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Raven – Unearthing Hidden Buried Power and Battles to Safeguard the Future: Wanderings 15/26

There is a strand of 1970s British young adult television drama that draws from Arthurian myth and legend but rather than directly attempting to tell tales of King Arthur and related well known characters and stories such as the wizard Merlin who aided him, Arthur becoming king by pulling the mystical sword Excalibur from a stone, the quests of The Knights of the Round Table and so in it places the powers and magic related to Arthurian myth in more recent times.

Three notable examples of this strand are: the contemporary set The Changes (1975), in which a sentient lodestone that had once given magic powers to Merlin is attempting to take Britain back to a more ecologically balanced time by causing the population to fear and destroy machines and electricity; Moon Stallion (1978), which revolves around a blind girl in late Victorian times who encounters a plot to capture a white horse that is the mystical messenger of the moon goddess who is connected to Merlin’s story; and Raven (1977), where in contemporary times a teenage boy is revealed to be the latest in a line of King Arthurs and utilises his magical powers and charisma in order to prevent the building of a nuclear waste storage facility in a rurally located ancient underground cave system, which is simultaneously undergoing archaeological research. The caves are linked to King Arthur in some way, possibly containing the source of his powers and/or acting as a gateway through time for him and them.

Raven was a six part mini-series produced by the commercial British broadcaster and production company Associated Television (ATV) and was created and written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, who also created the television fantasy drama series Children of the Stones (1977), which centred around an ancient stone circle’s magic and cosmic power that has been harnessed to keep the local population docile and in a repeating time rift. Both series explore and contain some surprisingly adult themes and atmospheres, particularly considering their intended younger audience.

However, while Children of the Stones is largely purely fantasy and science fiction based, Raven adds a real world edge to its themes as its story is based around ecological concerns related to the nuclear industry and related processes, in particular the long term safety implications of storing nuclear waste material that will stay hazardous for a quarter of a million years and moral responsibilities in relation to safeguarding the world for future generations. It also occasionally incorporates other aspects of contemporary events in the real world such as what some perceived as a malaise in the British workforce and trade union activity, which was a prominent aspect of the national conversation during the 1970s. This is referred to when workers at the waste facility refuse to continue their work due to worries about safety after a rockfall and a government minister says in a derogatory manner that “It’s the same old excuse, give the British workman the slightest excuse to down tools and he’s off to the pub.”

Adding a further both mystical and real world layering Raven heavily incorporates astrological concepts, with the cave system’s structure and symbols found in it relating to the twelve signs of the zodiac, which connects the series with the rise of New Age and mystical interests in the 1970s.

The series is named after its central character, who is an approximately 16-year-old former borstal inmate who as part of his rehabilitation is sent to live in a rural area with an archaeology professor and his wife. The professor is leading the archaeological investigation in the system of caves, which he believes are connected to the legend of King Arthur, and he strongly resists and wants to stop the building of the nuclear waste facility in them. The professor is confined to a wheelchair and surveys the archaeological work via CCTV and only has thirty days before work on preparing the caves as a waste facility is complete and his investigations will have to stop, and it is intended that Raven will assist him during this final month. After initially thinking that the professor is attempting to hold back progress by trying to stop the waste facility plans, Raven becomes passionately involved in the fight against them. This is due in part to him reading information on them and the background of the area which the professor gives to him, which results in him appreciating the value the professor places in the caves, and also being influenced by a young reporter called Naomi Grant who works for a local newspaper and who is opposed to the plans, in defiance of her paper’s official policy

Raven has a wiry street wise energy and initially he make for a marked, almost alien, contrast, and seems very much at odds with, his new chocolate box pretty rural home and the character of his hosts, the gruff and research driven professor and his gently maternal wife. Raven is played by Phil Daniels, who would later play the lead frustrated and rebellious teen role in the iconic mod film Quadrophenia (1979), and around a similar time as Raven was produced he also played a fatalistic borstal inmate in the Alan Clarke directed British television play Scum (1977). There are similarities between the three characters but Raven is almost like the flipside of his character in Scum; he has a pragmatic, realist attitude and acceptance of his past and former wrongdoings but after an initial almost recidivist recalcitrance, coupled with an also almost reactionary acceptance that those in power must know best in terms of the plans for the waste facility, he quickly grasps opportunities to change on a personal level and attempts to become what he considers to be a positive influence on society by working to stop the waste facility plans.

From early in the series there are suggestions that Raven may not be a “normal” person; he does not know who his parents were and he tells of how he was found as a baby in an earthwork maze, where a black raven stood guard and would not leave his side until it knew he was safe. He took his name from this type of bird and keeps a photograph of it, which he calls dad. Another bird appears to follow him on his train journey to the professor’s and it is subsequently revealed to be a merlin bird of prey, which through its Arthurian myth connected name further hints that Raven may not be a conventional teenager on the threshold of adulthood.

When discussing King Arthur the professor tells of how it is thought that Arthur may not have been the name of a particular person but rather the name given to a line of kings. He also says that in Arthurian myth and legend it is thought that the last Arthur is not dead but merely slumbering after recovering from a wound and will return when he is needed (which connects with the Arthurian plot aspect of the previously mentioned series The Changes, where the lode-stone’s power is awoken when it considers that the ecological system is under threat). The cave system is revealed to be the nexus for the return of King Arthur, or possibly acts as a portal that allows the channelling of power and magic so that it can be passed on to the latest in the line of kings.

Although he does not initially directly say it, the professor knows that Raven is the latest incarnation of Arthur, and he acts as a Merlin-like guide and helper to him. As he does so Raven experiences mystical visions of himself as King Arthur, which result in the physical anointing of him with an astrological sign by this otherworldly presence and he gains a charismatic, possibly magical, influence over others. He subsequently brings together a disparate group, who are effectively his Arthurian “knights”, and leads their efforts to stop the nuclear waste facility plans.

In Arthurian myth there are 12 such knights, including Arthur, and as suggested in the series this number and them gathering at a round table (hence “The Knights of the Round Table”) may be connected to astrology and the twelve symbols of the zodiac. Raven also has 12 knights or helpers and in a manner which further connects the story with ancient mythology and beliefs he takes his place as their “king” and inspires them to fight against wrongdoing during a night-time ritual, which takes place at a stone circle. This is sited in the rural landscape above the cave system, and next to the portacabin which serves as the headquarters for both the professor’s archaeological investigations and the waste facility plans, and along with the astrological symbols which are found in the caves the stone circle’s presence marks the area as a place of ancient beliefs, worship and possibly magic.

Another connection with Arthurian myth is provided towards the end of the series, when the young reporter Naomi Grant, who along with Raven has become the nucleus of the team or group of knights who fight plans for the waste facility, and for whom he has romantic hopes, leaves him to take up both a job and a romantic attachment with a television current affairs programme presenter who is instrumental in their fight. This plot strand connects with the story of King Arthur’s greatest ally and companion Lancelot and his adulterous affair with Arthur’s wife Queen Guinevere. However the presenter is portrayed more as a self-important glib opportunist rather than a close ally and friend, and Grant’s choosing of him merely leaves Raven a bit moodily bereft rather than contributing to the collapse of the land’s well-being and the ending of Arthur’s kingdom, as Guinevere and Lancelot’s actions do in Arthurian myth.

Alongside being a reporter, Grant writes the astrology column for the newspaper she works for and in the series she is the character who mostly suggests and explains possible astrological links in relation to events, the cave system etc. Perhaps reflecting the previously mentioned widespread interest in astrology etc in the 1970s (and also possibly the way that those of a younger age are often placed in almost wish fulfillment positions of central influence in young adult orientated fictional work) her astrological based theories and suggestions with regards to the caves and their structure are often given a high degree of credence by those in authority. They are even used to help save the supervisor of the waste facility’s development when he becomes trapped by a rockfall in the cave system, which happens after Grant has predicted some kind of disaster due to the waste facility workers digging a tunnel between two caves which had astrological symbols outside them that she says were fundamentally incompatible, and therefore connecting them would bring negative energy into the cave system. After the collapse she and Raven use their astrology based knowledge of the cave system’s structure to suggest an alternative quicker drilling site that will enable the rescue team to save the trapped supervisor before his air runs out, and despite the head of the rescue team’s scepticism he takes their advice, which leads to a successful rescue.

The professor’s archaeological team and the waste facility workers only discover 11 caves but Raven and Grant realise that there must be a hidden 12th cave in the middle of the others, which they think was King Arthur’s cave. They leave a public meeting that will decide if the waste facility is to be completed in order to find this cave, which when they find it has an ever burning “dragon’s flame” inside it, and this links with Raven’s earlier realisation that the structure of the cave system forms an approximate dragon shape. It also connects with Raven’s taking on the mantle of King Arthur and his inspiring of the fight against the waste facility plans and attempting to protect the land for future generations through its connection with Arthurian myth. One story in related mythology involves the wizard Merlin when he was young telling a king called Vortigan that the reason the tower he is attempting to build collapses each day is due to there being a red and a white dragon who are trapped beneath it and doing battle. Merlin tells the king that they must be freed in order that the tower can be built and when a hole is dug into the side of the hill they emerge and continue to do battle. Initially the white dragon looks to have won and then the red dragon launches a fresh attack and defeats it once and for all before flying off with a cry of victory. When Vortigan asks Merlin what this means he replies that the red dragon represents the people of Britain and the white dragon the invading Saxons, and that although the Saxons seem to be winning the war, one day a leader would come who gives the British the heart to fight back and drive them from their lands. This story connects with Arthur having been thought to be a king who lead the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries, which can be seen in some ways as being analogous with Raven battling the waste facility plans.

Discovering this final cave and his grasping of the flame in it appears to fully realise Raven’s magical powers and his transition into, or becoming a modern incarnation of, King Arthur. After it is noticed he is no longer at the public meeting it is thought he is trapped in the cave system, and when a rescue team arrives to save him it is, initially somewhat curiously seeming, headed by the government minister who is attempting to push through the waste facility proposal, and who is wearing a conventional suit rather than protective clothing. The minister’s presence is in fact due to him wanting to grasp the television publicity opportunity that he thinks this rescue will provide and he pushes to the front in order to be the first to see Raven in his cave. Raven makes a mystical mental connection with the minister by anointing him, as he himself was earlier, and shows him the dangers of nuclear power by causing the minister to have a vision of a nuclear explosion. After this it is revealed that the minister has suddenly and drastically changed his mind and the planned waste facility is cancelled. However despite this success the series does not end on a neatly rounded off note of positivity.

While the public meeting and rescue attempt take place the professor dies, with it being implied that he is able to do so as his work in aiding Raven assume the mantle and power of King Arthur is completed. However he has arranged for the continuance of the lineage of Merlin-like helpers by making his wife promise to burn a stuffed merlin bird from their home. This she does after his funeral and a new bird emerges phoenix like from the soil of the professor’s grave and flies off into the sky.

In the final scenes Raven is pictured stood apart from the mourners and dressed in his day-to-day casual wear rather than their formal black outfits. He then wanders off alone, passing through and away from the stone circle and stops to look around the landscape. It is unclear whether he is waking from a dream, leaving his role (or was it a form of possession?) as the new King Arthur behind or surveying the land of which he is the new crusading King and considering where else his work and help are needed.

Along with similarities in their themes this ambiguous ending provides a link with the acclaimed British nuclear industry conspiracy themed television drama series Edge of Darkness (1985), which ends on an equally open ended not dissimilar note and which in a number of ways Raven can been as a young adult orientated forebear of. Both explore ecological concerns in relation to nuclear power and the storing of related materials in rural underground cave systems, a sense of rebirth and regeneration through nature and also feature a crusading or questing knight-like figure who, despite their relative insignificance in terms of the hierarchy of power, prove to be an effective force or at least irritant to that hierarchy. As with Raven, at the end of Edge of Darkness its central character is shown stood alone aside from a group and amongst the landscape. His work is done in terms of one particular quest but the wider outcomes and results of ongoing related battles are unclear (although in Edge of Darkness the central character’s personal fate is almost certainly much darker due to his contamination by nuclear material during that quest).

In both series there is also a sense of rural and related subterranean areas being places that are away from the focus of potentially problematic public scrutiny, and that because of this they are useful as dumping grounds for the hazardous by-products of contemporary life. This is accompanied in both series by a sense of a lack of regard for both nature and also those who live in rural or non-metropolitan areas, and an assumption of the superiority of “civilised” urban-based society and infrastructure. This is given overt, and somewhat offensively glib, expression in Raven when the self-important television presenter says to his future romantic companion, the reporter Naomi Grant, after hearing some of her theories that he has “just made a momentous discovery… there are actually country folk with brains.” Slightly surprisingly, although perhaps not as she is shown to be very career orientated and more than a little ruthlessly ambitious and the presenter may be able to help with her advancement, she does not take task with this comment.

For the contemporary viewer who is accustomed to high-end production values there may be a certain amount of recalibration required when viewing a series such as Raven. In contrast with much of more recent television drama and film it does not attempt to visually fully and correctly portray every last detail and event, favouring a budget friendly almost impressionistic depiction. In Raven the drilling of rescue attempts is only heard offscreen and the rescue team arrives in one smallish vehicle that does not feature official insignia, the only indication of its purpose being a small flashing light on its roof; the entrance to the cave system and waste facility site, the development of which it is said a lot of public money has been spent on, is a ramshackle temporary looking shed-like structure made from just a few sheets of corrugated metal; the professor’s archaeology team and the waste facility workers are curiously underpopulated or almost non-existent and so on.

Accompanying this almost impressionistic view of the locations and events in the series, a number of the events in the cave system are only seen via fairly limited and often-indistinct CCTV surveillance in the professor and waste facility supervisor’s joint portacabin office. This adds an extra level of tension by creating a distancing and lack of being able to effect or control events, or even to know fully what is happening, for those who are viewing them.

The series is largely presented in a realist manner but also features a number of very effective mystical sequences that stand up well today, and make good use of limited special effects resources. These include sections where still images of the professor and the merlin bird rapidly intercut and their eyes begin to glow before they merge together, which have an abrupt and disquieting atmosphere. Elsewhere Raven and others have visions which are depicted as trippy cosmic sequences that layer swirling psychedelic patterns with astrological symbols and Raven shown as a returning King Arthur in a robe and crown, who seems to be travelling through time and space to pass on his power and anoint his next in line. These visions are accompanied by garbled whispered voices, synthesizer tones and white noise not dissimilar to work by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop during a similar period, which adds to their unsettling and otherworldly quality. Similar symbols also magically appear at times on the CCTV monitors, which serve to act as an intriguing combining and meeting of contemporary technology and mystical powers.

At the time of writing Raven is not available to stream etc online and it had its first (and so far only) DVD release in 2012 by Network, a company established in 1997 which specialises in the licensing and release of often semi-forgotten and overlooked corners of British film and television from previous decades. Alongside a number of releases of higher profile series such as the science fiction and fantasy series Space 1999 (1975-1979) and The Prisoner (1967), Network’s releases have included a number of hauntological and wyrd or otherly pastoral cultural reference points, such as the earlier mentioned Children of the Stones, The Owl Service (1969-1970), compilations of public information films and various examples of Nigel Kneale scripted dramas, including Beasts (1976) and the final series of Quatermass (1979).

Text which accompanied Raven’s release on DVD says that it had “long been believed to be incomplete in the archive but we tracked down the original 2″ VT tapes for transfer”. Through such work and digging up, restoring and sending out curios like Raven into the world Network could be seen as effectively carrying out commercially funded archival preservation and distribution, in a manner not wholly dissimilar to the archival orientated independent television channel Talking Pictures TV and their DVD release company Renown Pictures.



Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:


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