Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

A Condition of England: The Critique of Racism, Sexism and the 'Back to Nature' Movement in the BBC's Adaptation of Peter Dickinson's 'The Changes' Novels

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

A Condition of England: The Critique of Racism, Sexism and the 'Back to Nature' Movement in the BBC's Adaptation of Peter Dickinson's 'The Changes' Novels

Article excerpt

The Changes, the BBC's 1975 ten-part serial adaptation of Peter Dickinson's "The Changes' novels (The Weathermonger (1969), Heartsease (1969), The Devil's Children (1970)), remains one of the most historically and culturally important examples of British sf television. It engages, explicitly and critically with its sociocultural context to present a barely estranged view of the social reality of 1970s England as racist, misogynistic and ambivalent towards the environ- mental consequences of modernity. As such, it reflects a growing tendency in British sf television of the period to address contemporary cultural anxieties either openly or through metaphor and analogy. Compared to the approaches of other genre productions, the sensationalised adventures of Doctor Who (UK 1963-89, 2005-), for example, or the rather rarefied scientific treatments of Doomwatch (UK 1970-2) and the post-apocalyptic parallels of Survivors (UK 1975-7), The Changes is more direct and intimate in its response to Britain's shifting social conditions. This is unsurprising given the serial's intended audience and the mood prevalent in the BBC Children's Department at the time.

Reflecting on the development of The Changes, its writer and producer Anna Home admits to being drawn both to its source novels' energy - their dramatic potential - and their capacity for stimulating the reader (Home). Then working in the re-formed BBC's Children's Department under Monica Sims, she explains, 'we were interested in new ideas, stretching the audience and looking at social issues; being radical.... We were very lucky to be working at a time when this was encouraged and risk taking allowed' (Email). Sims's rejection of overprotection, of 'cosy fantasy worlds' and her emphasis on programmes that 'accurately reflected real life' - all apparent in her 1969 report to the BBC's General Advisory Council - provided a creative space for such radicalism.

In this context, Home adapted "The Changes' narratives when British society was still preoccupied with the social and cultural concerns forming the thematic core of Dickinson's novels: race and gender relations, and the rise of green politics in response to industrialisation. It was a time, Home recalls, when 'We all believed that kids deserved drama which was as thought- provoking as any adult drama as well as being thoroughly entertaining' (Email). "The Changes' novels were source material for precisely this kind of production. They featured provocative events and situations which Dickinson understood would 'give scope for thought, which provide questions and directions' (Triggs). Equally, they progress at an often breathless pace. In effect, they presented the Children's Department with an opportunity to reconcile what David Buckingham, Hannah Davies, Ken Jones and Peter Kelley see as the 'continuing tension between education and entertainment-based aims' in children's television (14).

However unvoiced, Dickinson's novels possess a didactic potential, and he did not overlook their pedagogic possibilities: ? think there is a strong element of the teacher and moralist in my make-up', he reflects, 'but I don't set out to write a book to make a point. Book's shouldn't answer questions fully' (qtd Triggs). Dickinson's capacity to raise questions, to foster speculation, combined with the texts' avowed liberalism, led to "The Changes' novels being adopted as reading matter by schools in the early 1970s (Hutchison). As such, they were appropriate source material for a public service broadcaster like the BBC, which sees its audience consisting - as Ang suggests of most PSB television - 'not of consumers but of citizens who must be reformed, educated, informed as well as entertained - in short "served" - presumably to enable them to better perform their democratic rights and duties' (29). It seems likely that Home, and the Children's Department, were drawn to "The Changes' not only because they are exciting adventure stories but also because they are liberal texts relevant to fulfilling the BBC's public service remit. …

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