In the Skins era it is hard to believe that a generation of teenagers, including a surprising number of boys, were captivated by Follyfoot. The show, which ran from 1971-1973, was co-produced by Yorkshire Television and TV Munich (broadcast in Germany under the title Die Follyfoot-Farm). It focuses on a horse rescue operation in rural Yorkshire and the young people who work there--Dora (Gillian Blake), Steve (Steve Hodson) and Ron (Christian Rodska)--under the kindly supervision of retired boxer Slugger (Arthur English) and the Colonel (Desmond Llewelyn), Dora's uncle.
The plot development is gradual, there is substantial dialogue, and the storylines always have a moral, either implicit or explicit. Yet Follyfoot spawned fan magazines, annuals, and a host of other tie-ins, and still inspires cult-like devotion amongst a certain generation of adults. Its theme tune, The Lightning Tree by the Settlers, was even a minor hit, and famous names such as Jack Cardiff were persuaded to guest on the show. The spin-off novels are excellent, written by Monica Dickens with the same attention to nuance and characterisation that she brought to her adult novels. Indeed, the series was initially inspired by Dickens' 1963 novel Cobbler's Dream--James Bolam of The Likely Lads was instrumental in pitching the idea to Yorkshire Television after reading the book.
The characters are Follyfoot's chief attraction. Dora is not the typical heroine of a teenage series. Posh, sensitive and withdrawn, she finds horses more congenial than people, and unthaws completely in their presence, which Blake's performance beautifully captures. Dora is experiencing the awkward intensity of a particular age, and her sweet disposition is prone to storms. She is assisted by the two boys who also work at the Farm: reliable and likeable Steve, haunted by an episode of trouble with the police, and slippery, larky Ron, whose anti-Establishment attitude expresses itself with denim and a very loud motorbike.
The relationships between the three are complex, explored with an emotional subtlety often missing from modern television shows, but entirely typical of seventies writing for children. Tensions bubble away under the surface, occasionally erupting in fistfights between the boys or Dora's crying fits. The tentative romance between Dora and Steve is hedged about by temperamental as well as class differences, though the viewer hopes that Steve will eventually abandon his internal struggle between impatience with Dora's hopeful idealism and disgust at his own pessimism, and Dora will become less vulnerable. There are various crises along the way, normally in the shape of rivals (or imagined rivals) for Steve's affections, though David Hemmings at one point appears, as a retired jockey, to bewitch poor Dora with his fatal fishy fascination. Meanwhile, the unspoken rivalry between Steve and Ron reaches its comical apotheosis in an episode surrounding Dora's birthday, involving a misappropriated birthday cake and an ill-advised jousting competition. The choice between Ron's wide-boy charm and Steve's earnest solidity probably exercised contemporary viewers more than Dora, who has the sense to see Steve's Darby and Joan potential, but for other teenagers the conflict no doubt provided a means of vicariously working through similar conflicts.
However, Follyfoot's top layer concerns heavyweight social issues: neglect and abuse of the helpless, usually horses; anti-Gypsyism; class injustice; the criminal justice system; exploitative capitalism; trauma; and broken and dysfunctional families (Dora is alienated from her cold parents, and Steve's search for his mother ultimately forces him to return to his "family of strangers" at the Farm). Though such themes were not uncommon at the time, their exploration in children's programming was highly unusual. The show's view of animals is ground-breaking, treating the horses as individuals in their own right, rather than as status symbols for 'Hunter Trials' types, to whom it displays a marked aversion. However, horses also become a metaphor for vulnerability and exclusion in general, in some cases representing their owners: miners and their pit ponies, Gypsies and their horses. The sympathy of outsiders bonds humans with animals at Follyfoot Farm. Dora is often asked why she keeps worn-out horses alive, and she always responds that it is because they deserve a rest.
The heavy weather is always lightened by a touch of farce--usually through the Slugger/Ron dynamic--and Follyfoot Farm itself remains largely untouched by the horrors of the adult world beyond, a sanctuary of innocence and profoundly good intentions. It mirrors the main characters' status between children and adults, not quite a nuclear family environment, but not really part of workaday reality either. The Farm's safety and warmth are strongly identified with Dora, and she eventually becomes its owner.
Though often formulaic, the show is much more than the sum of its delightful parts: the flares, shaggy haircuts, misted sunlight, banter, and Ron's bad Elvis impressions. Surely unrivalled in its tender understanding of the extreme highs and lows of adolescence, and with its consistent emphasis on empathy and charity, Follyfoot is deservedly treasured. It is notable in its evocation of close friendship across class boundaries and for a heroine who is willing to muck in (or--to make the obvious joke--muck out) with the best of them. Follyfoot conjures nostalgia for a time when privilege did not necessarily equate to a lack of compassion, although the episode The Innocents, about a local miners' strike, strikes an eerily prescient note. Is it reading too much into the series, produced in the early 1970s, to view it as one of the last expressions of a post-war social compact that was soon to fracture irreparably?--Isabel Taylor