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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Blessed’

The third season of Survivors opens with Manhunt, the only episode where the writing credit is given to Terence Dudley, producer of the series. Anyone familiar with the Dudley oeuvre from his time as a regular contributor to Doctor Who could be forgiven for buckling their seatbelt and reaching for a stiff drink, as all of his scripts to that show are eccentric (to say the least) – they’re about giant frogs using androids as part of a plan to go back in time and meet God, or android versions of British royalty being used to try and stop the signing of the Magna Carta. To be fair, Black Orchid doesn’t feature androids at all, but such are the manifold peculiarities and absurdities built into a running time of less than 50 minutes that a DWM writer has largely devoted a column to a detailed exegesis of just how weird this one story is for the last couple of years now.

Despite all that, Manhunt starts promisingly enough, with a reasonably impressive pack of feral dogs. The dogs are pursuing an injured Jack, who is found and taken in by Seth the blacksmith, a minor character from the end of season 2. Most startling for modern viewers is the fact that Seth has, during the inter-season hiatus, apparently shacked up with Dot Cotton (June Brown), who is clearly a real survivor. At once you are aware of how much darker and dingier and grimier everything seems compared to season 2; gritty and frayed around the edges. The post-apocalypse has finally caught up with the series’ tone and design choices, and (as usual) you can’t help but think about how terrific it would look if they could have afforded to make the whole thing on film.

Well, a message is sent to Charles, Jenny, and Pet, who have relocated from Whitecross between series, along with the children – although Lizzy seems to have had a facelift along the way (Tanya Ronder departed to concentrate on her own career as a playwright). It seems that in the six months since New World, Greg, Jack, and Agnes have managed to get all the way to Norway and back. Unfortunately, Jack has been left delirious by his ordeal with the result that Charles, Jenny, and Hubert set off on a rescue mission which may not in fact be necessary…

Their journey takes them to an armed camp under military control, where drugs are being produced. They come across a man staked out on the ground, apparently left for the dogs – severe discipline is enforced, too (it’s all a bit like the settlement in The Chosen). Are Greg and Agnes still being held prisoner here? Or have Charles and Jenny somehow got the wrong end of the stick?

They’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Sorry to break it to you so bluntly, but, well, yeah. I suppose you could argue that the main plot of Manhunt subverts the usual ‘characters arrive at an inviting place only to discover the horrifying secret at its heart’ story structure, by creating a place which initially seems rather grim but which actually turns out to be relatively benign, but novelty value alone does not a great story make; the conclusion is arguably a bit of a let down. (And let’s not even dwell too much on the climax – oh, go on then: Jenny gallops into the camp to rescue Charles and throws him a shotgun, but of course she throws like a girl, hitting him on the head with the weapon and knocking him unconscious. It’s written as farce, but the realisation is even worse – simply primitive and unconvincing.)

The story fiddles about with ideas connected to discipline and law and order – the new settlement is being raided by ‘primitives’ in search of recreational drugs – but doesn’t really have a great deal to offer on these subjects. I suppose there’s an interesting moment where Charles’ plans of federating the country are mocked on the grounds that he’s much too soft and nervous a man to take on such a significant task (well, maybe: it does seem like everyone else is ahead of him, if nothing else). It’s initially quite striking, if only for the change in the look and tone of the series (bleak naturalism is now in effect), but I suspect once you get accustomed to the series 3 ethos this is much more clearly a silly and insubstantial story which is most significant for setting up the new ‘on the road’ format for the show.

It becomes clear that the new look of the show is all-pervasive when we see Greg in the opening moments of A Little Learning, written by Ian McCulloch – even he is looking rather scruffed up following his trip across the North Sea and back. It’s nice to see McCulloch back, as both writer and leading man, but you almost wish they had held this episode back a few weeks in the running order – he’s only in two all series, after all.

That said, this is about as bizarre a story as Survivors ever indulges in. It opens with a weird, presumably-meant-as-comic scene between Greg, Agnes (now Anna Pitt), and an eccentric old bigoted woman (nice to see UKIP going strong even after the plague) who complains about Indians stealing her chickens.

Greg goes off to investigate by himself and discovers an old school which has been taken over by a group of children who are living without adult guidance or supervision. Their leader, Eagle (Joseph McKenna) seems capable enough, but a strange illness is afflicting the children, causing them to suffer from convulsions and gangrene of the extremities (nice pre-watershed stuff this – the past is another country, and 1977 particularly so it would seem).

Mixed up in all of this are the activities of a pair of dodgy traders, Miller and Mackintosh, one of whom has his eye on Jenny. Yes, Jenny is in this episode, but all she does (pretty much) is to ride round and round the fringes of the plot, never quite meeting Agnes or Greg. Is this supposed to be ironic or bittersweet somehow? I’m not sure. It just comes across as an annoying distraction from the main storyline.

The episode’s most effective sequence sees Greg hunted across country by a band of armed children, one that recalls Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies in equal measure (this follows a scene in which Greg shows an alarming tendency to let people who wish him ill sneak up on him, possibly intentional foreshadowing of the end of the season). Based on this and the startling scenes dealing with the disease, this could have been a very memorable horror story of an episode, but instead it ends up going off in all sorts of directions – Greg reveals his encyclopaedic knowledge of folk legends, puts a young girl out of her misery by smothering her to death, discusses juvenile delinquency with a teenage boy, and organises a musical parade, and then right at the end an elephant turns up out of nowhere.

McCulloch and Dudley apparently agreed that the director, George Spenton-Foster, ‘****ed up’ A Little Learning, but there are some effective moments and a very arty sequence where the faces of Jenny and the girl Greg’s about to kill fade into one another repeatedly, and I’m not exactly sure how you could make such an eclectic collection of elements work as a coherent story. Still, nice to see Ian McCulloch again, if nothing else.

Ian McCulloch is basically just now an occasional guest star in a series not previously much known for barnstorming performances from the visiting cast, but one of these does form the centrepiece of Martin Worth’s Law of the Jungle, a more obviously philosophical and focused episode than the other ones so far this series. Again, you wish it was made on film, because as it stands it looks rather like an experimental zero-budget student film.

Jenny meets up with Charles, Agnes, and Hubert again, and together they visit what they previously thought was a flourishing farm. But it is deserted, the family who lived there having vanished. It transpires that the young men of the family have fallen under the sway of Brod, a pre-death slaughterman turned hunter chieftain. Brod has rejected the settled lifestyle completely, and he and his followers live solely by hunting and scavenging, with Brod maintaining his dominance through a combination of sheer personal charisma and brute strength.

(Some sort of not very subtle retcon seems to have occurred at some point, because this is the second episode in a row to apparently feature members of the same family who all survived the plague – a mother and her sons here, and a pair of siblings in A Little Learning. With the possible exception of Abby and her son Peter, there was no suggestion that resistance to the virus ran in families – Paul and Arthur both lost their children to the disease, though it makes sense for the offspring of two resistant parents (like Greg and Abby’s son) to inherit it. The revision of the series’ ground rules does not end here, either.)

On paper, Brod is another one of the series’ small men turned despots, but he’s lifted to a new level simply because he’s played by Brian Blessed (one of his final pre-bearded appearances, I think), who blasts everyone else off the screen with his sheer charisma. Blessed exudes the same kind of jovial malevolence he occasionally displayed while playing Augustus in I, Claudius the previous year, to say nothing of his raw physical presence. If I found myself living in an apocalyptic wasteland with Brian Blessed, I’m pretty sure I’d want to be a member of his tribe, too.

On one level, the episode represents a clash between Brod’s primitivism – never mind trying to hang on to an industrial revolution level of civilisation, Brod’s looking to go back to the iron age – and Charles’ more idealistic conception of survival.  As you might expect, Charles finds himself on the back foot when trying to contend with Brod’s enthusiastic barbarity (in much the same way that Denis Lill is when trying to act opposite Blessed, to be honest), and his espousal of civilised values means he can’t do what everyone is urging him to do and just kill Brod. There’s another level going on too, though, dealing with something a bit more psychological – Brod is such a rampant alpha male all the time, it seems, because his performance in another somewhat more intimate arena is quite simply not up to scratch. (That’s the kind of plotline you never get in Blake’s 7.)

After quite a lot of speechifying and boisterous bullying from Blessed, the plot resolves in interestingly ambiguous style – Hubert decides that if Charles won’t see sense and take Brod out of the picture, someone else will have to, and puts a crossbow bolt in Brod’s back himself, quite cold-bloodedly. Hubert has been threatening to turn into an interesting character for a while now, and this is another important step in his development, as well as being another example of the kind of thing you hardly ever see even in supposedly ‘edgy’ genre TV shows. Everyone is free to go, but the duel of philosophies between Charles and Brod is unresolved at best. The first strong episode of the final series, although it still has that third-season undercurrent of oddness running through it.

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