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If you knew where to look, over the Christmas and New Year just gone there was something of an embarrassment of riches in terms of adaptations of Dracula: the (unfairly obscure, if you ask me) 1968 ITV version with Denholm Elliott turned up on Talking Pictures TV just before the holidays properly got going, the original Hammer Dracula from 1958 materialised on the Horror Channel late on Christmas night itself, while forming one of the main planks of the BBC’s New Year scheduling was a brand new take on the story, from the team behind Sherlock. You can see why this would seem like a logical and even obvious fit: another one of the most famous characters to come out of popular Victorian literature, the subject of many previous adaptations, yet one which has not been the subject of major attention in quite a few years. This is before we even consider co-writer Mark Gatiss’ well-documented love of the macabre and morbid.

Recently, here or hereabouts, I have devoted some attention to the question of just how faithful literary adaptations should try to be, with the conclusions that you should at least try to bring the essence of the original to the screen, but still be wary of slavish faithfulness. When it comes to Dracula, however, things are more complicated: there is the Dracula everyone knows and expects, and then there is Stoker’s actual novel, which is a distinctly different beast. The former is derived from the latter, but as it has found its way into each new medium – theatre, cinema, TV – it has shifted, changed, acquired new imagery and resonances. Which is the ‘real’ Dracula? The well-known, iconic one, familiar to the point of contemptibility, or the actual source novel, something much odder and more surprising?

Moffat and Gatiss’ Dracula very nearly starts out looking like they’re going to do the novel ‘straight’, with young Englishman Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) turning up at Castle Dracula in 1897, intent on concluding some business with the reclusive count who occupies it. I would imagine that those in the viewing audience not familiar with Stoker (almost certainly the majority) were probably somewhat thrown by the initial conceit that Dracula first appears as an old man, who gradually rejuvenates himself by gorging on human blood (Harker’s, in this case). But it is the audience as well as Harker who may be being lulled into a false sense of security, for soon enough the story departs from the novel and becomes a Contemporary BBC Drama rather than a Prestige Costume Production.

You know the sort of thing I mean, I suspect: 19th century Budapest is required to be as diverse as 21st century London, because for some reason an adaptation of a book first published in 1897 has to be representative of the present day. Given the track record of these writers, I suppose we must be grateful that they decided to leave Dracula himself as a man – it’s got to the point where I accept the presence of a female Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) as just one of those inevitable modern things.

Then again, where does the boundary lie between making creative choices in adapting the book and simply messing it about in order to satisfy the omnipresent modern sensibility? In this case it is genuinely a little difficult to tell. Certainly they soon abandon the narrative of the novel in all but the broadest sense, resulting in something instantly recognisable as a Steven Moffat script: conjurer’s performance and sketch show in equal measure, all about the big set piece and the clever reveal, with things like logic and cohesion only of a secondary importance (and maybe not even that). The result is a series that varie hugely from episode to episode, and even within them – the final third of the first installment abruptly departs from the book and becomes about Dracula attempting to get into a convent. The second episode riffs on events left implied by Stoker himself, turning into a very odd inversion of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, while the third…

I understand the third episode has proved controversial and even a touch divisive, mainly because of the way it uproots the story so dramatically from its origins. Personally I saw it coming, although this may be because I was keeping tabs on this production and heard rumours to the effect that the writers considered the entire canon of Dracula movies and so on fair game as source material: even the early 70s Hammer films, which are a curious mixed bag, and which certainly seem to be the main inspiration here.

Personally I found it was only in the third episode that the new Dracula found its feet as something more than an extended series of winks at the camera from the writers. There is something genuinely intriguing and exciting about unleashing a character from Victorian fiction into such a modern milieu: there are certainly many more possibilities than the series managed to explore in the not much more than an hour available to handle the ‘Dracula in the present day’ section of the story. Dracula is a lens through which you can find a new perspective on many things: attitudes to sex, to death, to race and immigration, and so on. Using it to present a five-hundred-year-old warlord’s responses to modern society is in the best traditions of adapting Dracula. It honestly felt like a genuine shame that all the present-day material was crammed into the final third of the series; I would rather have seen much more of it in modern dress (Stoker chose to set his novel in the present day (as he saw it), so it does make sense for adaptations to do the same – though there is a problem with this, which we shall come to).

So I found this Dracula to be a bit of a curate’s egg, perhaps a bit too knowing to really satisfy. It notably dodged addressing the issue affecting any present-day Dracula – our whole conception of the vampire as an archetype is informed and perhaps defined by the popular image of Dracula (the caped aristocrat, vulnerable to crucifixes and sunlight). Had Stoker not written the book, that concept would be hugely different, if it even existed. Or, to give a more specific example: at one point in the final episode, Dracula sends someone a text including the vampire emoji, which is based on the image of Bela Lugosi-as-Dracula. But where did that emoji come from, in a world where Dracula is a real person?

But onto the good things, not least of which is the sheer fact that this was the BBC spending millions of poinds on a genuine piece of prime-time horror. Obviously this was a lavish production, with capable direction and some good supporting performances. I particularly enjoyed Mark Gatiss’ typically droll turn as Renfield, as you might expect, and also Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula himself (a very shrewd piece of casting: an experienced, mature actor with obvious charisma, but also essentially unknown to Anglophone audiences). Bang managed to find the menace and horror in the character even when the script required not much more than glib flippancy. One preview suggested that Bang was channelling Roger Moore’s James Bond, which was not unfair but overlooks the real similarities between Dracula and Bond: both are homicidal ladykillers (sometimes literally) who enjoy the finer things in life, and seem able to turn their hands to just about anything with remarkable success. Hardly anyone apart from Christopher Lee has played Dracula more than once (which may be why Lee remains so connected with the role), but it would be good to see Claes Bang given another outing.

Of course, it may be that Moffat and Gatiss feel that they’ve given their version of the story now. Certainly the ending, while possibly a little anticlimactic, had a sense of finality about it, resolving Dracula as a character. Perhaps in the end this is the most distinctive thing about their take: they attempt to dig into Dracula and find out what makes him work as a genuine character, rather than simply treating him as a monolithic icon of evil surrounded by various arcane traditions and ‘rules’. Whatever you may make of the results, I think the attempt is worthy of credit, even if whatever praise it receives must be somewhat qualified.

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What the hell is the point of the BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds? This is not a rhetorical question. After what felt like an endless wait and much teasing publicity, what eventually oozed onto the screen was possibly the most God-awful thing I’ve seen on TV all year, including second-season episodes of Space: 1999. The absolute best one could say about it is that it is well down to the usual standards of a BBC adaptation of an SF or horror classic, even worse than their version of The Lost World and quite as bad as their take on The Day of the Triffids in 2009.

There is a weird double standard within the Corporation when it comes to this sort of thing. Andrew Davies or whoever may take the odd liberty and stick in some nudity which doesn’t appear in the original text of a non-genre novel, but they are usually pretty restrained when it comes to the general thrust of the story and its subtext. And so they should, because what’s the point of doing an adaptation if all you’re going to keep of the original is the title and a vague sense of the premise?

And yet this is what we got when it came to The War of the Worlds. Let me put it another way: if the same creative talents get employed to oversee a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, I confidently predict that what emerges will focus on a turbulent lesbian romance between one of the minor Bennet sisters and the scullery-maid, all wrapped up in a frame story possibly concerning the Boer War, and quite likely performed on ice, to boot.

The back-of-a-stamp, idiot’s synopsis for both is pretty much the same: early in the 20th century, projectiles from Mars arrive on Earth, disgorging metallic tripods which proceed to devastate civilisation, their occupants pausing to snack on any locals unfortunate enough to cross their path. Doing so without having your pre-trip jabs proves to be a mistake, as Earthly bacteria end up wiping out the Martian invaders. But that is more or less the extent of their similarity to each other.

I was seized by a terrible sinking feeling before the first episode even got properly going, as the continuity announcer let rip with some blether about ‘spheres from Mars’. Spheres? As any fule kno, your self-respecting Martian invader travels by cylinder, not sphere. Then again, these were not Wells’ Martians – huge-eyed, glistening, tentacled creatures the size of bears – but apparently the work of someone angling for a job on the sequel to A Quiet Place: all angular, scuttling legs (the dubious logic involved seems to be that the Martian Fighting Machines resemble tripods because they themselves are tripedal, an idea pinched, whether knowingly or not, from John Christopher).

But these are just cosmetic issues and don’t really take us to the nub of the issue. I would have thought it was simple good manners on the part of an adapter to do the original writer the courtesy of focusing on the characters from the actual source, not new creations, and likewise focus on settings and incidents from the text, rather than making new ones up. Yet we ended with a story a good chunk of which was set in a doomy post-apocalyptic wasteland, an Earth tainted by the Red Weed, with various survivors staggering about miserably. Key amongst these were the character played by Eleanor Tomlinson, and her small son, played by a small boy whose name I can’t be bothered to look up: wife and child of the Rafe Spall character, who I guess was supposed to represent Wells’ original narrator. Tomlinson and the kid are not in the book. The post-apocalyptic wasteland is not in the book.

I mean, what the hell? Really, what the hell? In what sense of the word does this qualify as an adaptation? The brutality to the English language is nearly as appalling as the brutality to one of the foundational texts of science fiction. Let us see what the writer responsible had to say when interviewed about his aims for the new adaptation:

The version of The War of the Worlds that I wanted to make is one that’s faithful to the tone and the spirit of the book, but which also feels contemporary, surprising and full of shocks: a collision of sci-fi, period drama and horror.’

Let us put to one side the mystery of what exactly he thought was the ‘tone and spirit’ of Wells’ book and consider the rest of this startling utterance. I was certainly surprised to the point of shock at various points throughout the three hours of the series, but contemporary? What, honestly, the hell? This is an adaptation of a late-Victorian novel, set in Edwardian England, so what are you bibbling on about when you say you want to make it feel contemporary? How is that remotely supposed to work? If you want to make The War of the Worlds feel contemporary, the best way is to set it in the present day: George Pal and Steven Spielberg figured this out when they came to make their versions, both of which – perhaps not coincidentally – genuinely do seem to capture the tone and spirit of the novel much, much better than the new BBC effort.

(I am fairly sure that ‘contemporary’ is modern writer code for ‘female lead character’. Certainly, in this version, Wells’ actual narrator is too psychologically fragile to survive, and his brother is too hidebound and seized by jingoistic impulses to make it through. Of Wells’ men, only Ogilvy, a very minor character in the book, makes it through to the end of the new version, and this may or may not be because we are invited to assume he is gay. My God, I wish I were joking.)

I expect that the makers of this thing will defend their work by saying that it does stay faithful to Wells: the novel’s original subtext (in which the British Empire gets a taste of its own medicine from technologically-superior colonisers from elsewhere) is clumsily elaborated in a long speech in the final episode. Well, for one thing, Wells didn’t feel the need to articulate his subtext in quite such an ideas-for-the-hard-of-thinking way. The whole point of subtext is that it should be obvious without needing to be made explicit, and I suspect the reason it did need making explicit was that the story had been so thoroughly mangled by this point that the original message was no longer discernable without the aid of expository dialogue.

Instead we got a story we didn’t seem to be about anything, much. The innards of the story had been roughly scooped out and replaced by… well, not a great deal of anything, really. Some stuff which was presumably about climate change. Other bits riffing on imagery from recent real-world disasters. A lot of faintly mystifying material about Edwardian social mores. Possibly some of this was there in the name of making the adaptation more ‘contemporary’ – but, really, it’s a book from 1898. It’s never going to feel contemporary unless you do severe violence to the story. Why would you bother trying to bring it to the screen, if contemporary is what you’re after? Let it be itself, let it be a late-Victorian novel full of late-Victorian ideas about evolution and society. Put modern special effects in it, to be sure – but don’t lose track of what the author actually intended it to be like, and to be about. If you do that, you just end up with something that bears a vague, superficial resemblance to the source novel, but isn’t actually about anything and has nothing to say for itself. This is an adaptation in name only, made by people who seem only marginally interested in H.G. Wells. It takes real determination and talent to screw up such a great story so thoroughly.

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Much talk this week of the Royal Family’s various TV appearances, both fictional and otherwise. I refer, of course, to a new series of The Crown (don’t watch it myself, but my partner enjoys it) and also the Duke of York’s spectacularly misjudged come-clean interview on Newsnight. You have a choice between a touch of class and something distinctly touched by the sordid. The latter interview has been widely decried for bringing the family into public disrepute.

Back in the 1980s it was all a bit less full-contact. The idea of something remotely like The Crown was unimaginable, while all it took to embarrass the Queen was… Well, apparently it all started when Prince Edward failed to meet the entry requirements for the Commandos, forcing him to consider alternative career choices. He decided to go into showbiz (honestly, this is a tale in and of itself) and ended up showing his independence and willing to throw off the shackles of his upbringing by, er, mostly making TV shows about his own family.

One of these was a charity version of the slapstick game show It’s A Knockout, which was only marginally reimagined: his version, officially entitled The Grand Knockout Tournament but known to most folk at the time as It’s a Royal Knockout, featured teams of celebrities led by peripheral members of the Royal Family. This thing is still available to view on the internet, and the intervening decades have done little to reduce its power to gobsmack. It is one of the most surreal and bizarre things you will ever see, up there with the Star Wars Holiday Special and The Naked Jungle. Attempting to review it is essentially pointless. Simply describing it is enough, and so this is what I have done below. I swear it is all true.

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01:00. After some low-budget videotape wizardry and a prefatory voice-over, we get our first real sense of worlds violently colliding as the proceedings are introduced by boy soprano Aled Jones, Carry On star Barbara Windsor, and Rowan Atkinson, who appears to be in character as Blackadder. It is hard to tell whether his look of disdain for the proceedings is part of the performance or genuine. He makes it clear we are about to watch people playing silly games and repeatedly falling over. I think we would have quickly worked this out for ourselves.

03:00. Atkinson introduces Les Dawson, Su Pollard, Paul Daniels and Stuart Hall. The best you can say about this lot is that Les Dawson was a very funny and much-loved entertainer, and Mark Gatiss chose Pollard’s version of ‘Come to Me, I am Woman’ as one of his Desert Island Discs. This being 1980s light entertainment, it almost goes without saying that one of the hosts (in this case, Hall) went on to do time for sex offences.

04:20. The teams come on. First on is Prince Andrew, in a mint-green mock-tudor outfit. He seems to be really enjoying it. Then it’s his (fairly) new bride, Fergie, in blue. Thirdly, Prince Edward, in mustard, and finally, in red, Princess Anne. Each of them is leading a gaggle of mostly minor celebrities, all in Ye Olde English outfits.

06:00. Hall takes over hosting duties and brown-noses with the royals for a bit. There is some unexpected trash-talk from Fergie. Princess Anne is clearly fighting hard to retain whatever shreds of dignity she can keep her hands on, which is commendable if somewhat futile in the circumstances.

09:45. Game One: which is apparently entitled ‘Call Out the Guard’. Princess Anne plays her joker, as does Fergie. The introduction seems badly fluffed but this basically boils down to celebrities dressed as castle guards operating capstans to winch cannon across the lawn. Just to give you an insight into the calibre of the teams, representing Princess Anne in this event are Emyln Hughes, Jackie Stewart and Cliff Richard.

13:15. After a hard-fought event, Gary Lineker’s skirt falls off. He is wearing stockings.

13:45. Hall introduces the judges: the Duke of Westminster, the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Roxburgh and the Duke of Abercorne (no, me neither). They look appropriately embarrassed but seem to be trying to make the best of it.

15:00. The scores are delivered by Paul Daniels. Princess Anne storms into an early lead.

17:10. We are treated to the spectacle of Hollywood movie star Christopher Reeve, dressed as a jester, being interviewed by Les Dawson. Maybe there is some strange and mysterious power in the institution of the monarchy after all.

18:45. Game Two, Heat One. Reeve is now making his way across a greasy pole suspended over a tank of water while Tom Jones and Jenny Agutter throw foam-rubber hams at him.

22:00. Game Three. Former heptathlete and future Gladiator (‘Nightshade’, if memory serves) Judy Simpson wins her heat in a game which involves hopping away from cricketer Viv Richards, who is dressed as a headless ghost. A much-medalled Australian sprinter does rather less well. Something to be said for being a multi-disciplinarian, I suppose.

23:45. The scoring for this game seems very complicated, and most of the participants are obscure proper athletes. That’s not what we’re here for. Prince Andrew wins in the end. Fergie is leading overall.

25:50. The next game is apparently sponsored by McDonald’s. Come to think of it, Game Two was sponsored by Asda. How did this get on the BBC? Power of the monarchy again, I suppose.

27:00. Game Four involves using a wrecking-ball to knock over dummy knights while blindfolded. Gary Lineker has got dressed and is back for this one. It is less fun than it sounds, but watching Lineker nearly get flattened when the ball swings back at him has its moments of interest. He scores five in the end.

31:00. Someone called Walter Payton, who is clearly only here to help them flog the show in the States, crushes Lineker by scoring a maximum eight. I wonder if he was cheating.

32:30. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, guiding Edward’s team’s blindfolded knight, shouts ‘Hard! Hard! Hard! Hard!’ a lot at Duncan Goodhew. This makes me think about the opera singer in a different light, to be honest. Goodhew scores six.

35:00. It is quite poignant how clueless Meat Loaf proves to be at this game, although the guidance from comedian/sex therapist Pamela Stephenson is hardly first rate. A late surge sees them score seven in the end. Fergie still in the overall lead.

37:15. Game Two, Heat Two. Toyah Wilcox and a very young-looking John Cleese throw foam-rubber hams at the cricketer Sunil Gavaskar. I never expected to be typing that sentence when I woke up this morning. Les Dawson suggests Anthony Andrews’ performance resembles ‘a palsied frog’. I do miss him.

40:30. Game Five is sponsored by Canada Life. A riff on Romeo and Juliet, involving crossing a pond and climbing a rope to deliver a rose. Gutsy performance from Jane Seymour as Juliet from Fergie’s team, but Anneka Rice gets a time penalty for not using the rope. Strict judging here in the circumstances.

44:00. Tom Jones appears in tights, competing against Gary McGuigan. Jones is let down by Sheena Easton’s inability to climb out of a pond unassisted. Hall interviews him anyway. In the circumstances the interview is rather anodyne. Fergie and Princess Anne are now tying for the lead.

48:00. Game Six, sponsored by Harrods. This is basically an elimination race, run in heats by men in especially ridiculous costumes. Prince Andrew plays his joker. Another complicated scoring system here. At least the royals seem to be enjoying themselves.

Thinks: ‘At least this is the most embarrassing thing I will ever do on TV.’ History will prove him wrong.

52:30. There are frankly astonishing levels of cheating in this game. Prince Andrew, clearly a man with a strong moral core, demands a stewards’ enquiry. You can see the outrage and fury in his eyes when it is denied. It boils down to a fancy-dress running race between Emlyn Hughes and Steve Cram. Hughes muscles his way into first place. You need a degree in algebra to work out the final score though.

56:30. Game Two, Heat Three. Viv Richards and Jane Seymour are on ham duty, while amongst those falling in the water are George Lazenby and Michael Palin. Lazenby proves unexpectedly good at not actually falling in.

1:00:30. Game Seven, brought to us by the Britannia Building Society. Celebrities dressed as vegetables are pursued by other celebrities dressed as chefs. Princess Anne plays her joker, not because she particularly wants to but because she’s been told she has to play it at some point and there aren’t that many games left (thank God). She is seemingly distinctly unenthused by the whole thing.

1:03:00. Emlyn Hughes body-checks Griff Rhys Jones, who is dressed as a leek. It’s a miracle there were any celebrities left standing by the end of 1987.

1:04:40. John Travolta grapples with Toyah Wilcox’s onion costume. I imagine watching this must be a bit like what it feels like when you smoke meth.

1:06:20. We now know the answer to the question of whether Meat Loaf can run faster than an Olympic gold medallist, if the athlete is forced to wear a foam rubber vegetable suit. The fact it is ‘no’ should surprise few amongst us, I think. The event is halted when it becomes clear Meat Loaf is never, ever going to catch her. Big points for Princess Anne. She is building up a sizeable lead.

1:07:30. Game Eight is a dull one which may be why they couldn’t find a sponsor. That said, the royals are actually joining in for a change. Won in the end by Steve Podborski, who isn’t really a celebrity but may well help Canadian sales.

1:11:15. Game Two, Heat Four – the last one, and not before time. George Lazenby throws hams at Mel Smith and a bunch of international sportspeople only Wikipedia still remembers. Dawson reuses a line about ‘those legs look like they should have a message tied to them’, which was okay the first time but suffers a bit on repetition.

1:14:30. The last game, which is a fake joust using unwieldy giant hobby-horses and a lot of pyrotechnics. It turns out to be mercifully brief and unexpectedly dull.

1:15:55. A quick shot of Richard Branson lurking in the crowd. Perhaps he is a substitute celebrity.

1:16:10. Princess Anne is declared the winner. She looks more annoyed than excited by this.

1:17:00. One thing you have to say about Rowan Atkinson, he’s a trouper. His script for the prize-giving is about as bad as the rest of it, but you can barely make out his indifference.

1:18:00. And that’s it. It’s probably worth mentioning some of the celebrity participants who barely appeared on camera in the course of this thing: people like Margot Kidder, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Nigel Mansell. Then again I doubt those who are still with us are much given to lament their lack of prominence.

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Well, needless to say, the Queen was not amused by all of this undignified capering about, and nor was Prince Charles (rumour has it that Princess Anne was basically forced to take part after Prince Charles vetoed Princess Diana’s appearance). There were ructions at the Palace, much tighter controls on the media appearances of the younger royals were instituted, and Prince Edward’s subsequent TV career mostly consisted of rather more sober documentaries about royal history, programmes about real tennis, and a soap opera set in the House of Commons wine bar. But at least we have this one shining moment of complete stupidity to remind us of what we’d lose if the republicans ever get their way.

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Just when it looks like the late-summer interesting-movie drought is a thing of the past, the UPP goes and closes for its annual week of maintenance. Sigh. Still, when it returns, it is at least with an amusingly tongue-in-cheek choice of subject matter for its usual revival season – the weeks leading up to October 31st feature a series of films under the umbrella title of Apocalypse, Now?, connected by the fact they are either dystopian or downright apocalyptic British-set movies. One can appreciate the joke even if, fingers crossed, recent events mean that Halloween no longer has particularly ominous associations this year.

I expect it says something about me that most of the films in the Apocalypse season are ones I’m already rather familiar with. It includes A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and you’ve already got two classic films there at least. The curve-ball of the season, however, is a film which wasn’t originally made for the big screen, and, well… it’s a very different kind of beast from those others. It is Threads, from 1984.

If I may digress a moment, a few years ago I was in Prague for a long weekend and one of the places I visited was a nuclear bunker in the suburbs of the city. We had an engaging time exploring the facilities, putting on the gas masks and having our photos taken in them, and so on, and then the guide pointed out to us that the mirrors in the bathrooms were all sheets of polished metal, rather than the usual glass. And when we asked why, he explained it was part of the policy to make the bunker suicide-proof, because it was anticipated that even the survivors of a nuclear strike would be very likely to contemplate ending their own lives. And suddenly we felt a bit subdued and queasy, and everything was considerably less jolly.

Threads is a film which will give you that moment of uneasiness and recognition of what is really at stake here, and stretch it out to 108 minutes. It was first broadcast on British TV in 1984, and even before the transmission it was drawing complaints – even the front cover of the BBC’s TV listings magazine was considered to be too disturbing and explicit. I was much too young to watch the actual film when it was shown then, but the cover did lodge itself in my memory as a grisly, haunting symbol of the film.

Quite when the film is set is a little ambiguous – based on the dates given on screen, it appears to be a near-future 1988, but it is clearly meant to be contemporary, although it does not identify specific politicians. In the opening scenes, we meet lead characters Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), a young couple living in Sheffield, getting on with their lives, not paying much attention to the world situation – Russian troops have recently moved from the USSR into eastern parts of Iran. Ruth falls pregnant, and in the absence of any other options, they decide to marry and move in together, although Jimmy’s commitment to the relationship seems far from complete.

They buy a flat, start to think about a wedding; the two sets of parents get to know each other. But while all this is going on, tensions are building in the Middle East, with both the Americans and Soviets building up their forces in the region, and the rhetoric becoming increasingly antagonistic. Slowly it impinges on the characters that armed conflict is a possibility, then a likelihood. There is panic-buying in the supermarkets. The TV broadcasts public information films about how to convert part of your home into a fall-out survival room, and what to do if someone dies while you are in there. Key personnel and resources are quietly moved into locations of safety.

And then, one Thursday morning, the air attack warning sounds. As an industrial city not too far from USAF bases in England, Sheffield is targeted and struck by several nuclear warheads.

The first half of Threads has something of the look and feel of a kitchen-sink drama – something gritty and naturalistic, about the real lives of young people today, albeit one punctuated by occasional captions giving supplementary information, and contributions from an omniscient narrator (Paul Vaughan). The very nature of the production means it has an extraordinary atmosphere of impending doom, and a weird tension – you’re kind of anticipating the moment when the world comes to an end, and wondering what it’s going to be like, and yet at the same time you are dreading how the actual reality of it is going to be presented to you.

And your instincts are quite right, because the second half of Threads is probably the most soul-crushingly bleak hour of TV ever broadcast in the UK – yes, even worse than the final episode of Blake’s 7. And the tone and nature of the film feels like it undergoes a quite radical shift. Some of the documentary realism persists, but it is mixed with an almost impressionistic approach to portraying the scenes of nightmarish horror which ensue: we see fragments, odd scenes; montages of photographs take the place of live action. We almost seem to be seeing events from the point-of-view of Ruth and the other characters as they teeter on the edge of madness. Perhaps this was necessitated; even on a pretty big budget by 1984 standards, the BBC was probably quite incapable of naturalistically presenting the sheer scale of the horror of the aftermath of a UK-wide nuclear attack. And perhaps even the writer’s mind recoiled from the magnitude of the task he had been charged with. The film covers the decade-and-a-half or so following the attack, and we are presented with an increasingly disjointed set of snapshots of the dismal future world which comes into being. But the horror of it is tangible: survivors breaking up farmland with hand tools, swathed in cloth to shield themselves from post-nuclear UV exposure; children being taught to read using fuzzy pre-apocalypse video recordings; and the concluding sequence of the film, suggesting that the damage extends far beyond the severing of the threads of civilised society, even to the essential humanity of the survivors.

There is perhaps a bit of a mismatch in the creative team behind Threads – the writer was Barry Hines, otherwise best-known for the working-class bildungsroman A Kestrel for a Knave (famously filmed as Kes by Ken Loach), while the director was Mick Jackson, who would go on to make rather more cheerful Hollywood movies like LA Story, The Bodyguard and Volcano (more recently, he also directed Denial). Apparently there were creative tensions between the two of them on set. But together they produce something which does full justice to a weighty remit – Hines’ script is loaded with social and political anger, although it resists the temptation to make explicit political points and still finds time for formal quirks (one major character simply vanishes out of the film, midway through the bombing sequence) and heart-breaking moments of pathos (we see that Ruth is still carrying around tiny, useless mementos of her dead loved ones, years after the end of the old world). Jackson brings documentary realism to the early parts of the film and a willingness to go big and cinematic in the key moments depicting the attack. The film is superbly made, even if it is also in a very real sense awful to watch.

It would be nice to say that age has worked wonders to diminish the ghastly power of Threads, and rendered it a bit of a cold-war era curio, a reminder of what kept our parents and grandparents awake at night with alarm, something we have moved on. Certainly, all the video tapes and fake TV news broadcasts do give Threads the feeling of a period piece. But the last time I checked, we still have nuclear weapons, we still have international tensions, we still have foolish politicians who want to look like strongmen in the global media. (That nuclear bunker in Prague could be made fully operational again in only 48 hours.) We have not stepped back far enough from that brink: Threads suggests it is impossible to step back too far. This is one of those pieces of art which transcends time and place.

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As chance would have it, just the other day I passed several fairly agreeable hours watching Euston Films’ 1979 pre-apocalyptic drama Quatermass, even as the telly was full of pre-launch publicity for Euston Films’ 2018 pre-apocalyptic drama Hard Sun, currently showing on BBC One. The media has also been marking the fact that it’s forty years since the TV debut of Blake’s 7, with some unusually complimentary retrospectives concentrating on the programme’s dystopian sensibility and paranoia rather the overacting and spaceships made out of hair-dryers.

I mention the last because Hard Sun is, by some metrics, an SF show for adults, a genre which the BBC has been reluctant to take a chance on since the failure of Outcasts in 2011. (Yes, yes: I know there is what remains of the world’s greatest fantasy series, which I no longer talk about, but here we speak of actual proper science fiction.) BBC disquiet about doing an SF series appears to have been assuaged by the fact that this is only really nominally science fiction, squatting on the border with the police procedural/conspiracy thriller genre. (The show is the brainchild of Neil Cross, who created cop show Luther and also wrote a couple of middling episodes of that fantasy series.)

The first episode establishes the tone for much of what follows, as we meet DCI Cockney Geezer (Jim Sturgess), who seems like a devoted family man despite the fact he’s quietly knocking off his dead best mate’s wife. The circumstances in which the dead best mate passed on are sufficiently suspicious for Geezer’s boss, DCS Annoying Pen-pusher, to believe Geezer may have done him in, and to this end DI Cynical Gamine (Agyness Deyn) has been planted on Geezer’s team to secretly investigate him. (I like shows which have a bit of Agy, but I’ve never seen one with as much Agyness as this one.) Gamine is doing this so her unhinged son, whom she appears to have given birth to when she was about seven, does not go to prison for attempting to murder her. One thing you can say about Hard Sun: it’s never knowingly under-plotted.

Well, in their first day on the job together Geezer and Gamine find themselves working on the case of a conspiracy-theory obsessed hacker with ASD (oh, sigh) who has turned up dead. One of his mates has got his hands on the dead guy’s USB stick, which is disguised as a Saturn V rocket but may as well just be a box with PLOT DEVICE scrawled on it. Our heroes recover the USB but find themselves pursued by the security services, intent on killing everyone who comes into contact with the information on the stick. But why?

Needless to say, Geezer and Gamine can’t resist taking a peek, hoping this will give them leverage to get the homicidal spooks to back off. It turns out that – well, here’s the thing: we never get to see what’s on the stick beyond a few blipverts of graphs and suchlike, but everyone who does look at it properly confirms that it concerns the government’s advance planning for the end of the world (codenamed Hard Sun), which is due in five years time.

Cheer up, it might never happen. Oh, hang on a minute…

 

I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by this, because the government appear to have managed to plan their response to the end of the world without ever letting on exactly what’s going to happen. Even after they’ve looked at the stick, Geezer and Gamine are left speculating as to just what is heading their way – is a comet going to hit Earth? Is it some kind of environmental catastrophe? They seem to be in the dark. Presumably this is just to maintain a sense of foreboding mystery; it also gives them a ready-made opportunity for a big reveal come the last episode of the series.

Well, the first episode reached fairly deep into the bag of Modern Cop Show cliches, but I do like a bit of apocalyptica, and I was curious to see just how the rest of the series would play out (episode one concludes with Gamine taking a redacted set of the information to the media), and just how strong the SF element would be in the mix.

Courtesy of iPlayer’s box set function and the fact I had a day with not much going on (not to mention the fact that Hard Sun is the kind of show you can put on in the background while doing something else and honestly not miss much), I ended up having watched the rest of the first series within the next day. And the answer to the ‘how SF is it?’ question is: really not very much.

Hard Sun boils down to being another of those bleak and bloody cop shows, with the difference being that this time it’s understandable why the leads are so glum all the time: the world’s apparently going to end, after all. The thing is, though, that the impending apocalypse is primarily just a mood-setting thing – the various killers that Geezer and Gamine find themselves contending with are all nutters who’ve been drawn out of the woodwork by the release of the Hard Sun info, but it’s established at the top of episode two that nearly everyone has been convinced this was a hoax. Life goes on as normal for nearly everyone; you could rewrite the middle episodes of this series to extract the impending doom/science fiction element very easily. It’s mainly just there to provide an atmosphere of existential misery – Hard Sun‘s signature bit is a scene where Gamine and Geezer sit down together in the middle of a case and wail ‘But what does any of it matter anyway? We’ve only got five years left!’, which happens in nearly every episode.

Subsequent episodes are mostly competent but fairly undistinguished takes on the kind of story you’ve seen before – a barking ex-husband takes his children hostage, a man outraged by the cruelty of the world starts killing nice people and challenges God to intervene and stop him, a serial killer preys on suicidal people, and so on. There are lots of people in hoodies stalking darkened streets, and so much knife-related violence that it’s easy to imagine the BBC being forced to pull Hard Sun on taste and decency grounds, given the current plague of knife crime in London.

What’s really absent is any kind of moral centre, for as the series proceeds Geezer and Gamine reveal that they are prepared to do just about anything to further their cause, which only occasionally involves catching criminals. When they’re not actively beating each other up with their collapsible truncheons, the doom-conscious duo are forever disregarding standard procedure, obstructing or perverting the course of justice, or plotting the cold-blooded murder of a government employee. This sort of thing reaches its most uproarious extreme in a scene in which Geezer seems to be actively considering waterboarding a priest (one story revolves around that old chestnut of a priest not being able to reveal the identity of a killer due to the seal of the confessional being sacrosanct).

I say ‘uproarious’ because so much of Hard Sun really beggars credibility – there’s the peculiarly vague contents of the USB stick, along with the behaviour of the leads and their byzantine back-stories. Coupled to the fact that the show clearly takes itself very seriously indeed, the result is a programme which is just an unintentional black comedy more than anything else.

I suppose I could imagine the BBC making a show like Hard Sun and it being more, um, good, about twenty years ago, when even the best of us were not immune to the odd pre-millenial jitter. Nowadays, though? Not so much. One plot thread which feels like a particular misstep concerns the ominous dark apparatus of the Security Services, who pursue Geezer and Gamine throughout the series in order to get the USB stick back (despite the fact that everyone is supposedly convinced the apocalyptic data is fake). Playing their nemesis is Nikki Amuka-Bird, who played the curiously inept government minister in New Survivors and plays a somewhat more competent spook here. That’s the thing, I would say: these days we’re not worried that our governments are up to brilliantly-conceived and ultra-secret machinations behind our backs. In the time of Donald Trump and Theresa May, our main concern is that our governments really are as hapless, clueless, and incompetent as they routinely seem to be.

It would be great if the BBC actually had the nerve to make a proper SF TV series, rather than just smuggling a few SF elements into what’s essentially a very dark, very silly cop show. But there you go: such is the world we live in today. Every episode of Hard Sun concludes with a countdown timer, ticking down the days before armageddon’s arrival, and one can only conclude that the BBC and their co-producers Hulu have half an eye on this actually running for five years. Well, I’ll be surprised – but if it even makes it to a second season, the manner in which this one concludes suggests that in any subsequent outings this show will become a rather different beast. That can only be a good thing, because at present there’s at least as much daftness as darkness in Hard Sun.

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Due to the unique way the BBC managed its archives in the early 1970s (it involved a furnace), the vast majority of the third series of Doomwatch is gone – missing, presumed burned or wiped. It’s easy to give the corporation a hard time for its short-sightedness in this respect, as it completely failed to foresee the rise of the market for home entertainment, but I’ve heard it argued that Equity should shoulder some of the blame too – the actors’ union imposed strict limits on the number of repeats the TV networks were allowed to run, meaning that the majority of programmes in the archives were never likely to be shown again, making the costs of their preservation unjustifiable.

Well, either way, we’re left with only three episodes of the twelve – a small irony being that one of these episodes was never shown on TV in the first place. The first survivor, Terence Dudley’s Waiting for a Knighthood, is the fourth episode of the series, and watching it now one gets a distinct sense of arriving late to a party – developments have clearly, um, developed in the early episodes of the season.

Ridge has gone nuts, for one thing, and this has taken the form of more than just dressing up as Luke Cage now and then – apparently in the first episode he stole some anthrax and attempted to hold the government to ransom with it. By the time of this episode, he is safely ensconced in a rubber facility and has apparently made a full recovery. Replacing him at Doomwatch is a new character, Stafford, who may in fact be a mole for the Minister. Or not. Chantry has also been banished to the outer darkness, but at least Barbara the secretary is still there, and also apparently making regular appearances is Anne Tarrant, Quist’s shrink from the start of season two – the two of them appear to have shacked up together, in an unexpected move towards a more domestic Doomwatch.

Waiting for a Knighthood features Ridge and does, to some extent, focus on the reasons for his peculiar behaviour. It opens with a vicar going full-on bonkers mid-sermon, collapsing in the aisle of his church, and needing to be rushed off to hospital. This happens at Tarrant’s local church and so Quist gets wind of it. A little investigation reveals the hapless clergyman was a keen mechanic who was regularly exposed to fumes from organic lead in his petrol, and that his breakdown may have been caused by lead poisoning of the brain.

At this point someone remembers that Ridge was also a keen mechanic and welder (oh, really?) and that lead poisoning may have been a factor in his episode of atypical behaviour as well. However, the issue of whether or not to fully exonerate Ridge and get him back on the team (never going to happen; Simon Oates didn’t want to be in the show full time any more) becomes rather secondary, when a woman whose young son died of lead poisoning gets wind of what’s been happening and kidnaps the young son of a wealthy oil man whom she blames for the pollution of the environment.

Doing an episode about lead poisoning is clearly within Doomwatch‘s mission statement, especially when you consider the long-term environmental damage done by lead in petrol (the life story of Thomas Midgley, pioneer of this development, and also CFCs in fridges, is a real eye-opener). But this script never quite seems to come to grips with it. It revisits a couple of the classic themes – particularly how everyone wants a cleaner world but nobody wants to actually be the one to pay for it – but on the whole the sense of driving anger which characterised the Davis-Pedler seasons is absent, perhaps epitomised by the way Quist himself has become a more human figure, less of a voice of morality. It seems much more interested in the various political goings-on between Doomwatch and the ministry, and the somewhat underpowered kidnapping plot. Terence Dudley clearly seems to have found no shame in nepotism, for once again he casts his own son Stephen Dudley in a crucial role (he was previously Rat Attack Victim in season one, and would be a regular for most of the run of Survivors).

I’d hesitate to call this episode actively bad, but it’s very bland and unengaging stuff, with the new characters and emphasis making the show a more comfortable and mainstream drama – which surely was never the point in the first place. One gets a definite sense of a shark having been jumped.

Episode six is better, but not quite good enough to dispel this impression. This is Hair Trigger, by Brian Hayles, who (the attentive will recall) wrote The Iron Doctor, one of the best second series episodes. Things get underway at a secure research facility under the auspices of the DHSS, which sounds like a joke but isn’t. Dr Tarrant is visiting the place in her professional capacity as a psychiatrist attached to the civil service. She discovers that patients with serious psychological disorders are being given computer-controlled therapy, to the extent that they have electrodes implanted in their brains which can both monitor and control their behaviour. A violent psychopath, Beavis (Michael Watkins) has a homicidal episode artificially triggered and then controlled for her benefit.

Naturally, Tarrant is disturbed by this, and (in another lengthy domestic scene between her and Quist) she explains why – it’s not just that the line between treating patients and experimenting on them seems to have become rather blurred, but that the focus of the procedure is not really to treat at all. The emphasis is on controlling dangerously violent individuals rather than addressing their problems on a human level.

There are various scenes of civil servants and scientists discussing this all in a rather clubbable manner, with Quist and the rest of the Doomwatchers somewhat peripheral figures. Tarrant decides to speak in more detail with Beavis himself, to get a better idea of how he feels about this. Beavis is twitchy about the prospect of the conversation, only wanting to talk about the treatment he’s received, not his own past, and as they talk in the unit’s grounds he becomes agitated and there is a struggle. Tarrant is knocked unconscious and the receiver which controls Beavis’ brain function is damaged. He flees the scene and takes a young woman in a nearby farmhouse hostage…

The ethics of how to treat the criminally insane was one of those issues which many people weighed in on in the early 70s, one way or another. This episode was broadcast in 1972, and it’s hard not to see it as being in some way influenced by the previous year’s A Clockwork Orange, which similarly suggested the solution was to artificially condition the brains of contenders, or possibly even the Doctor Who story The Mind of Evil, which took the more radical step of suggesting hardened recidivists should be fed to alien mind parasites. Much of it is good solid humanistic stuff, arguing that people should be treated as people, rather than malfunctioning machines, even if they are a danger to themselves and others. The implications of computers directly controlling human behaviour are not overlooked, either, although the more loved-up season three Quist is less outraged by this than the original version would have been, I’d suggest.

The problem is that once the suspense-thriller element of the episode kicks off, about half way through, and Beavis goes on the run, all the more thoughtful aspects of the story are essentially dropped in favour of this. The resolution is dealt with solely in terms of characters and personalities, with the big ideas of the story completely forgotten about. This is still a watchable episode of a reasonably good thriller series, but it is largely lacking in the moral and intellectual power of the best offerings from seasons one and two.

And so to Stuart Douglass’ Sex and Violence, the final completed episode of the series, which may have survived simply because it was never broadcast as planned – nor has it ever been shown on British TV, as far as I have been able to determine. Exactly why this is the case remains somewhat obscure, and watching the episode itself is not especially illuminating.

The episode opens with a public meeting led by a moral campaigner, decrying the so-called permissive society of the day and the ‘filth’ permeating all levels of the media. No sooner have the pre-titles concluded and the credits got underway than you find yourself thinking ‘this is an odd topic for a Doomwatch episode’. Quist agrees, when Doomwatch is tasked with assisting an inquiry into whether censorship laws should be tightened or not – chemical pollution, certainly, but moral pollution?

He shifts his position a little when Anne Travers is co-opted onto the inquiry committee, which includes a morality campaigner, a bishop, a sociologist, an educationalist, and a pop star (playing some of these are Brian Wilde and Bernard Horsfall, so at least the performances are good). As part of her duties Travers goes to see a controversial play and is attacked by a protester. What motivates these self-styled guardians of public morality? And what motivates the shadowy figures who are funding their crusade?

Well, this is very definitely another for the ‘they don’t make ’em like this any more’, for much of Sex and Violence is a very talky discussion of some rather abstruse topics – the work of Wilhelm Reich is casually debated, which doesn’t happen on BBC1 very much nowadays. It’s very different to any other episode of Doomwatch – when Quist does attend the committee, all he does is sit quietly in the corner.

So why has the episode never been broadcast? The popular theory seems to be that it’s because it includes documentary footage of a public execution taking place in Lagos, Nigeria, but this seems a little implausible since the same footage has been shown on TV since. It seems to me to be more likely that concerns were raised about the fact that at least one of the characters is a thinly-disguised caricature of a significant public figure of the period. Whether the pop star is intended to be Cliff Richard or not, I’m not sure; but it seems a dead cert that ‘Mrs Catchpole’, scourge of the permissive society, is based on Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse and the National Viewers And Listeners Association which she founded were a power in the land in the 1970s (managing to get Philip Hinchcliffe effectively sacked from Doctor Who in 1977, for example), and you can imagine the BBC getting a little nervous about an episode in which she is explicitly depicted as a fanatical extreme-right bigot (the fact she is played by June Brown, best known nowadays as Dot Cotton, is just one of those historical quirks), especially given her litigiousness.

Then again, none of this is exactly rigorously impartial: Quist tracks down the financier of the anti-permissiveness campaign, and finds a right-wing millionaire with political aspirations. Persuade people to give up their freedom to decide what they watch, read, and listen, runs the argument, and in the fullness of time they will happily hand over their other freedoms to the state – when the right leader comes along. Given the BBC very much had a dog in this fight, this would have been touchy stuff even back in the 1970s (quite how far back the routine Tory-press whine about ‘left wing bias’ at the BBC goes is not something I’ve been able to discover, but political bias may well have been another issue).

In the end the episode concludes with the status quo unchanged, and Quist musing on the rise of Hitler from joke to despot in less than a decade, while Bradshaw informs him the computer has suggested sex and violence in the media have no effect on people’s behaviour. (It is at least somewhat appropriate that the final scene features the two remaining original characters.) ‘No change… no change…’ says Quist. This may not be a particularly strong episode of Doomwatch, but like the best of the series, it deals with issues which are alive and kicking today. No change, indeed.

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Doomwatch finds itself touched by greatness with the eleventh episode of the second series, The Inquest. One wonders how many of the themes of these episodes were handed to the writers by the production team, for the idea at the heart of this one – a rabies outbreak in England – also pops up in a late episode of Survivors, albeit realised rather differently.

A young girl has died of rabies and Quist has sent Hardcastle down to the area to try and locate the source of the infection, as there have been no reports of mad dogs. The local research institute has been implicated in the outbreak and he is checking it out when he is wounded after someone starts taking pot-shots at the place – the institute’s use of live testing has made it the target of sustained protests and sabotage from animal lovers in the vicinity. Luckily it’s only a flesh wound, but he’s still confined to hospital.

With Chantry and Ridge both away on business or leave, it falls to Quist to send Colin Bradshaw (Joby Blanshard), Doomwatch’s token Northern stereotype, into the field to take over. He soon discovers that tempers are running high, with no obvious leads on the mad dogs (no pun intended) and the local dog-lover determined to pin responsibility on a mutant virus carried by tsetse flies from the local lab…

The Inquest is the sole contribution to Doomwatch from Robert Holmes, who in 1971 was just at the start of his imperial period as the greatest writer of Doctor Who stories in the history of the world. One is so familiar with the particular tropes of Holmes’ Doctor Who work – larger than life characters, a genuine love of language, occasional signs of real political sophistication and cynicism, for instance – that it can be a little disconcerting to watch his work on another series and find these things much less evident. It’s a little difficult to discern just how good a fit Holmes and Doomwatch were for each other, for in some ways this is a very atypical episode. Ridge and Chantry aren’t in it at all, and Quist and Hardcastle play quite minor roles, leaving Bradshaw to enjoy his big moment as chief representative of the team. Even then, he’s off-screen for quite long periods, with the meat of the episode being the proceedings of the inquest for the dead girl – extremely long scenes of people talking to each other in the same room.

It’s a testament to Holmes’ talent that The Inquest remains an engaging drama despite these constraints. Before becoming the world’s greatest Doctor Who writer, and doing some other jobs in TV, Holmes was a police detective and then a newspaper journalist, and his familiarity with these kinds of proceedings shines through. The mystery of where the rabies outbreak has come from is handled well and the solution, when it comes, is logical and satisfying. None of it really qualifies as actual SF, of course, but given how different it is from the norm, this is a strong episode, at the very least (hey, they can’t all be Pyramids of Mars).

A major figure from an earlier era of Doctor Who writes the next episode, The Logicians: Dennis Spooner, script editor during the programme’s second and third seasons, and the first person to see a place for comedy in the palette of the series (you could therefore perhaps say the current tendency for S***** M***** to write the programme as a sitcom is ultimately Spooner’s fault, but that might be considered overly harsh). (Spooner had previously written Burial at Sea, one of the ‘lost’ series one episodes.) As I’ve said before, Spooner is really one of the unsung heroes of British TV SF and fantasy: he was the creator of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and a notable writer on Thunderbirds and other Gerry Anderson programmes, as well as both The Avengers and The New Avengers.

This may be why The Logicians feels distinctly like an early Avengers episode itself, and why Simon Oates seems to be having such a ball (Oates played Steed in an ill-fated Avengers stage show between seasons of Doomwatch and later appeared in The New Avengers himself). A group of schoolboys plan and execute a robbery on the pharmaceutical company which one of their fathers manages – the plan is both audacious and meticulously worked out, and the formula for a lucrative new drug is successfully stolen. What the boys have not reckoned on is the presence of Ridge, who puts together enough evidence to make Doomwatch interested in the experimental school they go to – there is little conventional discipline and the children are extensively trained in logical problem-solving. But can Quist and the others outwit such young and gifted brains?

This works quite well as a light caper drama, with Doomwatch attempting to keep up with their youthful quarry – it’s made clear that the robbery is motivated not by self-interest, but a desire to raise funds to keep the school open. (One of the boys is played by Peter Duncan, most famous as a Blue Peter presenter, but also the possessor of an interesting acting CV featuring episodes of The Tomorrow People, Space: 1999 and Survivors. This episode also features Michael Gover, another Survivors regular.) The shift away from conversation and character to plot and action is very noticeable and not at all unwelcome.

However, you do find yourself thinking that Doomwatch’s involvement in what’s arguably a police matter is somewhat contrived, and the usual note of baleful concern, when struck by Quist, feels a little forced – are experimental schools and the use of computers in education going to turn children into high-functioning amoral recidivists? I would say that was an example of the show trying to create a concern rather than reflect one – an example of ‘wouldn’t it be worrying if…’ rather than ‘isn’t it worrying that…’ But Spooner is a good enough writer to keep you watching and entertained.

The second series concludes with Public Enemy, written by Patrick Alexander (a writer, for once, with no connection to that other show which I never mention any more). This episode marks the last involvement in the series of co-creators Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, and the temptation to assume that they were heavily involved in its scripting is very strong.

A teenage boy dies after climbing onto a factory roof to retrieve a football; this happens in a small southern town is already under investigation for an unnaturally high rate of pulmonary illness, and the new death gives the team a focus for their efforts. The factory is operated by a metallurgical company working on a potentially valuable new alloy, and the research is being overseen by Lewis, an ambitious young scientist played by Trevor Bannister (Bannister is best remembered for appearing sitcoms like Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine, but he is notably effective in more serious and antagonistic roles both here and in The Tomorrow People).

Quist’s investigation uncovers the fact that production of the new alloy creates  beryllium salts as a by-product, which are quite capable of causing lethal side-effects unless precautionary measures are significantly stepped-up. Lewis is outraged, suggesting Quist is scaremongering, but the management and the workforce are more sympathetic.

…until the parent company of the factory decides that the cost of the safety improvements involved in meeting Quist’s requirements is too great, and they’re going to close it down and shift production to their site in Leicester, many miles to the north. Everyone prepared to relocate will keep their jobs, but this is still terrible news for the rest of the town and its businesses. Quist is obliged to address a meeting of the angry principals, all of whom want him to either justify his report or (preferably) moderate its conclusions.

Up to this point the episode has been a reasonably engaging drama, but in its scene it transforms into an undisguised parable about environmentalism and social attitudes towards it. Everyone wants a cleaner, greener world, but no-one wants to pay for it – whether that means paying in cash, or in inconvenience, or in loss of potential progress. (Quist also dismisses the obsession with progress as something else impelling humanity’s zombie march towards disaster.) Tough decisions have to be made. ‘We all have a choice to make,’ Quist says, in the final words of the episode, ‘…all of us.’ By this point John Paul is looking straight down the camera lens, and the implication is obvious – it’s not just Quist speaking to the angry workers, managers, scientists and townspeople, but also the makers of the programme addressing audience at home. It’s a memorably powerful conclusion to the episode and the season, the fact that the episode’s story is left unresolved feeling very secondary.

Is it somewhat preachy? Well, maybe – but then the whole series has been motivated by the same kind of concerns. Its earnestness and willingness to be partisan may be unfashionable nowadays, but many of the issues it has touched on are as important today as they were in 1971. Regardless of how well the remains of the third series prove to have turned out, this remains a landmark series.

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