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The Owl Service (1969) | Alan Garner’s landmark Welsh valley-set children’s drama on Blu-ray

Broadcast in the UK during the winter of 1969/1970, this adaptation of Alan Garner’s 1967 novel of the same name, about an ancient story being brought back to life in a ‘modern/1960s’ Welsh valley, weaves a heady brew of the supernatural, sexual jealousy and class divide. Now, the eight-part Granada Television/ITV series is available on Blu-ray from Network in the UK.

Alison (Gillian Hills), her mum Margaret (who is never seen), her new husband Clive (Edwin Richfield) and his son Roger (Francis Wallis) are taking their first holiday together in a country house in the Welsh countryside, which Alison has inherited from her late dad. The house staff includes the rather peculiar groundskeeper Huw (Raymond Llewellyn), frightful housekeeper Nancy (Dorothy Edwards) and her son, Gwyn (Michael Holden).

When Alison discovers a service of old dinner plates with a pattern that turns into owls when traced on paper, she sets in motion a centuries-old legend that’s connected to Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers, who appears in the Welsh epic poem The Mabinogion. 

Regarded as something of a landmark, The Owl Service is not your typical children’s TV drama (especially given the way it addresses adolescent sexuality within a pagan context and uses experimental editing to infuse the story with supernatural elements). The cast is all excellent in their respective roles, though Edwards and Llewellyn chew the scenery at every chance, and their bizarre characterisations so belong to the weird universes of The League of Gentlemen, Twin Peaks and their ilk – as does the final episode, which is OTT bonkers surreal.

And if you are a film location fan like myself, you might like to know that The Stone of Gronw replica, created for the series, still lies in situ on the bank of the River Dovey today. I will so be paying a visit one day soon.

• Archive interviews with Alan Garner from 1968 and 1980
• Commentaries on selected episodes by writer/broadcaster Tim Worthington
• Image gallery
• Limited edition booklet written by Stephen McKay, Chris Lynch and Kim Newman


The Owl Service is out now on Blu-ray in the UK from Network

An original ‘owl service’ ceramic plate that inspired Alan Garner’s novel.
According to Griselda Garner, (Alan’s wife), the service originally belonged to her aunt, who bought it at a farm sale in Somerset but then ‘packed [it] away and put [it] in a barn because she said that the owls watching her eat gave her indigestion’. Image: Bodleian Libraries

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) | The surreal East German Brothers Grimm fantasy that traumatised a generation

If you happen to have grown up in the UK in the 1960s, then you will most likely recall The Singing Ringing Tree – an East German import whose transmission in three parts on the BBC in November and December 1964 caused an entire generation of children to have nightmares.

The surreal fairy tale adventure, which was originally released in 1957 in East Germany, is a variation of the Hurleburlebutz story by The Brothers Grimm. It centres on a self-centred princess (Christel Bodenstein) and the wealthy prince (Eckart Dux) who desires to win her love by bringing to her the mythical titular tree as a gift.

He finds it in a magical garden ruled over by a malevolent dwarf (Richard Krüger, AKA Hermann Emmrich), but when the princess again rejects him on his return, he loses a bet with the dwarf and is turned into a bear.

The princess, however, still wants her tree so she forces her father, the King, to fetch it. But he too loses a bet with the dwarf who places an ugly spell on the princess. The bear then tells her that the only way to break the spell is if she mends her ways. Will she?

Having grown up in Australia (in the 1970s), I missed out on this classic children’s fantasy – but British friends of mine have very vivid memories – especially the dwarf and the weird giant fish that the Princess befriends. Seeing it now for the first time, I can see why it must have been disturbing for young minds of the era. But it’s also a cinematic gem. I call it East Germany’s answer to the Wizard of Oz. The production design and sets are truly magical. No wonder it was such a hit in his home country, and still fascinates today. Its themes, of course, remain universal – even for the woke generation.

Presented in high definition for the first time, this Network release includes the fullscreen English narrated soundtrack (which was the one shown on the BBC back in the day), as well as the widescreen theatrical version with the original German audio. You can also choose the alternative music-only soundtrack as well as alternative French and Spanish soundtracks. The other special features include a 2003 interview with Christel Bodenstein, an image gallery and a booklet containing an essay by cultural historian Tim Worthington.

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The Dark Eyes of London | The 1939 Edgar Wallace adaptation starring Bela Lugosi gets a remastered release

If ever you had your suspicions about insurance agents being just out for your money, then look no further than the British 1939 shocker, The Dark Eyes of London, starring Bela Lugosi, which is now out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK from Network, featuring a newly remastered print.

Hiding behind a veneer of respectability and charitable good deeds, insurance broker Dr Orloff (Lugosi) is killing off his customers for their policies.

Using the Dearborn Home for the Blind in London’s East End as his cover and disguised as the charity’s blind proprietor, Orloff gets his dirty work done by Jake (Wilfred Walter), a deformed blind resident.

But his murderous schemes come unstuck when his new secretary Diana (Greta Gynt) finds a vital clue to her father’s murder.

Produced by Pathé Films (via John Argyle Productions), this adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s 1924 novel, The Dead Eyes of London, was expected to usher in a wave of British-made horror – just as Universal was experiencing in the US following the successful re-release of 1931’s Frankenstein. But it got hit with a double-blow which stopped that idea dead in its tracks.

It became the first British film to receive the ‘H’ censor rating for being ‘Horrific for Public Exhibition’ (which meant no under-16 were allowed to see the film) and it was released in the UK in October 1939, when the country was preparing for a real-life horror show: World War Two. It would be another two decades before the genre bounced back, courtesy of Hammer.

However, The Dark Eyes of London is one of the best shockers of the 1930s. Featuring drownings, electrocutions, cold-blooded murder and a monster that echoes Conrad Veidt’s Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein, and the killer ape in The Murders of the Rue Morgue (1932), it certainly earned its ‘H’ certificate.

Lugosi is excellent in the dual role of the cold and calculating Dr Orloff and the kindly Professor Dearborn (dubbed by English stage actor OB Clarence) and he gets excellent support from Shakespearean actor and playwright Wilfred Walter as the blind giant whose deformity mirrors Orloff’s dark soul. It is also effectively directed by Walter Summers (who helmed the last major British silent Chamber of Horrors in 1929) and atmospherically shot by Bryan Langley (who makes excellent use of Duncan Sutherland’s warehouse and riverside set).

Filmed in 11 days at Welwyn Studios in Hertfordshire in April 1939, the film was released by Monogram in the US in March 1940 as The Human Monster. It was later withdrawn from circulation following the release of a West German adaptation in 1961 (Die toten Augen von London). Network’s HD remastered release looks and sounds fantastic, which this landmark British horror, so deserves. I highly recommend adding this to your classic horror collection.

• Brand-new high definition remaster from original film elements in its original theatrical aspect ratio
• Audio commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
• Kim Newman and Stephen Jones discuss Lugosi’s work in the UK at the Edgar Wallace pub in London
• US titles & US trailer
• Image gallery
• Booklet written by Adrian Smith

The Final Programme (1973) | Robert Fuest’s decorative dystopian sci-fi is a tasty one indeed

Michael Moorcock's The Final Programme

Cult director Robert Fuest’s dystopian 1973 sci-fi thriller The Final Programme makes its UK DVD debut on 7 October 2013.

In a futuristic world where war and famine rages, a group of British scientists led by programmer Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre) plan to create an immortal, self-replicating human being using a super computer. Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch), a playboy physicist whose late father devised this ‘final programme’, is key to the project’s success. But first he must retrieve the formula from his family’s isolated mansion, which is laden with deadly traps and guarded by his drug-fuelled psycho brother.

Jon Finch in The Final Programme

This very British black comedy sci-fi thriller from cult director Robert Fuest takes its cues from Michael Moorcock’s seminal 1968 novel of the same name – the first of many to feature hero Jerry Cornelius, a hip futuristic secret agent and adventurer who was like a James Bond-cum-Flash Gordon for the 1970s. The film is definitely stylish, but has its flaws, mainly because the director (who had just completed the two Phibes films starring Vincent Price) puts most of his energies into the film’s elegant production design rather than capturing the essence of Moorcock’s wild vision. The author famously disliked the film and its script, which tries to be satirical, but comes across as having a whiff of jingoism about it – French wine, for instance, is described as ‘Industrial waste from the Beaujolais district of France, fortified with natural saccharin, of course’.

The Final Programme is, however, a decorative delight nevertheless, and if it wasn’t set in the future, it could very well exist in the same stylised art deco world that Price’s vengeful Phibes inhabited, as it shares the same light, camera angles and colour schemes, and even possesses the ingenious doctor’s penchant for devilish devices – including a door lock that’s also a giant chess piece and an alarm that causes epilepsy.

Jon Finch in The Final Programme

Visuals and retro décor aside, there’s much to savour here – including the Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause score, which is certainly hip, in a druggy London 1970s way, and the wonderfully OTT performances, especially Hugh Griffith as a Hindu scientist dispensing cryptic advice to Finch’s modern dandy Jerry – who encapsulates the glam period with his wild locks, black nail polish and fashionable Ossie Clark threads.

Jon Finch in The Final Programme

It’s just a pity that cinema audiences never did get to see much more of Finch on screen. The classically trained actor, who also appeared in Polanki’s Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Frenzy, gave up film work after a diabetic attack forced him out of 1979’s Alien, in which he was to play the iconic Kane – a role that ended up going to John Hurt. Finch was just 70 when he was found dead last December in his home in Hastings, while back in March of 2012, the 84-year-old Fuest – who retired in the 1980s to take up his first love, painting – also passed away. But thankfully their memories live on in this bewildering, topsy-turvy slice of 1970s British sci-fi – which is very tasty indeed.

The Network DVD release is presented in a brand new transfer from the original film elements, featuring the full-frame, as-filmed version of the main feature, and including original theatrical trailers, an Italian title sequence, image gallery and promotional PDF materials.

A must see, despite its flaws.


Circus of Fear (1967) | The vintage Edgar Wallace mystery makes for a rainy afternoon treat

Circus of Fear dvd cover

Following a bank robbery in central London, Scotland Yard Inspector Elliott (Leo Glenn) tracks down some of the stolen banknotes to a circus stationed near Windsor. When one of the crooks turns up dead, the mystery deepens and Elliott’s suspects include a hooded lion tamer (Christopher Lee), a blackmailing dwarf (Skip Martin), a jealous knife-thrower (Maurice Kaufmann), and a philandering showgirl (Margaret Lee). But with his superior (Cecil Parker) breathing down his neck and a killer stalking the suspects, Elliott has his work cut out for him in finding the stolen loot and the criminal mastermind behind it.

Circus of Fear (1967)

After making six episodes of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries for UK TV, director John Llewellyn Moxley (who would go on to helm everything from Kung Fu to Magnum PI and Murder She Wrote in the 1970s and 1980s), was hired by exploitation maestro Harry Alan Towers to lens this big-screen adaptation of Wallace’s novel, The Three Just Man, in a bid to compete with Berserk, the Joan Crawford shocker which was also released in the winter of 1967.

Christopher Lee in Circus of Fear (1967)

Starting off with an exciting bank robbery sequence staged around Tower Bridge, the film settles down into a standard whodunit littered with the usual red herrings (Klaus Kinski’s menacing Manfred being one of them). But thanks to the fine turns from the cast, that also includes future giallo screen queen Suzi Kendall, and Johnny Douglas’s catchy big band soundtrack that gives the film its distinctly 1960s British feel, Circus of Fear makes for an ideal rainy afternoon vintage treat to revisit. Not the greatest show on Earth, but a memorable one.

Circus of Fear (1967)

This re-mastered Network DVD release includes both the long and short versions in their as-exhibited theatrical aspect ratio; alternative German ending (in black and white); UK and foreign trailers; image gallery and PDF material.

A might see, for Chris Lee completists and fans of 1960s British thrillers.

You find more great releases from Network Distributing on their The British Film Facebook page (click here), and on their official website (click here) and Twitter feed (click here).


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