The Changes

In a previous Mewsings I wrote about King of the Castle, one of two kids’ TV series I had vague but persistent memories of seeing in the early 70s, but which I hadn’t seen or heard of since. The other one, The Changes, isn’t out on DVD, so I didn’t think I’d get a chance to revisit it, till Paul left a comment to my King of the Castle post, directing me to SurrealMoviez, which has links to download all ten parts (from one of The Changes‘ rare reruns, on UK Gold). I duly downloaded them, burned them onto a pair of DVDs, and have just finished watching them.

First off, the main thing I remembered about the show (which was broadcast between January and March 1975, meaning I’d have been three and a half years old at the time — amazing that I remember any of it at all, but then again I remember Tom Baker’s first Doctor Who episode, which was a few months earlier) was a shot, from below, of an electricity pylon, along with some weird music, which I found particularly scary at the time. I thought, from the way this image had stuck in my head, that it was going to turn out to be part of the title sequence, but actually the pylons only really feature in one of the early episodes, along with a brief reprise in a psychedelic montage in the final episode. It’s funny to think how one very brief (and, in the story, not particularly important) moment can stick with you for so long. (Though it was at the end of an episode, so it may just be that it was left hanging, with all its attendant anxiety, in my young brain.) Something similar happened with Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which I read for the first time at primary school. For years after, I had a distinct memory of there being a long, involved chase through some rhododendron bushes, but rereading the book in my twenties, I was puzzled to find that rhododendron bushes were only mentioned very briefly. I have the sneaking suspicion that, at that young age, I didn’t so much follow the stories of TV programmes and books, but just used them as a springboard for creating my own fantasy worlds and stories… (And as far as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is concerned — a book, incidentally, which is celebrating its half-centenary this year — I wonder if it was just the encounter with that wonderful word, rhododendron, so peculiarly yet aptly spelled, that caught my imagination!)

Back to The Changes. The series is very much part of that “cosy catastrophe” tradition of disaster SF, which I certainly have a fondness for, though it features one of the strangest types of “disaster” I’ve come across: people develop a sudden, uncontrollable hatred for all the products of technology, driven by waves of a strange noise that drives them to attack all machines. Even the mention of technology threatens to drive people into a rage. Some flee the country (it seems to be only Britain that is affected, though no help arrives from the outside), leaving the country mostly depopulated. The main character, a young teen called Nicky, gets separated from her parents, who manage to get on a boat to France, and so she is left to fend for herself in de-technologised Britain.

The story breaks down into three sections. (This turns out to reflect the series’ origin in a trilogy of novels written by Peter Dickinson.) In the first, Nicky accompanies a group of Sikhs, who are unaffected by the anti-technological rages, but who are shunned as “Devil’s Children” by the now superstitious English. In the second section, Nicky leaves the Sikhs to try and rejoin her parents in France, but finds herself waylaid and accused of witchcraft by a religious fundamentalist who’s gained a hold on one community. The final section sees Nicky discovering the source of the anti-technological rages that have been gripping the nation, and finally understanding why they happened. After nine episodes of build-up (in which the reason for the “Changes” is never really addressed), the potential for the final explanation to be a let-down was all too possible, but I was pleased to find the programme’s makers managed an explanation that answered all the questions but still preserved enough mystery to be satisfying on all counts (and which took a seemingly science-fictional series into fantasy territory, which may have disappointed some, but I always prefer it when the ultimate explanation isn’t entirely rational, or entirely resolved).

Watched today, it’s inevitable that The Changes seems slower-paced than what we’re used to seeing now (or even when compared to contemporaneous Doctor Who), but I didn’t find it quite as awkwardly paced as King of the Castle — perhaps because it was less reliant on just the one young actor, but also perhaps because the gentler pace fits the story’s theme of regression to a pre-technological age. There were a few genuinely gripping moments, for instance when I wondered how the characters were going to get out of this or that situation. Aside from the initial premise, there are no fantastical elements in The Changes, so all threats and challenges the characters face have to be solved by them thinking their way through and coming up with a plan, which I like in a story, because it allows me, as reader/listener, to think my own way through the situation, and try to work out what I’d do in the protagonist’s place. (Always a good way of involving the reader in the story, I think.) Plus, there’s lots of location work placing the story quite firmly in the English countryside — something I’ve always loved in UK film & TV shows.

Another good point about the show is that, despite the anti-technology premise, the series isn’t itself anti-technology. It may even have come from a sort of reaction against the rather fuzzy-minded hippie thinking that if only we could get rid of all that nasty modern stuff, everyone would be a lot happier. It’s quite obvious in The Changes that any such clearout would result in a lot less ease in our day-to-day lives, not to mention the potential to regress into superstitious, even fascistic, ways.

Now, next up on my long-lost wanna-see list: if only I could find a DVD or download of Fantastic Journey. All I remember from that is Roddy McDowall with a glowing fork, and I want to see more!


King of the Castle

There are two children’s TV programmes I really remember being frightened by as a kid. (Doctor Who, oddly enough, isn’t one of them, even though I distinctly remember seeing episodes when I was as young as three or four. My mum did once tell me I used to hide behind the sofa to watch it, but I can’t see how, as our sofa was against the wall!) Of one of the programmes, all I can remember are scary shots of power lines and pylons, along with some weird music. A little online research reveals that it must have been The Changes, shown in 1975. Judging by the plot description, that’s one I’d really love to see again, but there’s no DVD release. The other programme I remember, though, has been brought out by Network DVD, earlier this year, so I thought I’d give it a go.

All I remembered from King of the Castle was its basic premise: a kid gets in a lift, which plummets down to some sub-basement level, stranding him in a weird, underground fantasy world. That was enough to scare me back in 1977! And, of course, to make me want to watch it. (The series was planned to be shown during the week, but apparently it was thought too scary, so was moved to the Sunday teatime slot when kids would be watching with their parents. This has long been a traditional time for TV fantasy, usually on the BBC. King of the Castle, though, was ITV.)

Watching the programme now, of course, I wonder what on Earth I found scary about it. Probably, just the opening sequence with its plummeting lift — all that metallic-electric menace is enough for an imaginative kid to start scaring himself silly. The rest of the programme is a bit like a slightly dark Alice in Wonderland, as young Roland (named after the knight in Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came“, which gets quoted at one point) starts journeying his way upwards from the dungeons of the Castle into which he has fallen, encountering its weird denizens on the way, and having to elude their attempts to capture him, enslave him, or just plain kill him. The twist I probably missed back in 1977 is that each of the characters Roland meets in the Castle is a warped, nightmare version of someone from his daily life — his choirmaster becomes a mad scientist who tries to steal his voice, his stepmother becomes an evil sorceress who wants to make him forget his real life and remain with her, and so on. The early episodes all feel a bit, well, episodic — unrelated, and not adding up to an overall story — till we get to the last two or three parts (of seven), when Roland finally reaches the top of the castle and makes himself its king. It’s only then that you get a sense of the journey he’s been on having a more meaningful plot, as all the old characters come back for an Alice in Wonderland-ish trial. Episode two does have a rather effective chase sequence, though, where overlapped images give the scene a fittingly nightmarish confusion:

Throughout, Roland is helped (in various, not always obviously helpful, ways) by Vein, the keeper of the keys (played by the wonderfully Welsh Talfryn Thomas), who serves a role somewhere between the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, with perhaps a bit of Mad Hatter thrown in. It’s he who sees Roland through the journey, even opposing him when he becomes king, which is where the series really picks up. (Unfortunately, that’s right near the end.)

It turns out, of course, to be a rites-of-passage growing up story, as Roland learns to stand up for himself against the people keeping him down in the real world, including a rather pantomime-style bully (who crumbles unconvincingly when Roland finally stands up to him). I was a bit disappointed that Roland demonstrated his new grown-up status by throwing away his comics. Howard the Duck, I’m sure I’d have agreed with, but what about those old copies of Hammer Horror?

And scary moments? The things that seem scary to a kid are quite different from what seems scary to an adult. As I say, at the time the thing that most scared me was the idea of being stuck in that underground world via a plummeting lift. Watching the programme again, the thing I found most scary was the creature that the scientist Hawkspur (played by Fulton Mackay) creates. His attempts to steal Roland’s voice and give it to his creation results in a weird, semi-electronic honking coming out whenever the creature opens its mouth. That seems far more frightening, now, but I probably just found it funny as a kid…