The Changes (BBC, 1975)
(note: this article was originally intended to appear on Off The Telly - http://www.offthetelly.co.uk - but for various reasons it has not, though I must thank that site's editor Graham Kibble-White for helping me with slimming it down to a readable length, and also Darren Giddings for sending me the series on video in the first place. For anyone interested in parallel developments in children's television drama, David Sheldrick's Ace of Wands and Timeslip articles on OTT - at http://offthetelly.users.btopenworld.com/childrens/aceofwands.htm and http://offthetelly.users.btopenworld.com/childrens/timeslip.htm - are pretty much essential reading.)
"I had a dream where the car
is reduced to a fossil ..." -
XTC, "River of Orchids", 1999.
This piece has been based on viewing a copy of the transmission of The Changes, now sadly unthinkable, on UK Gold in June-August 1994. Since it had been copied possibly up to four times the colour had pretty much completely drained out; no colour production can be seen at its best in black and white, but ironically, give or take the UK Gold logo embedded in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, the experience is closer to that of 1975, when the majority of the audience was still watching only in monochrome. If I fail to capture the exact feeling that those who actually experienced 1975 remember, apologies; I am young, and am, by definition, a historical detective.
In 1975 the UK seemed to be tearing itself apart over whether or not to stay in the Common Market, unemployment was at its highest, up to that point, since the Great Depression of the 1930s, IRA terrorism was affecting the mainland of Britain, the price of everything seemed to be rocketing, the nation was afflicted by various oil and fuel shortages, and it was becoming clear that resources could run out. As 1974 limped into 1975, BBC2 had to turn off its transmitters where it had previously shown the test card and trade test films, BBC1 had to drop afternoon programmes, with both channels setting their closedown time around 11.30 pm, and Radio 1 had to abandon its late-night programmes and move John Peel into the early evenings.
In themselves, these represent a familiar litany, well-remembered from the Saatchi & Saatchi Tory Party Political Broadcasts that attempted to blame the Labour Government for all Britain's woes, and were widely credited with Margaret Thatcher's election at the end of the 1970s. But beneath this over-familiar exterior lies a deeper fascination. Environmentalism, as a response to the oil and fuel shortages, was becoming increasingly prominent, even as much of the original 1967/68 generation was already immersed in advertising agencies and other corporates. More generally, it seemed as though an air of profound impermanence was running through British life, where nothing seemed fixed, as though our media choices could be taken us at any minute. The boundless optimism and excitement of the 1964-69 period already seemed like another world. And into this insecure, small nation, where the future perhaps seemed less certain than at any time since the years immediately before World War II, entered - on the first Monday of 1975 - an extraordinary, visionary television series at 5.20 pm on BBC1, perhaps the greatest children's drama series ever made.
The Changes trilogy of books, written by Peter Dickinson, were published in reverse order; the sequence is The Devil's Children (1970), Heartsease (1969) and The Weathermonger (1968). Basically, they evoke what happens when the British people turn their back on all things modern, denounce machines as "evil", and revert to a superstitious, medieval society. But substantial changes had to be made to transfer the books - self-contained entities with their own individual characters - to a 10-part television serial. The character of Nicky Gore, who only appears in The Devil's Children but is the only character to appear in every episode of the series, was extended into sequences taken from the other two books, and the climactic sequence from The Weathermonger was considerably changed, after adaptor Anna Home decided - probably correctly - that the specific scenario worked in literary terms but did not work dramatically. Also, out of dramatic necessity, the Changes were compressed into a period of a few months, whereas in the original series of books they take place over several years. Nevertheless, the resonance and subtexts instilled by Dickinson remained, and thus it is to him that I will refer for the rest of this piece. Alongside Anna Home - both the adaptor and the producer, and one of the most important figures in British children's TV history - were director John Prowse, and composer Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/radiophonic.htm), whose score for this series is a highpoint of the use of analog synthesisers to invoke the profound and the spiritual - as well as a superb cast, led by Vicky Williams' wonderful performance as Nicky. All coalesce to create a production which, once it has entered the mind, can never leave.
After the first appearance of the soon-to-be-familar credit sequence - the industrial sights of mid-1970s Britain, such as the Severn Bridge and a West of England train, grinding to a halt after a mysterious explosion - the first episode of The Changes, "The Noise", begins in a mundane, middle-class suburban living room where a young girl called Nicky Gore is doing her homework. Within a few minutes of an announcement on television that abnormal weather conditions are occuring throughout Britain, the father of the family has destroyed the television, and everyone in the street has destroyed their machinery, hurtled their televisions to the ground, smashed their bicycles. When Nicky, against her mother's orders, walks out into the street it is into a world experiencing further apocalypse - railway lines blowing up, cars and trains on fire - with people packing to leave for France, aware that it is still safe there (the setting is ostensibly London, though these urban scenes were actually filmed in Bristol, presumably because of its proximity to Gloucestershire and the Welsh Borders, where the rest of the series was shot). After Nicky has been unable to stop herself from joining in the destruction of a car, she suddenly realises that she has lost her parents, and returns home after they have decided to go to France without her. In a superb sequence, accompanied by Kingsland's spine-chilling music, Nicky surveys the ruined darkness of her home, abandoned, icily cold, and explores the ruined, wrecked bar of the city's docklands, taking back reminders of how things had previously been. She encounters an old man, who warns that the sickness is largely a phenomenon of the city, and that she must escape. And then we hear the wonderful closing theme over images of caves whose significance we won't discover unitl the series' climax - enough has happened within this opening episode alone to alert you that you are on the verge of a masterpiece.
The second episode - "The Bad Wires" - begins with the city seemingly utterly deserted. Then a group of Sikhs appear on the horizon, clearly fleeing the city, like Nicky, in hope that those outside will be less affected. In his suggestion that these people may have been wiser than the rest of us, more able to resist the worst excesses of the mass, Dickinson may have been considerably ahead of his time ("The Devil's Children", lest we forget, was published only two years after Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, and the series coincided with a number of crude and primitive portrayals of ethnicity in situation comedy) and it is to his credit that this portrayal is in no way condescending or patronising to the allegedly "exotic". It also makes me think of the embrace of Eastern religions by certain prominent figures in the 70s musical culture with which The Changes shares certain underlying themes - most obviously Cat Stevens converting to Islam and giving up music, but also Richard and Linda Thompson converting to Sufi Islam and spending 1975-78 developing their own community of that religion in Britain.
The Sikhs, along with Nicky, then arrive in a village where the rabble, affected by the new suspicion of technology, jeers and abuses them (however, their behaviour and thinly-veiled racism aren't too different from the attitudes of many people in rural areas which have come to the fore even over the last couple of years with the reaction to asylum seekers; I suspect Dickinson was attempting a disguised criticism of general public prejudice over and above the Changes). In Nicky's conversation over whether she should stay with the Sikhs, we get a real sense of the uncertainty over cultural integration, and whether or not people could "fit together", that ran through much of British life throughout the 1970s and is certainly not over yet. Nicky's sudden worry at one of "the bad wires" closes the second episode, but at the start of the third - "The Devil's Children" - she recovers, clearly winning the battle over the disturbing forces surrounding her.
In the course of this episode, the Sikhs, along with Nicky, find a settlement, create a blacksmith's forge, and become remarkably self-sufficient, but the reminders of what is happening around her come when they have to find a rural settlement. One moment, Nicky is standing on the bridge looking over the river in the village of Feltham; the quintessence of quiet, seemingly timeless rural England. The next, she is being brutally accosted by the elders of the village, physically attacked, and warned against even allowing the Sikhs to repair small agricultural instruments. As before, the attitudes Dickinson is attacking are certainly not confined to the world after the Changes; nevertheless the hatred of "the devil's children" is what communicates itself most powerfully; the episode concludes with Nicky being warned in the village court by the frightening, evangelically fearful Mr Barnard (David King) of the fate that awaits her if she conducts any more dealings with the Sikhs, and the overriding look in his face is of contempt.
In episode four - "Hostages" - the arrival of two robbers, threatening to kidnap most of the population of Feltham, creates an atmosphere of deep foreboding and threat. After Mr Barnard is killed, and the village children are taken to an old stables which the robbers are threatening to set on fire, there is a full-scale pitch battle between the Sikhs and the robbers, which amounts to a battle for self-control and sanity itself - it has the feel of a near-apocalypse, as though the world is on the verge of falling apart. When Nicky takes the children into the countryside, as the stables where they had been held burn, and the people of the village join with the Sikhs in the common cause against the robbers, the episode reaches a superbly dramatic conclusion.
The fifth episode, "Witchcraft!", begins with a lightening of the atmosphere, but the time has come for Nicky to leave the Sikhs, hoping to meet an aunt who lives in the area. By horse and cart, she travels across a grey, misty, muddy English countryside, eerily isolated from the modern world, quasi-medieval in its atmosphere and appearance (although it should be remembered that the countryside looked more like this anyway in the 70s than it does now). Perhaps inevitably, she does not reach her destination, and sleeps the night in a barn in a seemingly-nondescript Gloucestershire farmhouse, which in fact hides the terrifying, and somewhat physically grotesque, Davy Gordon (David Garfield), a man who has devoted his life to weeding out technological "wickedness". When he notices her attempting to drive one of the disused (or "dead") engines in the barn, she is branded a witch, and taken for her trial, where it becomes frighteningly clear just how many people are on Davy Gordon's side, and how few share Nicky's beliefs - the rabble has been converted. Episode five ends with Nicky resoundingly accused of witchcraft, and episode six - "A Pile of Stones" - begins with her sentenced to death by stoning.
Jonathon (Keith Ashton), the son of the farmhouse where Nicky has found some sort of refuge, rescues her from the barn where she has been kept on death row. He covers his tracks by setting the barn on fire (the second time this has had to happen in the series, a sign of the extraordinarily unsettled nature of the world therein). They conclude that Nicky and Jonathon will attempt to escape to France on Jonathon's tug, "Heartsease", which he had used regularly before the Changes, and begin to prepare for the journey. The episode ends with Davy Gordon and his minions confirming, in shock, that "the witch" has escaped from the ruined barn.
The highlight of episode seven - "Heartsease" - is the chase between the barge and Gordon's men, a stunning sequence of several minutes with virtually no dialogue, just Heartsease beginning its voyage and the witchhunters pictured from the air, set to (as ever) stunningly atmospheric music from Paddy Kingsland. After one of the canal bridges has jammed, the episode ends with Nicky and Jon clearly terrified that the witchhunt has got ahead of them, and is on the next bridge. At the start of episode eight, "Lightning!", the witchhunters are close to their goal, before Jon's father, Peter, who had previously been one of Gordon's followers but has now turned against him, urges him to stop his "madness". Gordon drowns in the following battle, and the atmosphere changes and brightens utterly - our final sighting of the hateful protectionist mob (oddly redolent of Robin Page and his friends in the Countryside Alliance and similar groups, another comparison point to be drawn with the state of flux that rural Britain is in now) is of the men on horseback, aware that they will never find "the witch", angry at the fates which have turned against them. For Nicky and Jon, France is now seemingly a goal within sight.
But soon a burst of lightning, weather completely removed from the perfect summer's day it had previously been, destroys Heartsease. They are back in their previous situation, adrift in a countryside where they have no idea what to do or where to go next, but then they see a welcome stranger, Michael (Tom Chadbon). Initially with trepidation, Nicky and Jon settle with him and his wife Mary (Merelina Kendall), who recounts their moving from London to live by the land (as the material at http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/resettlement.htm confirms, this seemed very prominent in the mid-70s, when much interest surrounded the whole idea of self-sufficiency as a kind of desperate last gasp of the late 1960s hippy ideal - of course it was played for laughs in The Good Life but it was still taken seriously by many), and how they had not really been affected by the Changes, had not felt part of the general drift of the nation. It is clear that Nicky and Jon have found a refuge.
Then, in the middle of summer, the Cotswolds are deeply covered in snow. References are made to "the necromancer", part of popular rural mythology, but now suddenly reinvoked, as though the weather can be controlled. A force creating these developments a few miles to the west of the cottage, beyond the mountains, is mentioned. Michael observes that, while there are less desirable and less positive aspects of progress and evolution (pollution, overuse of cars) that does not mean that everything should be stopped; to arrest-in-progress all things modern is too high a price to pay for a return to the better aspects of times past. It upsets the balance of everything, and anyway the majority is simply going along with it. Nicky is beginning to sense that she is getting close to whatever caused the Changes; the core, meaning and climax of the series is clearly forming.
Within the first few minutes of episode nine - "The Quarry" - Nicky and Jon's destiny has been confirmed, as they ride on horseback to the quarry. Kingsland's music reaches a new peak, incredibly atmospheric during the ride across country. After we hear a noise sounding like the baying of a wolf, Nicky and Jon enter the caves (actually Clearwell Caves in the Forest of Dean), a deeply mysterious place where, you sense, something of great importance has happened. Then they sight a caravan deep beneath them, embedded in the mountains. They slowly descend, and begin to look around them; it seems lived-in, occupied, still in progress.
An old man appears, shaking and quivering. He invites them under the caves, reveals that his name is Furbelow and that he had been clerk of the works at the quarry. Initially incoherent and frightened, Mr Furbelow (Oscar Quitak), mentions "him", a spirit he invoked, hoping to do good, but "touched" so that "it" has gone too far, out of his control. He talks of the power to destroy everything that he has unleashed, and cannot contain, and ultimately covers his eyes, unable to speak. Then the noise that had sounded at the beginning of the Changes sounds again. Mr Furbelow reacts angrily, slamming the door, shutting Nicky and Jon out.
Then Jon is looking through Mr Furbelow's diary, which contains words in Latin, which Nicky translates: "I am Merlin, whoever touches me unbalances the world". The ancient nature of the spirits that have been awoken becomes clearer and clearer, as does the underlying meaning of the series - if it had simply gone far enough to curb the worst excesses of the modern world it could have been a force for good, but spirits this ancient cannot be revived by halves; once started, they will run uncontrolled. On the day before the Changes began, Mr Furbelow's diary entry had referred to his need to rouse Merlin, as a means of saving mankind from war, and achieving world peace, and then all his subsequent entries refer to his regret and shame at what he has done, having lost control.
As Nicky and Jon walk into the caves at the start of the final episode, "The Cavern", the climax is clearly approaching. The atmosphere is untouchably brilliant; the terror of being there, and the dread of the noises, are so perfectly put over that you genuinely feel as though you are there. Then we hear Mr Furbelow's voice in the distance, screaming and desperately anguished. He has collapsed, and is taken to the caravan, to rest until the work that is torturing him has been undone. The noise returns back inside the caves, but Nicky overcomes her fears, as she knows she has to, and walks on. A voice is clearly speaking from behind a stone - the power lies here. Nicky is being called; she has to fulfil her destiny.
Kingsland's fanfare sounds, and slowly she walks on. Her words are clear: "Whoever, whatever you are, listen. Please listen and understand. A man disturbed you by mistake, at a time which was wrong. One man touched and woke you. He was not a wicked man, but he felt your power and tried to use it. You fought against him, and your power shook our world. But you're destroying it. We're going back to a time we no longer belong in. Our world was not a perfect place, but what's happening now is worse. People have gone mad, and are dying for no reason. Time cannot go backwards. Only you can stop it. Please. Please."
Then Jon shouts to her.
Then, again, "Please".
Then the voice speaks. Nicky seems to understand him. Twice she responds "I know. I know." Then Nicky covers her eyes. And then it happens ...
The sound of explosions, upheavals. Virtually every image from the series flashes before our eyes. The forces of industry when they still thrived. Then their destruction. Everything Nicky had been through - her full experience - flashes past us.
Then we're back in the cave. Nicky opens her eyes, and walks towards the stone, touching it. The voice speaks to her. Nicky replies "Thank you". Immediately, she and Jon run. He is asking what is happening, but there is no time for that. The caves are collapsing around them. More freak weather is experienced as tidal waves crash. The trees fall, and the cavern begins to explode - in the middle of a landslide, they escape.
Jon initially fails to realise, but Nicky knows that the world has returned to his previous state. Describing her task, her words are timelessly significant: "I can tell you what it isn't. It isn't a person. It was there before Merlin. It's still there ... it's not a person. It isn't even a creature. It doesn't think, it knows, it feels, it's like a whirlpool or a black star in space, dragging things towards it. It's not like anything I can explain ... it is there in nature, deep in the roots of everything, where it all begins."
Nicky realises that this force has its own needs and its own hungers, but it needs the nature of our world, and with our overuse of machinery and our pollution of the earth, we have changed the nature of the world too much, hence why the spirit was ready to be awoken. In time, it would have been. The right time was waiting, perhaps when we had reduced our pollution, for the spirit to be awoken, and then it could have worked in our favour. But Mr Furbelow was too soon, too sudden, the wrong person at the wrong time, so that everything backfired; the world had lurched from one extreme to the other, and become more unbalanced than ever. The scene of Nicky and Jon talking of how they had made things work, and how Nicky, unlike Mr Furbelow, had been strong enough, is one of the absolute pinnacles of British children's television drama.
Then they walk away. The music is light and celebratory. Mr Furbelow is friendly to them, completely removed from his old wracked, fraught self.
As they walk on, we have a reminder of the bad side of the world we have now returned to; as Nicky is talking of the freshness and sweetness in the Gloucestershire air, they notice the sound and smell of petrol fumes and noise, and Nicky comments ruefully that it was "better without all that". Nicky's small talk of seeing her parents again, and of whether the baby is a boy or a girl, reminds us of the easy-going friendliness that has now been restored, and their final walk into the distance of the Gloucestershire countryside is timelessly beautiful.
But then we are returned to the city. The final credits sequence runs over music noticeably pacier and harsher than that played over the sequence of the caves used in all previous episodes, as we see a backdrop of 70s urban Britain at its most mundane, hear the noise of intensive traffic, and see the smoke of a diesel train and the pollution of heavy industry in Bristol city centre; a world whose functional ugliness and endless pressure must, surely, prove too much for us in the end. The subtext is unavoidable; of course we don't want a world of medieval fear and superstition, but surely something must be better than the relentless sprawl of our cities. Peter Dickinson seems deeply frustrated by the apparent inability of humanity to find any halfway point; its tendency to lurch between two extremes. If this seems a bleak view of the human race as a whole, it should not be surprising, since The Changes as a whole seems to ask questions of humanity, and find it wanting. While Nicky Gore encounters sympathy and affection from some - the Sikhs, Jonathon and his family, Michael and Mary - there is a remarkable amount of hostility. The imperfect world during the Changes is, to a great extent, simply an inverse of the imperfect world before them, and after the previous state has been restored.
As David Sheldrick noted while writing about Ace of Wands on Off The Telly in 2000 (http://offthetelly.users.btopenworld.com/childrens/aceofwands.htm), any piece of this nature somehow has to end with the question: could it be made now? Certainly The Changes has a poignant, melancholic air of its time, as I outlined at the start of this piece; in the sense of austerity of uncertainty, and in its embrace of environmentalism when it was just beginning to gain attention and public adherence, at a time when many of the original 1967 / 68 generation were already firmly immersed in the corporates and multi-nationals. It evokes a mood also to be found in the music that people like Mike Oldfield were making at the time - echoes of the sad, lingering death of hippy idealism (especially in Michael and Mary's characters), long after it had been marginalised in the subculture (which had already started to happen as early as 1968 when, in Beatles terms, "Revolution" overtook "All You Need Is Love"), and shortly before it faced the cultural and ideological mortification dealt by punk. It is also true that the series depends on a sense of feeling close to the landscape, a sense of mysticism and history, which has lost much of its place in the public consciousness from the late 1970s onwards.
But, in other aspects, The Changes ran well ahead of its time. Its environmental concerns would not gain a real mass, mainstream following until the late 1980s, and I've already mentioned its utterly non-patronising attitude towards the Sikhs, so far ahead of anything on peaktime television in 1975. If there is any force preventing a series like The Changes from being made now, it is, of course, the virtual demise of children's drama on both the BBC and ITV, the decline of thoughtful, stimulating programming, and its increasing replacement by the quick fix, the easy buck, and the noisy, but empty, background. Nevertheless, Life Force in 2000 - the best children's drama on any channel since Century Falls in 1993, and a series that seemed like a last breath of life from a dying ITV - was massively influenced by The Changes (and by another visionary series that began in 1975, Terry Nation's Survivors). In its portrayal of an utterly changed world where science is illegal, and its evocation of an environment where everything we now take for granted has been taken away from us, it suggested a fascinating direction in which to take the legacy of The Changes, and an incredible potential for children's drama in the future, if only the environment becomes more supportive.
Sadly, there seems no likelihood of such an event. Sadly, it seems that few - if any - writers and producers will rise to the challenge set by The Changes in 1975 and by Life Force 25 years later. What is not in doubt, and will never be, is the scope, scale and brilliance of The Changes, a series which aimed higher than almost any other children's drama series in history, and which miraculously achieved every one of its ambitions.
The further we get from The Changes, the more clearly it stands out as a masterpiece.
Robin Carmody, 22nd May 2002
http://www.bilderberg.org/changes.htm (essential reading, and a very very interesting site all round)
http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/pendasfen.htm (such a close relative of The Changes, thematically)