Mandog

Before The Changes, there was Mandog

(…Or is it Man Dog? The on-screen titles separate the two words, as does the Radio Times/BBC Genome, but the novelisation, and most subsequent reference sources, call it Mandog.)

It started with producer Anna Home (who would eventually become Executive Producer of Children’s Television at the BBC), commissioning Peter Dickinson to come up with an idea for an original TV drama for children. He provided at least three outlines, one of which, initially titled “Clever Dog”, was turned into this six-part series. It was filmed in the summer of 1971 (entirely on location, in Southampton), and broadcast at the start of 1972. (It was on the back of the success of this series that Anna Home decided to adapt Dickinson’s Changes trilogy.)

The story focuses on a group of three teenagers: school-friends Kate Saumarez and Sammy (Samantha) Morris, and Kate’s older brother Dunc (Duncan), who is now one year out of school and about to start work as a TV repairman. Kate and Sammy see a man apparently teleport himself through a garage door near their school, then teleport himself out again. They recruit Dunc to help follow this man and find out what’s going on, and in the best Famous Five tradition bring along Sammy’s dog Radnor (named after the district in Wales where Sammy’s parents spent their honeymoon). Their sleuthing ends at a car dump, and Kate insists they go inside, even though it means climbing through a hole in the surrounding fence. (Kate uses a wheelchair, though can get by for a short while on crutches.) Inside, they’re confronted by a man called Levin, and soon surrounded by his six companions. Kate just comes out with it and tells him they saw one of this group, who turns out to be called Justin, teleporting himself into a garage. Levin, dropping his obviously fake Irish accent for something more stiff and strange, strong-arms the kids into the group’s surprisingly technological headquarters beneath all the wrecked cars and scrap metal, and explains.

Levin, leader of the Group

This group (who call themselves “the Group”) are from the year 2600, a time ruled by a secret police organisation known as the Galas. The Galas were having Levin develop a time machine for their own nefarious ends, but as soon as he succeeded, he and his Group friends used it to escape to the 1970s, so they could build another time-device, return to the future, and free their era of the Galas’ control. They’re only a short while away from completion, after which they’ll leave our present forever. They can’t harm Kate & co., because any one of them might be a distant ancestor, but they do need to ensure the kids’ silence. The scheme they come up with is one that will simultaneously punish Justin for giving them away (which he has done once before, apparently), and hopefully ensure the kids’ silence: they’re going to swap the minds of Justin and Radnor the dog. Radnor will enter Justin’s body (and then be kept asleep, because a dog in a man’s body would be really hard to explain), while Justin will enter Radnor’s body and accompany the kids home. It will be a sort of penance for Justin (they say this is a common punishment in their time) and an exchange of hostages. The two will be swapped back when the Group are ready to return to their future.

Radnor the dog and Justin, becoming Mandog

It all feels like a rather over-elaborate set-up — are we really supposed to believe that in the future, criminals are regularly mind-swapped into dog’s bodies as a punishment? — but it gets the story set up for a mix of lightly comic and adventurous shenanigans. On the one hand, there’s Sammy having to explain away Radnor’s suddenly more intelligent behaviour. (He refuses to eat dog food from a bowl on the floor, instead sitting at the breakfast table wanting cereal or bacon and eggs.) On the other, once Radnor — who Sammy calls “Mister” from here on, because she knows he’s not Radnor, and calling him Justin would be silly — spots one of the far-future Galas in the town, evidently looking for the Group, the kids becoming involved in a series of adventures trying to foil the Galas and help the Group. (Levin explains that the time-machine he left in the future would have had enough power to transport a few more people, so he’s sure not many of the Galas will have made it to the 1970s.)

Kate and Sammy

Mandog feels like a transition point between the kids’ TV of the 1960s — which McGown and Docherty in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama characterise as mostly “kids in anoraks on bikes, accompanied by a dog or two, roaming the countryside in search of smugglers and bank robbers”, which Kate & co.’s adventures with the Galas certainly feel like — and the more progressive kids’ dramas of the 70s, with their mixing of the science fictional/fantastic with realistic modern settings and social concerns. Throughout their adventures, we see the kids getting on with their normal lives: Dunc starts a new job, attends his long-distance-running club, and buys himself a secondhand moped; the girls do their homework and start to find themselves boyfriends. At one point they discover that the Galas have ensconced themselves (claiming to be Syrians on a trade mission) in the home of Mary Ndola, a black girl in the year below them, who is clearly frightened of these strange men. The kids recruit Mary to get Dunc inside her house (in his new job as a TV repairman) to confirm these are the Galas, and then the Group scare them away — by the distinctly un-science-fictional and un-dramatic method of writing them a threatening letter.

Radnor, a.k.a. Mister

It’s not as experimental as the series that really marked the renaissance in kids’ TV drama two years before, The Owl Service (though, like that serial, it uses actors in their twenties as teenagers, unlike later shows like The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on, which used child actors). And the science fictional/fantasy element isn’t as weird (or horrific) as those later shows. We know the kids aren’t really threatened — the worst the Galas can do is use their hypnotic powers or pencil-like stun gun, because the Galas can’t afford to disrupt their past any more than the Group can — and it isn’t until the Group have departed that the kids suddenly wake up to the fact they haven’t asked Levin what the future is like, nor have they really thought about whether the Group were actually telling the truth. Perhaps the Group were the baddies and the Galas the goodies? As Dunc says, “All they were bothered about was who was in charge — and it had to be them.” The only confirmation that they backed the right side is that a handful of silver medals arrive from the future (concealed as free gifts in a cereal packet) with “Hero of the Liberation”, “Heroine of the Liberation”, and (for Radnor) “Dog of the Future” written on them. This could well prove the Group’s good nature (after all, Levin could have just forgotten about them). But, at the same time, I can’t help noting how similar “Levin” is to “Lenin”. I’m sure Stalin handed out silver medals, too.

But, though not much is made of it in the story, I feel that Justin, following his time as Radnor the dog, was changed. Before the transference, he said he’d rather die than be punished in such a humiliating way. But perhaps the enforced reconnection with his animal side — the Group do sound slightly future-robotic with their stilted phrasing, implying a sort of imbalance on the intellectual side — has had some humanising effect:

“It is a relief to be able to look at things with my own eyes again — a dog’s vision is so different. But if you only knew how you all smelt!” Justin laughed. “Goodbye, Duncan, and my regards to Sammy and your sister. I have learned much from you all.”

There’s only one episode of Man Dog available to watch that I can find — and that in time-coded fuzzy-VHS quality on YouTube — so I’ve relied on the novelisation for most of the story details. (The novelisation was by Lois Lamplugh, based on Peter Dickinson’s scripts.) The novelisation, though, differs in small ways from the one TV episode I’ve been able to see, so it might not be a totally accurate guide to the TV series.

Cover to the novelisation

I’ve been wanting to find out more about Mandog/Man Dog since reading about it as a precursor to The Changes, as it feels like a crucial transition story into that peculiar style of 1970s kids’ telefantasy that includes Sky, The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on: rich in ideas, often weirdly horrific stuff that mixes science fiction & the fantastic with an almost kitchen-sink-style realism, exploring themes of environmental precariousness and social change, and big questions about the oppressive influence of the past, as well as the potentially unpleasant possibilities of the future. Mandog isn’t, perhaps, as thematically heavy as those later shows, but it certainly feels like it has one foot firmly planted in (or one leg cocked over?) the new style of the 1970s. It has, after all, music by the Radiophonic Workshop. (On Wikipedia, the music is credited to Delia Derbyshire, but as @phantomcircuit pointed out on Twitter, the theme music is by John Baker. It’s called “Factors” on the 1968 BBC Radiophonic Music album, so it presumably started life as library music.)

It would be nice to see it cleaned up and given a DVD release, though as it hasn’t picked up the same sort of reputation as The Changes and Children of the Stones, it’s unlikely. And, of course, it could even be that not all the episodes survive.

(There’s a “Musty Books” look at Mandog over at The Haunted Generation that’s worth a read.)

Comments (4)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    ‘Mandog feels like a transition point between the kids’ TV of the 1960s — which McGown and Docherty in “The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama” characterise as mostly “kids in anoraks on bikes, accompanied by a dog or two, roaming the countryside in search of smugglers and bank robbers”, which Kate & co.’s adventures with the Galas certainly feel like — and the more progressive kids’ dramas of the 70s.’

    Maybe a tenuous analogy, but I remember noticing something similar in the ‘Dark is Rising’ sequence – the first two books have a little bit of Enid Blyton about them. The third book? Not so much.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I remember thinking that about her first book, too. (Which I think was written for a competition.) I think both the kids’ books and TV in the 1970s consciously tried to address a slightly older audience. I’m not totally sure, but I think it was around this time the term “Young Adult” started to be used for fiction addressed at teens.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Makes sense. Be interesting to know what caused the shift, and where it occurred first – ie, in books or on TV. Also if it originated in the UK or if the UK just reflected a broader, global trend. ‘The Dark is Rising’ is pretty representative of the timescale. You got a lot of cheerful, shallow children’s series in the early Sixties (for some reason ‘The Double-Deckers’ springs to mind) but by the late Sixties, the tone was a lot more serious. Maybe a reflection of what was going on generally? You had the Beatles, then Vietnam.

  4. Murray Ewing says:

    One thing I heard recently was an interview with some TV writers, one of whom said he noticed a real difference between the 70s and 80s in how scary kids TV was allowed to be. With the 80s, he complained, you weren’t allowed to scare kids anymore(!). He put it down to a shift in the people in charge. In the 70s, he thought, there were still a lot of people who’d grown up in or with WWII, but those people faded out towards the 80s. No way of proving this, but it’s interesting to see what sort of factors went into the whole thing.

    Plus there’s the usual characterisation of 70s parents being a lot less concerned with what their kids were up to all day. (I don’t know, that must be true of previous decades too, though.)

    I could certainly read a book about all the cultural themes that went into that decade!

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