Why children's television classic The Children of Green Knowe is still relevant
The classic BBC children’s drama series, based on the popular stories by Lucy M Boston, was first broadcast in the UK in 1986. James Oliver welcomes its return, this time on DVD, after an over-long absence.
The great problem of writing about a children's television drama of yesteryear is nostalgia gets in the way. There is a temptation to look upon them indulgently, as though they are a record of more innocent times and, perhaps, even a brief window into one's own childhood.
This impulse, inevitably, leads to another—the temptation to contrast these entertainments (wholesome, instructive) with the worst of what we know of cultural products targeted at today's children (pernicious junk, obviously). Before you know it, you're remembering when it was all fields around here.
The Children of Green Knowe—much sought after, and now freshly released on DVD—offers ample opportunity for such misty-eyed sentimentality, and not just for those who caught it upon its original broadcast.
“You could make a claim that it has
actually become more relevant with age.”
It's adapted from the first in a sequence of children's books by Lucy M. Boston, and begins with a young lad, Tolly, stuck at boarding school over Christmas because his father and stepmother are in Burma.
Help, however, is at hand; his late mother's grandmother has learned of his predicament and invited him to say at her large house in the country, a house called Green Knowe. But Tolly and Granny are not the only inhabitants of Green Knowe this Christmastide.
Green Knowe, you see, is haunted by previous residents, children who died in the great plague. Tolly learns to see them and even befriends them, but not all the ghosts are so convivial: the spirit of old green Noah, who was smitten by a terrible curse, is always on the look-out for unwary victims.
As the synopsis suggests, this is a very different to entertainments made for modern children and certainly much more old-fashioned: it seems to be set in the late 1940s (or at least a time when boys wore short trousers all the year round, even in thick snow), there are no computer graphics, nor concessions to those with the attention span of a goldfish.
The thing is these things were apparent when it was first shown in 1986. It was, let's not forget, originally watched by an audience who were taking time out from playing on their ZX Spectrums (with rubber keys, naturally). Because it was 'old fashioned' to begin with, The Children of Green Knowe has, paradoxically, aged rather better than many supposedly ‘up-to-the-minute’, supposedly 'cutting edge' programmes of similar vintage.
Children of Green Knowe book by L M Boston
If anything, you could make a claim that it has actually become more relevant with age. Of course, there are superficial differences; while an audience schooled in Harry Potter should have no difficulty with the boarding school beginning nor the spooky rural setting, they'll need to acclimatise to the Old Skool production values; it was shot on video, seldom a friendly format for atmosphere and mystery.
Beyond the external trappings, though, are the themes that have kept Boston's original books in print for over seventy years: there have always been children who felt isolated and alone. Such feelings may even be more prevalent our atomised era, so Tolly's story may resonate even more loudly than before.
At the start, he is a lonely and rootless child, cut adrift from his family and in want of playmates his own age. Happily, these things will be resolved as the story progresses: he finds a family, a home and a sense of belonging at Green Knowe. He even finds friends, after a fashion (OK, they're ghosts but still...).
“Programmes that invite wonderment
in children will always have an audience.”
Kids are resilient things, after all, especially when they employ the redemptive gift of imagination, as celebrated here. The programme invites us to daydream along with Tolly as he glimpses the past, and stirs in just a pinch of fantasy with its visions of ghosts and angry phantoms.
It would be wrong to consider this an unqualified rave; after all, adults who watch children's programmes can expect to find them a little bit... unsophisticated, and so it proves here. But such things are easy to forgive in a programme so committed to its storytelling.
Programmes that invite wonderment in children will always have an audience. Anyone working in modern kid's TV would do well to remember that, and make some shows that future generations can get nostalgic about.
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