After forty years, there’s magic in the air once more in an old English village. I recount upon a summer's day when I surfaced in a Surrey field to discover a very different kind of magic circle…
Those of a certain age often speak of a time in their childhood when, ‘The sun was always shining’ — or perhaps so it seems. For those born in the early to mid-1960s however, the chances are that such halcyon memories may indeed have been shaped in part by the long hot summer of 1969 — and for some, this year will also forever hold a very special added significance.
On an old farm deep in the heart of the Surrey countryside, I was once privileged enough to witness one of the rarest and most magical events in the chronicles of classic British television adulation; an event of such subtle magnitude that I felt compelled to write about it — almost as soon as I came back down to earth.
Although in itself increasingly rare, at first sight, this event may have looked just like any other ordinary English garden fete of a type more often associated with a bygone era, and in a sense, it was. Amongst other attractions, there was a tom bola, a coconut shy, afternoon tea and cakes, Pimm's served with ice and mint and children dancing around a maypole — delightful. A wander into an adjacent field however, and one could be forgiven for being just a little intrigued by the crowd-pulling power of one particular pitch, in the form of a large, white, almost medieval-style tent. In fact, so intense is this power, that some people have been known to travel not only from the British Isles, but from lands as far afield as Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and even Australia, just to be there for a few magical hours, once a year on a Saturday afternoon. What could possibly incite such devotion? Quite simply, a charming, classic and quintessentially British television series called ‘Catweazle’.
As if it were not enough that the ‘hallowed’ ground upon which we stood was the principle location where filming took place in the sparkling summer of 1969, unbeknown to most, there was pleasure beyond all expectations yet to come…
In case Catweazle has slipped you by, it's quite simply a unique time-travel show that exploded onto British television screens in a blaze of colour at 5.30pm on Sunday the 15th of February, 1970.
The story focuses on the adventures of an eleventh-century wizard who — whilst being pursued by Norman soldiers — endeavours to fly through the air in a bid to escape. Despite his finest incantation, Catweazle plummets into a lake, yet through mystical powers conveyed via water, to his dismay he somehow manages to fly nine hundred years through time instead, surfacing through a pool in the middle of a field in the twentieth century. Upon arrival, he finds his way to a barn on ‘Hexwood Farm’ and is soon discovered and befriended by a red-haired boy, affectionately nicknamed ‘Carrot’, who is the farmer's son. The befuddled magician soon finds sanctuary in the form of a disused M.O.D. water tower in the forest which he calls ‘Castle Saburac’ — taking solace from the notion that no arrows can pierce its defences. The ensuing adventures of Catweazle, as he is guided through a world of ‘new magic’ by Carrot — his mentor — whom he calls the ‘Young Sorcerer’, revolve around his attempts to come to terms with the machinations of the twentieth century, and on unlocking the secret of returning to his own time.
His reactions to inventions that could only be perceived as magic by someone from the eleventh century, were brilliantly conceived by the series' creator, Richard ‘Kip’ Carpenter, who until submitting his ideas for the series to London Weekend Television in 1968, was better-known for his work as an actor than as a writer. The phenominal success of Carpenter’s debut script meant that he never really acted again. Such eloquence as when Catweazle describes a light bulb as ‘the sun in a bottle' and expressions such as ‘electrickery’ (electricity) and ‘telling bone’ (a white GPO type 746 telephone!) have ensured Catweazle's idioms a place in the patois of a generation. The Police of the 1970s even came to use the name ‘Catweazle’ as a term to describe vagrant types. Catweazle’s doubtful magical prowess in all but the climactic episodes also became a key element, his frustrations being regularly voiced with the catchphrase: ‘Nothing works!’
The potential in Carpenter’s idea was recognised by Joy Whitby at LWT, who after initially receiving his hand-written ideas, helped him to develop his concept and became executive producer of the series.