, memorable for its spectacular sets and lavish costumes, originally transmitted between 1976 and 1978.'
Watching this show has caused me to reflect rather waspishly on vintage children's TV, and particularly the few children's shows that I have written about here. These shows are so few because I have found that TV shows I remember from my actual childhood rarely stand up to the rosy memories I have of them: mym memories of shows from my adolescence onwards are much more accurate and so are less likely to be disappointing.
I find, though, that I am now wary of giving children's TV shows a viewing, because so many of them have been greatly disappointing. These shows have the dual challenges of being entertaining something like forty years after they were made, and being intended to be entertaining to children or young people at the time they were made, despite being made by adults. It is no wonder that that children's TV can be so disappointing at this length of time. In fact, Freewheelers (and now The Feathered Serpent) are the only TV shows made for children which I do not remember from my childhood and yet have written about here.
I have a feeling that the problem with children's TV is that it isn't really intended to entertain children, as such, but can have several other agendas. Surely every reader of this blog will remember how Doctor Who started off as an educational show? And that, for me is the problem with children's television. I think middle class parents still do this, but I can remember children of my generation being given boxy, cheaply-produced sets of classic books to read. Well, some children may have read them but I didn't. The classics of world literature which are or were given to children cannot have been intended to entertain, but as improving exercises.
And in contrast to Freewheelers, which I remember thinking was very cleverly geared to appeal to adolescents at a certain stage of yearning for adulthood, and thus was largely about fantasy and entertaining, despite a certain moral agenda, Feathered Serpent reminds me of those sets of classic books. The Flockton Flyer would be another example of a show not aiming to improve, since every boy's dream of having a whole steam train to play with is never really a worthy sort of thing to think about. Feathered Serpent is not about an escape into a fantasy world, I have a feeling it is about improvement. And it is only as I write this that I realise that this is almost exactly the unreal/real divide I perceive so often in adult TV cast in the terms of improving.frivolous. The mere fact that the show is set in ancient Mexico suggests that it has a didactic aim rather than a frivolous one.
And there's a very simple reason I know this. I have been forced to quote the blurb off the box because the show launches with no explanation whatsoever. Nowadays, of course, if the viewer wants the background, he will consult the internet, but in the 1970s no such resources existed and I think the curious child would have had to take some such course of action as this - first the Radio Times or the TV times would have been consulted, which would have given about the same amount of information as the blurb I quote above. Without the benefit of the Radio Times the viewer would have had to ask parents for advice or ask around at school the next day. The only way to discover the historical background to this show would have been in books. Many children's homes would not contain an encyclopedia and they would have resided in the sort of homes which also contained sets of standard novels to read. So the library would have been the way to find out what this show was about. When you watch a show which is intended purely to entertain, it will not usually raise questions in your mind or require background reading, therefore this show is either deliberately intended to be educational or else very worthy television, with a rather unfortunate assumption that the children of the age would just know the historical background.
And yet... I wouldn't like you to think that I am just making out that this is a worthy, educational show, because it's interesting that some of its themes plug in well to the times. As we know the 1970s were a time of fear of nuclear holocaust, of exploration of magical powers and natural mysteries, and of all things considered Pagan. In many ways the 1970s were most people's 1960s, and there is a very real touch of Paganism involved in this show. We see divnities really consulted and decisions and asked for signs, which of course they never fail to produce. We see the primacy of religion (and yet a religion so different from our own Church of England) at the heart of a society, and also the clash between an old religion and a new religion.
And so, some criticisms. The obvious one is that The Fathered Serpent is not a light view. You have to concentrate and it moves at a slower pace than, say, The Avengers, so watching it while ironing would not be a good idea. My own main criticism is that I really don't think the years have been kind to it. In comparison to the effects produced now, the sets and costumes tend to look a bit home-made and not really lavish or spectacular. Production values are of the period, and it is completely studio-bound. The colour palette is of the time, although I wonder why everyone's skin is the shade of brown it is. What I really love about the sets is the wall paintings, which must have taken much labour and are clearly inspired by the art of the time and place. As I commented above, to me a major problem is a lack of explanation of who is who or what is happening with the result that several episodes in I'm frankly rather confused, but again this may be something that may be solved by an attentive viewing paying attention to every word.
Another thing that Feathered Serpent makes me think of is that I want to write a piece on our regional TV stations in the 1960s onwards. I have a feeling that the reason I have no recollection of this show (in the days when we only had three stations) was that it may not have been broadcast in the Midlands, being a Thames production. Ths post I have planned on our various regional stations and the reasons for their existence, is sadly one which has defeated me every time it has landed on the drawing board so far.
In summary, you will like The Feathered Serpent if you have an interest in ancient Mexico. You will also like it if you were the sort of child who actually read the improving books given to you for birthdays, you will watch it if given to you, but I'm afraid I wasn't that sort of child. If you want the classic children's TV of the age, I would seriously suggest getting some Tiswas or Grange Hill and watching that.