They really must have been putting something in the water at HTV during the seventies. Week after week and year after year, they produced a cavalcade of strange and unsettling children’s television. Growing up in the seventies, your weekend was never complete without a 25 minute belt of television weirdness from the HTV studios. Usually studio bound with a minimum of sets, they conjured magic that you never forgot. Sky, King of the Castle, Children of the Stones, The Clifton House Mystery… all unforgettable, all essential. There’s something about that HTV Ident that’s incredibly evocative. It promises thrills and moody, studio-based excitement. They rarely if ever disappointed.
Then there was The Georgian House.
The Daddy of them all. Because I’m fan of old British television I frequently end up in conversations with workmates and family about things they vaguely remember seeing when they were young. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked me to identify wandering fragments of a television memory which turned out to be a scene or two from this particular tea-time chiller. A triumph of atmosphere and mood, the claustrophobic atmosphere adds to the tension in exactly the same way that ATV’s Escape Into Night does.
When that particular series heads out onto location for the final episode, it all evaporates. The Georgian House knows this, and sticks defiantly to the studio. With very few sets and a tight cast that never rises above single figures, it conjures magic.
Everything happens within the confines of the titular house. Once the property of one Thomas Leadbetter – wealthy industrialist, slave owner and not-so-benevolent family patriarch – when our story opens in the mid nineteen-seventies its become a museum.
Open to the public and prone to being abused by members of the public who want nothing more than to batter the place to bits (there’s one particularly enthusiastic child extra in episode three who nearly takes a wall to pieces) and stick chewing gum all over the shop, it’s now run by Mr Ellis (Jack Watson). The dictionary definition of a martinet, Ellis is an ex-millitary type who likes everything just-so. He hates to have his routine disturbed. He hates any intrusion on his perfectly organised world.
It’s a shame that he’s about to be descended upon by a pair of teenage whirlwinds. Dan (Spencer Banks) and Abbie (Adrienne Byrne) have arrived to work for the summer as tour-guides, gofers and general dogsbodies. Certainly Dan thinks that this job will help in his University research project. He doesn’t realise that he’s about to get more first-hand experience than he could ever have hoped for.
As they set up the drawing room for the reopening of the Leadbetter establishment, they discover a strange African carving. Abbie feels faint when she’s around it, but that’s nothing to what happens when Dan joins her to examine it. Slowly, it starts to rotate, then faster and faster. A voice is heard, repeating “Boy… Boy… Boy…”. Tribal music drifts in. A vortex appears in the centre of the object and Abbie and Dan are dragged in.
Suddenly, they’re in the year 1772, in full period costume. They appear to have arrived in the original Leadbetter household just in time for an evening’s entertainment. Abbie’s ditched her work-a-day t-shirt and jeans for a full gown and acres of painstakingly styled hair. Dan’s received the fuzzy end of the lollipop, dressed as Abbie’s serving boy. What on earth has happened to them?
The Leadbetters are a thoroughly unlikeable lot on the whole. Thomas (Peter Schofield) is brusque, quick to anger and unwilling to accept any sort of defiance from anyone under his roof. Mistress Anne (Constance Chapman) is the worst kind of social climber – all primps, powder and inappropriate french phrases which she uses in a vain attempt to appear more sophisticated. Daughter Ariadne (Janine Duvitski) is even worse. Pampered to within an inch of her life – at least by her mother, there are a couple of moments where it appears that Father has little or no time for her – she’s received everything she wants her whole life. A vain and simpering thing, she can’t comprehend anything that happens outside of the social routine and doesn’t want to. When she is finally stirred into helping Abbie, she blows it within seconds.
Everyone looks down on the slave boy, Ngo (Brinsley Forde). Abbie and Dan have brought knowledge of the future with them to 1772 – and in particular, they know a thing or two about Ngo’s future.
Treated as a mere piece of barter by all in the household, he initially seems destined to a life of hardship and deprivation, until chance washes Abbie and Dan up on his particular shore. Or does it? Ngo is possessed of a quiet, serene grace, for he posesses a particular carving. A carving which he brought with him when he was ripped from his home and sold into slavery. A carving which contains the spirit of Duwamba – a bull elephant which rampaged through his village, and which now watches over him, charged by Ngo’s father to keep the boy safe.
When Abbie forgets herself and lets rip with a particularly twentieth century attitude towards slavery, Ngo doesn’t seem particularly surprised. Can it be that he knows more than he’s letting on? Will Abbie and Dan ever get back home? And if they do, how can they possibly protect Ngo from what fate has in store for him?
The Georgian House is very, very well cast indeed. The entire story depends on the very few actors involved having the chops to carry it off, and they do. Jack Watson is brittle and unlikeable at first as Ellis, but by the end of the series he reveals something resembling a heart as he finally has to accept that these young-uns haven’t been rambling off to indulge in their perverse practices at one of them new-fangled Discos that he’s been hearing about. When reality begins to bend and warp, he has to try to come to terms with it. He doesn’t exactly emerge with credit but there’s more to the character than there first appears.
The Leadbetters are – every single one – a rotten lot. It seems that for this bunch at least, privilege is not only something they’re born to (well, perhaps not Ledbetter himself, who strikes me as a self-made man who unfortunately isn’t afraid to tell the world about it), it’s something they deserve and it’s to the credit of Schofield, Chapman and Duvitski that they somehow manage to find glimmers of likeability in amongst the bleating and twitterings. These are people – not nice people, but people nonetheless. Shaped by their times and subject to the beliefs and strictures of those times. Real human beings, basically.
Brinsley Forde carries his part of the narrative well. It’s not his fault that I keep hearing Aswad tunes playing in my head, or expecting the rest of the cast of Here Come The Double Deckers to turn up. He’s the core character. It’s not just the sculpture that revolves. Everyone else in the story circles around Ngo, and Forde plays it well. He even pulls off a soothsayer routine in the final episode while wearing a costume that looks like it was ripped bodily from Roy Wood after a Top of The Pops recording session, and that’s an achievement.
Adrienne Byrne – well, she’s just lovely. Winsome and enthusiastic, with a touch of “kooky” about her, she grates slightly in her opening scenes. It’s all puppy-dog enthusiasm and “ooh, just imagine what it must have been like, living here!!!!”. As soon as she’s flung back into 1772 she discovers an inner reserve of strength and ends up carrying more or less the entire plot on her shoulders. Byrne is well up to the task and it’s a shame that she seems not to have worked much on television after this.
As for Spencer Banks… there’s a certain category of actor who seems to have always done wonderful work and who could be relied on to carry off the trickiest of roles. Despite their rock-solid dependability, Posterity seems to have more or less forgotten them. Simon Oates was one. Spencer Banks is another. It’s rather odd to watch him grow from know-it-all brat in Timeslip, through to gawky teenager struggling with his own sexuality in Play For Today’s still bewildering and bewitching Penda’s Fen, fetching up here as a young adult comfortable enough in his own skin to invest some very odd goings on indeed with total belief and commitment. He’s a very strong actor indeed. I wish more people knew him. If he’s remembered at all it seems to be for Timeslip and good as it is – and good as he is in it – it’s by no means the whole story. This man worked for Dennis Potter y’know.
Sadly The Georgian House fell victim to the eccentricities of what passed for an archiving policy in this country in the seventies. Episodes One and Seven were retained on original studio VT, with episode Three surviving on home video format. Everything else, gone. Two, Four, Five and Six, consigned to the wastes. All of which meant that until now, the series was doomed to linger on in the memory only. The surviving fragments were locked away, never to be seen again. Who wants to buy an incomplete television series, after all?
Well, I do. And so do many other people, I’m delighted to say. We’ve reached a point in the DVD boom where the market appears able to support the most delightful of obscurities. With more or less everything you could ever have expected to see being released, archives are being mined more and more deeply.
It seems that a subtle re-education policy has been at work – people are more and more willing to accept that some series just don’t exist in full, and will gladly pay to see what actually still exists. If something doesn’t exist in pristine quality they will – for the most part – accept what does survive and I’m delighted. They’ll have to be more forgiving than normal for this one because Episode Three in particular is in shocking shape. Not too surprising given its origins as a home-format recording, and it’s one hell of a lot better than the one available to buy before. In other words, there wasn’t one available to buy before, so this will do very nicely, thank you. With the exception of a couple of VT dropouts, Episodes 1 and 7 have survived rather nicely. Rewind episode 1 when it starts and you’ll get another one of HTV’s unique countdown clocks. Heath Robinson really wasn’t in it for this lot, but if the end result justifies it, I’m all for it.
Network usually push the boat out. Given the fragmentary nature of the main feature, the bonus material they’ve provided for the DVD release of The Georgian House is absolutely essential. They’ve dug deep. With the co-operation of original co-author Jill Laurimore (who’s penned what will undoubtedly be an enlightening introduction to the series, printed on the reverse of the DVD sleeve), the three surviving episodes arrive accompanied by several PDF documents.
Fascinatingly, there’s a scene breakdown for episodes 1 through 4. Back when this was drafted, the show was called “Adam’s House”. The carving was missing, the magickal element being provided by a complex Tarot Card set-up which may well have been too complicated to execute. It’s just as well because the simple Chromakey effect they finally settled on works well and not only gets us from present-day-to-past with the minimum of fuss but is one of the key reasons why the series is remembered. The whirling effect, the music and the sonorous voice-over. It all works.
Rehearsal scripts are provided for Episode Three (“Treachery”); Episode Four (“A Dose of Sulphur Water”) and Episode Five (“Duwamba”). Episode Six (“Trapped”) is represented by an original draft script. All of which means that as near as dammit, the story is now complete for the first time since original broadcast. It looks very much to me as if those scripts were in a terrible state and required a considerable amount of patching up to make them legible. I’m grateful to Network for taking the time and effort. It’s a whole different kind of television restoration work and it’s yet another reason why this release is essential.
Watch Episode One (“New Recruits”). Read the scene breakdown for Episode Two (“We’ll Never Get Back”). Flip back to the main menu and pick up with Episode Three, read the scripts for Four, Five and Six, then rejoin the story for Episode Seven (“Look To Your Future”). The story slams into sharp focus. Just watching the three surviving episodes is no way to experience the story. It’s far too fragmentary to see less than half of the narrative. Use the supplementary material and you’ll get an inkling of just why this show is so loved by those who saw it when it first went out. Trust me, you’ll not regret making the effort.
Here’s a wee taster….
The more people buy this, the more chance there will be of even more fragments surfacing. This release deserves our support, it really does. For under a tenner you’ll get the best possible version of what survives. That sow’s ear has been turned back into a silk purse, and it contains pure gold. Jill Laurimore and her co-author Harry Moore, producer Leonard White (original producer of The Avengers and an old hand at this studio-bound game, working through ABC’s sixties glory years), a cast and crew of extremely talented people produced something special on a tiny, tiny budget. Now we can enjoy that work all over again. It seems churlish to refuse. Go. Buy. Enjoy.
The Georgian House is released on May 24th as a Network web exclusive. Price £7.99 (!)