The rise of YouTube and a handful of committed archivists/nostalgics means that almost any programme you grew up with can be remembered, found and rewatched in seconds. Conversations which used to end with fond, communal remembrances now finish two minutes into a YouTube video with rose-tinted bubbles burst and a shared sigh of disappointment. Make no mistake – this is a good thing.
The latest releases from the BFI, to coincide with their Wonders of Sci-Fi season, are two examples of the genuinely unsettling TV; both designed to educate, in very different ways. The Changes is a ten episode exercise in Luddite terror as a strange event causes people to turn against the electronic infrastructure built into everyday life. This is before Skynet and tablets for toddlers so, despite the sedate pace, this is as relevant today as ever.
It’s a challenging watch, the ubiquity of technology in our lives today render the scenario explored as more unlikely than more terrifying. But like the recent Blackout specials aired last year here and in the US there is something deeply unsettling about our way of life ended, suddenly and forever. This was in a time of frequent blackouts and the threat of loss of traditional jobs (mining is a potent example) which were beginning to feel the ice thinning beneath their feet. Little wonder it has joined the likes of Ghostwatch and been largely, and deliberately forgotten.
Where this release excels is the soundtrack by Paddy Kingsland, who was given free rein in the Moogface dungeon known as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Kingsland’s work is something of a soundtrack of the times. His work on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who is instantly recognisable (and dated – let’s not kid ourselves) but is most effective in The Changes. Those who remember The Boy from Space in particular will recall with a slapped smile of fondness the wistful dirge of Derek Griffiths over the opening credits (‘Out
The release is unexpected, not least because The Boy from Space was a feature on Usenet groups two decades back when 80s kids found each other on the fledgling internet. Originally broadcast in Black and White, then in its original colour format it was a highlight of the BBC’s Schools unit, under the Look and Read banner. Some of you will be off in nostalgic reverie, others will take a look at Wordy (a strange robot professorial type with a nasally, high pitched voice who hosted the show) and struggle to see the fascination. This is only part of it.
Cleverly the BFI have included the original ten part Look and Read episodes, complete with the educational songs (take another bow Dezza G) and, at time, painful banter between Wordy and his human co-host. It’s a time capsule ripe with the miasma of nostalgic longing. It’s hard to resist reliving those sun-drenched mornings when, to your surprise and delight, a television was wheeled in and the classroom blinds were drawn.
Those not in the mood for Wordy’s idiosyncrasies (Crumbs! as he was wont to shout) can enjoy the 70 minute version of the story, edited together especially for this release. It works far better as a story to not be interrupted, and the shock of The Thin Man and the eerie nature of Peep-Peep’s backwards writing is as potent today as it ever was. Like The Changes it tells a story we’ve seen many times since, but its antique elements serve to illuminate the time rather than distance modern viewers.
As a piece of science fiction it sits well between the pillars of Quatermass and Star Wars. A pre-blockbuster slow burner with a dark edge to its mystery. That children are the focus of these two stories is another connection and the disbelieving adults are a cliched but important point to remind us that, ultimately, cannot be trusted to look out for their kids forever.
There is the air of the 70s PSAs to them, cautionary tales which gave many of us our first taste of horror and sci-fi. The BFI reissues are a welcome reissue for two strange tales which have lived for so long in memory. Both are highly recommended.
Now, can we have Dark Towers next please?