Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

"At the end of the nineteenth century its thousand acres were at their zenith, but only a few years later bramble and ivy were already drawing a green veil over this “Sleeping Beauty”. After decades of neglect, the devastating hurricane of 1990 should have consigned the Lost Gardens of Heligan to a footnote in history. Instead, events conspired to bring us here and the romance of their decay took a hold on our imaginations. Our discovery of a tiny room, buried under fallen masonry in the corner of one of the walled gardens, was to unlock the secret of their demise. A motto etched into the limestone walls in barely legible pencil still reads 'Don’t come here to sleep or slumber' with the names of those who worked there signed under the date – August 1914"

"We were fired by a magnificent obsession to bring these once glorious gardens back to life in every sense and to tell, for the first time, not tales of lords and ladies but of those “ordinary” people who had made these gardens great, before departing for the Great War. We have now established a large working team with its own vision for our third decade. The award-winning garden restoration is already internationally acclaimed; but our lease now extends into well over 300 acres of the Wider Estate, leaving the project far from complete. We intend Heligan to remain a living and working example of the best of past practice, offering public access into the heart of what we do" - "Our contemporary focus is to work with nature, accepting and respecting it and protecting and enhancing the variety of habitats with which our project is endowed"

The Lost Gardens of Heligan, near Mevagissey in Cornwall, are one of the most popular botanical gardens in the UK. The style of the gardens is typical of the nineteenth century Gardenesque style, with areas of different character and in different design styles.

The gardens were created by members of the Cornish Tremayne family, over a period from the mid-18th century up to the beginning of the 20th century, and still form part of the family's Heligan estate. The gardens were neglected after the First World War, and only restored in the 1990s, a restoration that was the subject of several popular television programmes and books.

The gardens now boast a fabulous collection of aged and colossal rhododendrons and camellias, a series of lakes fed by a ram pump over a hundred years old, highly productive flower and vegetable gardens, an Italian garden, and a stunning wild area filled with primaeval-looking sub-tropical tree ferns called "The Jungle". The gardens also have Europe's only remaining pineapple pit, warmed by rotting manure, and two figures made from rocks and plants known as the Mud Maid and the Giant's Head.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan completely surround Heligan House and its private gardens. They lie some 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the north-east of, and about 250 feet (76 m) above, the fishing village of Mevagissey. The gardens are 6 miles (9.7 km) by road from the town and railway station of St Austell, and are principally in the civil parish of St Ewe, although elements of the eastern gardens are in Mevagissey parish.

The northern part of the gardens, which includes the main ornamental and vegetable gardens, are slightly higher than the house, and slope gently down to it. The areas of the gardens to the west, south and east of the house slope steeply down into a series of valleys that ultimately drain into the sea at Mevagissey. These areas are much wilder, and include The Jungle and The Lost Valley.

The Heligan estate was originally bought by the Tremaynes in the sixteenth century, and earlier members of the family were responsible for Heligan House and the (still private) gardens that immediately surround it. However the more extensive gardens that are now open to the public were largely the result of the efforts of four successive squires of Heligan. These were:

Rev. Henry Hawkins Tremayne.
John Hearle Tremayne, son of Henry Hawkins Tremayne.
John Tremayne, son of John Hearle Tremayne.
John Claude Lewis Tremayne, son of John Tremayne and better known as "Jack".

Two estate plans, dating from 1777 and sometime before 1810, show the changes wrought to the Heligan estate during Henry Hawkins' ownership. The first plan shows a predominantly parkland estate, with the site of today's Northern Gardens occupied by a field. The second plan shows the development of shelter belts of trees surrounding the gardens, and the main shape of the Northern Gardens, the Mellon Yard and the Flower Garden are all readily discernable.

Henry Hawkins' descendants each made significant contributions to the development of the gardens, including the ornamental plantings along the estate's Long Drive, the Jungle, the hybridizing of rhododendrons and their planting around Flora's Green, and the creation of the Italian Garden.

Birdsong, recorded in and around the gardens of Heligan:

The restoration, which was the subject of a six part Channel 4 television series in 1996, proved to be an outstanding success, not only revitalising the gardens but also the local economy around Heligan by providing employment. The gardens are now leased by a company owned by their restorers, who continue to cultivate them and operate them as a visitor attraction.

Further information here, here & here.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The making of The Owl Service

"The Owl Service was much admired but because I could never bear to watch myself I have seen it only now. Father's very proper English family frowned at having an actress in the family yet they watched the first episode to see what I was like and followed the whole series. That was a huge compliment. The Owl Service was a magnificent gift that allowed me to haul back a slice of my lost youth. It had fallen by the wayside at fourteen when I was 'discovered' by Roger Vadim. No more contact with kids my age meant there was a chink in my learning compass. So my memory is not of anecdotes, stories. I was totally engrossed with the feel of Alison. In effect, Alison allowed me to become while she too was unfolding" — Gillian Hills

The TV version of The Owl Service was seeded in 1960 when Peter Plummer, then a researcher for Granada Television, was sent to interview author Alan Garner about his recently published novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The two men hit it off and formed a friendship and working relationship that saw them collaborating on news stories for various news and magazine programmes being made by the independent television company Granada.

Nine years later, Garner had written a fantasy novel inspired by his love of Celtic myths and legends, The Owl Service, first published in 1967 and the recipient of both the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Carnegie Medal in Literature. In the summer of 1968, Granada successfully bid for the screen rights to the novel which they intended to be their first production shot entirely on film, all on location and all in colour. When Garner himself agreed to produce the scripts it seemed sensible to assign Peter Plummer to the producer and director seats.

With Garner working on what was originally planned as a six part adaptation, Plummer set off for Wales in search of the real locations mentioned in the book. the production hit a hitch when the owners of Bryn Hall, which plays a key role in the story, refused to let the production film there and they had to use Poulton Hall in Liverpool instead, fortuitously owned by a friend of Garner's.

With that hurdle overcome, the cast was the next concern for the production. The three leading characters needed to be young and the first to catch Plummer's eye was Gillian Hills who he had seen in the recent Play of the Month episode Maigret at Bay and who was still the subject of much public interest having taken part in the first full frontal nude scene in British cinema, in Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966). "Peter Plummer asked to meet me," Gillian recalled in 2008. "There was a fog of people around a large table. I did a reading and was offered the part on the spot".

Michael Holden was cast as Gwyn, coming straight from drama school in London, as did Francis Wallis who was cast as the last of the young leads, Roger. Raymond Llewellyn, who was cast as Huw Halfbacon, the half mad gardener. Interestingly the production opted not to cast anyone as Margaret, Alison's mother, who is referred to in the book but never really appears.

On 10 April 1969, cast and crew convened at Granada Television Centre in Manchester for a first read through and costume fitting and the following day they were driven to see Poulton Hall for the first time. Full rehearsals began on 17 April before filming actually began on Monday 21st.

Unusually, Garner was present through much of the filming, Plummer happy to have the author on hand to advise and rewrite where necessary. Gillian Hills remembers that: "Throughout the filming Alan was discretion itself. Generally I would realize he had been around after the fact. At the very beginning before we began shooting he asked us to gather in a particular bedroom of the house and talked about the plates, the shape of the room. The claustrophobia. He was enthusiastic, he sort of shone from inside and had intense blue eyes. He willed us to become his characters. We were meant to live our parts. I don't remember Alan asking me to make any changes. He knew what he wanted and Peter Plummer was the enabler. Peter was patient, persuasive and warm. The crew, impeccable".

Indeed it has been noted that the shoot for The Owl Service was a generally happy and good humoured one. In the article The Legend Unravelled, published in issue 10 of Time Screen magazine (Winter 1987/1988), Stephen McKay quotes chargehand electrician James Green as saying to Peter Plummer "I never thought I would say this, but I've really come to look forward to Monday mornings".

In the book I've Seen a Ghost, Peter Plummer told of supposedly creepy goings-on during the production though whether this was true or just canny hyperbole to promote the series is unclear. Certainly Hills remembers no supernatural manifestations during her time in Wales:

"I have not read Peter's book I've Seen a Ghost. I was unaware of it...and maybe I should not read it. My grand father, the superlative Polish poet Boleslaw Lesmian, was ruled by his exceeding 'superstitiousness,' so the family was too. Artists are sensitive to this in varying degrees. I am glad I focused on Alison. But if something unusual happened I would keep it to myself. I prefer to believe I am contemplating the cosiness of a blanket than a levitating counterpane" — Alan Garner

If the other side was indeed trying to make itself felt during production, the cast and crew managed to get through to the end of the shoot unscathed and on Friday 20 June 1969, they packed their bags with the majority of the story - now extended to eight episodes - in the can. The serial began broadcasting on ITV on 21 December 19690 to generally good audiences, though union disagreements about the switch-over from black and white to colour meant that ITV was forced to transmit Granada's first colour production in black and white.

Despite the fact that the target audience seemed to love the show, there were questions raised about whether it really was suitable for teenagers and children, particularly it's very noticeable representation of sexual jealousy and tension between the lead characters.

When the show was nominated as the British entry for the Prix Jeunesse in 1970, Peter Plummer said that the jury found it "deeply disturbing' and questioned whether it was not indeed reprehensible to offer such material to young people" (Time Screen). Gillian Hills: "It is the adult with its crooked mind that is the trouble: as with the criticism coming from the jury. It is a good sign for a piece of work to be labelled 'deeply disturbing'. This means here is something unusual. Remember Saatchi's show 'Sensation". Now Chris Offili is an established artist, as with many of the others from that show".

The Owl Service survived the storm in a tea cup and was shown again on Channel Four in the late 80s to even greater acclaim. It slowly accrued a loyal cult following that was eventually rewarded with a DVD release in 2008.


"The Owl Service played a part in changing the course of my life. The graphics designer for The Owl Service came while we were filming and I told him how curious I was about his work: when I was a recording artist in Paris I'd go round to see my friends at the music magazine Salut Les Copains - I adored the way the magazine was being put together. The designer invited me to visit the TV centre where they produced the visuals, soon I began at St Martins, but work was always taking me away, then Sir John Cass, Saturdays - but I was filming a lot. Throughout my childhood I was always drawing. My grandmother was a painter but we never met. When I began acting I gave up drawing. Three years after The Owl Service I would plunge into illustrating" — Gillian Hills.

Further information here, here & here.

The Owl Service (ITV 1969-70)

"I never thought The Owl Service was for children only. It felt as if it fit a larger audience. That's what made it special. Because it also belongs somewhere where the memory of one's own adolescence lies. It is super-real to the extent that it becomes unreal. Wagnerian. And too, like an old film it unreels itself repeatedly, then begins again. Any criticism that the series was unsuitably adult for children is untrue. Never underestimate the child; it is pure, it observes, makes up its own mind. But then is taught to see things otherwise" — Gillian Hills

Teenager Alison finds a dusty dinner service in the loft of her Welsh holiday home. Seemingly possessed, she traces their flower pattern and from the tracings makes paper owls. This unleashes ancient forces feeding on the jealousy and attraction between Alison, her new stepbrother Roger and local boy Gwyn...

The Welsh legend of Blodeuwedd is a tale of betrayal retold in the 11th Century book of The Mabinogion. Blodeuedd, a woman made of flowers, was unfaithful to Lleu Llaw Gyffes with Gronw Bebyr. Gronw then killed Lleu with a spear so that Lleu became an eagle - Lleu's magician Gwydion turned the unfaithful woman into Blodeuwedd, the owl, as punishment.

Now three modern-day teenagers are revisited by Gwydion's curse. Upper-class Alison, her haughty public school stepbrother Roger and working-class Welsh boy Gwyn are similarly locked into a triangle of love and hate that threatens to destroy them. Gwyn later learns of the father he's never known and discovers that his mother was once possessed by the same old plates Alison uncovered in the attic.

Very much a product of the 1960s, the serial used a contemporary source novel (Garner's book was two years old when adapted for television) that dwelled upon class struggles and adolescent permissiveness, albeit within a supernatural fantasy framework. Then-fashionable jump cuts and psychedelic imagery were used for the all-film production. This was the first fully-scripted drama to be made entirely in colour by Granada Television, although it was shown in black and white on its original runs and not seen in colour until its 1978 repeat. This ruined the visual joke of Alison, Gwyn and Roger always wearing respectively red, black and green outfits - the colours of electrical wiring at the time - hinting at the power the three could unleash.

Alistair McGown.

"The Owl Service is a peculiar work. Singular. Mesmerizing. It stands out as a one off" — Gillian Hills

Granada Television for ITV. Original run: 21 December 1969 – 8 February 1970. 8 x 30 min episodes, colour. Theme music: "Tôn Alarch" (traditional) by Jean Bell. Director: Peter Plummer. Producer: Peter Plummer. Script: Alan Garner. Production Designer: Peter Caldwell. Art Department: Alan Kennedy. Sound Department: Harry Brookes, Phil Smith & Peter Walker. Camera and Electrical Department: David Wood & Ray Goode. Cast: Michael Holden (Gwyn), Gillian Hills (Alison), Francis Wallis (Roger), Edwin Richfield (Clive), Dorothy Edwards (Nancy), Raymond Llewellyn (Huw).

The Owl Service is available on Network DVD "The definitive adaptation of Alan Garner's award-winning novel, combining mystery, adventure, history and the legend surrounding a complex set of human relationships"

The Owl Service — A book by Alan Garner

“Yesterday, today, tomorrow - they don't mean anything. I feel they're here at the same time: waiting. How long have you felt this? I don't know. Since yesterday? I don't know. I don't know what 'yesterday' was. And that's what's frightening you? Not just that, said Alison. All of me's confused the same way. I keep wanting to laugh and cry. Sounds dead metaphysical to me, said Gwyn”

This is a magical book, and the finest of Garner's young adult novels. Now, a lot of people associate magic with ethereal forces, great quests and spells and all that, and indeed spells can be found in several of Garner's other books. The Owl Service reveals a different kind of magic, the kind that arises from the interaction of people with patterns, of desires that unwittingly mesh with the larger forces around us, harsh magic that people employ without knowing it. The book is multi-layered, with themes that sneak up on the reader, requiring a second or third read, and many fans who read the book as children report returning to it as adults. This book won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award, and has remained in print since its original publication.

The Owl Service interprets a story from the Welsh Mabinogion, namely, portions of the story of "Math Son of Mathonwy." In this story Math's niece, Arianhrod, is tricked into giving birth when her claim to virginity is tested. She rejects her children, and one is raised by her brother, Math's heir Gwydion. (In a matrilineal system the maternal uncle is the male relative who takes responsibility for the child.) Resentful, Arianhrod curses her son Lleu. Her first curse is that he will not be named until she names him. The second is that he will not bear arms until she arms him. Finally, she declares that the child shall not have a human wife, and so Math and Gwydion fashion a woman of flowers to be Lleu's wife, and name her Bloduwedd (flower face).

Yet this third curse is not so easily thwarted because the couple must now make a marriage, and Bloduwedd becomes enamored of neighbor Gronw Pebr, who counsels her to find out how Lleu can be killed. Although some have interpreted Gronw's liaison with Bloduwedd as an act of pure, selfish passion, most writers also note that she had no choice of partners, and her feelings for Lleu are never really described in "Math," although her feelings for Gronw are quite clear.

Like many Celtic demigods, Lleu must abide by the curses of his mother, similar to the geas, or taboo, laid on Irish heroes, and can only be killed in unusual circumstances that usually arise only when the character breaks the geas. Gronw tries to kill Lleu, yet before he dies, Lleu manages to turn into an eagle and fly away, to be found eventually by Gwydion, who talks him down from a tree where he huddles with his flesh rotting away. Gwydion saves Lleu and takes revenge on Bloduwedd by turning her into an owl.

The Owl Service, set in the 1960s, tells the story of three children, this generation's actors in the ancient drama. Gwyn, the Welsh son of the housekeeper Nancy, along with his father Huw Halfbeacon, form two of the three doomed lovers from the previous generation. Allison is the young English owner of the Welsh estate where Nancy and Huw work. She is visiting with her mother, stepfather and stepbrother Roger. Allison and Roger find a mysterious set of dishes in the attic, and Allison begins compulsively tracing paper owls from the pattern, which then disappear, as do the patterns on the dishes.

The children investigate the intricate patterns of mystery, drawn on by clues of the last generation's trio, acquiring aspects of the original trio and yet remaining entirely themselves. The story is not so much a commentary on the original, or a retelling, as it is a carefully staged exploration of how the myth works in all times. It just is, and the characters can no more avoid participation in the greater mystery than they can avoid having personal issues.

The teenagers recreate their roles in a way that determines the fortunes of the valley. Bloduwedd can either be flowers or owl; Lleu can be either the lord of the valley and her partner, or he the betrayed lover and she the vindictive mother. The dramas of the previous generation are woven through the fates and impulses of the three adolescents.

For me, Garner's brilliance is in conveying the curious worldview of the Welsh stories. He captures the interaction between ordinary reality and the Celtic otherworld in a way that raises questions about how the reader experiences physical and temporal reality. He identifies the way that individuals and groups recreate and participate in the dramas of demigods that push the reader to see these patterns in themselves and others, without any notion that such participation might justify wrong actions. Occasionally, Garner even manages to capture the old stories‚ sense of following one's nature in a way that transcends dualistic notions of good and evil. No one does it better, or in a more subtle fashion.

Writers often remark about the Celtic people's relationship with the land, yet few, when convenying this sense, move beyond the warm fuzzies city folk feel on a country drive. Garner is able to portray this kinship in the relationship of the people in the valley, the interaction between ancient sites and contemporary people, and the brooding sense of dread that manifests through the interaction of the young people. He also conveys the interaction of people across generations as Huw manifests Gwydion across time, sometimes answering from the present, and other times slipping into another age.

The Owl Service is one of those books I found transformative as a young person. It also set me on the path to the original tales of the Mabinogi, and provided new insights on their worldview. I admire Garner's courage in moving beyond the good and evil morality tales that simplify issues for children. He wrote a great story, portraying the complications of life at the transformation from childhood. It is rich in symbolism that does not distract from the plot, and unsentimental about characters‚ motivations, limitations and hidden strengths.

"The moon shone. And Gwyn began to play with time, splitting a second into minutes, and then into hours - or taking an hour and compressing it to an instant. No hurry..."

This book is a must read for children with dreamy natures who demand both mystery and the truth about people's interaction with the larger forces at play in our world.

Kimberly Bates.

Further information here, here & here.