Raven by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray
I spent much of my childhood reading Doctor Who novelisations to the extent that in many ways Terrance Dicks’ sometimes brisk but always accessible writing is my default memory of the original show. But I’ve never conducted an experiment whereby I watched a story for the first time and pretty much immediately followed it up with the book: I already know most stories either through their TV form or as book. So reading Raven is actually a pretty new experience for me – I finished the series this time last week and now have finished Burnham and Ray’s novel. And it’s a fascinating experience to encounter both so close together.
A little background to the show: it’s Burnham and Ray’s follow up to the legendary Children of the Stones and, probably, isn’t as impressive as the predecessor mainly because Burnham and Ray seemed to be throwing idea after idea at Stones, so there are few longeurs (there’s more than a few in Raven). The problem is the show finds it hard to wrap it all up in twenty five minutes so the final episode is almost a classic but never quite manages to cap the complex plot lines simmering along.
Raven is a far simpler story – Borstal kid is sent to the “midshires” to stay with a crotchety archaeologist and his ornithologist wife; he gets involved in attempts to turn a system of caves near a stone circle into a nuclear waste dump, despite the caves showing very obvious historical and religious importance to someone; Raven also has a mysterious past that seems linked to the caves… and any more will probably spoilt a few surprises. Because it’s simpler it never quite feels as adventurous as Stones, and there is definitely padding, but in terms of storytelling (as opposed to acting which is great, with Phil Daniels acting veteran performers off the screen effortlessly) this does allow the final episode and a bit to be far bolder. Because there’s less to wrap up, the TV version ends episode five on something very ambiguous which manages to remain so into episode six which then holds off the dramatic meat until the very last five minutes which is… either insanely and boldly brave in terms of how much it embraces lack of resolution or maddeningly vague depending on your viewpoint.
The novelisation is fascinating because it manages to tease up some ambiguity (the television crew’s appearance now seems definitely part of a design) whilst also clarifying some narrative points (the weird scene with the vicar mowing his lawn being the prime example), but also ends up very muddled in other places. Partly I assume this is because the book is written by the TV show’s authors but through a combination of the shooting script and trying to describe some of the performances. With the Professor and his wife and Bill this is absolutely fine because they’re very much “types” and that’s easy to write. Naomi sort of wobbles a bit because she’s far more, creepily, an object of lust to several people in the narrative where her performance on screen was such that you could quite easily nudge people’s fascination with her to be being impressed by how driven she is.
The problem characters are Clive Castle and Raven himself, mainly because the performances seem very different to how the characters were probably written. The Castle in the book is a bit of a mess: a weird combination of shallow poseur, effeminate ladies’ man and helpful idiot. The book can’t ever take the various elements and combine them to make a believable whole: the TV show does, with Hugh Thomas performing a dazzlingly odd performance as the calculatingly camp but deeply charming Castle. It’s a very nuanced performance so the jealousy of Raven manages to feel natural and mostly as paranoia on his side. That’s also helped by Daniels whose performance is incredibly naturalistic. He manages to convince several emotional pivots from angry to confused to excited to charming with startling ease. On the page Raven just seems like he’s barrelling towards a breakdown.
The other problem is the lack of ambiguity. One of the strongest bits of the show is the cliff-hanger, of sorts, of episode five which seems to resolve at the start of episode six but then suddenly settles again into a really strange shift which goes from the legendary, Arthurian themes of the plot into something more universal. That works beautifully on screen but on the page it loses a considerable amount of the magic. Similarly the reveal of the final chamber and the sequence with the minister are a lot less weird on the page than on screen which again blunts it considerably. However I am very glad to say that the final scenes of the book, whilst not having anything like the power that they have on screen where they play out the show in almost complete silence, are significantly better and the final paragraph is beautifully judged: the focus is not so much on ambiguity as to whether there might be another series (as it sometimes feels like the show’s ending is) but as to the rest of what Raven is here to do. That’s very nicely done.
A few other points: the introduction was probably a bit too tricky to make so it’s a nice extra to get a Raven origin story of a sort. Also, you can tell that much of Raven was filmed in the worst weather imaginable – sometimes this is a strength, such as Raven shouting at the supporters in the stone circle as rain pours down which is impressive even if difficult to film, and at other times there’s a grimy dampness to the proceedings as opposed to Children of the Stones which benefits from obviously being made during the legendary 1976 heatwave. Thankfully the book can at least escape from that a little, although it’s slightly disappointing there are no other attempts to open up the story. The book does benefit hugely from art by Les Matthews, strange and spidery little illustrations which manage to evoke something of the visual magic of the show’s dream sequences but in a very different way.
Finally: a word on why I’m reading this. I’m working on finishing a novel about a “lost” 1970s British kids TV show and this show – as book and as television – is absolutely perfect to tidy up a few plot points. Raven has for some reason a lesser reputation than its flashier forebear (probably why the book was so affordable) but that’s very unfair I think. It’s much more focussed and mature and willing to embrace ambiguity in a way no other show of the period – other than The Owl Service maybe, and that had an Alan Garner shaped head start – managed to do so lightly.