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The Cult of .... 'King Of The Castle'

Title: King Of The Castle
King Of The Castle - DVD cover
Original transmission dates : Weekly from 8th May 1977 to 19th June 1977
Run time: 175 mins (7 episodes of 25 minutes)
Produced: HTV West for syndication via ITV regions throughout the UK.
Picture: Colour
Sound: Mono
DVD Availability: Released exclusively by network


King Of The Castle - A Synopsis.

Teenager Roland has recently moved to a crumbling tower block. He attends a strict grammar school, in which he has gained a scholarship place on the grounds of his musical talent. But both his very diverse home and school environments seem to be harsh, unforgiving places. At school the music master Spurgeon and his subservient assistant Hawker, with some venomous force, are constantly at pains to point out, as a scholarship pupil, just how lucky Roland is to be at the exclusive school. In the tower block, he is similarly singled out for attention and punishment by the local kids (Betty, Della and Alf, led by the ring-leader Ripper) because he goes to the posh grammar school. His home life provides little refuge with Ron, his father, caught up in a world of his own playing his saxophone, and his step-mother June, who doesn't feel she has the right to interfere in Roland's life. In these hostile and uncaring environments, Roland seeks the escapism of comics and of fantasy worlds far removed from reality. When Roland is sent on an errand for The tower block's caretaker, Vine, but unfortunately Ripper and the other kids don't take to the stranger in their midst's and a scuffle ensues on the stairs. Vine, and some police get in the way of the disturbance and Roland manages to escape up to the 10th floor, but the only exit route is the broken lift, which sends Roland hurtling down and down into the bowels of the tower block.

As the lifts comes to a halt in the basement Roland is spewed out into a damp, cobwebbed cellar as the lift doors shut, sealed with heavy granite blocks. He is greeted by the shabby and familiar looking Vein (the holder of the keys), who explains to a shell-shocked Roland, that he has arrived at the dungeon of The Castle, and that to escape he must fulfil some tasks, and those tasks are the reason why Roland was sent here in the first place. Fulfilling the tasks, he informs Roland, will earn him the keys which will allow him to escape the castle.

As Roland starts his journey up through the castle he finds a key that opens a first door, which allows him to enter a laboratory encounters Dr Hawkspur, an again familiar looking man of knowledge. The doctor explains he is conducting an experiment into constructing a human life, which he then intends to make indestructible, and that he will be able to educate, for the sole reason of being his master. The resulting creation is the 'Hawkeresque' Ergon, a subservient and pathetic slave. The experiment is successful in all but one aspect, Ergon can't speak, so Hawkspur starts to steal Roland's voice. Before the the process can be fully completed, Roland finds a key that helps him escape from Hawkspur and Ergon.

On his journey he encounters some more familiar faces, the Warrior Knight (Ripper) the guardian of the stairs, The Lady (June) who encapsulates desire and temptation at the price of possession, the kids who are unquestioning slaves in the castle kitchens (Beattie, Delta and Alfie), right up to the Lord of the castle (Ron). In each of these encounters Roland needs to find the key to progress his journey and make his escape, but in a dangerous world where values seem so askew, can Roland work out a path to become the King of the castle and escape his tormentors.

King Of The Castle The Cult of... King Of The Castle.

King Of The Castle was written by Dave Martin and Bob Baker, writers of classic children's drama SKY and who would go on to co-write both Dr Who and Wallace And Gromit stories). I wouldn't be understating the case to say that King Of The Castle is a unique and extraordinary piece of television. One of the remarkable things about it is the fact that it seems entirely ill-suited to a children's drama serial.

The basic story is simple enough, unhappy teenager, who feels alienation in all the elements of life, who retreats into a fantasy world where he must face his demons, which will help his salvation in the real world. But that main premise is but a pin prick in what is really going on underneath.

We have a familiar device of the displaced youth landing in a strange world that is inhabited by strange versions of people familiar to them from the real world (shades of The Wizard Of Oz). We have the upside down world where the insane are considered sane and the one voice of clarity is considered insane, and there is the device of a quest, in order to find keys to unlock doors and rise through the levels of the castle. Again this second level to the story is a comfortable and relatively (bearing in mind its original target audience) easy to follow allegory of Roland's rite de passage and search for salvation in his own skewed world of the tower block. But there are yet further levels of meaning eased in to the story, which by now would leaving its target audience bemused at very best, or more likely just plain confused.

Baker is quoted as saying that King Of The Castle was 'Kafka for kids', and that does seem an excellent summation of the series. The castle world in King Of The Castle is very Kafkaesque. We have the satire on the modern life represented by the workings of the castle, its bureaucratic department (which is akin to the Ministry of Disinformation in Terry Gilliam's Brazil) and the 'pointless' unquestioning pathetic daily toils of the people working throughout the castle. We have a number of deeper allegories, being the castle world representations of the 'real life' characters, one of the more interesting (and perhaps more out of place) of these being his real world step mother, embodying all that he desires and is tempted by in the castle world (with many supporting motifs and symbols) along with his desire to kill the castle world Lord (the representation of his real world father). It's obvious oedipal overtones would certainly be enough to convince Freud.

The final level of meaning to be added comes more subtly again in some of the motifs of the set design and it's dressing, and with the graphic on-screen overlays. For instance, during a speech that Dr Hawkspur gives explaining about constructing a human life, which he justifies by saying that he should be allowed to do this "if the other scientists succeed in de-populating the world", a stained-glass window containing a poppy flower is subtly overlayed over the laboratory, which seems to allude directly to the notion of wars. Now that doesn't take a huge leap of imagination, but surely your average teenager will not be looking for, nor indeed perceiving, the messages and meanings included within. Similarly, there are numerous references to literature included, apart from the afore-mentioned The Wizard Of Oz, there are references to Alice In Wonderland, Frankenstein and even Kafka's own The Castle.

One cannot doubt the ambition in the writing, and surely it is a useful experiment in itself, but whether this works as a children's drama in extremely questionable. It is understandable that given the series' bold ambition, together with a gang knife fighting scene, that the series was not shown in its anticipated weekday slot, but was instead moved to a 16.50 slot on Sundays (a very wise choice - I'm sure the weekday viewers tuning in for the likes of Sooty and Sweep would have been disturbed had they stumbled upon this by mistake). It is a testament to the quality and scope of the production, that it won the Bafta that year for its producer Leonard White.

Most of the action takes place in either in the tower block (filmed on location) or the castle, which is obviously a set (a particularly theatrical one for that), in fact it is so obviously a set that a one wonders whether the sets construction was a creative decision rather than a budget led decision. The special effects are for the time vary impressive in the main, with judicious use of blue screen effects helping enormously the other worldly feel of 'the castle' world. There are a few occasions when both sets and effects limitations overshadow the action (particularly where Roland is meant to be running, but is clearly running on the spot very unconvincingly, which is followed very shortly by so faux falling off the edge of a set of stairs). There are also a few occasions where either the mic boom or its shadow are clearly visible in shot.

The cast is led by Philip Da Costa (who, amongst other roles, starred in both the TV and film versions of the notorious Scum). He is ably supported by a great cast of character actors including Fulton MacKay (Mr Mackay from Porridge) Talfryn Thomas (from the original series' of the The Surviviors) and, almost inevitably, children's TV stalwart Milton Johns (Murphy's Mob, Into The Labyrinth, Tucker's Luck, SKY, Midnight Is A Place et al).

King Of The Castle is a curiously compelling, entertaining and downright strange piece of children's television, but it begs the question, why waste the story on kids?

'King Of The Castle' - DVD Review

Title: King Of The Castle
SKY - DVD cover
Release Date: 1st June 2009
Format: DVD (1 disc set)
Classification: 12
Run time: 175 mins
Barcode ref: 5027626306045
Released by: network (Web exclusive release via Network's site).








I have to say that I have no recollection of this series at all from its original transmission on ITV in 1977, but given its content and my age when it was transmitted, it was probably best that I didn't see it first time around anyway.

When I first got the DVD, I was hooked from the very first episode and I watched the whole series from start to finish in one go. I watched the series all over again (in two sittings this time) very shortly afterwards and found more and more things about the series absolutely fascinating. After watching it for a third time almost immediately after this, I remained spellbound and hugely impressed by this very strange, expansive series. It's fair to say I've seen nothing at all like this in children's drama before, and I would go as far as saying, King Of The Castle is one of the most ambitious (in content terms at least) of any children's serials that has been made to date.

The DVD release is by Network, as you may have already guessed - those kings among men who have cornered the market in releasing the very cream of cult telly (fans of cult kid's telly will no doubt already eb aware of there exclusive releases of SKY, The Jensen Code, Fly Into Danger, Robert's Robots etc). There are no extras included here, save for the 'easter eggy' production clocks, but extras are not really required here as it is reward enough that the series is getting a release in the first place. Episode 3 of King Of The Castle is missing in the archives (why is it that single episodes go missing so often - answers on a postcard please to the usual address), but luckily an off air copy was available to be included on the DVD. The off air episode is actually rather well preserved - much better than most of the off-air copies of programmes from this era that I have viewed (it makes me wonder on what format the copy was recorded). The visual aesthetics make the series look way ahead of its time (much more early 80s than 1977 when it was actually made). The soundtrack is well preserved and helps carry a particularly scary 15 odd second scream disturbingly well on the DVD format. The great sound quality is perhaps shown off to a lesser effect with one of the worst theme tunes ever to grace a television series - it is little more than the kids rhyme "I'm the king of the castle" etc.

I would rate King Of The Castle as one the most peculiarly unique and fascinating 'children's' series ever made - and that is in spite of how massively inappropriately targeted it was. A must for fans of the darkly strange, anyone who missed out on it when it was originally screened in 1977, or even for those who caught it at the time and would like a second chance to work out just what the hell it was all about.

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