Worst to Best
The Enchanted Castle

The Enchanted Castle aired on the BBC during dark winter nights in November and December 1979. Often remembered for terrifying young children with its scenes of inanimate people coming to life, it was an adaptation of a 1907 novel of the same name.


by
THE ANORAK
APRIL
2018


The series has only been released on DVD in Australia, and, while currently unavailable, occasionally copies turn up for sale on Amazon. The series was an unforgettable memory here at The Anorak Zone, so the temptation to relieve a childhood favourite was too great. Does it live up to the memory, or is it sadly something best left in the long-distant past? Please join me as I revisit the entire series from worst to best...

6 Magic Journey (1.4)

The Enchanted Castle concerns three young siblings - Gerald, Cathy and Jimmy - finding a magic ring that enhances the inherent magic at an old castle. Living in the castle is Mabel, the daughter of the castle's housekeeper, who joins them on their adventures.
      Britain was a very different place when The Enchanted Castle first aired. The Winter of Discontent had only just happened, Margaret Thatcher was newly elected Prime Minister, the likes of Hitchcock, Lennon and Peter Sellers were still with us, and things like Alton Towers and breakfast television were yet to exist.
     While it might seem strange to modern audiences, having fantasy adventures based around impossibly rich children in the past was a regular thing on BBC Television at the time. Just five years later, the 1934-set and similarly posh Box of Delights went out. That most of its audience were working class kids who scarcely even knew what a boarding school was made no difference... the magic of the storytelling and the fantasy of another life - even if that "other life" was just a countryside estate - was the compelling thing. Viewers didn't have to be reflected on screen, and the most-watched programme when the series was airing was the sitcom To The Manor Born.
      The disconnect between audience and the reality of the characters is wrought large here, when Jimmy, the youngest of the children, asks of their magic ring, "oh, I WISH I were rich!", despite the fact that they're all living in an enormous countryside boarding school with their own private nanny. However, Jimmy's desire for wealth is brought on by the knowledge that one of the "Ugly-Wuglies" - a piece of old cloth brought to life by the ring - is "rolling in money". Despite the fact that the person he envies is an animated sack of clothes, Jimmy becomes a grown businessman, with extreme riches. Given that the grown-up Jimmy is played by a real actor (Louis Hammond), it's something of a shame that Jimmy is restored before the end credits.

5 Feast of Magic (1.5)

One curiously absent element of the series is incidental music... a few classical bars play here for a feast, and there's a rendition of the memorable theme tune in another episode, but that's generally it. While it's nice not to be flooded with the kind of wall-to-wall incidental music that constantly commands viewers how to feel (and I'm thinking mainly of new Doctor Who) it does mean the series can be lacking in atmosphere.
      The core part of this episode is a feast with statues who come to life under moonlight, complete with a boom mike in shot. However, the series is not without its charms, particularly in the utterly rudimentary way it deals with special effects, or lack thereof. An earlier part of the episode sees Mabel wish herself the height of "four yards high", only to see her twelve foot status rendered solely by camera angles.
     Such a shoddily-concocted illusion is maintained by having her hide behind a bush, her "feet" sticking out the other side. Sadly, an attempt at keeping the illusion is shattered when Mabel crawls along the ground, "elongated", with the other comparatively-sized children in the same shot. Further scenes from the POV of the inside of a "stone" dinosaur do little to raise the bar, though this is likeable stuff, despite or even because of such shortcomings.

4 Magic End (1.6)

The Enchanted Castle was adapted for television by Julia Jones, a writer who went on to adapt relatively similar properties, such as Tom's Midnight Garden and The Snow Spider. The adaptation is very faithful to Edith Nesbit's 1907 novel, though it is fun to compare the differences between the two. Perhaps the biggest oversight lies here, with an ending that sees the children pushed to the background as their boarding school nanny and the bailiff of Mabel's aunt are revealed to be long-lost lovers, reunited. It's a slightly underwhelming ending, as it appears to come very much out of left-field in the TV version, whereas the novel gives extra character to the nanny and has her reveal that she had a lost love far earlier in the book.
      Some other differences occur throughout the six episodes, be it Cathy refusing to kiss the "princess" awake in the first episode ("I can't, I'm a girl!") something she tries in the book, or the level of Gerald's chauvinism ("I'll marry a dumb girl, or else get the ring to make her so that she can't speak unless she's spoken to.") Such things are very much "of the time", and the novel is 111 years old at date of writing, so the mores and standards of today aren't relevant, even if the book gives us girls who are far more frightened and delicate than that seen on screen.
     Perhaps the most compelling piece of characterisation removed from the adaptation is that when the magic ring casts a spell over the wearer, it causes their relatives to stop caring... Mabel's aunt is far more loving in the book, and her onscreen dismissiveness is as a result of magic side-effects, but this is never explained to viewers.
      However, the biggest difference occurs with what would have been episode two. Not only does Gerald foil a robbery while invisible, but there's an entire subplot set at a fairground where he uses the magic ring's influence to make money as a conjurer. Throughout this sequence he has a tie wrapped around his head like a turban and is in blackface, pretending to be from India. Cathy's concerns that he'll be "eloped with by gypsies" as a result bring about a very different slant on events.
     Ultimately this sequence was excised altogether, and although Jimmy is seen wearing a turban during the play in episode three, it's not in blackface. The Enchanted Castle is a very dated television programme, yet this is one case where it managed to side-step its place in history; The Black and White Minstrel Show had been axed by the BBC the year before, and the 1980s was to prove to be a very different time...

3 Moon Magic (1.2)

The most special effects-heavy episode of the series, which basically involves lots of objects flying around with huge black electronic marks over them, and "shadows" of invisible characters, which basically amount to some cardboard cut outs of the characters held in front of the camera. It's shockingly primitive stuff, which, despite the nice location filming and decent film stock, makes you realise that very little money was spent on it.
      While it's easy to say this was "of the time", the afore-mentioned Box Of Delights was made with a reputed million pound budget, something clearly not in evidence here. It's not that a TV series has to look expensive, but even by the standards of the time it lacks the polish that many other childrens' series were afforded. This is, after all, a series that post-dates programmes like Catweazle and was a contemporary of Worzel Gummidge.
      As with episode four, there is slight evidence of treading water, narratively-speaking, as little happens to change the basic set up throughout this one. There's also Gerald's overbearing parochialism. While the series has decent roles for girls, it is still set in the early 1900s, and so neither of them objects when told by the bossy Gerald: "Dry your eyes, my dear... crying got no one nowhere."

2 A Magic Day (1.1)

Revisiting The Enchanted Castle, the first thing the viewer has to be wary of is, sadly, the standard of the main actors. While they're just children, it is shocking to look back and realise that this standard of performance was considered acceptable to broadcast.
     The youngest of the children, Marcus Scott-Barrett (Jimmy) has a disconcerting habit of looking off-camera for cues, or even directly into it during some takes. While it's an unkind feeling to criticise the acting skills of minors, Scott-Barrett's habit of thrusting his body forward with every line delivery is a great distraction, his stagy inexperience showing through.
     Faring only slightly better is Simon Sheard as his older brother Gerald, who, like Scott-Barrett, had minimal screen roles afterwards. Candida Beveridge does slightly better as their sister, Cathy, though didn't act on screen again, and is now an award-winning journalist.
      If watching the three children is a difficult ask, then their friend Mabel is less of a distracting presence, being the only one with previous acting experience in television. She went on to have multiple screen roles, including a two-year run in Emmerdale, and worked with the RSC. While she's clearly inexperienced at this stage, she's not amateurish like the other three, which makes it incredibly difficult to engage with the series... even though such things were commonplace on television of the age, and as a child this was compelling, thrilling stuff.
     Shortly to celebrate its 40th anniversary, the serial doesn't really hold up to modern eyes, but then it wasn't made for children of what was then a far future.

1 Magic Life (1.3)

The vast majority of this story's reputation rests on this episode, one that sticks in the mind of kids who loved to be terrified. There's a moment where the children put on a play to showcase their acting skills - this is in the days before TV regularly indulged in irony - and want an audience to applaud them. Having made an audience of dummies called "Ugly-Wuglies", they're startled when their magic ring makes the dummies come to life and start applauding.
      Sadly, while still relatively unnerving, it's not quite a kid's TV horror to match the likes of Lonely Water or Jigsaw's Mr. Noseybonk. While the storyline here is that the dummies literally come to life, and one of them eventually assumes an entirely human form, this first appearance sees one of them clearly as a human with a paper mask. What would have been far more unnerving is if they all wore the stockings that most of them wear, causing them to look like animated rags, rather than actors dressed up.
     It doesn't help that one of them is audibly Molly Weir (Rentaghost's Hazel the McWitch) lending an air of familiarity to what should be an eerie otherness. All of which probably wouldn't have mattered to its target audience of 5-10 year olds, of which I was one, and found this, on transmission, absolutely terrifying. (Another example of the BBC budget can be gleaned by the fact that there are just six of them; the novel has seven).
      Lastly, there's a cameo from Simon Sheard's father Michael, who gets to watch an Ugly-Wugly parade and utter the single line "so help me... Guy Fawkes!" Michael Sheard was, of course, most famous as Mr. Bronson in Grange Hill, and also appeared in The Empire Strikes Back, six stories of Doctor Who and made no less than four onscreen appearances as Hitler, the first in an ill-advised "Hitler the shape-changing alien" storyline of The Tomorrow People.