Lazy Luddite Log

31.10.13

Albion

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 starts looking for them. However in 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.

Cross-posted here.

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13.10.13

Dandy

Last week I went to my dentist in Dandenong for a long overdue appointment. Public Transport users can only be early or late so naturally I had time to kill on my walk from the station to my appointment. As I walked at a relaxed pace I observed my setting, comparing what was new with what was old and remembering all the changes to my onetime home suburb. I could have given a historical guided tour, if the 70s and 80s are deemed historical. Here is the blow-by-blow of the sort of things I saw, both with my eyes and the eyes of memory.

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- Dandenong Station and environs has changed a lot over time. The station itself was once a timber affair, like Clayton Station but bigger. In the 90s it was replaced by a steel and glass complex reminiscent of a Legoland Space set. From there I can choose to walk along Foster Street or cut through a backstreet to Walker Street. Foster Street once had a tough reputation, but the Southern Arora pub is long-gone, and most of the tattoo parlours have been replaced by Indian grocers and clothes shops. In fact the local council now call it Little India. However, some new developments towards Walker Street make me go in that direction.

- A pop-up park has – um – popped up across Railway Parade. I hope it stays a while as it includes a basketball court and lots of local teenagers (looking like they come from recent migrant families) use it. Further back from the road some new structure has been made alongside an abandoned Masonic hall. There are a number of new developments in this area between the station and Princes Highway (aka Lonsdale Street) but there are still old structures like the Walker Street Gallery, which was originally a fire station in my childhood. The Dandenong Science Fiction Club (DSFS) still meet there and I remember how fun it was to see another community group – the local Chilean dancers – meeting in an adjoining space and doing their thing.

- I next round the corner into Thomas Street. This was once the site of lots of bus stops that have now been re-located. It also has two ways of cutting through to the Princes Highway. I suspect that Vanity Court is still mostly empty of tenants as it has been most of my life. I choose the more cozy memory of walking through a discount pharmacy that once once a Coles Variety Store. Coles once had department stores under that name – imagine something halfway between Target and Best & Less in content with a cafeteria attached. Shoppers could eat in at a lot more shops because they were stand-alone. Now most department stores are in shopping centres with a food court close by. But in Coles Variety I had my first experiences of milkshakes in big metal cups. Mmmm...

- There is some new and very distinctive building under construction at the corner of Walker Street and the Princes Highway. I only later discovered what this new thing with the strangely shaped red roof was. I continued on across the Highway, seeing the ultimate in combining the old with the new, as I did. I’m referring to the Dandenong Town Hall, with its heritage-listed façade and clock tower, built in the 1890s, that now fronts an otherwise new (2000s) structure in the Drum Theatre.

- On the other side of the Highway I had to decide whether to use Dimmy’s or The Hub to continue my walk. Dimmy’s was once Walton’s – another long-gone department store. I remember they had an awesome toy department. I decide there is nothing exciting in Dimmy’s however and choose the Hub, an arcade on two levels with varying fortunes over time. Its upper level has always had specialist shops in it that can survive without exposure – things like a stamp-collecting centre. The ground level however has changed more. It was once bustling. Then the new Dandenong Plaza came along in the 90s and took away a lot of its custom. It seems to have revived somewhat, thanks to the changing demographics of Dandenong, with a lot of ethnic clothes and food stores. I do however miss Mind Games, which for ages has been an Afghan rug shop.

- The Palm Plaza is a nice area to wander and see passing shoppers. However one is inexorably drawn into Dandenong Plaza shopping centre, which came along in the late 80s and then was expanded in the 90s. I can barely remember what preceded but let me try: Myer was always there and still is. However it was a stand-alone structure flanked by both Coles New World (the supermarket of that brand to distinguish it from Coles Variety stores) and either a Safeway or Woolworths (in the 70s they were separate stores rather than alternative brandings for the same supermarket).

- For a while I feel that Dandenong Plaza damaged the older shopping areas like the Hub and Vanity Court. However it was also a needed thing, with Dandenong as the retail centre of the growing outer south-eastern suburbs. And it is architecturally a nice shopping centre, with its exposed white steel framework and curved roof sporting many skylights. Also culture can be allowed to grow even within such a regulated environment – the centre has placed a giant Chess game in one area and locals of different ages and backgrounds (but as far as I can tell only one gender) gather to play, spectate and comment sagely on strategy.

- Across Clow Street is the Dandenong Market. It looks like it has had another major expansion recently. I’m told it is an excellent produce market and should visit it on an open day sometime. For now I simply wonder what has happened to the historic Dandy Hams And Bacons neon sign – it comes and goes and comes and goes…

- Further along Clow Street is the municipal council offices and then the old Dandenong Library. I spent much of my youth there. It still even bears the old name of the City Of Dandenong Library (the councils of Dandenong and Springvale were merged in the 90s to become Greater Dandenong). Inside I discover an architectural model of the proposed new home of the local library – it is none other than what I saw under construction at the corner of Walker Street and the Highway. Well then this could be the last time I ever visit the old library. But change is okay. Likely the new library will be better and its more central location will give the public better access to it. Besides this is what photos and other records are for. I take a few and move on.

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There is more I could say. There is always more. But brevity is a virtue and this short record will provoke other recollections. I know that change is a constant force in life and often a constructive one. However it can also shock and surprise. Luckily it is usually a staggered process and as such we get to have the new parked alongside the old. And then by the time the new is old we will be in a better position to cope with the new that is new (and so on).

Cross-posted here.

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