BBC1’s disturbing 1975 teatime drama The Changes has become something of a set text for those of us keen to explore our collective childhood disquiet. Introduced by typically understated continuity announcers as a “serial for older children”, it depicts a bleak, dystopian Britain in the throes of a sudden and inexplicable revolution against machinery and technology. The merest presence of a car, telephone or TV set drives the bulk of the populace to blind fury, and the tiny pockets of humanity immune to this outbreak of mass hysteria are persecuted (and frequently executed) as witches in a late 20th century Britain that has reverted en masse to medieval beliefs and practices.
The series was based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson (who had previously developed Mandog for BBC1’s teatime strand) although, curiously, the novels tell the story of The Changes in reverse order. The final book, The Devil’s Children (1972), chronicles the events that kick off the TV series. The Weathermonger, despite being published first, essentially finishes the story and provides an intriguingly mythic and mystical explanation for the “Changes” themselves. An explanation impossible not to reveal when discussing the merits of the book itself, so anyone fearful of spoilers (for either book or TV series) should consider this ample warning to immediately smash up whatever device they’re using to read this article and revert to a basic agrarian lifestyle instead. Or, failing that, abandon Musty Books for the Felt Trips section of this website, which has some lovely drawings of 1970s Daleks and a friendly village policeman.
The Weathermonger begins in characteristically bleak fashion. Stranded on a tiny island in the middle of Weymouth Bay, 16-year-old Geoffrey – suffering from amnesia – and his 12-year-old sister Sally are awaiting execution by drowning, imprisoned there by the baying, spear-jabbing mob watching gleefully from the beach. Their crime? They are amongst the tiny minority immune to the “Changes”, and Geoffrey has been discovered attempting to restore the engine of his uncle’s boat Quern to working order. Giving a strong hint that this national outbreak of mass Luddism has a distinctly magical origin, he uses his acquired powers as a “Weathermonger” to engineer their escape. Each town, it seems, has a highly-paid resident capable of controlling the weather by the powers of thought alone, and – until his fall from grace – this has been Geoffrey’s exalted position in Weymouth. Using his ability to create a diversionary sea fog, Geoffrey takes Sally on a desperate swim to safety, miraculously reaching the boat unscathed and setting sail for the unaffected safe haven of France.
Here, they are persuaded by the French authorities that their unique position (young, wealthy, immune to the “Changes” and able to control the weather) makes them the perfect candidates to investigate once and for all the source of the British revolt against modernity. French satellites have detected concentrations of outlandish weather in specific areas of the UK*, one of which – on the Welsh border – corresponds with a note from the siblings’ Uncle Jacob urging them to investigate rumours that the whole strange kit and kaboodle has its origins in that area, down “Radnor Way”.
And so to Powys! Sailing up the Solent, Geoffrey and Sally return to Britain, steal a 1909 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost from the Montagu Motor Museum at Beaulieu Abbey, and embark on what is essentially an action-packed road caper, across 223 miles of British countryside teeming with witch-hunting mobs, wolves and freak weather conditions. All of which are irresponsibly omitted from the AA Route Planner guide that I used to calculate the distance. There are, predictably, moments of great peril along the way, and also – interestingly – suggestions that Sally is less keen than her older brother on restoring the technological and industrial status quo. She remains immune to the “Changes”, but is scared and disturbed by the whizzing traffic that she encounters in France, and her doubts even begin to make the stolid Geoffrey wonder whether their mission is merely an act of child exploitation on the part of the French authorities.
But the book’s most affecting aspect is an ingenious reversal of the premise of so many children’s books of the era. Instead of presenting a contemporary Britain haunted by elements of a forgotten past, The Weathermonger depicts a medieval Britain haunted by elements of forgotten modernity. The ruined carriageway leading to the “Necromancer’s Castle” now identified as the source of the “Changes” is the overgrown remains of the M5 motorway, charred by magical thunderbolts. Elsewhere, there are mentions of both fishfingers and a pivotal character’s 1959 holiday on the Costa Brava; and I was both jolted and delighted by a passing reference to the Reader’s Digest. There are some folk memories that even a darkly magical anti-technological apocalypse is unable to effectively erase.
This combination of the magical and the mundane reaches its apotheosis at the book’s climax, and spoilerphobes still recklessly ploughing through these ramblings despite my earlier warnings really should choose this moment to chuckle at the charming 1970s Dalek featured elsewhere on this website. For the unwitting source of Britain’s reversal to medieval mores is revealed to be the Arthurian wizard Merlin, accidentally awakened in a long-buried chamber by one-time Abergavenny chemists shop owner Mr Furbelow, who now acts as “seneschal” to his mythical master: guardian, steward and – effectively – drug-dealer.
The well-meaning Mr Furbelow, we discover, is keeping Merlin deliberately hooked on morphine to dampen his senses, a process he began in the hope of steering the mercurial wizard’s limitless powers towards goodness: intending to use his magic, for example, to “stop these wicked wars in the Far East” and – touchingly – to bring the late Mrs Furbelow back to life. Instead, the half-awake and hopelessly addicted magician has merely created, from the magical ether, a strange, medieval haven in which he feels comfortable; with both Merlin and Mr Furbelow unaware that the effects of the spell have spread beyond the remote valley in which they have set up surreal, dysfunctional home.
The revelations are audacious but touching; fantastical and yet affectingly mundane. Geoffrey and Sally’s attempts to explain the trauma of morphine withdrawal – in Latin – to the grateful eight-foot Merlin, thoughtfully turning over a hypodermic syringe in his gigantic hands, make for one of the strangest and loveliest scenes in children’s literature, and provide a fitting conclusion to a book that thrives on both both disorientating contrast and a delightful sense of the contrary.
*They should try living on Teesside for a fortnight.
MUSTINESS REPORT: My 1970 paperback edition has pages the colour of a moderately healthy urine sample, and in the opening chapter a previous owner has crossed out in pencil some of the more challenging words. “Piffle”, “dratted” and “defenceless” have all met with disapproval, as has an entire section comparing Geoffrey’s shaky legs to “those toy animals with zippers that women keep nighties in”. Nighties, clearly, are works of wickedness that must be destroyed. The book is unscathed from Chapter 2 onward though, so maybe our disgusted reader gave up at that point and looked at some nice drawings of Daleks instead.