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In the City

One of the first things you notice about Lights of London, the only official two-part story in the original run of Survivors, is that the series seems to have had a cash injection – while the first two episodes of this series were made on location using video-taped exteriors, this story sees the series go back onto film and into proper TV studios (though not really at the same time). The improvement in both production values and the whole impression left by the series is vast, and you are left regretting that all the episodes weren’t made this way. You can see why they took the decision to invest heavily in this story, though – it’s a definite change of pace, and gives the series a scope which most of these mid-period episodes really lack.

Strangers arrive at Whitecross, claiming to have come from a settlement about a day’s ride away. They say Abby Grant is there, and suffering from sickness which has struck that community, and that she has asked Ruth to come and help. Greg and Charles are initially suspicious, but agree to let Ruth go. Inevitably, it turns out to be a ruse: the visitors are actually from a much larger community in central London, where the services of a doctor are urgently required. Needless to say, Abby is nowhere to be seen.

(Nevertheless, it does seem to genuinely be the case that the London group have met Abby and that she stayed there until comparatively recently. Many questions inevitably arise, such as what she was up to between leaving the manor and arriving in the city, why she never got in touch with her friends, and what’s happened to her since. I can only imagine this is fertile ground for the audio continuation of the series to explore.)

The Londoners are coping relatively well, scavenging the resources of the city, ploughing up the Oval cricket ground to use as farmland, and contending with savage packs of diseased rats. However, a mysterious disease is sweeping through the community, making it a priority that they relocate from the city to the Isle of Wight (an echo, whether conscious or not, of Day of the Triffids, where the survivors eventually make their home on the same island). The settlement’s doctor (Patrick Holt) reveals that he has calculated that only a community of 500 or more people will prove viable long-term, and thus that London, as far as anyone knows, represents the only hope for the survival of the human race.

It doesn’t take Greg long to discover that Ruth has been kidnapped and taken to London, and he and Charles set off to the city intent on rescuing her. They have reckoned without the wider issue of the survival of humanity, however, not to mention the leader of the community, Manny (Sydney Tafler), who does not respond well to threats to his authority.

It’s not just the better production values that make Lights of London distinctive within Survivors’ second series – it’s the whole nature of the piece. I would argue that the series falls into three broad phases – the early episodes deal with individuals and their initial responses to the catastrophe, then there is a long second phase concerned with how people come together and learn to create a functioning community, while the final episodes of the series are more about the different communities developing into something resembling a nation. Lights of London is an odd second-phase story, in that it’s much more of an out-and-out adventure story than anything else, albeit one that takes a little while to get going.

There are plenty of elements here that are part of Survivors’ standard repertoire – community leaders turned ruthless megalomaniacs, the threat of secondary infection, gun battles carried out at a rather stately pace – but I can’t help thinking that Jack Ronder is not quite the man for the job. It’s hard not to wonder what Terry Nation could have done with this premise – it would surely have ended up with more oomph than the version which was actually made.

As it is, this is a story with a brilliant premise – the survivors go back into London and discover a community living in the devastated city – which is actually realised pretty well, given the nature of the series. Obviously, the characters don’t go out and about aboveground very much, but there are just enough scenes set on silent wasteland and in half-blocked streets to convince (and Ronder has a good sense of atmosphere – many of the Londoners have become chain smokers as it helps to block out the ever-present stench of corruption throughout the city). It seems a pretty safe bet that director was recalling the shoot for this story when he was putting together The Sun Makers for Doctor Who a short while later, for some of the same locations appear.

The story itself really lacks the focus it needs to do justice to its potential. There is so much going on here that isn’t properly explored or developed – the London sickness is a plot device more than anything else, and the whole survival-of-the-human-race idea isn’t really explored either. In the end the story is resolved in terms of dealing with Manny’s obsession with retaining control of the London settlement, rather than anything else. By taking Ruth away from London, which by the story’s conclusion has lost most of its competent leaders and administrators, Charles and Greg are arguably endangering the survival of hundreds of people, perhaps even the whole future of humanity, and yet the story doesn’t really address this, even in terms of them consciously choosing to put Whitecross first and the rest of the world second. There’s a bit too much plot and not enough reflection.

And you can kind of make out the perennial problem of second-season Survivors, too, which is that the two main characters of the series are just a bit too similar. There are a few grace notes of difference – Charles is slightly more idealistic and agreeable, and wears a sheepskin coat, Greg is more pragmatic and reserved, and wears a parka – but they generally agree on just about everything and react in very similar ways. You do miss Abby more than ever, although what her contribution would have been in this particular story is impossible to say.

Lights of London doesn’t quite count as a completely missed opportunity, because it has a scale and a polish completely missing from most of the rest of this series’ episodes. Nothing else from the second series is up to the same standard, certainly, though this may say more about the overall quality of the programme at this point, than how good these particular episodes are.

 

Size 8 Medium

Film studios are usually so prepared to jump on the bandwagon of any successful movie and devote themselves to making more of the same, that it almost seems churlish to be less than fully enthusiastic when someone unveils a project which is quite startling in its originality. Nevertheless, this is the position I find myself in with respect to Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. If you are a fan of movies in which low-ranking fashionistas moonlight as ghostbusters and find themselves mixed up in the stuff of a psychological thriller, well, rejoice, for this movie is right up your street. If you are part of that inexplicable minority for whom this is not instinctively interesting, well, you might want to read on anyway, for this is still a fairly interesting project.

Kristen Stewart wafts around Paris, London, and Muscat as Maureen, personal shopper and general dogsbody for a prominent figure in the fashion industry (who’s a fairly unpleasant individual, it would appear). Several people wonder why she stays in such a difficult and unrewarding position; well, she has something else on her mind – her brother died three months earlier and the two of them made a deal. Whichever one passed on first would send a message of some kind to the other, confirming the existence of the afterlife. For Maureen, you see, has mediumistic powers, in addition to a good knowledge of couture, and spends much of her spare time hanging around gloomy old mansions harassing dead people. So when she starts to receive enigmatic text messages from someone seeming to know all about her and her life, one of the first questions that occurs to her is that of which side of the grave her stalker is on…

There is a certain class of actor who rose from near-obscurity to global celebrity extremely rapidly and at a relatively young age, and while this may have done their profile and bank balance no harm whatsoever, it creates a lens through which all their subsequent work is inevitably viewed. I’m thinking of people like Elijah Wood, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson, and – of course – Kristen Stewart belongs to this select group as well. (Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, seems to have slipped the net, while the career of Leonardo DiCaprio indicates there is hope for any of these people.) No matter what Stewart does, on some level she is still going to be The Twilight Girl for many people, with all the baggage that comes with this. On the other hand, I expect having a net worth of $70m makes up for a lot, and Stewart could be forgiven for either just sitting on a yacht somewhere or simply doing very commercial work. I would say that for her to lend her profile to an odd little slightly art-house film like this one is commendable, especially considering the vanity-free performance it demands of her.

Personal Shopper played at the Cannes festival, where it won the prize for best direction and was also booed by the audience, which may give you a sense of the film’s potential to divide and confuse. On paper the film sounds like some sort of odd genre mash-up, with elements of a psychological thriller and a possible ghost story intermingling, but to be honest it doesn’t so much combine genres as slosh around between them haphazardly. Most of the time it comes across as a naturalistic, ostentatiously understated character piece with Stewart buzzing around Paris on her moped, carrying out lengthy text message conversations, looking at shoes, and so on, and you think that the metaphysical elements – her fretting about the existence of the next world, the mysterious absence of word from her brother – are just part of this. She has the same congenital heart defect which killed him (and could potentially do the same to her), and you almost expect the business about spirits to be not much more than a metaphor, an expression of her existential uncertainty about life.

But then there’s a genuinely creepy sequence of Stewart wandering around a big old house in the dark, and vague shapes swirl around the edges of the frame, and abruptly she is contending with a hostile CGI spectre, and the effect is quite discombobulating – especially when the sequences like this don’t particularly seem to lead anywhere or add to the story. The thriller-storyline is somewhat less arbitrary – someone gets murdered, Stewart’s character is too close to being implicated for comfort, and what does her mysterious text friend know about it all? – but arguably gets going too late in the film and ultimately remains quite baffling and unexplained in several key details. (It may be there’s a brilliant subtext or hidden story in this film which completely passed me by; one sequence near the end is certainly very suggestive.)

Despite all this, Personal Shopper remains oddly mesmerising to watch – I glanced at my watch at one point, wondering when the plot proper would get going, only to find we were already 80 minutes into the film without my noticing it. This is partly because it’s simply quite a well-made film, and the various elements of the plot, for all that many of them are not entirely resolved, are nevertheless quite intriguing while they’re being developed. I would also say that credit should go to Kristen Stewart, who does have that indefinable quality we call Star. Her performance here, while a little mannered, is also technically meticulous, the work of someone who cares about their craft at the very least. And she pretty much has to carry the entire film – no-one else really makes much of an impression, with the possible exception of Lars Eidinger – it might be worth a small flutter on Eidinger as a potential future Bond villain, as he certainly seems to have the looks and the moves for the role.

For all that Personal Shopper sounds like a plot-driven genre movie, so much of it is oblique and ultimately unresolved that it really functions more as a mood or character piece than anything else. There are so many strangenesses and weird quirks and choices to the movie that I can fully understand why some people might find it deeply annoying, but on the other hand, the central performance is quite impressive and it is extremely watchable, in a funny sort of way. Is it actually a good movie or not? For once I can’t actually decide, but The Twilight Girl is certainly good in it.

Secondary Kill

The second season of Survivors, first broadcast in 1976, was made after the departure of both head writer and creator Terry Nation, and lead actor Carolyn Seymour. This leaves the sensibility of producer Terence Dudley as the main influence on the series – along with that of Jack Ronder, who is effectively the new head writer, on the first half of the second series at least.

The first episode, Birth of a Hope, moves the show onto a new footing with more speed than elegance. Seven or eight months have passed since the end of the first series; Jenny is now heavily pregnant with Greg’s child, and Greg himself is now the unchallenged leader of the community at the manor, Abby having long since departed following the news of her son at the end of series 1. The manor’s resident doctor, Ruth (recast as Celia Gregory), is travelling between the different communities putting her medical expertise to best use.

The episode opens with Greg visiting another community to do a little trading and look for Ruth, as Jenny’s delivery is imminent. The new community is Whitecross, overseen by Charles Vaughan, whom we last saw as a post-apocalyptic cult leader and would-be patriarch in Ronder’s Corn Dolly. Charles has calmed down a bit in the intervening twelve months but still has plenty of ideas about reconstructing society and building up the community; his new girlfriend Pet (Lorna Lewis) even asks him why he doesn’t do more to make Greg combine the manor commune with Whitecross.

Well, the scriptwriter clearly had a similar idea, plus the advantage of omnipotence (well, within the limits of a BBC budget, anyway), and while Greg is away a fire breaks out at the manor and it burns to the ground: the only surviving survivors (if you see what I mean) are Jenny, Paul, Arthur, and the children. Rather against his will, Greg is forced to lead them all back to Whitecross and take up residency there as part of Charles’ group.

There is a bit of tension concerning the search for Ruth, and the question of whether she’ll be back by the time that Jenny’s baby begins to make an appearance, but that’s pretty much it in terms of the major beats of the action in this episode. With Nation’s penchant for shotgun-toting action-adventure excised, and the potential for character conflict in the Abby-Greg dynamic banished along with Carolyn Seymour, all that’s left is rather low-concept character drama. Birth of a Hope is not a particularly great episode title; Birth of a Soap is arguably even worse, but more accurate even so.

Paul laments the fact he doesn’t have a girlfriend, Arthur laments all the terrible things he has witnessed in his time, new character Pet has a fairly uninvolving row with new character Hubert (John Abineri) about who is responsible for the community pigs. Pet is a slightly odd character, by turns Earth Mother and happy chick who suggests to Greg that they could have ‘a lovely time’ together in the post-apocalyptic community. Hubert, on the other hand, just seems to be a nuisance yokel very much in the mould of Tom Price – John Abineri was one of those great character actors who never really got the recognition he deserved, but this is hardly a great vehicle for his talents.

The main event, however, is the relationship between Greg and Charles, which is a pretty even  mixture of alpha-male sparring and peculiar bromance. I suppose there is a difference in their leadership styles – Charles is always making passionate speeches about the way ahead, while Greg mainly seems to function by being very patronising to everyone else around him. This is not the most sympathetic depiction of one of our main characters: he doesn’t seem particularly bothered that his friend Abby disappeared over six months earlier, just saying ‘it’s easier with only one boss’. The scene where he sits the children down and carefully explains to them how Emma, Charmian, and all the other first season characters died of smoke inhalation is also a bit of an eye-opener; one imagines that child psychiatry will be a bit of a boom industry at Whitecross over the next few years. The chief plot driver is the fact that Charles and Greg are both used to being the boss and unwilling to share their authority, even if this means Greg considering dragging his family across country in search of a new place to live, rather than staying at Whitecross. You know from the start that this isn’t really an option; as a result the episode comes across as almost wholly procedural, not even bothering to have a recognisable climax.

It hardly qualifies as a two-parter, either, as the stay-or-go issue is resolved five minutes into Don Shaw’s Greater Love (basically, Jenny says ‘I want to stay’ and Greg says ‘Oh, all right then’). This is a better episode, though it definitely feels like the work of someone unfamiliar with the series. Jenny has had her baby, but post-natal complications are setting in. Meanwhile, it is established that Ruth and Paul have become all loved-up, and there is a scene about shooting a horse with a broken leg, which is possibly one of the least subtle pieces of foreshadowing in screen history.

Well, then we are on to the meat of the story, for Jenny falls properly ill and Ruth decides she needs certain medical supplies in order to treat her; supplies that can only be found in a major city. Paul volunteers to ride off to the necropolis of Birmingham and get the necessaries, partly because Greg should stay with Jenny, partly – it’s implied – to impress Ruth, but mainly because the plot requires it. While he’s away we have the introduction of a new character, Jack the carpenter (Gordon Salkilld), which is an entertaining scene, and children’s story time with Arthur, which isn’t, really.

(I suppose we should consider just exactly where Whitecross is supposed to be: a day’s ride from Birmingham, apparently, and about fifty miles from where the manor used to be. Unfortunately all we ever heard about the manor’s location was that it was apparently ‘close to Apcaster’, which is not entirely useful as Apcaster is a) apparently prone to spontaneously move around the map, or at least radically change its size, if Spoil of War is to be believed and b) entirely fictional. I suspect the main reason for sending Paul off on an ill-fated mission to Birmingham, rather than London, is that most of the main characters visit the capital in the next couple of episodes and manage to return in one piece.)

Eventually Paul reappears, but the problem is that along with medical supplies, he has brought something else back from the ruins: mutated drug-resistant bubonic plague, which is quite capable of wiping out the community. He is put into quarantine while everyone convenes around Charles’ kitchen table to decide what to do next. Here is where things ring a bit false in the episode: everyone present agrees that they should put the survival of the community ahead of their concerns for Paul, even if that means putting him out of his misery. The one exception is Greg, who for once is not the brutal pragmatist we have come to know and feel mildly affectionate towards – he insists they have a moral duty to try and help him. Was this part of a conscious attempt to soften Greg up a bit and make him more sympathetic? Or had Don Shaw just not read the writer’s bible very thoroughly? It’s hard to be sure.

Well, you can probably guess the end, especially given that Chris Tranchell, who plays Paul, realised that the series couldn’t sustain too many male leads and opted to go out in a blaze of glory. More just a blaze, actually: the problem with the climactic scenes of the episode is that the relationship at their centre was established in about two scenes less than an hour earlier. Had the Paul-Ruth relationship been allowed to develop over a longer period, the climax might have actually carried some emotional weight. As it is, we get another crashingly unsubtle scene where a child’s birthday party is disrupted by the incineration of Paul’s recently-euthanised corpse; I suppose it’s some kind of miracle that the fact that Paul gets mercy-killed by the love of his life on his own actual birthday isn’t dwelt upon at greater length. Set against all that, the dialogue in this episode is rather more naturalistic than is usual for the series.

The first two episodes of the second series of Survivors are not the subtlest in TV history – you can almost hear the gears crunching as the series changes tack, and format. The death toll amongst established secondary characters is astonishingly high, surpassing even a typical Blake’s 7 season finale. For a series predicated on the notion that there is a definite shortage of people in the UK, the writers of Survivors kill their characters off with a certain nonchalance much of the time: you can almost imagine a Galactica-esque flipchart in Terence Dudley’s office, slowly counting down the total UK population as all those shotgun battles and secondary infections gradually take their toll. Still, the series works best with a distinct flavour of action-adventure, so I suppose we shouldn’t grumble about this too much.

 

 

Incinerate the Haystacks!

If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

Going Away

The last episode of the first series of Survivors is A Beginning, another Terry Nation script which is, to a considerable extent, a character piece about Abby Grant. Anyone watching The Fourth Horseman and then missing the next eleven episodes might not find anything especially noteworthy in this, for that’s essentially how the series began – but for anyone who’s been following along, it is a bit of a change of pace, and one that indicates some of the behind-the-scenes tensions which had apparently been developing as the series was made.

It is, we are invited to infer, late June, and not all is well at the manor: the trade Greg has made following the previous episode – petrol for supplies – has gone bad on the community, with the seed they received proving worthless. Greg doesn’t see the point in going back and complaining, as they have no leverage, others disagree; once again the existence of the community hangs in the balance. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown – in this case, the head belongs to Abby, who is struggling with the burden of being a leader of the community. Everyone has some petty issue they bring to her: Arthur asks for guidance about where to graze the livestock, Emma wants the children to help more around the house, Paul complains about where they store the pigswill. It is clearly getting too much for her.

Then a group of travellers arrive – survivors from a community about fifty miles away, driven from their own farm by an organised militia attempting to set themselves up as a regional power. With them they have a very sick young woman, whom they want to leave at the manor as they travel on. With Abby in retreat and not attending the meeting, for once Greg’s brutal pragmatism carries the day unopposed – they can’t risk bringing disease into the community, and the girl will have to stay with the travellers.

As far as the threat of the militia is concerned, the group start working on a plan to create a mutual defence agreement with all the other local communities, which will at least give them a chance of standing off the militia should a confrontation develop, but they are interrupted when it turns out the travellers have departed, leaving the sick girl on the manor’s doorstep (not quite literally).

We get one last great scene between Abby and Greg, as he insists the situation hasn’t changed: they just can’t risk contagion, and the girl should be made comfortable and left in one of the outhouses for nature to take its course. Abby disagrees and overrules him, and their argument threatens to become violent: Greg warns her never to speak to him that way again, she calls him a sanctimonious pig, he physically stops her from leaving. Greg is never less sympathetic than in this scene, and to his credit Ian McCulloch seems quite prepared to play up the sharp edges of the character (Greg comes across as arrogant, even somewhat chauvinist and patronising).

The thing is, of course, that Greg is arguably absolutely correct, and taking the girl in is – while morally the right thing to do – a stupid risk for everyone else (even she agrees with this). But the episode is on Abby’s side, of course, and not only does the girl recover, she proves to be a medical student and thus a fantastic resource for the community – giving Greg medical treatment after he injures himself later in the episode, and doling out one last bit of information to give the series an upbeat climax: she was previously living on a barge with another group of survivors, including Bronson, from The Fourth Horseman, and a boy who may well be Abby’s son Peter (although it seems to me that Greg and Jenny are somewhat guilty of asking leading questions here).

Before we get to that, however, we get a section with Abby going walkabout and ending up being almost literally swept off her feet by Jimmy Garland, now established as a de facto feudal seigneur – he turns up on a white horse, just to drive the message home. (Another quirky geographical revelation, as it appears that Garland’s estate, Waterhouse, is within a day’s walk of the manor. And, once again, it is tempting to compare this with Nation’s novelisation of the series, where Abby’s only contact with Garland after their initial meeting is a visit to his grave: he dies an ugly, pointless death.) Good-ish character stuff, I suppose, but a bit vague around the edges – the rebirth of Abby’s determination to lead, together with the inauguration of the defence alliance, and the news about Peter, does seem a bit much all for one episode – the series does seem to be stretching a bit in order to provide an upbeat climax to the series.

More than just a climax to the series, of course: this is the last participation in the TV version of Survivors for both Terry Nation and Carolyn Seymour. In both cases the cause of this seems to have been conflict with the producer, Terence Dudley, and in retrospect it is notable that episodes in the second half of the season are much more oriented around other characters, particularly Greg and Jenny (of course). The only real exception is Law and Order, the script of which Carolyn Seymour apparently strongly objected to on moral grounds, leading to more ructions behind the camera. Seymour herself has stated in interviews that Dudley wanted someone capable of playing a strong woman, but who would just do what she was told the rest of the time, and this is why she was effectively sacked. (The fate of Abby Grant is left open as far as the TV show goes: given her strong connection to the others, the way she just vanishes into the wilderness and is never seen again – what little we hear in the second series just invites further questions – does not invite one to draw hopeful conclusions.)

As far as Terry Nation is concerned, it seems that Brian Clemens may have been doing his old colleague a disservice when he accused Nation of just wanting to make a tract about self-sufficiency and smallholding – it seems that Nation was very happy to go down the action-adventure shotgun-toting Wild West Country route, and it was Dudley who was interested in the rather less dynamic agri-soap stylings the series eventually adopts. Then again, as Nation had some, shall we say, quite ambitious plans for how the series should develop (at one point he suggested the characters should abandon the UK, on the grounds of its rotten climate, and head for ‘the Valley of the Indus’ – the beginning of this journey is what forms the climax of the novelisation), perhaps Dudley’s views were more realistic.

Whichever way you look at it, post-Seymour, post-Nation Survivors is a different beast from the original version of the series, with the elevation of Greg to main character not really serving the series especially well. Not that the other episodes are without their moments, of course – but the drama is never quite as consistently interesting as it is in this first series.

Vieux Terrible

I remember seeing the front cover of a UK movie magazine about five years ago and being slightly amused by the strapline, which went something like ‘RoboCop! Total Recall! Starship Troopers! CLASSIC SCI-FI SPECIAL!’ (needless to say, all of those movies were supposedly being remade at the time, though one of them seems not to have made it out of development hell). Now, whether or not you consider all of them to be CLASSIC SCI-FI is really up to you (personally, I’d say that the original RoboCop is a genuinely great film, Starship Troopers a fascinating and extremely accomplished one, and Total Recall just another Hollywood mangling of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers) but what is really indisputable is that the magazine could definitely have billed itself as a PAUL VERHOEVEN SPECIAL with no grounds for argument whatsoever. And there certainly is something special about Verhoeven, though whether in a wholly positive way or not is something many people might debate.

Paul Verhoeven arrived in Hollywood in his 40s and very nearly got typed as a science fiction movie director – he was initially in the frame to direct Revenge of the Jedi, as it was then called, but lost any chance at the gig when George Lucas actually sat down and watched one of his Dutch movies – he was concerned, Verhoeven later recalled somewhat drily, that ‘the Jedi would immediately start ****ing’. Lucas’ suspicion that Verhoeven’s muse was wont to lead him into non-family-friendly territory was arguably confirmed when the director later oversaw the notorious erotic thriller Basic Instinct and the just plain notorious Showgirls.

Things have been quiet on the Verhoeven front for a while now – no American movies since Hollow Man in 2000, a typically restrained take on the Invisible Man story (NB: irony is present), and no Dutch movies, either, since the period thriller Black Book in 2006. At the age of 78, you might have assumed he had taken to the role of Grand Old Man of Dutch Cinema and was enjoying a well-earned retirement, but you would be wrong. He has a new movie out, Elle, and I think it is fair it say it is not quite like anything he has ever done before.

Isabelle Huppert gives an astonishing and arguably very courageous performance as Michele, a businesswoman in her middle years who runs a production company making suspiciously Warcraft-esque video games. Verhoeven puts the audience on notice that they are not in for a comfortable ride by opening the movie literally seconds after Michele is the victim of a violent sexual assault by a masked intruder in her home. Neither director nor actress shy away from the sheer awfulness of this, but the first sign that this is not a conventional approach to this topic comes when she simply tidies up the wreckage and gets back to her normal routine, not bothering to even tell her friends, let alone call the police. The incident seems to have left no impression on her at all: when the lead designer at her company unveils a unpleasant piece of animation which appears violently misogynistic, Michele’s response is to complain that it just isn’t visceral enough for their target audience.

The fact of the rape looms over what otherwise would mostly seem to be a smart and sardonic comedy-drama about life in modern Paris, as Michele contends with her ex-husband taking up with a much younger new partner, her somewhat embarrassingly oversexed mother, and her useless great lump of a son (Jonas Bloquet) and his psychotic girlfriend. Everyone is very sophisticated and French – Michele herself is discreetly sleeping with her best friend’s husband, and also seems to be rather taken with her hunky married neighbour (Laurent Lafitte). C’est la vie, as I believe they sometimes say in the Netherlands.

However, the film frequently and unsettlingly shifts gears and transforms itself into a rather disturbing thriller: it soon becomes apparent that Michele’s attacker is not yet finished with her, as anonymous texts reveal he is still taking an interest in her life. Nor is she quite as indifferent as first appeared to be the case, judging from her recent purchases of pepper spray and an axe…

Your first thought might be that Paul Verhoeven has chosen to make a film in French (his first) because France is relatively close to home for him and thus a bit less of a gruelling commute than flying off to Los Angeles or New York City. This is not the case, apparently, because Verhoeven did want to make Elle in America, as an English-language movie. The movie obviously stands or falls by the central performance, and on the director’s wish-list were names like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sharon Stone, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard. Apparently all of them refused to participate; neither was an American studio willing to finance the film.

You may perhaps have gleaned some inkling of just why this film had the great powers of Anglophone cinema closing their curtains and pretending to be out when Verhoeven turned up on their doorsteps with the script – the tonal shifts alone mark Elle as an unconventionally audacious movie – but, I promise you, this is pretty minor stuff compared to the way Verhoeven gleefully takes a wrecking ball to all manner of social and sexual taboos in the course of the movie. Describing Elle as hugely provocative is an understatement.

And yet he manages to get away with it, making a film which is as manifestly intelligent and deftly controlled as the best of his work. How does Verhoeven work the trick? Well, the script is viciously clever, for one thing – from the start, it is clear that Michele is not quite wired up the same way as other people, and there is a monstrous never-to-be-discussed piece of family history that has left the deepest of scars on her. On the other hand, you are distracted from wondering exactly how messed up she really is by the fact that she is always a fascinating and amusing character, if not always a completely sympathetic one. Huppert’s performance is really breathtaking; I rather suspect the fact that she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar may come to be viewed as a historic injustice. The way the movie deals en passant with issues such as the state of modern manhood, misogynist culture, and the role of religion in the world also means you are never short of food for thought.

The sophistication, dark humour, playfulness, and sheer transgressiveness of Elle has led some to suggest that there is something rather Hitchcockian about it, and I can see where they’re coming from – even though this is rather more extreme than anything Hitchcock ever made. But it also has that slight sense of misogynistic suspicion about it, the distinct feeling that women are somehow implicitly enigmatic, unpredictable creatures. That the movie also manages to be inarguably feminist, with the only characters possessing any real agency being women, is just another of its baffling achievements.

There are many things about Elle which are as impressive as anything I’ve seen in a cinema for a very long time, but I would still hesitate to recommend this film unreservedly to anyone I didn’t know well: it is just so extreme and challenging in so many different ways. One thing which I am certain of is that this doesn’t feel like the work of a man pushing 80 years old: it has the energy and appetite for mischief, the desire to challenge and cause trouble you would normally associate with a much younger artists. It almost goes without saying – but there’s an abundance of life in the old dog yet.

 

Nine Tenths of the Law

I believe it was the veteran writer and script-editor Terrance Dicks who observed that Terry Nation was such a nice man that he was obliged to employ the most savage and terrifying agent in the country; certainly, the travails endured by other Doctor Who writers wishing to use the Daleks are well-known. Note, also, the prominence with which Nation’s name appears on merchandising associated with the series he created – Nation’s agent even managed to secure him joint copyright on the Doctor Who episode Planet of Decision, with an eye to the merchandising potential of the Mechonoids, which were introduced therein.

And it seems you’re never far from a rights wrangle when it comes to the various shows and other things created by Terry Nation: the 2008 revival of Survivors was billed as being based on Nation’s novelisation of the original series, rather than the series itself, as the rights to the two entities were held separately, while one of the barriers to a TV revival of Blake’s 7 has been, again, the rights issue.

One curious incident which has become relatively well-known is the fact that there was a court-case over Survivors itself, in the 1970s, when Brian Clemens – another veteran writer, producer, and director – took Nation to court, claiming the concept of Survivors had been originated by him, and that Nation had taken it to the BBC without crediting Clemens. The court case was eventually abandoned by both sides due to rising costs, but Clemens’ vision for the series is interesting – he later said his idea was basically to make it as a pseudo-western adventure programme (his ultimate plan was, after three or four series, to load the main characters into a plane, send them off to America, and sell the format to the US-based Quinn Martin Productions – Nation himself seems to have had an eye on US sales himself, as Ian McCulloch recalls that Greg was initially intended to be American). Needless to say he was not impressed with Nation’s take on the concept – ‘he turned it into a sort of tract on how to survive.’

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, and one of the episodes that suggests Nation recognised Survivors‘ potential as a sort of Wild West Country adventure show is The Future Hour (another one of those oblique episode titles). Greg and Paul encounter Huxley (Glyn Owen), who appears to see himself as a sort of merchant prince, travelling the country with his men, stripping the towns bare of anything useful, and destroying what he can’t physically carry away. His plan is to sell his supplies to the survivor communities in exchange for gold. I suppose you could call it robust free-market capitalism in action, but one wonders what Huxley expects to do with all the gold: this may be why Greg later announces he is a nutcase.

Greg decides it will be better if the group treat Huxley warily, but unfortunately Huxley’s woman Laura has run away, along with one of his men (Denis Lawson, who proves that Ewan McGregor’s not the only one in the family who can do baffling accents). Laura is heavily pregnant, but Huxley has no interest in raising another man’s child and plans to give it away as soon as it’s born. Laura requests sanctuary in the manor.

Needless to say this puts Greg and Abby on a collision course again – Abby refuses to contemplate sending Laura back to Huxley, while Greg is equally adamant that it doesn’t make sense to help one stranger if it means putting the whole community in danger. Good meaty stuff, here, and well-played by the regulars, but the episode sort of runs out of places to go after this, beyond a bit of back-and-forth between Huxley’s men and the regular characters. In the end there is concluding shoot-out most notable for killing off Tom Price, who hasn’t been especially prominent this week.

Any discussion of what it would be like if Survivors were re-made today has been somewhat complicated by the fact that Survivors actually was re-made eight or nine years ago, but anyway: it’s hard to imagine they would kill off Price quite as precipitously as they do here. Surely there would be the climactic revelation of his guilt in Wendy’s murder, thus exposing Greg and Abby as liars and threatening their leadership of the community; perhaps even the prospect of some kind of redemptive sacrifice. But no: presumably someone on the production was uncomfortable with keeping a murderer in the cast of characters, especially when his natural role would be as comic relief. Survivors – it’s just so 1975 sometimes.

A fairly deft switch back into drama mode for the next episode, which also concerns the hold people have other each other. This is Jack Ronder’s Revenge, a character piece which rewards attentive viewers, and also ones with very good hearing. Vic has been getting increasingly depressed and withdrawn, and sort-of attempts suicide – he is only injured, but it does transform him from Terry Scully into Hugh Walters (apparently this was occasioned by Scully having a nervous breakdown – Vic isn’t in the previous episode, but the transition is still a bit jarring).

Vic’s depression dates back to the accident which crippled him, and being left to die by his then-partner, Anne. Naturally, it is at this moment that Anne (still Myra Frances)  and her new boyfriend rock up at the manor, driving a half-full petrol tanker. There is once again the clash of idealism and pragmatism which is coming to be a hallmark of the series – Abby insists that Anne can’t stay, given her history with Vic, but Greg points out that they really do need the fuel. So what’s to be done?

Matters are resolved in an intense sequence where Vic and Anne discuss what happened. The performances are both superb – obviously, one kind of regrets that it’s not Terry Scully playing Vic, but then he never showed any signs of being able to deliver the kind of nuanced performance Hugh Walters does here – and it’s just a problem that the whole thing was shot on location, for a low budget, in echoing rooms by actors speaking in whispers. Thank God the DVD has a subtitles option, is all I can say – I remember trying to watch this on VHS back in 1998, with the TV volume practically at maximum, rewinding every line of dialogue in a desperate attempt to figure out what they’re actually saying to each other.

It’s all a bit talky, and there’s a lot of stuff about the value of education which smells rather of filler (also a moment where Greg seems to be openly contemptuous of Paul’s lack of useful knowledge, which rings resoundingly false on all sorts of levels). But overall, a rather good episode, I think: hard to understand why Myra Frances never became more of a TV presence.

(Also, it’s interesting to compare this episode to the novelisation of Survivors, in which Anne’s only reappearance is as part of a gang of raiders, some years after the plague. Having seen her, Greg returns to the quarry – for the first time, in this version of the story – and finds Vic’s bones bleaching in the sun. The TV show can be a bit bleak sometimes, but the novelisation is often positively grim.)

Incidentally, one has to wonder just what the laundry facilities are like in post-apocalyptic 1976 (or whatever the year is in the series) – people happily turn out in some eye-poppingly bright outfits, none of which seems especially well-suited to life in a farming commune. At least Greg tends to go for the old double-denim most of the time.

Greg, and of course Ian McCulloch, gets another good outing in Something of Value, yet another episode about the hold people and objects can exert, and a bit of a return to the Wild West Country. The community is visited by Lawson (Matthew Long), who presents himself as a simple traveller and fills them in on the wider world situation: settlements are appearing, but also groups of nomads, some of them raiders. What he doesn’t say is that he is the face man for a trio of raiders himself, and he’s delighted to discover the petrol tanker Anne and her new boyfriend arrived in (this series often does a great job of setting up plot elements from week to week).

However, Lawson’s visit coincides with a storm and flooding, which destroy the commune’s supplies, and Abby and Greg decide that if they’re going to survive as a community, they will have to trade the petrol for more food and seeds (they already have a trading relationship with another group we have not seen).

It boils down to a very tense and well-handled stand-off between Greg and Jenny and the raiders, with Ian McCulloch very much in uncompromising action man mode, something which suits him rather well. (Someone should probably tell Greg not to be quite so keen to fire off guns so close to large quantities of petrol, though.) There are no big ideas or themes in this episode, but the raiders are eminently hissable villains and it works quite well. Greg, naturally, refuses to let their eventual triumph cheer him up – ‘God help us all,’ he mutters, reflecting that people are now killing each other over a few gallons of petrol. I remember watching this one during the Great Fuel Crisis of the Year 2000; things didn’t get quite so bad on that occasion, but you never can tell.