Have you ever knocked your alarm clock off the bedside table in a sleep addled state while attempting to press snooze, or come in late and broken the record player …or perhaps even accidentally smeared a large quantity of mayonnaise on the keyboard of your laptop while drunk (don’t ask)? Then you‘ll know that morning after feeling all too well. Now imagine waking up and realising the night before you were taken over by some mysterious mind-fug and smashed every machine and piece of electrical equipment in your house. You’d feel pretty silly then, right? But then you go out onto the street and it’s littered with shattered televisions and buckled bicycles and cars on fire, the mechanical debris of the 20th century, turned against by their owners in a uncontrollable rage… it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it. It’s the perfect post-modern apocalypse scenario, end times for the consumer age.
Our guide through the aftermath of the forceful and mysterious revolt again technology is Nicky Gore, a frightfully nice and well educated girl who even attempts to go to school the next morning as she’s got a English test. If I’d witnessed my dad beating the crap out of the telly with a pedestal ashtray I’d totally have used it as an excuse to get the day off, but then I probably never was BBC children’s drama heroine material. I’d probably have also been considerably more upset had my parents accidentally left me behind in the chaos as Nicky’s parents do, escaping to the middle class haven that is rural France (some things never change). Nicky on the other hand is left on the plague ridden streets of an unspecified southern city to fend for herself, scavenging crisps and pop from the local pub for sustenance like a good seventies kid.
In the aftermath of the changes not a lot makes sense and the populace is attempting to come to terms with the new rules. Why a lamp is fine, but a torch is evil, why travelling by cart is perfectly acceptable, but the sight of a bicycle makes you want to go nuts with a big stick. Escaping to the countryside with a small Sikh community over the proceeding months Nicky finds a new equilibrium is slowly established, one based on a slower way of life where you produce what you need or barter for it, very like the middle ages. However social relations have also taken a backwards step and society is outwardly racist, misogynist and god fearing. For Nicky there are only so many times that people can accuse you of being a witch before the novelty of the new order wears off and you have to get over your fear of the ‘bad wires’ and do something about it.
The Changes was adapted for television under the auspices of Monica Sims who became the new head of Children’s programming at the BBC in 1967 with a strong personal agenda to increase the amount of drama produced for older children. The ten part series is Anna Home’s adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s ‘Changes Trilogy’. The first in the trilogy, The Weathermonger (1968) is set five years into the future where “England has reverted to the middle ages and machines are the work of witchcraft” and is based on two children seeking the source of the evil. Heartsease (1969) is the second book and sees two children rescuing an American spy who has come to the UK to investigate the Changes. The third Changes story, The Devil’s Children (1970), has young girl Nicky Gore as the protagonist travelling with a group of Sikhs unaffected by the revulsion to machinery. Home’s adaptation is quite radical in the sense that it makes Nicky Gore the central character, reverses the order of the books, does away with several characters completely and somewhat sanitises the ending, which I won‘t give away. Peter Dickinson gives an interesting overview on the origins of the books on his website though sadly doesn’t comment on Anna Home’s reinterpretation.
The strength in Home’s adaptation for me is that rather than being exclusively set in the post-Changes future it starts in the present day allowing us to witness the Changes as they occur. As far as I’m concerned this is the best part of the whole programme and it’s regrettable that the dark uncanny nature of the first episode isn’t really maintained throughout the series. Despite the excellent sound track by Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which adds a suitably uncomfortable and disconcerting tone, there are too many occasions when the Changes veers into jolly-hockey-sticks girls adventure territory. Nicky’s earnest middle class voice begins to really grate after a while as does her constant supply of plans for getting out of scrapes which for some reason despite being a. a child and b. completely devoid of charisma she seems to manage to get everyone else to follow with the minimum of effort. As a serialisation it is inconsistent and the mid-episodes pretty slow and tedious with far too much galloping around on horses, though it picks up towards the end.
Originally commissioned in 1971, but beset with challenges The Changes was not broadcast until 1975 and couldn’t be a more 70s production if it tried. I’m not talking lurid flares and Open University style beards, though there are a few to be spotted, but the central themes – disintegration of the nuclear family, multiculturalism and social upheaval, the speed of technological change – are all preoccupations very clearly of that time. On her travels Nicky even comes across a groovy couple who escaped the rat race to be self sufficient before the changes took place. Of course these are not preoccupations that have actually gone away in the intervening 35 years and there is something still relevant and engaging about the story which is crying out to be retold. Given our present level of technological dependence an adaptation of the Changes trilogy for the 21st century would be an amazing and scary thing. Just lose the annoying heroine.