(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)
After the highlight of The Neglected Mountain, it’s a shame to have to describe its successor, Saucers over the Moor, as a failure on some fundamental levels. That’s not to say that the book is a failure, because it isn’t, and there’s some very good stuff in here, among the Club members, but the subject Saville chooses is in the end too contemporary, and too serious for his gang of children.
Saucers marks a change of direction for the series. The first and most obvious change is that, after an introduction in Rye, it is set on Dartmoor. Indeed, out of this and the next five books, the Lone Piners travel to unfamiliar territory four times. And though she’s spent an offstage holiday with the Mortons in London, this is the first time Peter has appeared outside Shropshire.
Though we’re not fated to spend our time in or around Rye, the book starts in the tradition of a Warrender story, with Penny coming home from school for the holidays. For once, Jon is to follow, but there is an unnerving experience for her: her parents have written to confirm that they are coming home for six months leave. She has not seen them in three years, and eagerness is inextricably mixed with trepidation after so much time.
Before that, there’s the usual dubious guest to the Gay Dolphin, a Mr Green, an elderly man excessively protective of a mysterious hand wound, who is a birdwatcher. Now I am sure that there are people in the Lone Pine Universe who do genuinely watch birds for the enjoyment of it, but by this point readers have been conditioned to suspect every birdwatcher they encounter and Mr Green is no exception.
And there’s a moonlight walk for the Warrenders, through Rye, until their reverie is interrupted by an eerie, whining noise, and a strange small object in the sky. Jon becomes fanatically excited, demanding his mother and cousin sign affidavits as to what they have seen and heard. Because this is 1955, and Britain is gripped by the first great UFO craze, and Saville is fixing his book in time by making Flying Saucers his theme, and showing Jon as, of course, a committed believer in their existence, ready to rubbish anyone who doubts: ‘all intelligent people know’.
But there’s another witness in Rye. He looks like Mr Green.
Saville omits Penny’s reunion with her parents, confining it to an emotional, but partial recollection by our favourite redhead and jumping ahead to the other Warrenders’ attraction to the West Country that leads them to take a six month lease on King’s Holt, on Dartmoor, a house big enough for Penny to invite not only Jon but all of her friends. Tom and Jenny can’t get away, obviously, but for once Peter accepts the invitation, and so the Warrenders head west, picking up the Mortons at Exeter station, with the Twins going on by car, and David staying behind to meet Peter, and hire bikes to get them to King’s Holt.
Peter’s excited to be here, to be seeing Penny and Jon again, to be in fresh country, and of course to be meeting David, though this isn’t openly acknowledged by either.
At this point, enter Dan Sturt. We’ve already been introduced to Dan, son of a widowed mother who has opened a successful cafe, The Moorland Pixie (ouch), in Princeton. Dan’s a very junior cub reporter, only a couple of years older than the Lone Piners, and he’s desperate for a major story to give him a reputation to come back to after he completes his imminent National Service.
He also steals Peter’s wonky bike to pursue his story and has the double cheek when he returns it to complain to her about the faulty brakes, and show interest in her in front of David!
Needless to say, when everybody’s settled in, and there are some mysterious comings and goings that are entertaining the Lone Piners’ minds, including the presence of Mr Green, the gang team up with Dan, who supplies the other half of the equation: that there is a secret Government Installation on the Moor, near the headwaters of the stream on which King’s Holt is sited.
Let me break off here and explain why, in my perspective, Saucers over the Moor fails.
It’s not just that Flying Saucers ties the Lone Pine Club inextricably to one time, when these were a public concern (in the Foreword to the truncated Armada Second Edition, twenty years later, Saville almost shame-facedly apologises for having written about something that means nothing to the modern audience). It’s not just that the Lone Piners are dragged into a Science Fiction story, whose ending, claiming that Britain is about to announce it has developed a fully working Flying Saucer, was unbelievable at the time and ludicrous by the time the next book arrived.
But by making so large a concern the subject of the book, Saville took it out of the Lone Piners’ hands before it ever started. Secret Government Installations, International Spies, an actual Helicopter Fleet swooping in to the Moor: this is beyond the range and the abilities of a group of middle-class children, no matter how inventive and observant they are.
It’s one thing to have to hand over to the Police to actual sort out the messes they expose, but when it’s practically the entire Armed Forces…
The point of a children’s adventure series, and one that takes place against realistic, visible backgrounds, is that the stories have to be in proportion to the characters. They have to be within the Club’s ability to deal with them, and Saville loses sight of this right royally in Saucers over the Moor.
Nevertheless, behind this, there is much good, and some bad, in this story. Most of the former is, as usual, in the friendship that runs through the Club, and in the genuine enjoyment they take in each other’s company: remember, Penny and Peter have not seen each other since The Secret of Grey Walls, however long ago that may have been in Lone Pine time. And there’s a pertinent contrast between Jon, full of his assertions that flying saucers are real, and that everyone of any intelligence or sense knows this, and Peter, to her roots the country girl, attuned to the land and things of it, and instinctively hating and fearing such things.
But just as the effects of The Neglected Mountain are seen in Peter and David’s actions towards one another, Saville takes us another step forward in the relationship of Jon and Penny. Yes, their conversation between each other is still mostly barbed and bantering, and yes, Jon is still almost cruelly offhand to his devoted cousin.
However, when the Club are locked in, and Penny, volunteering despite her fears because she is the smallest and lightest of the seniors, is let down in a sling made of curtains and has to face Green alone, Jon reacts to her scream of fear by racing down the stairs and knocking Green cold with a punch to the jaw.
On the other hand, whilst the Twins don’t get kidnapped in this book, there’s a particularly egregious act of stupidity to get over. Green tries to persuade Peter and Mary into his car but the former very sensibly refuses. They then phone Penny at King’s Holt, who sends Dickie to the main road to watch for Green passing, but he, in a completely idiotic move that casts real doubt on the advisability of including him in any adventures, gets into Green’s car, thinking he can track him and that Green can’t do anything to him anyway: Hello? How many times have you been tied up before now?
It’s not even as if the escapade is worth it. Dickie’s recovered offstage, with nothing lost or gained, save several unnecessary pages and the usual melodrama.
In a somewhat conservative move, given how Saville has previously shared out adventure without concern for gender lines, the boys are given the meaty adventure of trying to find the Secret Station, at which point spies, helicopters and guns start to flood the story until the children have to be locked up for their own safety, and that’s by the good guys! This is what Penny escapes from, leading to Jon’s temporary adoption of the White Knight role that we understand is actually a deeper recognition of his role in Penny’s life.
But by this point the game is up, bar the shouting, and a fighter plane shooting down at least one helicopter as the attack is foiled, but that’s a long way away from King’s Holt. Donaldson mops up with explanations, which basically confirm everything the Club has guessed, and Dan gets his story (subject to Secret Service vetting, naturally…). And there you go.
It may have been very exciting to my pre-teen self, but from a more adult perspective, it’s a completely unsatisfactory ending, because the Lone Piners are so thoroughly removed from it, even in space, and that promised unveiling of Britain’s own Flying Saucer in tomorrow’s press is beyond a step too far for even a kid’s credibility.
Saucers was the last of the Lone Pine books to appear with illustrations by Bertram Prance. In the early Seventies, those book re-issued in edited paperback form from Hamlyns, as opposed to Armada had new, and frankly bland illustrations added to them, usually involving some form of close-up that blurred any illustrative capacity at all.
Of the four odd venues for the Lone Piners, Dartmoor had the distinction of being the only one to which they returned, very late on in the series. There would be no mention of Flying Saucers in that story.