Lazy Luddite Log



This time last year I was obsessing over programs from my childhood made in the US. Most, like this and this were made specifically for children, while this was targeted at credulous adults but was a magnet for imaginative kids. They all sparked a sense of wonder that have stayed with me for decades. But what of kids TV from the UK? There was some amazing stuff made by both the BBC and commercial stations. Compared with the US stuff it was less polished and more slowly paced. Yet much of it was compelling nonetheless. I was very young if I saw them on first screening in Australia but it is also likely I saw them as re-runs. I suspect most of them I saw during the impressionable ages of 8 to 12. Here I will describe some of those British shows and the impact they had on me.

The Changes (1975)

In The Changes the contemporary UK is suddenly beset by extreme weather which is then followed by a shrill cacophony which drives everyone wild with anger at machines. They feel compelled to smash the machines in order to end the noise. Following this civilization sort of reverts to a much more primitive and superstitious form. A teenaged girl is separated from her parents and then travels with a family of Sikhs. Over the course of the series (several episodes long) the resourceful girl changes her objectives to discovering just what has caused The Changes. The electricity pylons that stalk the landscape become both a towering representation of the technological recent past and seem to also be the method by which something transmitted the maddening noise that threw society into anarchy. Even now I look on electricity pylons as something a bit ominous. In my reality however there is nothing supernatural seeking to return the world to a better balance between nature and artifice and over-balancing things in the process.

Children Of The Stones (1976)

I cannot remember if I ever saw this or was simply aware that it was on. If my parents had decided it was too scary then I would have understood. However it may well be that I saw it and simply forgot it. Or even blocked it from my memory. Watching shorts from it are bloody chilling. The story tells of a contemporary English village surrounded by neolithic standing stones. A researcher (played by Gareth Thomas of Blakes-7 fame) visits the village to investigate the radioactivity of the stones and brings his precocious son with him. However they discover a sinister conspiracy by the villagers to harness an ancient paranormal energy controlled by the stones. The scariness of the story was underpinned by a discordant choral music score.

Eagle Of The Ninth (1977)

I feel this historical fiction (based on a novel of the same name) is like I Claudius for kids. It may lack explicit violence or politically motivated sex but it does show the gritty reality for Britons living under the yoke of Roman rule. The central character is a young Roman who has come to Britain to investigate the disappearance of the Ninth Legion that his father was part of. In his quest he is assisted by a native Briton and a friendship grows which allow the protagonist to see the native British as humans to be respected rather than savages to be persecuted. I'm surprised how a story with such a violent setting was intended for children.

The Moon Stallion (1978)

This story was written by Brian Hayles (also a writer for Doctor Who) and starred Sarah Sutton (later a Doctor Who companion) as a blind girl who forms a supernatural bond with a wild white horse. The setting is a period one (they have steam trains but still use horse-drawn carriages) in which (yet another) researcher visits a rural English setting (in the vicinity of the Uffington Chalk Horse) with his son and daughter. His blind daughter soon discovers that the wild white horse is more like a spirit envoy from ancient Celtic times. She has to save it and its power from those who would use it for corrupt and greedy ends. If anything the images of those chalk carvings in England excite me more than those of standing stones. They give me this odd sense of something beyond my own ken - something old and distant and profound - and very likely it is thanks to shows such as this that I have any sense of the Numinous at all.

Into The Labyrinth (1980)

In this series (the only one I list to have more than one season) three contemporary children (a brother and sister who then meet another boy while stumbling round some local caves) are enlisted by a magically trapped sorcerer to go on a quest to find his amulet The Nidus. I have re-watched the scene in which the kids meet the trapped Rothgo and feel that he never gives them a satisfactory assurance of his moral character before they agree to help him. However I suppose they feel compelled by the fact that what has trapped him is a rival sorceress who wants his power. She cannot use the Nidus till Rothgo perishes but has thrown it into the whirlpool of time so that he cannot use it himself. The children have to travel a temporal maze which takes them to different historical settings in the hope of finding the disguised Nidus. All those settings were based on the same cavern sets re-dressed for different historical eras. I remember noticing this cost-cutting method even as a child but I watched it avidly nonetheless. Incidentally, a creepy soprano from the Children Of The Stones sings also in this show.

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What I find interesting with these shows is that they are for children in the sense that children (including adolescents) are the central characters. In many other ways however they are the same as dramas for adults. Historical and speculative fiction with fantastical elements are for adults too right? Having adventures of necessity are likewise adult story concepts. It is as if in the 70s children were expected to experience drama and suspense and even thrills in the same way as adults but with just some of the depictions of adult concepts diluted and merely alluded to. Is this the same for children now?

I lack the inclination to make a comprehensive examination of TV for children since but I feel that much has changed. Possibly the biggest change comes in the assumption that children cannot cope with complex or difficult or disturbing concepts. If so something may have been lost. On the other hand we still have a lot of this stuff and so I can always re-watch these on YouTube with the perspective of an adult. I may find some of the production or direction to be dated but then that can be fun. I can always enjoy the incidental music which shows the impact in the 70s of progressive experimental bands. And if, as I suppose, these shows have a kind of maturity, then I should appreciate them as an adult.



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