Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Is 'Noah's Castle' on the Horizon?

This probably sounds like a Biblical posting, but in fact it refers to a novel, 'Noah's Castle' written by John Rowe Townsend and published in 1975 which was televised as a children's series in 1980 on ITV. People often look back nostalgically at the drama series produced for children on British television in the 1970s. Some of the series were incredibly serious and not that appealing, there was a bit too much Victorian dullness to them, but fantastical elements were also common producing programmes which are seared into the memory of people who saw them. If you search the internet for information about 'Noah's Castle' you will also find references from people in their 30s and 40s saying how chilling it was.

Looking back on that time I remember quite a few dramas worth a mention and would point you to 'The Changes' (broadcast 1975; based on Peter Dickinson's triology of novels: 'The Weathermonger' (1968), 'Heartsease' (1969) and 'The Devil's Children' (1970)), 'The Owl Service' (first broadcast 1969; based on Alan Garner's novel of the same name (1969) still very frightening) and 'A Traveller in Time' (broadcast 1978; based on Alison Uttley's (1884-1976) novel of the same name which I believe was published in 1934 and re-released in 1977). These were dramas aimed at 'older children' which had a fantastical elements, respectively a force making people destroy machines, a kind of animal spirit trying to dominate a house, and slipping back into Elizabethan times, but also addressed the issues in an adult way, often looking at responsibility, loyalty, dealing with danger, etc. I know some of these issues are tackled by even cartoon series these days, but these series needed commitment. I think that their descendant is the Harry Potter series which combines fantasy and the serious and is also tied into novels. So, perhaps the demand for these things has not entirely disappeared.

It is a shame, that despite so much 'retro' TV getting on to DVD that these series are not available. There was a 4-hour video of 'The Changes' but I have not seen the others. Given how well 'Mr. Benn', 'The Clangers' and 'Catweazle' have all gone down with the 6-year old in my house I was thinking that in a couple of years he might be ready for this kind of series, he can recite the Harry Potter films back word-for-word (very irritating if you are trying to watch them!).

Sorry, I have wandered right of track now in typical mid-life nostalgia. The reason why I have picked on 'Noah's Castle' out of all of these is because it is set in the near future and focuses on the UK experiencing a period of hyper-inflation. Even growing up in the 1970s when pictures from Northern Ireland of riot police and soldiers in armoured vehiclers, those full-face helmets, with baton guns and real guns fighting against protestors, were common to envisage such things in a street in the Home Counties, protecting food convoys was startling, I think to adults as well as child viewers. Of course we had been through inflation in the 1970s triggered by the sharp oil price rises from 1973 onwards so it seemed quite possible that things would go further. Of course Thatcher had come to power in 1979 and soon we moved from inflation to mass unemployment as being the great social divider (does any of this sound familiar in the current situation?) It is nearly 30 years since I saw the series and read the novel, but some things stand out. The hero in the series is Norman Mortimer, the Noah character. He runs a shoe shop and in one scene a man tries to buy a pair of children's shoes but they cost £320. Nessie, who if I remember correctly is the elder daughter and her boyfriend become involved in an increasingly radicalised movement which supplies food to elderly people, a bit like a revolutionary meals-on-wheels service and all they can bring to this one old person is a handful of potatoes.

The Mortimers, who have four children and a large detached house, effectively begin barricading themselves in. Thus like Noah in the ark they would weather the 'storm' of food shortages and come out into whatever world would come after. Norman Mortimer has been stockpiling food for months during the lead up to the real crisis and feels he and his family can survive keeping outsiders back. Of course his family is divided over this especially the two sons Barry and Geoff, one of whom supports his father, the other who increasingly contests his views. So, like all the best of these series, it combines broad sweeps of drama with family tensions too. The issue of a father on a mission trying to get his children to come along with him is a common but interesting them that many readers/viewers can relate to. In terms of the series I thought the way it appeared to be just into the future, not only in terms of the police (remember this was before the UK police force outside Northern Ireland had any riot equipment as was revealed in 1981 during the Brixton riot when they relied on shields improvised from dustbin lids, so it was more startling than today) but also in terms of fashions, which was a clever touch. The teenagers wore things that were high trends in 1980, but seemed to have become as normal as jeans by the period of the story. In some way, though we did not experience food riots in the 1980s, the series was echoed greatly in clashes between police and protestors during the Miners' Strike 1984-5 and the Poll Tax Riots of 1990. By then of course the police had the equipment they had been shown with in 'Noah's Castle'.

To some degree 'Noah's Castle' was almost a 'what if?'. One could envisage that if James Callaghan had held an election in Autumn 1978 when he was expected to and so scraped a victory before the widespread public sector strikes of Winter 1978/9 that by, say, 1982 you could have had a situation as shown in the book/series. This would have come about, if, there was another sharp oil price rise (as in fact happened following the Iranian Revolution of 1979) and pay had not been restrained by mass unemployment and to keep the economy going on a pseudo-Keynesian basis consumption was kept up by wage settlements leading to hyper-inflation. I do not know if Townsend was a monetarist but his novel could have easily been used to show up the potential dangers of an unrestricted flow of money through public spending and consumption that the monetarists sought to counter.

Are we coming back to an era when 'Noah's Castle' again appears feasible? Possibly. Interestingly, I do not remember if there was reference to fuel costs spiralling, though I think I remember power cuts in the series. This of course is the big burden on the British public alongside petrol and food costs. Back in the 1970s in the UK all power supplies and utilities like water and sewage were state-run which meant that there was far greater control over prices. Now they are all run by very greedy private companies which make vast profits, so this factor comes to the fore in a way Townsend could not have foreseen. Petrol has always been a major factor in inflation across the world and prices since the late 1960s have been driven up by both the countries producing the oil and by the multinational companies which move it around and refine it. Interestingly the British seem far happier rioting about petrol than they are about food. In the 20th century there were very few food riots in the UK, someone might correct me on this, but the last one was probably in Liverpool in 1911 when the whole city was effectively under a state of siege with a dock and railway strike meaning food was not getting into the city and armed police and soldiers patrolled the streets, protected food convoys and defended bakeries from attack. Contrast this with blockades and fuel protests against the increase in petrol prices and duty on petrol that we have seen throughout the 2000s. In addition, farms are being raided by people trying to get hold of 'red' diesel which is sold at a subsidised price to farmers and they even follow tankers around to see where the fuel is being delivered. People are increasingly processing used food fats and oils at home to make bio-fuel and now even chipshops are being broken into to get hold of their oil. I think a lot of this comes down to the British being more concerned more about their 'right to drive' than feeding their families.

To some extent the impact of inflation has been reduced by competition among UK shops. Whilst £1 in every £10 spent in the UK goes to Tescos, there are four (five now with the Co-op takeover of Somerfield) large supermarket chains that seem happy to reduce prices and compete sharply between them. Of course we have lost the small shops of the 1970s but in times of inflation they cannot keep up because they lack the economies of scale. UK supermarkets still have a profit margin wider than that of equivalents on continental Europe which is partly why food price inflation bites harder in the UK than it does elsewhere in the EU/ Due to climactic factors and demand food prices are rising globally but in the UK the price to the consumer is affected more by the cost of moving the food to the shop than the actual food price, bringing us back to petrol.

What we are seeing which is characteristic of the 1970s is the circle of price rises prompting demand for salary increases especially in the public sector and we are seeing strikes as in the 1970s by everyone from school caretakers to coastguards and even the police are demanding the right to strike something they have not done in the UK since 1918. Public sector pay has been kept down during the stable period of New Labour rule and even without the current difficulties it is likely there would be demands for increases. The interesting thing is people expect inflation to come from high demand and so assume that it will mean a high demand for workers. However, a lot of the inflationary factors have become detached from demand, well certainly local demand as much of the oil price rise comes from Chinese rather than US or European demand for oil. Similarly the food price inflation does not come from any shortage of food, the EU still produces more food than it needs, it comes from factors such as transport costs. So, unsurprisingly we are seeing rising unemployment too. Another difference to the 1970s is that in 1974, a year behind the USA, for the first time more economic activity in the UK came from service sector jobs rather than manufacturing. This shift was accelerated by the Thatcherite policies. Service work is more responsive to shifts in demand from the public and the sector which is seeing the fastest fall, housing, is showing the quickest rise in unemployment as seen by falls in building and estate agency employment.

Of course it is weird that the single greatest contributor to UK inflation, house prices, are falling fast, an average house has dropped £4000 (€5040; US$8000) in the past month. To some degree this is beneficial because it means that once other inflationary factors cool, then the UK will not be as so out of step with the rest of the EU as it usually is. In addition, it should cool the vicious speculatory pressure that has been going on in the UK with loads of money being pumped into high-value developments, buy-to-let, etc. which overheats the economy. In some ways though we have not seen an abrupt crash, we are almost coming to the end of an era of over-speculation in a way that the Wall Street Crash of 1929 did in terms of shares. It will very much hurt those people who took out mortgages for 90%-125% of the value of their property, but for most people they will be able to hang on (unless they get made unemployed and there is more payment insurance these days than 20 years ago). It will be tenants with rents already rising in some cities I have visited by £80 per month (about an 8% increase) and those who lose out when the landlord/lady defaults on the mortgage and the tenants are evicted with no rights to remain under current UK law.

I do not think we will see 'Noah's Castle' as a reality in the near future, partly because in contrast to France and Spain the British rarely riot about anything and are easily cowed by the police let alone the Army. They see no common interests with anyone else and actually what is liable to happen in the UK as inflation rises will be communities turning against themselves, seeking out local scapegoats rather than the people behind the difficulties. Of course immigrants and ethnic minorities are going to be attacked, so rather than the assaults of food convoys as portrayed in the series I can see police defending the homes of Polish workers in the UK from violent mobs. What is certain is the relative peace and stability of say 1994-2007 is now at an end. Even the most positive see the problem persisting at least until 2009. It took 1990-3 before the problems with the housing market collapse shook themselves out, some perhaps 2011 is a more accurate prediction. In the meantime we are going to have a nasty mix of 1970s-style inflation and shortages and 1980s-style mass unemployment which is not going to make the last quarter of the 2000s a nice time to live. Maybe I should be stockpiling tins of food and candles now.


marooncap said...

I clearly remember the show as a kid i MADE sure i watched EVERY epsiode!! The desperation of the people..with no food on the supermarket shelves..the rioting the soldiers with their faces hidden behind blacked out masks with SLR's in hand rounding up people and putting them in stockades!
IT WAS GRIPPING!! If only TVS\ITV put out a classic children tv range i would hope that this would be included it.
Alas i DO fear that the NOAH's CASTLE scenario is where we are going with Britain...the UK GOV is throwing Good Money after Bad at the banks, have printed £125 billion so far from NOTHING and flooded the economy sowing the seeds for HYPERINFLATION if not at the end of this year then definately sometime in 2010! This coupled with the falling house prices higher taxes, higher unemployment figures and rising crime because of it. THIS ON TOP of what i now know about HOW THIS WORLD IS REALLY RUN BY THE DARK FORCES AND POWERS THAT BE AND THEIR PLANS NOW IN EFFECT.
I want to thank the writer of this tale for waking me out of my childish dreams at aged 11 and causing me to focus on real "life" issues.

Rooksmoor said...

Marooncap, thanks for the comment. Yes, we do seem to have moved away from children's drama focused on real issues, though I suppose things like 'Tracy Beaker' focus on personal stuff rather than the larger scale issues. It would be useful if we had some drama about them. The seven-year old in my house asked why Woolworths had gone and if Boots and WH Smith would be next to close.

After I wrote this posting, we moved in a different direction with prices coming down, though in my district petrol has gone back up from 82p per litre to 98p per litre in the past three months, so maybe my sense of relief was premature. I do think that with unemployment rising sharply, the danger of hyperinflation has faded as people simply do not have the money to generate the demand for items that they did in 2008. Of course, supply may decline as factories close, but in comparison to the 1970s the global market will reduce that risk by providing so many sources. Unknown to most people in Europe and America, in West Africa clothing companies have literally been dumping clothing, undermining local production and the world is glutted not only with clothes but food and other items, so I think that the risk of high inflation for Western consumers is less than it would have been in this situation thirty years ago.

Yes, I have commented before about how the ultra-rich and utilities have distorted the governmental control over the economy and you can term them the 'dark forces' as they work solely in their own interests not those of broader society. The whining over the 10% increase in tax for people earning over £150,000 is a classic example. It affects only 350,000 people in the UK out of a population of 60 million. Yet of course those people have more influence than ten times more ordinary people.

Perhaps TV companies are now more cautious about producing challenging drama. Would we have 'Edge of Darkness', 'A Very British Coup' and 'Noah's Castle' being produced now? Instead they stick to the 'bread and circuses' programmes such as 'Britain's Got Talent'. Of course there is a place for such programmes, there was always 'New Faces' and 'Opportunity Knocks' back in the 1970s but alongside more challenging stuff.

Interestingly talking to staff from a university some months ago, I found none of them own a television. These were not lecturers, they were administrators and technical people, mainly IT staff. If they watch television, it is via their computer but mostly they do other things like social networking or online gaming. Perhaps the audience for dramas like 'Noah's Castle' are now off doing other things and the television is no longer the place for dramatic 'wake-up calls'.

Yungee said...

I just came across your blog, and I thought I'd mention I also great memories of this stark and scary kids programme. As luck would have it, the other day I had a brief chat with Lee McDonald (Zammo from Grange Hill, who played a character in Noah's Castle) and he told me it was coming out on DVD soon. Lo and behold, look at this:


Woohoo! Finally!

Rooksmoor said...

Yungee, that is great news, thanks for sharing that with me. It seems ironic that now the fear of rising prices has subsided a bit that they are finally coming round to releasing the DVD. It will be great to see it again.

I saw the interview with Lee McDonald in 'The Guardian' last week. For people slightly younger than me (I was on to exams by the time he was in 'Grange Hill' so had less time to watch it), Zammo was a pretty iconic figure for his death in 'Grange Hill', still hard hitting even in today's context. I saw he still has a shot of himself in that role in his locksmith's shop. Glad he is on the case with classic series releases.

Now all we need, in the light of Alison Uttley's diaries coming out is to get the BBC to release 'A Traveller in Time'. More in the 'Noah's Castle' line the BBC needs to release the other classic children's dystopia, 'The Changes', which has been out on video but not yet DVD.


Yungee said...

Yup, I was chatting to him in his locksmith's shop, as I live locally. He's a very nice chap and always happy to talk. He has a Warhol-esque painting of himself as Zammo on the wall. I didn't see The Guardian article, thanks for mentioning it, I'll go hunting online for it.

Rooksmoor said...

Yungee, it was in the Guardian Work section in an article about what celebrities do after they have left the limelight and it showed him in the shop, with the corner of the picture I think you are referring to, visible in the background of the picture.


Anonymous said...

I have been looking for this series on DVD for years, without success. How strange it has suddenly been released following the disclosure of data under the 30 year rules!! This was more in line with nostradamus than a childs book. I can not to watch it again.

Rooksmoor said...

I have found where you can download the 'A Traveller in Time' (1978)series. It is on Torrent, and I have not had a good experience with that, probably due to the age of my computer. Anyone who has used it, please let me know if it works and is any good. Thanks. See:


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Rooksmoor said...

Anonymous, it is just a standard design selected from the Blogger list, well the ones you could get five years ago. I am not really sure whether it is still available.

Yes, the browser issue is getting harder and harder. It is mad. Every company I have worked for and the one I am now with all use Internet Explorer but more and more sites will not support you accessing them via that browser. This goes for Amazon as well these days. They are all pushing you to Firefox and particularly Google Chrome.

I have no desire to change browser, I am more than happy with IE and on many computers behind a firewall, I have no choice. It is ironic that so many webpages are now being closed off to the browser that the bulk of people choose to/have to use.

Robin Carmody said...

This makes an interesting read alongside the New Forest Country Fair piece you wrote at the same time; Southern Television (who made this series) were attacking the GB75 mentality which was strongest, by some way, *on their own doorstep*, so it was subversive of what was happening right on their own patch to a much greater extent than it would have been if made by, say, Granada.

Rooksmoor said...

Robin, thank you for that insight. It is interesting what got 'under the radar' in television dramas of the 1970s. Looking across many of them now there does seem to be quite a bit of a new age, post-hippy, even what might be now termed wiccan agenda. I doubt such dramas would be made these days, certainly in the UK. The 16-year old boy who lives in my house has got really into 'Stranger Things', so maybe that is the 2010s manifestation.