Occult Themes in Childrens Television
I was quite thrilled this Christmas holiday to be reminded that I have a secret vice; that of going back and recapturing all the classic fantasy programmes which haunted my childhood. This spark has always been with me of course and over the years I have maintained a fondness for shows such as the Box of Delights and of course Doctor Who. Now adding to this there are stories such as The Children of the Stones, The Moon Stallion and The Owl Service all of which are a pure delight and are genuine time machines taking me back to the 1970s when it was safe and reasonable for children to go on quests and adventures without over protective parenting fuelled by hate and fearful politics and media wanting to coddle everything in cotton wool and anti-bacterial spray.
I will hit my 42nd year this coming February and so I was lucky enough to have grown up through the 1970s and early 80s which were a golden age in Children’s Television. Since the mid 1990s however I have been haunted by half remembered enchantment, television stories that I watched but to which many details are forgotten. Shows such as the Box of Delights or The Enchanted Castle have left a silver seam of magic seared across my memory ever reminding me of their presence but leaving me with the echoes of so much lost and eluded until recent research shined some light illuminating these forgotten places. Over the years it has become very frustrating and trying to recapture a half-remembered magic is in many ways worse then not being able to find it at all. Sometimes I could not even remember the names of the programme in question and I wasted ages searching for “Elizabeth and the Witch” when I should instead have searched for Lizzy Dripping. Memory can be fickle in this way.
It was in these early days when the occultist fire started burning brightly. I was 12 and picked up and read (smuggling home from the library without my mother seeing) two occults books, "Astral Doorways" by JH Brennan and "The Magician, his training and work" by WE Butler. Both were (and still are) cracking reads, classics on the occult and as I later found out ones which still influence me greatly. Both books lead to my reading other books by these authors and others, some of which were illuminating and other which turned out to be blind alleys which wasted a couple of years. There is serious learning here however and I feel that when I have children getting them to read Mr Butler's books will be a high priority. Many of these books speak about the power and important of the imagination and exactly what can be done with a trained mind. All this however started with the fiction which inspired me to read more.
Childrens fantasy fiction can be truly magical, in enthusing our minds with such potent symbolism the magic grows within us as we assimilate this imagery and concepts binding them into our deepest consciousness creating genuine possibilities for change regardless of the colder logics of the waking world. The fact that these shows work themselves in deep is clear whenever we re-watch an older show as an adult. The same emotions experienced as a child are still remembered and stirred up when the show is reviewed. For example go back and watch a classic Doctor Who story which you have not seen as a child, one which scared you then. You will feel the same emotions as you did as a child, albeit hopefully as an adult you will be able to temper those feelings better.
Science Fiction and Fantasy really go hand in hand and both are often saturated in occultism. We see this blended most adeptly in television of this era with Doctor Who remaining one of my favourites. For all his protestations as to being a scientist, the good Doctor is clearly a magician first and foremost and understands the need to work towards maintaining a balance rather than being strictly a good guy. Very much a trickster and avatar of Mercury, the Doctor walks through reality like a dream, showing us how to counter the terrors of our nightside and bring them into the day.
Some early Doctor Who stories bleed occultism to my absolute delight. Most fondly remembered of course is The Daemons. Here we see Roger Delgardo as the Master dressed up like a Golden Dawn magician, epically misquoting Aleister Crowley with "To do my will shall be the Whole of the Law"[sic]. We see other occult concepts also appear here such as the idea of the energetic rebound. The concept here is simple, one sends of a magical attack in the direction of a target who has a defence in place. The attach will then rebound off that person and hit the sender. Whilst clever occultists will usually have a timey-wimey way to get around such limitations these strictures are staples of beginner books and occult fiction and serve mostly to keep wannabe students on the straight and narrow.
The writer of this tale, Barry Letts was an esoteric Buddhist with a massive interest in magic and we really see this shine with a later story which became Jon Pertwee's swansong as the Doctor - The Planet of the Spiders. This tale could really have been written by the esteemed Kenneth Grant - it is very esoteric. On Earth we have Tibetan Bon Buddhist monks who are secretly Timelords existing in self-imposed exile. There is a heavy suggestion that tulpas are used by Timelords to shape their future regenerations, each future self is a new tulpa. All this is framed in mauve with a very Typhonian gloss of spiders from a distant world seeking to impinge themselves upon the Sphere of sensation of wannabe black-magicians and rule our world.
This story was released in the very early 1970s just after Kenneth Grant had released The Magical Revival. However if it turns out that Letts had read a copy of Kenneth Grant's Beyond the Mauve Zone which had somehow got itself caught in the time distortion left in the wake of Children of the Zones and sent back in time I would not be surprised.
Tom Bakers swansong as the Doctor (Logopolis, 1979) also included a watcher; his future self existing as a projection, a tulpa already able to influence events. This idea was abandoned by subsequent writers and producers of Doctor Who but in its day these ideas are very suggestive. The idea of rebirth enriches much fiction, as shown, in The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe with Aslan regenerating after the White witch sacrifices him. The idea of a phoenix as a bird of regeneration is also a common motif which pops up, of course in E Nesbit’s “Phoenix and carpet” and more recently in the Harry Potter mythos.
Occultists have always written fictional stories and embedded their ideas within fiction as a way of getting past our sceptical censor. An early story was the seminal Zanoni, written by Bulwer Lytton and plugged as a "Rosicrucian tale". Zanoni definitely influenced Samuel MacGregor Mathers whose wife, Moina; used it for him as an affectionate nickname. Moina of course crossed astral swords which another seminal occultist, Dion Fortune who really made use of the occult novel as a way to transmit ideas.
I must admit that I really hate Fortune's writing style. She cannot characterise men in her books and they all too often end up an impotent and effeminate fools seeking a stronger woman to complete them. However in fairness to her I understand that her later books were meant as romantic fiction rather than occult novels. Her books are loaded with occultism however and many things she left out from her non fiction made its way into her novels, so they are well worth working through despite the prose. Her first book however; “Doctor Tavener” makes up for this in advance and (Oh look) the Doctor is an adept who helps resolve a number of problems with his esoteric knowledge and intelligence.
Weaving back to television, Children of the Stones is rightly held up as a classic and is fondly remembered by many people. Re-watching it recently it was nice to spot a copy of Elizabeth St George's Casebook for a working occultist on the shelf in episode 2 (about 5 mins into the episode). This is a rather obscure book now and St George has sadly faded into history and not really remembered nowadays. In her day however she was a noted occultist who worked with the esteemed (and lovingly bad-tempered) William Gray who for all his faults certainly knew his stuff and is respected for his occult knowledge.
I feel that the story captures all the important elements of an occult tale. We have a stone circle, a dastardly black magician (also called a priest and magus) seeking to control the population. A lot of the modern tools used by psychic researchers, psychic questers and paranormal researchers are also shown here such as looking at stellar alignments and tracking lines on maps. We also see a remarkably open minded scientist (played by Blake’s 7 actor Gareth Thomas) encouraging his son in experiments in psychometry. His line "There is a lot we don’t understand" is priceless in context and I wish that the likes of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking focus upon that rather than the tiny amount achieved by humanity so far.
The story is not perfect however and there are leaps of logic which may sound scientific but degenerate into silliness. For example arguing that the stones were aligned to a supernova is fairly plausible if unlikely. But then saying that since the star then became a black hole things reversed is just silliness. Similarly the whole time slip thing at the end where the protagonists drive out of Milbury (Avebury) to pass the much younger and still alive bad guy driving in at the start of his wicked adventures is not a clever twist but silliness which cheapens the whole story. However these faults do not really matter in what is basically a fascinating and engaging romp through magic and esoteric lore.
We see other elements of magic in The Moon Stallion which features elements of magic much popularised by the late Andrew Chumbley over the past decade, namely the infamous Toad ritual. This nasty ritual has several variants all of which basically involve finding a (sometimes already dead) toad, buying it in an anthill until the flesh has been picked away then at the right time tossing the skeleton in a river at midnight, then selecting a particular bone to keep as a talisman. Accounts differ as to whether the required stone floats, sinks last or on the more unlikely accounts floats up against the current where the devil appears to try to wrest it from the magician.
Here is how The Moon Stallion dramatised this:
The child in the above clip rightly says "who would want to do a nasty thing like that" and it is rather unpleasant and certainly anything which involves mistreating animals in any way should be utterly condemned in my opinion. Certainly it should be remembered that toads are protected in the UK and a very serious view with be taken with those foolish enough to harm wildlife.
It is however relevant to note that these traditions are out there and we do see them reflected in children’s television. Is this a bad thing? I do not think so since most children know the difference between good and evil and these programmes emphasis this and teach children to be willing to get up and make a stand. It is telling that the children in the Moon Stallion make a stand against Todman.
It is nice to know that there was a time when writers were still there weaving the magic into children fiction and subtly influencing children underneath the radar of fundamentalists or the new puritans such as mumsnet. Magic is a crucial part of our childhood and long may it remain so. But also this is a tribute to these forgotten writers who wrote such wonderful tales for television. Screenwriters are never remembered but the ones who gave us these stories deserve a moment of respect and a glass in their honour. Long may these stories be told and retold and maybe one day we will see a new golden age of powerful childrens fiction being dramatised and shown.