The Christmas of 1984 is a wet one; rain, rain and more rain. Transformers and cabbage patch dolls are this year’s ‘must have’ toys and cause an unprecedented rush on stores. Even Robbie gets a cabbage patch doll, to her unmitigated disgust. Ash’s Mum is at home for a change, although she’s still ferrying hot meals over to the Greenham Peace Camp. Kin is back from his physiotherapy at Bad Salzufen and experimenting with salt prints for a vintage effect. Andy learns some unsettling news at a family gathering and finally understands why his Pathfinder Scout award was sent along by post. Sean’s kitchen table meals are becoming more political since his Dad discovered how popular the Communist Party remains in Thatcher’s Britain. Pete avoids home by winter cross-training and is also learning how to write begging letters to sponsors. Tommy successfully boosts power to his Nellie sphere, but his sanctuary at the town library is disrupted by some sort of audit and his ever-helpful Librarian Miss Green is upset by the number of books being removed.
As New Year approaches the gang finally get together for an amble along Dedcot Broadway. After visiting junkyards/electronic shacks by the railway in search of Kin’s tripod parts, they paused to watch a ground-breaking ceremony on a construction site across the way. Various civic bigwigs and worthy citizens have assembled to make very brief speeches and sink a spade into the mud. Apparently a new Baptist Union HQ is to be built on this plot. Eventually the dignitaries retreat along the Broadway to an old Baptist church hall for warmth and refreshments. The Kids move on to Videosyncratic to say hello to Ellen. Sean tries, and fails, to rent The Exorcist. Andy picks up various Disney videos to help entertain his siblings while the rest of them admire Ellen’s new tattoo. After a brief foray into W.H.Smith to buy the latest edition of White Dwarf, the gang turn down a side alley to spend rather more pocket money inside Inky Heroes. This is half a comic store run by rocker Hud, and half, the cleaner half, a tattoo place run by his artistic girlfriend Ari. Perhaps inspired by Ellen, Robbie decides to get her very first tattoo: a barbed wire design around her upper arm. This takes longer than she expected but the gang settle in to read comics while they wait.
Around lunchtime the Kids re-emerge onto Broadway to discover that, in their absence, the video store has been closed down and raided by an irate crowd of ‘concerned citizens’, apparently with the full authority of the town council, according to a notice taped to the door. Hand-written placards discarded outside the store read ‘Prohibit Sin!’, ‘Ban Video Nasties’ and ‘Think of the Children’. Investigating, they find that the videos (and Ellen’s books) are being removed by an odd mix of adult civilians to the Civic Hall prior to audit and disposal. Of Ellen there is no sign. Concerned, the kids trot along to Dedcot Civic Hall only to be hustled out of the way by busy and disapproving adults. They catch glimpses of large stacks of books, videos and magazines piling up inside the main hall. Outraged at the idea of censorship, or the thought of books possibly being burned, the Kids decide to rescue the whole lot. Reasoning that the easiest way to break into the hall later is to break out, Robbie sneaks inside and conceals herself in a cleaning cupboard. Sean uses his Polaroid to take shots from the security camera’s viewpoint, while others scout around the nearby allotments and bowls club. Tommy and Tank cross the road to recruit Miss Green to their cause, mainly because they need an adult with transport, and they succeed easily. Inside, Robbie falls asleep to the sounds of a promotional video playing on a loop; ‘The Future is Bright!’
All except Kin (who’s been grounded, again) reconvene in the early hours of the morning. The kids hope to subvert three clunky security cameras by securing Polaroid pictures in front of the lenses; two are easy enough but the third scramble leaves Tank exhausted and Sean injured. Inside, Robbie finishes the video nasty she’d been watching and bestirs herself to turn the alarm system off. Finally, Miss Green rocks up in an Oxfordshire Library Service van and the operation to rescue Dedcot’s dangerous media begins. They leave the material neatly stacked for return to concentrate on bins containing a jumble of sex, violence, horror, fantasy, politics and a few texts on advanced biology. The kids discover that paper is heavy, en mass! As the first pre-dawn milk floats take to Dedcot streets, their final Library van run takes its last load up to Tank’s family farm where all is hidden inside a hay barn.
On Sunday morning Andy’s whole family attend St Augustine parish church, as usual. This normally aimable and peaceful community gathering was unsettled by audible whisperings during the vicar’s sermon. On their way out Mrs Bridges, the redoubtable chair of the PTA, gave the family her ‘stink eye’. Tank awoke late to observe ripples in his bedside water glass, as these started to match audible thumps the family ran outside to see a new type of bot coming over the hill. This huge sentry appears to be a significant upgrade from the standard SBR71s. For one thing it doesn’t seem to be controlled by anyone with a visor and waldos, and secondly, it’s stomping across their fields well outside Harwell’s security fence. It strides downhill towards the woods, shortly followed by a trio of mucky Landrovers packed with panicking researchers. Over brunch Sean is introduced to their new houseguest and visitor from Stateside: one William Graham. Also, Steve announces that he’ll be joining up this year. Tommy discovers that his Aunt Persephone carries random static charge and makes a mental note to keep her well away from his bedroom and delicate electronics. Robbie, Pete and Ash dodge a lot of Police out in force around Dedcot investigating some incident at the Civic Hall, and also observe big posters and banners being put up for Dedcot’s very own ‘Festival of Culture’ next weekend: The Future is Bright! There might be fireworks.
Monday is New Year’s Eve. Tank spends some time accompanying the local bobby on his bike rounds. ‘PC Keith’ as the kids know him, takes the time to have a quiet man-to-man chat about all this New Romantic nonsense that the boy is into. It’s clearly inappropriate for a scout and a promising future recruit to the police force. Tank needs to “man up”. Robbie returns home for the first time in days and walks straight into a trap by the DSS; Mrs Webb is waiting in the kitchen with her father and, from the sounds of it, other social security personnel are poking about upstairs. With her prolonged absence, new tattoo and grotty clothes there’s an obvious case for being taken into immediate care. Robbie’s hopes of help from her Dad were painfully dispelled when, looking even more beaten down than usual, he meekly signs the papers to turn her over. Rather than get taken away to Nazareth House, Robbie decides to make a determined run for it — and successfully evades pursuit. Pete comes back from indoor training to discover that his collection of RPG games and figures has been confiscated as ‘an unsuitable hobby’. He doesn’t notice that his sister’s room has also been streamlined.
As night falls Andy deals with his upset sister who has been uninvited to an end-of-hols sleepover. New Year’s Eve for most households is very much an indoor occasion in front of the TV for England, although some hardy souls brave London’s west end to party. But for connoisseurs of true television disasters, one of the highlights of 1984 is the BBC’s Live into ’85. “The Gleneagles Hotel, in the heart of Scotland, is the sparkling location for this year’s party,” promises the Radio Times. There are also genuine guests milling about – the corporation seemingly cannot afford to book all of the hotel for this transmission – and the poet John Grieve continually forgets his lines. Meanwhile, a pipe band plays on and on, seemingly devoid of any direction, and the compere, Tom O’Connor, merits a special television award for maintaining his calm. The highlight of the show is the visibly confused comedian Chic Murray demanding to know which camera is on, despite the fact that he is actually staring into it. Anyone attempting to find entertainment by switching to ITV gets the decidedly non-PC Freddie Starr at the Royalty, and lots of adverts for new year sales.
New Year’s Day is not a bank holiday in England and Wales, so adults head off to work and kids are back to school. On Tank’s farm the early milking start is enlivened by his parents stoking a big, smelly bonfire of green weeds. Tank recognises the aroma but is perplexed by where his parents have managed to conceal such a large crop. Later at school, much to the teachers’ surprise, their normally chaotic start to the year has turned into absolute bedlam due to a mob of respectable, middle-class parents protesting around the gates against ‘AIDs in our kids classrooms’. The concerned citizens of Dedcot have skipped entirely past shocked whisperings and are on to full blockade of the buses. The policemen who have been called appear to agree with them. All kids eventually get inside to be sent to assembly in the main hall, which this morning will be a showing of the Dedcot Festival promotional video while senior staff attempt to calm things down outside. Ash has a particularly bad reaction to this video when she hallucinates an entirely alien landscape. Eventually the rain turns into sleet and protestors find reasons to disperse home. Inside school things become increasingly uncomfortable as the rumour mill goes into overdrive. By lunchtime the entire gang is being shunned, and not only by classmates. Behind the bike sheds Andy finally confesses his terrible secret: his Mum is dying of AIDs and his baby brother has HIV. The gang is entirely supportive, and Mrs Bridges will get retribution. They finally realise that with adults slowly being turned into Midwich Cuckoos, it is only a matter of time before Miss Green succumbs and they’re all arrested for theft anyway and slapped with ASBOs. Only Kin is still respectable. They decide to skip school and home indefinitely and retreat to their hideout.
Sneaking into the goods yard they observe yet more Dedcot Festival posters being put up, along with brightly coloured balloons. The promotional video is being played on a TV in the station ticket hall. They deduce that this whole mess is something to do with that Baptist group at the construction site and their church hall must definitely be investigated. Under cover of darkness the gang creep across town to recce the building. They eventually find a way in across the rooftop and in through a skylight, although some are a lot more agile about this than others. When they finally, finally get themselves into the old hall they can see piles of promotional material readied for the upcoming Dedcot Festival, including glossy printed programmes which include several familiar names such as Mayor Birchall from BR, Mrs Bridges of the PTA and Mrs Webb the DSS inspector. The programme makes much of the Opening Gala night at which a new strategic initiative for Dedcot will be unveiled in a video presentation. Videos and a copying machine are right there in the hall. Clearly this is where the organising committee work. A bit more hunting around reveals an office with a Wang and paper files including folder labelled “HARWELL CLASSIFIED” in red ink. They read the notes and realise that someone has developed a subliminal pattern that puts people into a hypnotic state when watching TV. Notes from tests show that the control may be broken by the strongly deviant. The kids grab the master video tape and make their getaway.
The next few days pass slowly for the wanted fugitives, although Kin keeps them supplied with snacks and equipment as needed. Their ancient Valor heater is kept going with scrounged fuel from the depot. They’re all badly rattled by being cut off from their reliable adults. They analyse the video tape using Kin’s kit and see that the tape is almost the same idyllic promotional video that is being shown in town. However, the slightly different copying speed means they can see different words flickering on screen – unreadable. They also figure out that the subliminal information is being recorded onto the tapes through an algorithm designed to induce a hypnotic state in the watcher’s brain. Slowing it further means words can be seen on all the screens and the generated phrases echo on after appearing; words like “new era”, “obedience” and “fit in”. Another image is hidden in there… a peculiar stone of some kind which is similar to, but not the same as the stone Andy was attached to while he was kidnapped. Andy does not react at all well to the sight of it. Its fractal geometry strongly resembles that alien landscape which Ash experienced in her hallucination. Since the Opening Gala is “The Future of Dedcot – Speech and an inspirational video by Mayor Alan Birchall in Smallbone Park outside our Civic Hall” which both national TV news programmes will cover, the kids realise that they have to sabotage this event. They start by creating a new video tape with all the subliminal messages edited out, leaving only normal Dedcot promotional advertising.
Fortunately, the Opening Gala is being held on Friday evening in a marquee in the Civic Centre car park; a location that they know well from their previous skulking. Robbie has plenty of time to rehearse the plan to switch tapes with the gang. Kin sets to work constructing an alternate projector cable. When darkness falls shortly after 4pm they emerge from hiding and make their way over to Broadway allotments. Tank investigates the marquee and reports back on the location of their targets. Ash becomes lookout above the bowls club, and Pete expertly distracts the catering staff with his clumsy collisions as Robbie sneaks in to switch the cable feed. Sean charms his way into place as usher just as the great and good of Dedcot arrive to take their seats for the big opening presentation. Tommy, meanwhile is working feverishly to switch over the projector feed, a task made unexpectedly complicated by Gizmo completely refusing to boot up and provide diagrams. Tommy is forced to rewire from memory and guesswork. He completes the task just as Ash relays the signal from Sean that the video is expected to begin. Their innocuous, edited video is played into the marquee. At the end, polite applause is heard from the audience inside but Sean notes that it was clearly not the enthusiastic response that the committee was expecting. Over the ensuing weekend, and under the onslaught of driving sleet, the great Dedcot Festival sort of fizzles out. Adults seem to return normal, sounding slightly apologetic about all the fuss. Mrs Fossett offers a strictly unofficial foster home for Robbie so long as she comes home every evening by 9pm and “behaves herself”. Tank takes up synth-pop music with enthusiasm. Andy is just starting to hope for better tolerance at school when The Sun newspaper launches its new crusade for 1985: ‘Britain threatened by gay virus plague’.