By Tim Worthington (a writer whose books include Not On Your Telly – featuring a history of the BBC ‘Sunday Classics’ slot, a look at the least written-about Doctor Who story ever, The Space Pirates – and what it has to do with, erm, David Bowie – and much much more. The book that Morris Mitchener is too scared to read!.)
When The Owl Service was first published by Collins in 1967, it didn’t look very different from the other books piled up in the major bookstores. Most often found designing generic covers for Agatha Christie reprints, artist Kenneth Farnhill was likely working from a brief or a plot outline when he created the cover. Extending across from the spine – the back cover simply featured a collection of reviews for Alan Garner’s previous novel, Elidor – wavy watery green and blue lines weave in and out of each other in an approximation of owl feathers, or branches, or roots, or possibly even all three. It may be an eye-catching design, but at the time it would have been no more eye-catching to the average book-browser than those of the latest Angela Carter or Adam Diment novel.
Inside that cover, however, it was literally a very different story, and The Owl Service quickly went on to win both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and, in turn, became the focus of a bidding war for a television adaptation. There have been many further new covers for The Owl Service since then – notably Charles Keeping’s striking post-Pop Art interpretation for a 1971 Peacock Books reissue – but it’s a fair bet that most readers will associate the novel with the image of the paperback issued to tie in with Granada’s television version in 1969. Featuring a non-posed still of the lead cast outside Alison’s family’s house, it vividly captures the vibrancy, mystery, and general haunting air of the celebrated serial with an almost casual effectiveness.
Just how accurately did that cover reflect the actual contents of the book, though? Anyone unfortunate enough to have ended up reading, say, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Shining, or even The Box Of Delights, after seeing their most famous big or small screen interpretations, may well have found themselves surprised – and not necessarily in a good way – at how wildly they had differed from the original source novel, with much-loved characters, storylines, and interludes removed and replaced along the way. The Owl Service the book and The Owl Service the television series are often discussed in isolation, as if they were entirely separate entities from each other – so is this because they themselves are entirely separate from each other?
Fittingly – and much like the conundrums posed by The Owl Service itself – this is not an entirely straightforward question to answer. The Owl Service was adapted by Alan Garner in conjunction with the serial’s producer, Peter Plummer; as their association went all the way back to 1960, when Plummer interviewed a then-unknown Garner for a Granada arts show, the storyline, atmosphere, settings, and characters, perhaps, unsurprisingly, survived the transition to the small screen largely unchanged. That all said, they did still feel the need to make some small but significant alterations to better suit the more visual – and, not insignificantly, more financially constrained – medium.
The main and most immediately noticeable difference, is in the age of the central trio of characters. In the original novel, Gwyn, Alison, and Roger are all supposed to be around fourteen years old, whereas, for television, they were repositioned to be hovering around seventeen, and played by actors, who, in turn, were hovering around twenty. Although the opportunity that this created to bring in a bankable name like Gillian Hills must surely have been a contributing factor, it’s more than likely that this decision was largely a practical one. The cast and crew of many children’s drama series of a similar vintage, from The Tomorrow People to Freewheelers, have no shortage of weary recollections of problems and delays caused on set by young and inexperienced cast members. Despite this change, even The Owl Service was reputedly not without its complications in this regard.
A less ambiguously practical consideration, was moving the action from Bryn Hall – the old Welsh house that had directly inspired the novel – to Poulton Place on the Wirral, when the owners refused to grant Granada permission to film there. Roger’s character was very slightly tweaked to make him more unsympathetic and introduce a much-needed element of abrasion into the character dynamics, while an extra air of uneasiness was added by Alison’s mother being continually referred to, but never actually seen or heard on screen. Although her lack of direct involvement in the original novel was a happy accident embraced by Garner, the question of whether this was a deliberate decision, or influenced in part by casting or budgetary issues, is a question nobody seems to have a definitive answer for. The final climactic scene – or at least what is visible of it between the visual effects and alarmingly rapid editing – was relocated from the kitchen to Huw Halfbacon’s hut, while the scene that follows it (suggesting that a new generation are set to repeat the same experience), was an entirely new addition more in keeping with a typical conclusion for a television serial. The Owl Service as an eight-part television series, is surprisingly in keeping with the novel it was derived from, but whether by accident or design – or the need to just get something made on schedule – it’s different enough to be worthy of attention in its own right.
Alan Garner’s 2021 novel, Treacle Walker, has been the surprising (if deserved) recipient of a Booker Prize nomination, and at the time of writing, looks likely to win. It features a cover based on another folklore legend – the Chalk Horse of Uffington – and in many respects does not look or feel that far removed from that original cover for The Owl Service. Tastes, trends, and fashions have changed and come and gone, but Alan Garner has stayed true to his distinctive artistic vision, and the deceptively simple cover of Treacle Walker reflects this. Rather than moving with the times, he has – just like he did back in 1967 – continued to do what he does best, and left it to the rest of the world to catch up.