From portals to other dimensions to sacrificial holy sites to inspiration for avant-garde artists, stone circles have always had a strange place in British film and TV. Standing stones possess an atmospheric sense of the eerie, drawing on ties to the ancient and the otherworldly. Whether it be the stones of Avebury in Marlborough, Stonehenge in Salisbury or even a totally fabricated set of menhir, stones represent the ultimate figure in the landscape, hinting at ancient human presence while also suggesting more macabre, unearthly forces at work.
Here are 10 times these mysterious monuments made their mark.
Discovering Britain with John Betjeman (1955)
In the mid 1950s, poet John Betjeman was sponsored by Shell Petrol to produce a series of short travelogue films in the hope of getting more people driving along Britain’s new roads as well as buying more petrol. One of the best of these 26 shorts is his film poem about Avebury and the surrounding area, which is clearly made with a great deal of affection.
Betjeman brings his playful prose style to the voice-over, where ancient burial mounds are like “grass mosquito bites” and the area’s famous standing stones are “a sort of St Peter’s Rome of Europe but for pagans”. Yet the travelogue also shows how filming a stone circle even in the most basic of ways brings forth a sense of the unusual. As Betjeman suggests: “What makes Avebury so strange is its sinister atmosphere…”
Night of the Demon (1957)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
This adaptation of M.R. James’ story ‘Casting the Runes’ is filled with evocative imagery, both urban and rural – not least its scenes set at the daddy of all stone circles: Stonehenge. Night of the Demon follows a psychologist, Holden (Dana Andrews), who finds himself in a web of intrigue surrounding noted occultist Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). The occultist’s supposed ability to use cursed runes to send a demon after his critics has gained him notoriety, and Holden the rationalist cannot resist a challenge to discredit the supernatural.
On a visit to the famous circle, Holden compares the cursed runes to the runic scrawling on one of the gigantic stones, connecting an ancient evil to a very palpable modern one that may just descend when the appointed hour approaches.
The Owl Service (1969)
Though this adaptation of Alan Garner’s novel is obsessed with the general surrounding landscapes of the Welsh valleys, much of its mystery is derived from an unusual standing stone: the Stone of Gronw.
Garner’s tale follows a young trio who appear to be repeating the love triangle in an old folk tale derived from an ancient Welsh text, The Mabinogion. The real-life Llech Ronw stands beside a riverside in Afon Cynfal, and legend has it that the hole through its middle was made by a thrown spear.
A Journey to Avebury (1971)
Director: Derek Jarman
One of Derek Jarman’s earliest super-8 experiments, A Journey to Avebury is a surreal short that sees the director turning a trip along the Ridgeway Path into what seems an almost alien world. With its colours bleeding into hazy yellows and greens, Jarman captures the landscape unpeopled and eerily empty, with only the cows and standing stones for company.
Later rescored with an ambient, hypnotic soundtrack by regular Jarman collaborators Coil, this short home movie captures that same unusual essence of standing stones previously explored by artists such as Paul Nash, Eileen Agar and John Piper.
Director: Don Sharp
Psychomania, or The Death Wheelers as it’s sometimes known, is an unusual mixture of toad magic, biker gangs, brutalist Walton-on-Thames landscapes and fruity performances from Beryl Reid and Georges Sanders.
The Living Dead biker gang, led by Tom (Nicky Helson), are committing suicide on the new motorways and highways of the area in order to be reborn as powerful undead, ready to cause havoc in the suburban realm. The ‘Seven Witches’ circle is where the bikers respawn from, allowing director Don Sharp to create some unusual contrasts between Hell’s Angels-esque fashion and ancient menhir. The circle is fake, but – thanks in part to director of photography Ted Moore (known chiefly for a large number of James Bond films) – Psychomania has some of the most startlingly beautiful images of standing stones on film, especially in its psychedelic opening titles.
Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s Sky is an innovatively eco-conscious series that follows an interdimensional being who becomes stranded on Earth. Having to fend off attacks from the world around, Sky (Marc Harrison) and the group of children who found him try to get him back to the Jugenet, a supposed gateway to his world.
The Jugenet turns out to be Stonehenge, whose standing stones act as warnings against the folly of mankind and its future destruction of the environment. As in Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Conclusion (1979), the stone circle also marks where an alien force has previously taken people using a special ray. Standing stones were to be avoided in the 1970s…
Children of the Stones (1977)
Director: Peter Graham Scott
Perhaps the most memorable use of a stone circle in British television, Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray’s Children of the Stones is also one the creepiest and most unnerving children’s shows ever made. It’s set in a shadow version of Avebury known as Milbury, where the stones are able to tap into the power of a black hole – a power that’s harnessed by the village leader, Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson), to control the populace and remove their free will.
With some very unnerving moments showing people turned into stones and an opening title sequence built from Avebury footage that ranks among the scariest you’ll ever see, Children of the Stones is a masterclass in landscape horror.
Director: Lawrence Gordon Clark
Landscape was a key theme for the BBC Ghost Story at Christmas slot, not least in the cycle of dramatisations of M.R. James stories. With Lawrence Gordon Clark at the directorial helm for the majority of the films, various topographies were explicitly linked with the supernatural.
The first of the series set in the present day, Clive Exton’s Stigma was a refreshingly modern and unusual addition. It was filmed in Avebury and involves a stone heaved from the soil of a family’s cottage garden – a disturbance that unleashes otherworldly powers and inexplicable bleeding from the series’ only haunted woman (Kate Binchy). Questioning female possession and trauma, Stigma stakes a claim as one of the first feminist ghost stories on screen.
Doctor Who: The Stones of Blood (1978)
Director: Darrol Blake
This part of Doctor Who’s ‘Key to Time’ story arc sees the Doctor (Tom Baker) searching for segments of a powerful key that can restore balance to the universe. His hunt for the third segment brings him to the fictional coastal realm of Boscombe Moor, where a stone circle is being used for sacrifices to an alien criminal posing as a druidic god.
The stones themselves turn out to be unnerving creatures called Ogri, who stalk the land and feed on human blood – a little reminiscent of the stone creatures in the terrifying ATV series, Escape into Night (1972). The Stones of Bloods’ ‘Nine Travellers’ circle is actually the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Ben Wheatley’s dark comedy follows a pair of murderous lovers travelling around a number of Cumbrian tourist sites, causing mayhem as their frustrations turn to violence. This dangerous streak begins in the carpark of the Keswick Pencil Museum but reaches a new primitive level when, confronted at a stone circle by a fellow walker who’s angry at the pair for letting their dog foul, Chris (Steve Oram) resorts to an almost sacrificial violence and clubs the walker to death. The stone circle is Long Meg and Her Daughters, near Penrith.
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