Recusants

45 years ago the BBC showed an adaptation of A Traveller In Time in 5 episodes. This was intended for children, as the original book by Alison Uttley was for children.

I have a very vague memory of seeing a little of the TV version when broadcast. My primary school library also had an old copy of the book and I tried to read it as I liked time travel stories (DoctorWho mostly) but it was very tiresome and I don’t think I managed as far as the first trip back to the 16th century.

The story begins with teenage Penelope (played by Sophie Thompson) on a train to somewhere in the countryside. We later hear that her full name is “Penelope Taverner-Cameron” but she usually shortens the family name to Taverner.

The theme music is “Greensleeves” playing unobtrusively, and the titles are a simple overlay of the name, author and episode details. The later episodes all begin with a quick pre-credits recap, a few still images from the previous episode and a voiceover stating the main points of what happened.

Penelope is travelling out from London to Derbyshire to stay with Aunt Tizzie and Uncle Barnabus at the old farmhouse called Thackers. She has suffered from a bout of pneumonia and is being sent out of the city for a period of convalescence. Presumably the time is the 1970s although there are no contemporary references; the Taverners mention “the War” amongst themselves, and it seems to have affected the previous generation. We never hear much details about Penelope’s parents or her school, though she states later that she lives in Chelsea.

Everything is going well until she goes to her bedroom and by mistake goes through the door to the room next to it, and sees Mistress Babington.

But before long Penelope can also see Elizabethan servants working in the kitchen, through the window from outside, although Aunt Tizzie doesn’t share her vision. Auntie does however know the stories about the property being haunted and that earlier Taverners could see things they didn’t want to talk about too much. It seems this may be a gift passed down through the generations.

It doesn’t seem that Penelope can control when she is transported in time. She is moved to the same spatial location at a different time, and the duration of her time in each era matches the time passed in her absence in the other era. She travels back wearing her 20th century clothes but can’t take with her any vital objects in either direction, such as Anthony Babington’s locket found in the church, or the ribbon given to her – the rule must be that 2 instances of the same item can’t co-exist. When she changes clothes in the 16th century, her 20th century clothes are restored on return. She seems to make the mistake of going through the wrong door a second time, and it’s not clear why she repeated it as she intended to go back to her own room.

The time she is connected to is the 1580s, when the Babington family lived at Thackers. They are Catholic supporters of Mary Queen Of Scots, known to be held at Wingfield Manor nearby. The cook Cicely is played by the same actress as Aunt Tizzie.

Everybody speaks a form of English Penelope can understand without problems, and they don’t have much trouble understanding her. They are impressed she can read and her only problem is remembering to take ‘f’ as ‘s’ in early modern texts. The only linguistic shift, which she easily decodes, is that Marzipan was called “Marchpane” in the old times.

Young Francis Babington, played by Simon Gipps-Kent, quickly makes friends with her and accepts her claim to come from the future (“Tell me more of your future, Penelope. Are there still wars, or is it Utopia that Thomas More wrote about?”). He also gives us a quick info dump of the political back story: his family are engaged in what will become known as the Babington Plot, an early example of a conspiracy which the state allowed to continue until it had enough to incriminate the plotters.

The hill nearby is filled with tunnels from the time that the lead mine was active. The plotters have a scheme to reopen and connect the tunnels from Thackers and Wingfield Manor, so that Mary can be got away to safety and travel to France, and then “Catholics everywhere will rise up and make her Queen Of England”.

Of course the plotters are not complete idiots, and one of them suspects Penelope of being “a spy from Walsingham”.

Travelling to the ruins of Wingfield Manor she can also travel to be in the company of Mary.

There is never any possibility of “changing history” and Penelope is fully aware that Mary and the plotters came to a brutal end, though it isn’t displayed on screen. She simply goes home and the connection is broken whilst they still think they are in the clear (at Christmas time – the real plotters were arrested in September, so this may not be exactly accurate chronology). Mistress Babington has a moment of prayer:

“Save us, Lord. But if it be Thy will that all is discovered, then give us the courage to face disaster bravely.”

There were lots of time-travelling children in 70s TV.

“Recusant” is the term for those who will not conform to the established Church Of England after the break with Rome – I did not realise, until I tried to find the date it was first used (1558), that it applied later to Protestant non-conformists as well as Roman Catholics.

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