Day #46/365: Threads, The Changes, the bad wires and the ghosts of transmissions
You may notice during this A Year In The Country that the wires, pylons and installations of modern communications reappear in form or another, particularly in my own work…
Why is that you may ask?
Well, I think it comes back to one of the roots of A Year In The Country – that it springs in part from the duality of my own relationship as a child to the countryside: as somewhere that was a fantastic adventure playground and also somewhere that I discovered about the end of the world via watching a program on the possible results of the so-called Cold War and nuclear conflict (see the About page for more information).
Right, deep breath before I start writing all this. It still gives me the heebie jeebies. I wasn’t sure how directly I was going to write about this stuff in A Year In The Country…
The idea of such a conflict was all quite exciting in the daylight of the playground and to young minds: war and such things seem often to be to younger male folk… but at night such an attack, the resulting devastation and consequences would be become my own particular bogeyman, possibly taking the place of more conventional scary fairy stories of times gone by; my own particular monster under the bed/in the cupboard but this was/had the potential to be real.
Around the time I discovered about the end of the world I also seemed to start discovering dystopian/disaster orientated science fiction along the lines of John Wyndham, John Christopher and other interconnected cultural items which possibly didn’t help the night time wanderings of my mind…
It’s curious how your mind remembers and mis-remembers things – I can remember discussing the1984 television film Threads about the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain in a country school playground in 1980, before it was filmed… but maybe that was actually Peter Watkins 1965 The War Game, which has a similar subject matter.
Now I come to write about it, so many scenes from Threads have stuck in and long fascinated my mind, possibly without me realising it. I use the word fascinated but that is with a sense of both attraction and utter horror. Right now though I’m not going to write and describe them… suffice to say and also to forewarn if you should watch it, it isn’t easy viewing…
The film Threads takes its name from the threads and lines of communication that connect civilisation and how they would be so heavily damaged in such an attack… these threads are literally physical items in the case of telephone lines, which I think subconsciously may be an early starting point for A Year In The Country and hence part of why they and interconnected poles and pylons reappear during it.
Another major contributor to such things was a science fiction short story I read sometime around the early to mid-eighties, wherein there is a lead up to a devastating attack/war, during which birds are noted as sitting on the telephone wires around and about… when the attack arrives, the central (human) character rushes to his fallout shelter, only to find it crammed full of birds and animals, with no space for him: the birds had actually been listening to mankind’s communications via the telephone lines and knew that the attack was coming and where to hide.
As an idea, that has always stuck with me and I find it quite unsettling writing about it even now.
I’m not sure what the story was called, I think it was possibly by Clifford Simak but I don’t think I really want to know, know too much about it or revisit it; sometimes these things hold their power more as semi-remembered cultural touchstones (something James Cargill of Broadcast touches on in an earlier post here).
This has probably all mixed in with the cover of the first edition of Rob Young’s Electric Eden and it’s almost perfect representation of the old ways of the land and the march of progress through a photograph of farm land being ploughed in a traditional horse-drawn manner, under the shadow of electric pylons.
Also tied into this recurring subject of communication wires and pylons is the BBC 1975 TV series The Changes based on Peter Dickinson’s book, which has as one of its central themes the idea of “the bad wires” (referring to overhead telegraph/electricity wires), which as a phrase seemed to be with me a lot while taking the photographs for A Year In The Country.
The Changes is part of that strange section of 1970s British children’s television which includes The Owl Service, Noah’s Castle, Sky and The Children Of The Stones, which concerns itself with subject matter and atmospheres that seem curiously strange and even unsettling choices for broadcasts aimed at younger folk; something of a preponderance of eerily presented supernatural/alien forces and/or the breakdown of normal society.
Curiously many of these programs were largely set in rural landscapes/villages etc, which in part is maybe some of what connects them with being part of a body of work that could be seen to be of an “Other” or Wyrd Britainnia. In The Changes much of modern societies technology is destroyed/rejected which could also be seen to connect with an attraction to rural, rustic, folk and ways of the land in folk music in the earlier 1970s and films such as Akenfield
As a brief precis of The Changes: it starts with a normal middle class family sitting at home, their daughter planning her homework, the weather has been strange and suddenly society is gripped by a form of madness which makes everybody destroy and fear almost all machinery and a pogrom of machine orientated violence sweeps the nation.
The program largely concerns itself with the period after this and as the modern cities become abandoned wanders into being a parable about racial harmony, life returning in the countryside to an almost medieval way of life under a sword wielding master of the village, all black and chain wearing louche beatnik robbers and brigands, wanders off into a milder version of The Witchfinder General territory where those who are suspected of using machinery or even saying there names are seen as “wicked sinners” and indeed to be witches…
I won’t spoil the plot for if you should watch it but suffice to say I was watching some of it thinking “How was this come to be made as children’s entertainment?”. In particular the first episode where the madness has gripped mankind and the machines are being smashed in the streets.
The program was originally made in 1973 and not broadcast until 1975 for reasons I know not.
Maybe it was considered too heady, depressing or possibly prescient for a society that was reeling from a large amount of political, social and economic strife, oil shortages and the unravelling of post-war political consensus.
Much of the 1970s in the UK was that way inflected but 1973 seemed to be a particular high/low point: something I had semi-consciously felt but which was confirmed when I recently read Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed, a book about the paranoia and peculiar political and social behaviour which was afoot and even became commonplace during the 1970s, with the book portraying the year The Changes was made as something of a watershed for such things.
Possibly also The Changes could be seen as a reflection of some of societies fears of social breakdown at that time and the threats represented by a reliance on modern technology which needed modern fuel, which was at that time under threat due to a crisis in oil supplies… a wish for a escape from such worries could also be one reason for the aforementioned increase of interest in culture which reflected rural idylls and folklore/folk music at this time
It’s not as inherently strange as a program as say The Owl Service or possibly The Children Of The Stones but still quite odd and worth a watch as it’s an interesting document from a particular time in British history. Also programs like this, the aforementioned Sky, The Owl Service etc have somehow gained layers of otherlyness with the passing of time and they now seem almost like occult (in the sense of hidden) artefacts and transmissions from some other stranger fictional Britain.
That is possibly in part added to by the colours and nature of the images themselves; in particular with something like The Change which has never been commercially available to rent/buy and the only way of viewing it are in smudgey grey-green ghosts of the original broadcasts (again, something James Cargill also talks about, which can be read in an earlier post in A Year In The Country here).
If you should wish to investigate The Changes further, there is an extensive amount of writing and background on the program, including the author of the sites correspondence with the BBC about possibly releasing the series commercially: www.bilderberg.org/changes.htm
The BBC’s Cult TV page on The Changes.
As a final note, I came across an interesting article from The Hauntological Society on the film Threads, the sense of dread it engendered and the way such fears have been reflected by elements of what has become known as hauntological culture: it can be read here.