Today’s Kids Need More Shows Like Children of the Stones

This ’70s British series may be the scariest children’s program of all time, but I’d have no problems with my kids watching it.
Children of the Stones

Several weeks ago, I sat through a recent Netflix original movie titled Rim of the World. Based on the premise — a group of kids at a summer camp find themselves to be Earth’s last, best hope after an alien invasion — and promo materials, I thought it might be something fun to watch with my own kids, a fun little summer blockbuster packed with action, humor, and heart.

I’m glad I watched it on my own first, though, because Rim of the World turned out to be a needlessly crass and gory film that constantly reminds you — both in terms of narrative similarities and call-outs — that you could be watching a much better film (e.g., Jurassic Park, Super 8, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Attack the Block). I was actually quite angry after watching it, not just because it was both a waste of my time and unacceptable for my kids (or any kids, for that matter), but also because its foul language, blatant consumerism, unnecessarily gory violence, and “edgy” humor served no purpose and contained zero heart or soul.

Despite its young cast, youthful setting, and inherently-silly-but-promising premise, Rim of the World felt less like a film that was honestly made for kids, and more like a film imagined by out-of-touch movie executives who think they know what “kids these days” are into. As a result, it’s a film that becomes a deeply cynical experience.

By contrast, I recently became fascinated by the British series Children of the Stones, and as I watched it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Rim of the World. Originally broadcast on British television in 1977, and subsequently on Nickelodeon in the early ’80s, Children of the Stones has been called “the scariest program ever made for children.” Even the series’ director had a hard time at first believing it was for kids due to both its complex storyline and unsettling atmosphere.

The series begins with Adam and Matthew Brake arriving in Milbury, which the father and son imagine to be a quaint, if somewhat remote village in the British countryside. They’ve arrived so that Adam, a scientist, can research the properties of the stones encircling the village (and get a fresh start after the death of their wife and mother). But they soon find that their lovely new home has a dark side, and as they do so, Children of the Stones becomes increasingly strange and otherworldly, weaving together themes and concepts including ley lines, black holes, psychic phenomena, pre-Christian paganism, time loops, and brainwashing.

I don’t want to say too much more because part of the joy of watching Children of the Stones — all seven episodes can be easily found online with some searching — is the experience of getting caught up in its tone and atmosphere, which are greatly enhanced by the series’ picturesque setting, engaging performances (especially that of Iain Cuthbertson as the elegant-yet-sinister Rafael Hendrick), and the soundtrack, which makes heavy use of eerie choral arrangements (as can be heard in the opening titles below).

So why would I let my kids watch Children of the Stones and not something like Rim of the World? Simply put, I reject the notion that children should be presented with safe, sanitized versions of reality in the stories they read and watch lest they encounter anything too “disturbing” or “challenging.” I believe the media that a child experiences should be appropriate for their conscience and levels of awareness, but never does that mean they should be pandered or talked down to.

Even with all of its needless vulgarity and gore, Rim of the World is safe and sanitized, even cynically so. There’s never any doubt whatsoever about the fate of our heroes, even when they’re being hunted by a bloodthirsty alien, avoiding violent gangs, or trying to make it through a destroyed city. By contrast, nothing feels safe or predictable in Children of the Stones (even after allowing for differences in both cultural norms and production values that are bound to be present in a 40-year-old British series). Despite lacking anything that even remotely resembles excessive vulgarity or gore — again, it is a 40-year-old British series — a true sense of evil and urgency pervades the series’ seven episodes. As such, there are real stakes for our protagonists, who find themselves caught up in forces far beyond their understanding.

The mixture of the strange and the ordinary, most obviously seen in the juxtaposition between the idyllic British countryside and the forces lurking within its hills, is also a subtle reminder that the world is far bigger, stranger, and more mysterious beneath any quotidian facade. Yet despite all that, the Brakes resolve to keep their wits about them and do their best to resist the evil they encounter, however unearthly it might be.

The strength of the Brakes’ resistance is due in large part to Adam and Matthew’s relationship. Were Children of the Stones a more modern series, I suspect their relationship would be a good deal more dysfunctional. Adam would probably be cold and devoted to his career following his wife’s death while Matthew would be angst-ridden and ultra-hormonal — aspects that’d be clearly intended to make the series “grittier” and more “realistic,” or some other annoying nonsense.

As it stands, their relationship is characterized by trust and respect, and though that might seem naïve and simplistic, I found it charming and even a bit inspirational. Adam may be a devoted and rational scientist but he’s open-minded and never dismissive of Matthew’s apparent psychic powers and though Matthew likes to poke fun at dear old Dad, he gladly aids him in his research. Even the burgeoning attraction between Adam and the village museum’s curator is never anything but chaste, right to the bittersweet end.

Several years ago, comedian Stewart Lee compared Children of the Stones to a modern series like Skins, and discussed how the different series speak to, and about, teenagers. In his estimation, Children of the Stones, even with its fantastical storyline, offers the more relatable and inspiring experience for younger viewers.

If pressed to name a good modern equivalent for Children of the Stones, Stranger Things is probably the most obvious (and well-known) choice. Though Stranger Things is darker and less kid-friendly (due primarily to language and violence), both series have the same fascination with juxtaposing the mundane with the otherworldly. They both have similar levels of charm and heart, and perhaps most importantly, they share similar values.

Both series emphasize the importance of loyalty and relationships, the existence of evil and forces beyond everyday comprehension, and the necessity of bravely pushing back against said evil, no matter the cost. Both series are incredibly imaginative and fanciful, and willing to be ambiguous and open-ended. And perhaps most importantly, both series refuse to traffic in cynicism. They may delve into fantastical topics, be it government conspiracies and otherworldly monsters (Stranger Things) or psychic phenomena, pagan rituals, and brainwashing (Children of the Stones), but they do so to weave a good, compelling story that engages you, fires your imagination, and leaves you feeling richer when the credits start rolling.

It may be a few years yet before I’m comfortable with my kids watching Stranger Things (again, due primarily to concerns over its language and violence), but I’d have no qualms with them watching Children of the Stones, provided they’re OK with some creepiness. Truth be told, I wish they made more series like Children of the Stones for “kids these days” — series that, for all their fantastical elements, feel no need to be edgy or dark in order to be “relevant,” but nevertheless, aren’t afraid to both expose and confront darkness, and in doing so, offer a clearer and truer view of the world.

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