Based on the book by Lucy Boston, which was followed by five others in a series mostly about the house and its history and partially about the characters featured in this story, The Children Of Green Knowe is the kind of quiet exercise that doesn’t often get made for kids anymore. Perhaps it is outdated in this way, but there’s something to be said for offering kids the opportunity to experience a mood from film other than excited.
Young Toseland (Alec Christie) is doomed to sit in his boarding school over Christmas since his father and step-mother are out of the country, until a previously unknown great-grandmother sends word that she would love to have him at her estate for the holidays. The estate is an 11th Century house built by Normans, and it has the appropriate stories for a structure so old.
Toseland’s great grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow (Daphne Oxenford) is welcoming and warm, exactly what the boy needs, but when he begins to perceive there are other presences around the manor, Mrs. Oldknow turns out to have an intimate, almost mysterious insight, to who they might be. The story of Toseland’s holiday is entwined with Mrs. Oldknow’s vivid tales of three ancestors of theirs who died in the plague in the 17th Century.
This is, at heart, a ghost story, which becomes more apparent as Toseland begins to interact with the other children, usually at a distance or through sound, and eventually face to face. There are other mysteries surrounding Green Knowe, though, and Toseland takes these all in and literally absorbs the atmosphere of the place.
The atmosphere is actually the star of the show. This is a mood piece and a moody piece. It’s a tale of haunting, but it’s a benign haunting. There are hints of evil in some of the mysterious details, and Mrs. Oldknow’s accounts of hundreds of years before seem disarmingly firsthand, but the show is really about Toseland exploring his surroundings and coming to terms with the soul of the place. It’s very much a celebration of imagination — there is a certain level where you do wonder if this is just a shared story between the boy and his great-grandmother. If you’ve ever been a kid alone, left to amuse yourself in a strange place, you might just find plenty here to take to heart.
The four-part series is immensely well shot, and the performances are all very good. There was a film made about the second book in 2009 — a Julian Fellowes affair, unfortunately, but it does boast Timothy Spall — but the television effort just stopped here, which is too bad. Even in its production year of 1986, it seemed like something that crept out of another era, but the mood and mysteries it presents were sophisticated and powerful, and this would’ve been a wonderful series to grow up with if you were the kind of kid who yearned for something different from Transformers and He-Man.