Nicky Gore (Vicky Williams) is a teenage girl living in a city with her parents (Sonia Graham, Bernard Horsfall). Suddenly, there is a loud humming sound, and her father is moved to smash the family's television set. Outside, people are in the streets, driven by “The Noise” to destroy machinery. Trying to escape for the continent, Nicky gets separated from her parents. She moves across the country, at first with a family of Sikhs, in an effort to find safety and perhaps find the source of “The Changes”.
Peter Dickinson (born 1927 and still with us, as I write this) has had a long and distinguished writing career, particularly in the field of detective fiction for adults and children's fiction, usually science fiction or fantasy. In the latter capacity he is one of only seven writers to have won the Carnegie Medal twice (Tulku in 1979, City of Gold in 1980) and was the first one to do so. The Changes Trilogy was published in reverse order of internal chronology: The Weathermonger (1968), Heartsease (1969) and The Devil's Children (1970).
Amongst his other work was a six-part TV series for children made for the BBC, Mandog, broadcast in 1972. The series' producer and co-director was Anna Home, who was an admirer of Dickinson's work. The previous year, she had optioned the Changes Trilogy for television. Originally planned for thirteen episodes, but finally made in ten (of just under twenty-five minutes each), Home's adaptation of the novels was an undeniably ambitious project, and it was nearly cancelled. It was only with the backing of the head of BBC Children's Department, Monica Sims, that the serial went ahead. The three novels have separate casts of characters. Home's adaptation made Nicky Gore, who appears in print only in The Devil's Children, the protagonist of the entire serial. Jonathan (Keith Ashton) makes his first appearance in Episode 5 and becomes the second lead for the rest of the story. The opening episode was first broadcast on Monday 6 January 1975, specifically announced on screen as being “for older children”.
The weekly serial of 25-minute episodes is a form somewhat of the past, though that was a length that neatly fitted a slot in the schedules between John Craven's Newsround and a five-minute cartoon before the early evening news. It is of course that of the classic era of Doctor Who, then broadcast on Saturday nights. However, there had not been a ten-part Who since 1969, and at the time The Changes was made, the longest that show's stories ran to was six episodes. Ten episodes wasn't entirely without precedent for a serial in children's viewing time – the thriller serial The Long Chase, which I watched, ran to thirteen in 1972. But nowadays such a format is less often seen: Who nowadays runs to single-episode stories of forty-five minutes, with the occasional two-parter. The disadvantage of such a format is that you have to be at the same time each week, and the episodes couldn't easily be moved to make way for something else at short notice. Especially so in those days, there wasn't a readily available method of recording television in the home, so other than repeat showings (and the usual contracts allowed for one repeat within two years of first broadcast) if you weren't in, you missed it. The Changes had a repeat in 1976 , and I saw most episodes in both runs but missed others. Until now, I had not seen the final two.
Many television programmmes or films we remember from long ago may well be best left unrevisited, but I'm glad to say that The Changes does stand up very well. A lot of credit has to go to Anna Home for her adaptation of the novels. Never a believer in overprotecting her young audience, in The Changes she stays within PG bounds but does deal with some dark material. We're in the tradition of what, in written SF, is called the cosy catastrophe (something Terry Nation visited the same year, for adult viewers, in Survivors). But the England that has been reverted back to pre-industrial times – filmed here in some very picturesque countryside – is no bucolic paradise, but communities infested with xenophobia, racism and intolerance, which reaches its peak halfway through the serial when Nicky is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death by stoning.
Nicky is a type of heroine we don't see often any more. She's written and played as very much an ordinary girl in unspecified mid-teens (Vicky Williams was actually seventeen at the time of filming). She's an only child, which you suspect has a lot to do with her self-reliance - though her parents are about to provide her with a sibling after such a long gap...and thereby hangs a subtext. In a quick sketch in the opening episode, we see Nicky as part of a very middle-class city-dwelling (filmed in Bristol) family, quietly doing her homework, while in the background a television is on...a black and white one, though an increasing number of people in 1975 would have seen this in colour. (I did.) You could read much of what follows as Nicky's attempt to be part of temporary families while she tries to find her real one, at first with the Sikhs, and later with Joanthan, who's a surrogate brother than a possible love interest. Nicky wins out because of her innate common sense and decency: you can't imagine someone like her turning up in Skins, say. It's also notable that a serial aimed at both sexes has a female lead without any fuss, especially now when it's accepted wisdom that boys won't watch or read anything with a girl as the protagonist.
Nicky is the only character to appear in all ten episodes, and Vicky Williams plays her with an unshowy conviction that does much to hold the story together, and offsets some of the more melodramatic turns from the adult guest cast, many of whom will be very familiar from other 70s television programmes. (Aged seventeen at the time of filming, Williams was something of a veteran as a child actress, having made her debut in 1969 in a BBC adaptation of Dombey and Son. She has gone on to an acting career as an adult, billed as Victoria Williams.)
The Changes would be made differently now, as I have suggested above. Ideas of pacing are different now, and serial of ten weekly episodes might well be thought too long a commitment now. (Though it makes for a good box set binge watch.) It was never reshown on the BBC after the 1976 repeat, though UK Gold did show it in 1993, and it has been high on many fans of small-screen SF and fantasy's wish list for DVD release. And now it has one.
Following its Gothic releases of 2013, the BFI is making available on DVD in 2014 some notable examples of television science fiction, and The Changes is the first. It comprises two dual-layered DVDs encoded for Region 2 only. There are five episodes per disc, with a Play All option, as follows:
The Noise (24:57)
The Bad Wires (24:51)
The Devil's Children (24:53)
Witchcraft (23: 37)
A Pile of Stones (24:40)
The Quarry (24:40)
The Cavern (24:08)
Oddly, these episode titles, while they appeared in Radio Times and other sources, do not actually appear on screen. Each episode from the second onwards features a brief recap of the story before the opening credits start.
As you would expect from 1970s television, the DVD transfers are in the ratio of 1.33:1 and not anamorphically enhanced. The Changes was shot on colour 16mm throughout. It was however, transmitted from videotape (presumably two-inch Quads) and the DVD has been transferred from the BBC's video master copies. The tenth episode has a sequence featuring a video effect and short flashbacks to earlier episodes, which look like they were telecined in – note the increased grain. There are some instances of minor damage, such as spots and speckles and the occasional film scratch, but nothing too distracting. Given that remastering from the original 16mm elements (if they still exist) is clearly not an option, this looks as good as you can fairly expect it to.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and there's nothing much to say about it except that it's clean and well-balanced, clearly the result of BBC expertise. Paddy Kingsland's music score, making much use of synthesisers – and Indian instruments in the sequences involving the Sikhs – comes over well. Subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing for all episodes, but not for the extra listed below.
This, on Disc One, is “At Home in Britain” (33:29), a documentary made in 1983 by the Central Office of Information for the Race Relations Board. In turn, Ram, a Hindu, Zafar, a Muslim, and Gurdev, a Sikh, talk about their experiences of living in England and what their faith means to them. This is presented as voiceovers over still images. On Disc Two is a stills gallery for The Changes. It isn't self-navigating: you have to move forward or backward using your remote.
The BFI's booklet begins with “The Battle for The Changes” by Peter Wright, which comes with a spoiler warning for the final episode. It details the serial's production and how it was nearly cancelled for budgetary reasons, and was made because of Home and Sims's advocacy for it. Wright identifies The Changes correctly as an example of the grittier style of children's drama that Sims brought to the BBC, one unafraid to tackle social issues in a way that a younger audience could relate to. (He does say that The Changes was the first serila made by the BBC's children's department longer than six episodes, but The Long Chase, as I mention above, had run to thirteen.) Next up, Paddy Kingsland describes how he produced the music for the serial: all of it, including opening and closing titles, incidental music cues and also “The Noise” courtesy of a synthesiser. All in all, the process took eight months. Also in the booklet are biographies of Anna Home Peter Dickinson and Paddy Kingsland, notes on “At Home in Britain” and credits and transfer notes.