Our Brother in Magic

Robin Carmody on Catweazle

First published April 2000

Look around. Forget the dull, unexciting reality of today. Imagine it’s March 1970. It’s easy if you try. The stuffy conventions of early children’s TV are being visibly swept away. ITV’s golden decade looms on the horizon. Colour has provided a new freedom. Thames are making progress. The Owl Service, just finished, has thrown open the boundaries of what is acceptable in drama for “young people”. And, in the Surrey countryside, an 11th century wizard, a failure at his craft, an eccentric in the finest children’s TV tradition, is pursued in the sunshine by Norman invaders. He jumps. The cry of “Let me fly” is heard for the first time, instantly memorable. He emerges in a pond, the sky now grey. An image that remains embedded in the minds of a generation.

From here on in we have 26 episodes which, for the most part, spread across the three decades incredibly well. Richard Carpenter’s initial promise in TV Times that “I hope the children will be laughing at the words – in Catweazle there won’t be any custard pies” was lived up to throughout the first series. Geoffrey Bayldon identified himself so much with the role of Catweazle that he almost seemed to merge into the character. Robin Davies made Carrot into one of the most likeable characters of the era, with no end of sympathy, an unvarying friendliness, and some lines that stick in the mind permanently (“Alright, Haiwatha, you can come out now” being a particular favourite of mine). Charles Tingwell made Mr Bennett a perfect fatherly character of the type that doesn’t really exist now (sometimes icy-cold, sometimes deeply sympathetic) and Neil McCarthy managed to make Sam Woodyard endearingly rural without turning him into some caricatured yokel.

Memorable moments include the half-chilling, half-reassuring invocation of voodoo magic in “The Witching Hour”, the weird mutation of horse-racing speak in “The Eye of Time” (Bayldon’s intoning of “Lingfield” and “Newmarket” is something to behold) and Carrot rendered into a monkey, entering the territory of a classically bonkers colonel, in “The Demi-Devil”. Throughout, a genuine sense of magic was evoked, the touch always light but never so light that the ultimate poignancy of Catweazle’s character, his desperation to return to his own time, couldn’t come through. And Catweazle’s fading light at the end of “The Trickery Lantern”, and Carrot’s sad walk away back to Hexwood Farm, remains one of the most mournfully romantic moments in all children’s TV.

There were problems with the second series. Catweazle’s return to the 20th century moved the series into a new setting and entirely new cast, from a hard-up farming family to a similarly hard-up aristocratic family. The feel of the programme changed, somehow – characterized by the sudden heavy use of jaunty, Carry On …/On the Buses/Please, Sir!-type music, absent from the first series. Lord and Lady Collingford (Moray Watson and Elspet Gray) are more likeable than any ’70s Sunday-teatime BBC aristocrats, but they are finally quite one-dimensional (apart from in the final episode) and Groome (Peter Butterworth) is ultimately less well-formed and less believable than Sam Woodyard. Gary Warren (also seen in the 1970 film of The Railway Children) makes Cedric into probably the most likeable upper-class child ever on children’s TV (not that there’s that much competition …) although there’s still something slightly immature and mildly dislikeable about Cedric, compared to Carrot’s wit, likeability and maturity.

Held back at times by the way every episode has to end in the finding of one of the 13 signs of the Zodiac (whose significance does not become obvious until the conclusion), series two reaches a low point halfway through – “The Enchanted King” is by far the worst episode of the 26, descending into pure slapstick, and the silly German identical twin toad experts in “The Familiar Spirit”, with their ‘Allo ‘Allo accents, take some defending.

But series two comes into its own at the end, when it adopts a classical motif of English children’s literature – a treasure hunt to prevent an ancestral home from being sold (most perfectly expressed in Philippa Pearce’s Minnow on the Say, televised under the title Treasure Over the Water by the BBC in 1972). And the last episode, “The Thirteenth Sign”, is perfection, the natural conclusion to the series and arguably the finest episode of all.

The scene of Catweazle and Cedric together, with the sound of thunder in the background, that ends the penultimate episode, “The Magic Circle”, and the recurring image of autumn leaves blowing across the grounds of King’s Farthing Manor, with the spectre of boarding school and the house having to be sold, represents a looming end to two innocences (summer and childhood). The treasure is found, but when Catweazle appears to renounce magic, and seems to have resigned himself to a life trapped out of Time, the sadness is deep. But the moment when he sees the hot-air balloon, enters it, and finally flies … such elation. I could kiss for it. The moment when Cedric smiles in recognition that Catweazle has fulfilled his destiny, and the final scene of all, when Catweazle flies over the English countryside (itself often invoked as a symbol of permanence and the ultimate irrelevance of Time), celebrating his freedom and beginning a fulfilling journey through Time, a quite beautiful tune replacing the usual bouncy theme music over the closing credits, are glorious. For me, they have an emotional impact comparable to the disappearance of Tom, Sarah and Dorrie into the shadows of Time at the climax of Moondial, and Tom’s meeting with Mrs Bartholomew at the end of Tom’s Midnight Garden. That good.

I think Catweazle‘s enduring quality comes from its being the meeting point of two sensibilities. While it represents children’s TV emerging from the overt innocence of its early days, the stiffness and stilted characterization that marked the years up to 1968 – and it has incidental music and a theme tune very much of its time (although some music used, especially the jaunty tune played during the cycle chase in “The Magic Circle”, is more evocative of the ’50s) – it also has roots in earlier traditions of children’s literature, radio, cinema (Children’s Film Foundation films, even the English “types” of Ealing comedy) that set it in a time when the mass commercialization of modern childhood culture was unimaginable. While it stands up very well, and has not dated in a bad or embarrassing way, there are enough scenes rooted in a bygone era of British childhood (the birthday party on the lawn in “The Heavenly Twins”, Carrot in school cap and blazer in “The Wisdom of Solomon”, the straw-hatted schoolgirls in “The Curse of Rapkyn”) to make it the product of a distant, different age. From that it gains its poignancy, but also its charm – a charm it will never lose.