Tuesday, June 26, 2012
It's partly because kids in the 1970s are now adults waxing lyrical about their now-idealised childhoods; it's partly because modern TV is crap; it's partly because teenagers now are more likely to watch adult TV than specific teenage TV; it's also because we are living in a time of Retromania (thanks in large part to the internet) – Simon Reynolds coined the word and wrote a book about the phenomena.
Whatever the reason (though it's mainly because I never watched any of them first time round, being too young, and have only recently heard of them), I've found myself watching four cult 1970s children's TV programmes/series over the last few months: The Owl Service (1969-1970), Penda's Fen (1974), The Changes (1975) and Children of the Stones (1977). Exploring notions of old England, known as Albion, in a supernatural and lyrical way, together they represent the pinnacle of challenging, thought-provoking and cutting edge children's drama – though to appreciate them fully it helps to be an adult.
Two of the four were adapted from then-recently published books: The Owl Service (1967) by Alan Garner and a trilogy of books (1968-70) by Peter Dickinson became The Changes. Penda's Fen was written by David Rudkin as a TV play and shown as part of BBC's Play for Today series. Children of the Stones was written for TV by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray.
Though the programmes were written and made for children/teenagers and broadcast in the late afternoon/early evening children's time slot, they all deal with fairly heavy, traditionally adult themes such as identity, myth, magic, sexuality, ecology and class (to name just a few!) in an original and often experimental way. (NB: this may be another reason why these now-cult programmes are being rewatched by adults – none of them as kids knew what they were watching at the time; now in their 40s, they can fully understand them). Landscape is paramount in all the programmes: they all have a distinct sense of place, and show the British countryside in an often lyrical way. In Children of the Stones it is Avebury in Wiltshire (called Milbury in the series); in The Owl Service it's rural Wales; Penda's Fen is set in the Malvern Hills and The Changes in Bristol, the Forest of Dean and Sharpness.
The Owl Service, the book, was enigmatic, elliptical, obscure and opaque, whilst dealing pretty realistically with questions of myth, class, national identity and teenage love. The TV series is, well, pretty much the same. In fact, it was only the rather prosaic-sounding recap at the start of each episode which helped me understand the book and the TV series. Beautifully filmed in 16mm colour, it featured the attractive Gillian Hills (who a few years before was in Blowup and a few years later would be in A Clockwork Orange – now she's married to the manager of AC/DC, working as an illustrator) as Alison and the dark, brooding Michael Holden (who would be randomly murdered in a London bar in 1977. I made the mistake of Googling the actors midway through watching it; it cast a dark shadow over the rest of the series) plays Gwyn, the insecure Welsh boy trying to escape his upbringing. The whole series is unsettling and creepy, exploring as it does the story of the mythical Welsh figure of Blodeuwedd and a girl seemingly possessed by owls. I can understand children watching it at the time to be freaked out and confused by it.
Its music (a traditional folk piece) and imagery has been hijacked in recent years by the Hauntological mob, in particular the record label Ghost Box (who I've written about here): above left, still from The Owl Service credits; right, cover for the Ghost Box release by The Advisory Circle, As the Crow Flies.
Penda's Fen is described by Rob Young in his book Electric Eden as a 'complex meditation on the matter of Britain'. The film, directed by an Alan Clarke more famous for his social realist films (such as Scum and Made in Britain) than elegies to lost England, and though still unavailable on DVD (though it can be watched on YouTube), has had a resurgence in recent years, with Time Out last year featuring it in their 100 best British films, calling it a 'unique and important statement' and numerous blogs attesting to its brilliance.
The film centres around teenager Stephen, a somewhat wimpy middle-class pastor's son, as he comes to question his beliefs after a series of visionary encounters with an angel, the composer Elgar and the pagan King Penda. Along the way Stephen finds out he's adopted, is gay, and that England has a religion much older than Christianity, visualising itself in the pagan king. The landscape of the Malvern hills, birthplace of Elgar, is used to dramatic effect, like a character in its own right.
The Changes (also unavailable on DVD) sees England revert to the dark ages when freak weather conditions seem to cause people to turn into Luddites and inexplicably destroy all modern technology. The brilliant first episode features people throwing TVs and fridges out the window, attacking toasters and kettles in their kitchens, bashing cars and bikes in the streets, with cranes and trains ablaze, intercut with schizophrenic, global-warming-style weather: floods, earthquakes, landslides and snowstorms.
The series features Nicky, a teenage girl, who gets separated from her parents in the confusion, as she attempts to find them by walking to the south coast to try and get to France. Along the way she encounters Sikhs, bandits and witch finders. Indeed, it seems to take a matter of days before people resort to barbarism, racism and witch hunting. Any mention of technology is punishable as heresy. It makes Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, set a few thousand years in the future, seem rather logical and inevitable. The ending, like with Penda's Fen, lies in ancient Albion and another mythical figure: this time, Merlin.
Judging by YouTube comments on The Changes, this one really got to children at the time (and as adults now), especially the fear of pylons, which in the series are referred to as the 'bad wires'. One comment seems to sum up the feeling of most: 'Childhood in the seventies was pretty exciting, then the internet came along and it could all be retrieved.'
Both Penda's Fen and The Changes feature the eerie, atmospheric music of Paddy Kingsland, who worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop throughout the 1970s. he was also responsible for music and effects for Doctor Who, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and other BBC TV and radio science fiction programmes of the time. The power of Penda's Fen and The Changes is partly down to Kingsland, employing spooky electronic effects and memorable theme tunes.
Like The Owl Service, Children of the Stones features the idea of actions played out again and again, ad infinitum. In The Owl Service it was the three children re-enacting the story of the ancient legend of Blodeuwedd; in Children of the Stones it's a time rift within the Avebury (called Milbury in the series) stone circle. The series opens with astrophysicist Adam and his precocious son Matthew arriving in Milbury to research the magnetism of the stones. They soon discover that they hold an ancient power, and the villagers are all held captive by the strange forces of the stones. Raphael Hendrick, played by Iain Cuthbertson (who also starred in two other great 1970s productions: BBC's spooky The Stone Tape, with Jane Asher, and The Railway Children, starring Jenny Agutter), plans to unleash this power.
Again, this was hardly suitable fodder for children (or most adults), featuring as it does temporal paradoxes, black holes and psychic bubbles. Still, it can be viewed on several levels (I saw it being about the difficulty of outsiders fitting into Wiltshire village life), and it's highly atmospheric and riveting TV on any level. Again, music is a key ingredient, with scary wailing and chanting sounding like it's coming from the stones themselves. Again, countless YouTube comments from adults testify to the series having affected them as children.
On another YouTube clip, comedian Stewart Lee reminisces about 1970s children's TV in general (taken from Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe on BBC4), and Children of the Stones and The Changes in particular, remarking how he feels lucky to have been a teenager in the 1970s, as there "there was something really comforting for nerds and weirdos about programmes like Children of the Stones and The Changes." Lee compares them with teenage TV shows today, such as the shallow Skins, which seems mainly to be about sex and drugs.
Who knows, maybe something like The Sparticle Mystery, a CBBC post-apocalyptic TV series filmed in Bristol last year (even I know the city well enough to notice the continuity error in the first episode when they drive past Fopp, then drive past it again a few minutes later. Also, wouldn't the kids naturally stop to nick CDs and DVDs? I certainly would.) is as good as The Changes. I was discussing this sort of thing with a work colleague a while ago. When we were younger, our minds were like sponges and we absorbed all kinds of films, TV shows and music. It was in our teens and twenties when we saw the best films and TV shows and listened to the best music ever. Now we're old, grey and cynical, we don't have the time, energy or inclination to be that impressed by new art – even if it is the best thing ever. Even so, I can't imagine children today in thirty years time waxing lyrical about the currently ubiquitous Tracey Beaker or Justin Fletcher TV shows.
The 1970s were a great time for many, a time when living and interacting with the British landscape on a more fundamental level seemed possible. Music, cinema and TV all seemed to align towards this: Paul McCartney was living in on farm, films such as The Wicker Man (1973) explored pagan religion and even more traditional children's TV adaptations such as 1975's The Secret Garden managed to explore notions of class, friendship, magic and nature in a lyrical way. Then in 1979 Margaret Thatcher got into power, the countryside has been raped and pillaged, and all hope has been lost.