Last week I went up to Newcastle for Alien Nation, a two-day conference on telefantasy (i.e. British SF, fantasy, and horror television). James Chapman’s Inside the TARDIS and Catherine Johnson’s Telefantasy battled for citation supremacy, but surely the fairy godmother of the conference was Network DVD, purveyors of retro television series to the discerning. Gone are the days when washed out Nth generation video copies of UK Gold repeats were the only available window onto childhood memories. Network, we salute you. (Warning: clicking on the link to Network will result in serious damage to your finances.)
I’m not going to attempt a full write-up of the conference here, chiefly because Frank Collins has archived his live blog of the event here, covering papers on Nigel Kneale, Doctor Who, Doomwatch, Children of the Stones, Outcasts, The Owl Service, The Clifton House Mystery, The Professionals; and, thematically, on gender, music, what makes British telefantasy “British”, the Gothic in children’s television, etc. etc. Really, go and have a look through Frank’s heroic set of notes, annotated liberally and joyously with great pictures and relevant footage.
Just to pick out a few highlights of the conference for me:
- The panel on 1970s and 80s dystopia: A panel made for me – YES I AM ALL ABOUT THE BUREAUCRACY. Papers looking at Doomwatch (and Wombling Free); the 1977-78 dystopian series 1990, starring Edward Woodward (which has sadly never been repeated or released); Threads and The Tripods; and Children of the Stones. All series that portray a downbeat and declining industrial power stifled by bureaucracy and lacking the energy to imagine escape routes, like a concrete Gormenghast.
- Derek Johnston’s paper on music in Terry Nation’s Survivors: there’s hardly any music in Survivors, apart from one piece of non-diegetic music, and the rest either recorded, or performed by cast members. This was great: Johnston showed how recorded music indicated characters who wanted a return to social order, while people performing their own music welcomed the end of technological society and the new rural world. Johnston connected this up to themes in the English folk revival. A really interesting paper. I don’t instinctively “read” the music of television programmes, and particularly appreciate this enhancement of my understanding of a show.
- Peter Wright’s superb keynote on the 1971 BBC adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s trilogy of children’s novels, The Changes. Peter has done extensive research at the BBC archives in Caversham, and interviewed adaptor Anna Home (a significant figure in BBC children’s television). A model of research and analysis, with thoughtful reflections on how race is handled in both book and adaptation. The highlight of the conference for me.
- The emergence of what Peter Wright dubbed the Doctor Who carbon dating system: when an obscure programme is being discussed, refer to whatever Doctor Who was being broadcast at the same time in order to orientate one’s audience. In the case of The Changes (broadcast 6 January – 10 March 1975) this would be from the middle of “Robot” to the beginning of “Genesis of the Daleks”. Handy.
My train back was on Thursday evening, so sadly I didn’t get to see Penda’s Fen (BBC Play For Today from 1974). But what a great couple of days, listening to people talk about, and getting to talk about, stuff that I love. The folk working in this field are amongst the friendliest, most welcoming, most collegiate set of academics I’ve ever met. Really glad I made the trip, even if I returned home with a Network shopping list long as my arm.
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