I'm still finding it hard to believe that the writer of Terry And June came up with the excellent scripts for The Feathered Serpent. I remember that John Kane, the writer/creator of this children's series, and also a very good actor, had appeared a couple of years earlier as Tommy in Planet Of The Spiders. It was one of the first 'TV facts' that I cherished as an adolescent teetering on the brink of geekdom. Kane, I later discovered, also went on to write scripts for Dick Turpin, Smuggler and also adapted one of my favourite Jeremy Brett 'Sherlock Holmes', The Six Napoleons. I can therefore forgive him for the Terry And June and Never The Twain scripts and especially since The Feathered Serpent remained such a vivid piece of children's television drama, the memory of which has not dimmed since I first saw it back in 1976.
It's far too lurid for a start.Looking back at Series One and Two now, it's quite clear that Thames and script editor Ruth Boswell, a highly respected producer of children's television (Timeslip is her enduring legacy), recognised Kane's story as a bit of a gem and decided to throw some money at it. Even then, budgets for children's television were meagre and for Thames to put some effort into costumes and sets at this level suggested they saw great potential in Kane's Aztec revenge dramas. This would certainly not get made in quite the same way today. It's far too lurid for a start. The twelve episodes concern the religious and political machinations between two Aztec civilisations, and the struggle between the supporters of rival gods, Quala and Teshcata. The first six episodes deal with High Priest Nasca's attempt to remove the Quala loving Emperor Kukulkhan from power and force the populace into worshipping the bloodthirsty god, Teshcata. Nasca uses whatever means necessary to bump the Emperor off and twist people to his will, his rise to power assisted by the labyrinth of secret passages he's had built into the palace.
Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince but set in Ancient MexicoLooking at it now the tendency is to view at as high camp and the prolific use of gold paint and plastics in the costumes, the bucket loads of fake tan and the lashings of eye makeup (and that's just the men) would bear this out. The performances are all earnest, very much of a cod-Shakespearean mode, and on the whole, committed, and that's because the scripts are wordy and literate. Kids today would find this boring, I suspect, but then times have changed. It is theatrical and it is camp but the quality of the writing and the performances still shine through, and the story, a sort of Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince but set in Ancient Mexico, is gripping and often very powerful. From the opening titles of Aztec skulls looming over a flaming landscape to the various murders, traps and subterfuges that make up Nasca's bid for power, it does things with children's drama, making it rather terrifying in the process, that no writer or producer would dare attempt today. Whilst Nasca plots on the sidelines in Series One, there is the tribal rivalry between the Princes Heumac and Mahoutek, and the anxieties of the dead Emperor's daughter Chimalma whilst the audience identification figure of Tozo, with whom blind prophet Otolmi forms a charming double act, seeks out the truth to reveal Nasca for the plotting swine that he is.
In the centre of these machinations is Patrick Troughton who puts in a rather stunning performance as Nasca that demonstrates he was so much more than the second incarnation of the Doctor. It's full bloodied, eyes and teeth, all guns blazing stuff that compliments the elaborate make up and costumes he wears. But for all that he often boils the performance down to moments of great subtlety, where just his mellifluous tones and his face do all the work that's necessary. He's supported by the wonderful George Cormack as Otolmi, Tony Steedman as Kulkukhan, Richard Willis (one of the better young actors of his generation who always seemed to be in kids dramas those days along with Simon Gipps-Kent, Stephen Garlick and the like) as boy hero Tozo, Diane Keen (before she hit the big time in The Cuckoo Waltz) as Chimalma and the rather lovely Brian Deacon as Heumac.
...the homoerotic content goes off the dial with Heumac, all hairy chest, fake tan and skimpy white pantsBy the second series things changed somewhat and a more overt supernatural tone was introduced into the story. Nasca, presumed dead at the end of Series One, is brought back to life via the sorcery of witch Keelag, a storming performance from Sheila Burrell, whose act with a ragged dummy must have put the shivering shits up the kids watching at the time. She's wonderfully Grand Guignol and adds a distinctly nightmarish quality to the series. The costumes get more money spent on them and we get gold padded affairs this time and the homoerotic content goes off the dial with Heumac, all hairy chest, fake tan and skimpy white pants, and Tozo trying to defy all manner of mind games and traps to prove that Heumac is worthy to marry Chimalma. Nasca is joined in his nefarious deeds by Xipec, the very tall, horse faced, camp as tits Granville Saxton who is seriously enjoying himself far too much as he tortures an almost naked Tozo into giving up the location of Teshcata's black mirror and the twin crowns of Chichinitza. Throw in Nasca poisoning wells and rubbing mind-altering substances into poor old George Cormack's chest as part of the epic battle between good and evil and you'll be thoroughly seduced by it all.
Studio bound it may be but the sets are well designed, quite large in scope and highly detailed and where there is a tendency to over light some scenes there are equally many scenes where the lighting designer clearly can't believe his luck and starts throwing various sets into semi darkness lit by burning torches and candles. Oh, and a word for David Fanshawe's music. Startling. Tons of brass and shrieking, scary vocals for the titles and numerous, equally memorable and rich incidental cues. All in all, it's I, Claudius for kids. No wonder it's stuck in my mind since 1976. The Feathered Serpent does everything you'd want a children's drama to do, with bags of atmosphere, characters tested to their limits, very moral dilemmas, romance, mystery, sword fights and shed loads of exotic mythology. And it's got a very memorable central performance from Troughton, Brian Deacon frequently with his top off and Diane Keen's heaving bosom to please all sorts of grubby adult minds too!
THE FEATHERED SERPENT - The Complete Series (Network DVD 7952993 - Region 2 - Released 23rd February 2009 - Cert PG)
Cathode Ray Tube The Feathered Serpent Patrick Troughton