December 11, 2012

King of the Castle (1977)



There are some TV programmes from my childhood which I thought I'd only imagined even though I fondly remembered important parts of them. On the other hand, there are quite a few which I wish really did only exist in my imagination because watching them as an adult makes me cringe. HTV's "King of the Castle" has a foot in both camps because, having spent a few hours today rewatching it, it's not something that I ever want to see again.

If you've never heard of "King of the Castle", here's the blurb from Amazon:
Macabre, fantastical and a benchmark production for children's television in the 1970s, King of the Castle was created by Doctor Who stalwarts Bob Baker and Dave Martin as one of the run of outstanding children's dramas HTV produced in that decade. Featuring strong direction and a script which expertly melds fantasy and reality, the series boasts solid performances from genre stalwarts Fulton Mackay, Milton Johns and Talfryn Thomas as well as Philip Da Costa as the series' hero, Roland. One of the most memorable television series of the '70s is available here, for the very first time in any video format. Episode three no longer exists in the archive in any format and the version included on this set is taken from an off-air VHS.
I'm not sure what I was looking for on YouTube when I discovered that the whole "King of the Castle' series had been uploaded by several people, but I was in one of those moods where I randomly click on the recommended videos until I end up watching some very strange channels indeed. Before I found "King of the Castle", I'd been watching highly embarrassing episodes of "Grange Hill", "Chocky" and "The Tomorrow People" and feeling dirty about doing so. If there's anyone of a similar age to me who didn't see at least one of those when they were originally shown then they probably didn't have a television.

Since I didn't recognise the title of "King of the Castle", all I remembered from the series to identify it was that the kid who got beaten up by bullies had a model kit of Frankenstein's monster, and somehow he ended up in a dungeon ruled by some ratty-looking guy who told him to always go up if he wanted to escape. What I'd forgotten was how the story was filled with clever socio-political subtext and commentary which I'm ashamed to say that I still don't quite understand even as an adult.

The big messages of the fantasy part of "King of the Castle" are apparently that work is pointless, comfort and ignorance is bliss, and there's too much bureaucracy in the world. There's a lot of Oedipal stuff going on too whereby the hero, Roland, has to take his father's role by force and has a crush of some kind on his stepmother. The latter doesn't surprise me in the slightest since Angela Richards, who plays the dual role of June and the Lady, is absolutely gorgeous.


Very recognisable faces include Fulton Mackay (the prison officer from "Porridge") as a Frankenstein-style scientist, Milton Johns as his monster, creepy Talfryn Thomas as the ratty-looking caretaker, and Jamie Foreman (who now plays Derek Branning in "Eastenders") as Ripper the bully. Bizarrely, I didn't recognise the lead, Philip Da Costa, as being the same guy who went on to play Jackson in "Scum" (1979).

In spite of the badly-timed, obviously stagey acting, and cheap sets which look better than the cardboard and curtains that they are really made of, "King of the Castle" isn't a bad piece of kids' entertainment for the time. Unfortunately, as a grown-up, I can see that it's really just a slightly darker, and very British, rip-off of "The Wizard of Oz" with the genders of the protagonists changed. Both nostos stories go back to Homer's "The Odyssey" anyway, but let's not get too highbrow about them.

One thing which really irritated me, perhaps because I've been away from Britain for so long, was the choirboy singing the "I'm the king of the castle, and you're a dirty rascal" theme tune which is full of the mispronounced "Estuary English" which I despise. It sounds like "I'm the king of the CARsul, and you're a dirty RARscul". Ugh. I hate that and "BARth" instead of "bath", "GLARss" instead of "glass", and the "someFINK" instead of "something" which even Gordon Ramsay has fallen prey too. I've always noticed it, but maybe it doesn't show up so much when you are constantly surrounded by it or you're a bit thick.

I don't recommend "King of the Castle" although I've embedded it as a playlist at the top of this post. It's not an accurate reflection of life in Britain in the late 1970s or anything, and it's certainly not scary for anyone over 7 years old. If you are into nostalgia, it's interesting to see a "Hammer Horror" magazine and a "Howard the Duck" comic at one point, but that's about it really.

Isn't it funny what you can find on YouTube when you are looking for something else? If only I could remember the name of that weird poltergeist story with a load of cushions flying around a room which I caught the last five minutes of. Whatever it was that left the image of someone tied to a chair with a washing line and a bottle of Sarson's malt vinegar stuck in their mouth is another matter.

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