There are good reasons why British children’s television of the 70s has a cult following. As somebody who did not grow up with such shows, many of these have an appeal transcending mere nostalgia. They tend to be darker and stranger than what we were raised on in the colonies.
One of the best examples of how odd UK children’s TV could be in that era is 1975’s The Changes. This post-apocalyptic drama follows Nicky, a teen girl (played by Victoria Williams) as she tries to catch up with her parents after she gets separated from them while trying to flee England for France.
The first unusual aspect of this series is the nature of civilization’s collapse. The first episode begins with everybody, including Nicky, suddenly becoming irrationally angry towards all electrical and mechanical devices. People smash televisions, radios and cars. Society is soon reverting to the ways of a much earlier, agrarian era.
And it isn’t just agriculture that will revert to more primitive ways. Having decided the feared machinery and electronics are “wicked”, the townfolk also start accusing people of being witches. In keeping with history, it is inevitable our young female protagonist will be just the type of person such people will be looking to accuse. This element gives the series a vibe akin to folk horror.
One of the most surprising aspects of this is that it addresses racial tensions between Sikhs and white Britons. I was not previously aware this was a problem there, but this BBC DVD set even has an interesting documentary about this issue.
The large Sikh family Nicky encounters on the road is initially reluctant to let her tag along. But she will eventually prove her worth, and becomes especially useful as a liaison between the family and racist locals.
And yet, one of the problems I had with the show is how often the Sikhs defer to Nicky. I appreciate the show has a young female lead, and how many of the Sikhs are among the most fully realized characters here, but their deference to her smells a bit of white superiority.
Their deference is especially odd because, despite her being our protagonist, Nicky is wishy-washy, whiny and prone to poor decision making. To be brutally honest, she’s a little annoying in the first half of the series, and becomes even more irritating with each of the remaining episodes.
It probably didn’t help that the Sikhs are only in those episodes from the first half of the series. I really hated to see them go and I felt the show lost its way without them.
The final installments somehow simultaneously seem to be treading water while also rushing towards a conclusion. One wouldn’t think that was possible, but here we are. I was surprised we will eventually learn the cause of all of “the changes”. The revelation left me underwhelmed, but I doubt there is any explanation that would have floored me.
Despite all this, there is lot I liked about this series. It is entirely shot on film, instead of employing that weird British TV standard technique of video indoors / film outdoors. The excellent soundtrack is by Paddy Kingland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
I know I will revisit The Changes at some point, though I suspect only for the first five episodes.
Starring Victoria Williams, Keith Ashton, Rebecca Mascarenhas
Watched on BBC DVD (region 2)