Color, 1975, 246m.
Directed by John Prowse
Vicky Williams, Sonia Graham, Bernard Horsfall, Rugby Brar, Rebecca Mascarenhas, Arthur Hewlett, James Ottoway, Keith Ashton, Zuleika Robson, Stella Tanner, Jack Watson, Tony Hughes
BFI (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)
The fertile land of children's programming is filled with unforgettable offerings designed to teach kids lessons and traumatize them more than a little in the process. That was especially true in the '70s and early '80s when a family-friendly show could suddenly sink its teeth into a developing psyche without warning, often creating little horror and sci-fi fans to be in a matter of seconds. Case in point: The Changes, a ten-part miniseries aired by the BBC in 1975.
The opening two episodes are especially harrowing as they play like a forerunner to horror films like 28 Days Later and The Signal with young Nicky (Williams) finding her family going completely berserk in the morning, with all technology including toasters, TVs and bicycles being smashed to bits. The pandemonium seems to be going on everywhere outside in the streets, too, with all of the townspeople demolishing anything technological with a mysterious noise apparently behind it all. The fact that this is all intercut with disturbing, avant garde shots of random natural and man-made destruction just adds to the unease, and soon Vicky's left behind her parents when they decide to flee to France. After this set up, the rest of the series follows her journey from the city into the countryside where she is taken in by a family of Sikhs, accused of sorcery and labeled as a cursed entity, and confronted with a supernatural climax hinted by the closing shot of each episode: a glowing stone embedded within an ancient cave wall.
There's a lot of heady material here to unpack for an adult viewer, much less a juvenile one, as the story's progress touches on everything from environmentalism (the major theme) to sexism, racism, social conservatism, and the conflict between nature and technology. The ultimate solution is probably as good as it could be under the circumstances and apparently diverges a bit from the one in the source material, a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson with a more, shall we say, explicitly Arthurian sting in its tale and a reverse chronology that wouldn't have worked at all as a TV series. The structure means you also get a great travelogue view of England in the mid-'70s as our heroine goes through a number of settings and characters, including a radical shift halfway through bound to throw a lot of first-time viewers off balance. Also noteworthy is the spectacular music score by BBC Radiophonic Workshop mainstay Paddy Kingsland, which manages to be deeply unnerving (think Howard Shore in his David Cronenberg mode) and lyrical in equal amounts.
Though it ran twice on the BBC and left a lasting impression on an entire generation of viewers, The Changes remained stubbornly unavailable on video in any format until the 2014 DVD release from the BFI. Image quality is very good for what looks like a typical '70s film production, with a sometimes gritty and dark appearance and a solid color palette. Really no complaints here, and the mono audio sounds fine (and will cause some people to really crave a full soundtrack release). Apart from a good stills gallery, the sole video extra is 1983's "At Home in Britain," a 34-minute documentary from the Central Office of Information about Britain's Sikh, Hindu and Muslim residents ranging from their day-to-day family lives to their religious customs. Needless to say, a few moments here could resonate quite a bit differently today. The liner notes booklet includes a lengthy essay by Peter Wright about the problematic path getting the books to the screen, plus notes about the score by Kingsland as well as bios about him, Dickinson, and screenwriter Anna Home, who would become a major player in children's programming. You could still show this one to younger viewers today, but horror and sci-fi fans of any age should find plenty to enjoy here as well.
Reviewed on August 25, 2014.