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Posts Tagged ‘Jack Ronder’

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.

 

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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.

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As we hit mid-season of the first series of Survivors, something significant happens – namely, the show switches from peripatetic mode to something more sedentary (by which I mean it stops being about a group of people travelling around a post-apocalyptic world, and becomes the story of some people running a post-apocalyptic farming collective). By and large I think the programme is generally immeasurably better when it’s in travelling mode, but the switch does make a kind of sense from a budgetary and narrative point of view.

Before that, however, Terry Nation returns for Garland’s War, which is basically another thriller with some political chewy bits sprinkled on the top. The stalwart character actor Dennis Chinnery turns up, pretty much solely to deliver the information that some boys about the age of Peter Grant are living at Waterhouse, a large estate which has been taken over by a group of survivors. As soon as she hears about this, Abby rushes off to investigate (this is basically a solo adventure for Carolyn Seymour, with the other leads left looking after the kids).

She finds herself dragged into the struggle between the rightful owner of the Waterhouse estate (indeed, the Earl of Waterhouse), Jimmy Garland (Richard Heffer), and the men who he sees as having usurped it from him, led by Knox (Peter Jeffrey – this episode is a treasure-house of a certain kind of rock-solid character acting). Garland is a very experienced soldier and survival expert – sort of like Bear Grylls but with a plummy voice – and sees himself as the only rational choice of leader for the group, regardless of whatever moral claim he has on the property. Knox, on the other hand, claims that Garland refuses to consider any compromise with the other survivors and aspires to become a kind of feudal overlord.

There is potential here for an interesting both-sides-are-kind-of-in-the-right conflict, but – as the seasoned viewer might expect – Nation comes down firmly on the side of Garland’s muscular libertarianism. Not only is he a bit of a hunk who gets Abby all a-fluttering, but his adversaries quickly reveal themselves to be dishonourable shotgun-toting prole thugs, with Knox another small-man-turned-despot. This is a watchable episode, but doesn’t have much in the way of depth, or move the series on much.

Jack Ronder takes over again for Starvation, which I would suggest is the first real dud of the series. This is partly because it functions almost entirely on a procedural level – its sole purpose is to get all the characters settled down in their new home and set up the new format for the rest of the series – but also because there’s a very strong sense that the series’ budget has been slashed. Primarily this is because the programme switches from the mixture of film-and-VT which was standard for the industry in the mid 1970s, to being all VT, which means it looks like an episode of EastEnders.

Following an off-screen discussion (really, Jack?), our heroes have decided to settle down, but before they do so they encounter a pair of women (Hana Maria Pravda and Julie Neubert), who have run out of food and are being preyed upon by what is almost certainly the least convincing pack of savage feral dogs in screen history, and also Tom Price, who (when written by Ronder) is less of a comedy relief Welshman and more of a repulsive sex pest.

Well, needless to say Abby manages to get the upper hand with Price, the dogs wander off, and Jenny and Greg discover a stately deserted manor just ripe to be occupied. (The children are consistently irritating throughout – even to the other characters, which is a nice touch.) Hiding out in the manor they find Barney (John Hallett), a young man with learning difficulties, and he joins the suddenly rather bigger community too.

By the end of the episode there’s a big change in the status quo, so it’s just a shame it’s all so tepidly written – though Hana Maria Pravda gets some good dialogue and delivers it well. Watching it again, though, I can’t help noticing how much this episode is foreshadowing one which is still a few weeks off, the peerless Law and Order: there’s Price’s rather disturbing fixation with Wendy, Julie Neubert’s character, and at the end of the episode Barney declares he ‘couldn’t kill anything’ when sent off with Price to set some rabbit snares. All of this only applies with the benefit of hindsight, naturally. It’s still a bit of a dud.

The recurring cast continues to balloon in Spoil of War, a so-so title for a so-so episode, scripted (under a pseudonym) by veteran screenwriter Clive Exton, perhaps best known for his adaptations of PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. First on the scene is self-styled long-haired git Paul (Chris Tranchell, a former flatmate of Tom Baker and apparently the real-life inspiration for Baker’s boho look in Doctor Who), a survivor of a hippie commune near Winchester. As an experienced farmer, he is just what the group need, as Abby and Jenny are taking to the agricultural life like rhinos to water. Much talk about seed potatoes and drainage follows, along with the problem of a tractor that Greg can’t get started.

Then Greg remembers the fully-operational tractor which crushed Vic back in Genesis, and the huge hoard of stuff he and Anne had amassed in their quarry hideout. Price and Barney are packed off to see if the supplies are still intact, but do not return. Instead, two more people turn up, and for the first time Charles Vaughan’s conclusion that no two people who knew each other survived the virus is disproven: they are businessman Arthur (the somewhat unfortunately named, these days, Michael Gover) and his secretary Charmian (Eileen Helsby), and given the fact that at least three months have passed since the plague her continued deference to him, and his general sang-froid, stretch credibility rather. They make no significant contribution to the episode other than turning up.

Well, anyway, Greg and Paul eventually go in search of Price and Barney, and the prospect of doing something seems to cheer Greg up a bit (Ian McCulloch’s performance has been particularly surly all episode so far). Some low-octane action and jeopardy ensues and it eventually transpires that, again somewhat incredibly, Vic did not die after Genesis, despite being severely injured and left to his own devices. Instead he is still holed up in the quarry, from which the others rescue him – he also joins the community.

Well, it’s better than Starvation I suppose, but despite some well-mounted stuff in the quarry it all still feels a bit procedural. Of the new characters, Paul makes the best impression, not least because he actually has a sense of humour (Abby, Greg and Jenny can all come across as a bit dour sometimes), and also because he is a rare example of a non-middle-class Survivors character who is a rounded human being, rather than a thug, a sex pest, or comic relief. There are some nice touches in the writing – Greg can’t actually remember Vic or Anne’s names when he first finds Vic alive – but on the whole you really get a sense of a series still trying to work out just what it’s supposed to be.

(And there is one curious geographical mystery: Greg tells Abby that Vic’s cache of stuff is ‘in a quarry near Apcaster’, and apparently this is well outside their usual foraging range. Fair enough, made-up towns are a staple of TV drama, but then at the end he tells Vic that they have a commune which is ‘near Apcaster’. Either Apcaster is extremely big for a made-up town, or Greg’s grasp of geography is uncharacteristically vague, or someone cocked up. I know which my money is on.)

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It’s always an interesting moment when the creator of a TV series steps back and lets someone else script an episode, but it’s seldom as interesting as when Terry Nation hands over to Jack Ronder for episodes four and five of Survivors. To say the change is pronounced is a major understatement: as I’ve said before, Nation is essentially an action-adventure writer, dealing in nice, solid, straightforward scenarios. Ronder, on the other hand, appears to have much more of an oblique, theatrical sensibility – his episodes have a stronger focus on theme and character.

Some time seems to have passed between the end of Gone Away and the beginning of Ronder’s first contribution, Corn Dolly – it is now February, for whatever that’s worth. ‘Weeks’ have passed, and I suppose the question we must ponder is exactly when the peak of the viral outbreak actually occurred. In the next episode, Abby finds a newspaper dated September and feels the need to clarify that this was prior to the plague outbreak, but if the pandemic occurred in late September or October this means that four months have passed since the start of the series, which seems rather unlikely. On the other hand, we never see any sign of Christmas decorations, which surely rules out December as the date of peak virus. Based on the on-screen evidence it does seem like the plague struck very early in January, which just leaves us with the oddity of Abby choosing to play tennis outside on a January day in the first episode of the series. But there are weirder continuity problems for a TV series to have.

Anyway, as Corn Dolly starts, Abby, Greg and Jenny are heading back to Brimpstead in the hope that Peter will have returned to the parental home. The car breaks down and Abby sets off to get petrol – and all at once the episode seems to go off on a different track. The spring flowers are budding, the birds are singing in the trees, nature itself seems resurgent.

We are also introduced to another group of survivors, one who seem to have got their act together rather more than our heroes. They are led by Charles Vaughan (played by Denis Lill), a former architect who is now the leader of a small community. Charles is already in the process of surveying the area around his base, collecting anything useful and leaving posters to guide other survivors to him. (Charles estimates that the total population of the UK following the virus may be as little as 10,000, although at least one later episode is sharply at odds with this.) He is presented as a dynamic, charismatic figure, full of ideas to commence the reconstruction.

corn-dolly

Chief amongst these is his determination to ensure the continuation of the human race, which he is attempting to achieve by – to put it delicately – impregnating every woman in sight. A corn dolly is a fertility totem, you see, and suddenly all the business with nature resurgent from the start of the episode makes sense. There is never the faintest suggestion that Charles is violent or coercive, but by modern standards he comes across very much as a cult leader with a harem of devoted followers.

As we are still in 1975, there remains the possibility of understatement and subtlety in the characterisation of a popular drama, and quite why it is that Charles has responded in this unsettling way is largely left implied: the only clue we get is a casual mention that he lost three children of his own to the plague. Everything else is left unsaid.

The question for our heroes – or at least Greg and Jenny – is whether to stick with Charles’ group regardless of their unease with his morality. The episode rather cops out on this point, as most of Charles’ work is undone when his followers unwittingly eat either poisoned or contaminated fish, and die (that Secondary Kill just won’t quit). Still, it’s a striking performance from Denis Lill, and you can see why they brought him back as a regular later on (even if Charles’ character is rather different from the second series onwards).

The next episode, Gone to the Angels, is even less plot driven, and doesn’t have quite the same thematic unity, either. Our heroes go back to Peter’s boarding school, to find it deserted – the only people in the area are two small children, John and Lizzy (played by producer’s son Stephen Dudley, and Ronder’s daughter Tanya – now a successful playwright herself). They have met one of the boys from the school, who said he was going to visit the Angels – a religious group who withdrew from society some time before the outbreak of plague.

Well, there’s a bit about Greg and Jenny’s relationship, which is gradually getting closer and closer, coupled to their having to share a house with a mentally unstable man (played by Peter Miles, whose performance is as sinister and pathetic as only a Peter Miles performance can be). Again, the relationship angle is handled with a subtlety which is quite refreshing.

miles

The heart of the episode, however, concerns Abby’s visit to the Angels, and what place religious faith has in the post-apocalyptic world of the series. Abby says that she isn’t a believer, and can’t be, given all that she’s experienced recently. The leader of the Angels, on the other hand, remains strong in his faith, pointing out that God has kept him safe from harm, presumably in order that His will shall be done at some future hour. This isn’t the most nuanced presentation of religious belief, if we’re honest, nor the most subtle characterisation, for all three of the Angels are depicted as the most decent, holy men imaginable, exactly the sort of people the troubled world now needs (it seems that another paramilitary group, this one calling itself the British Government, is attempting to impose its will on the various survivor communities).

But all this is really just setting up the nasty twist at the episode’s conclusion. After Abby has stayed with the Angels for a few days, the men start to feel feverish and develop buboes, and she and the others reach an appalling conclusion – the Angels don’t have the natural immunity to the plague that the other survivors possess, they simply haven’t been exposed to it before. Abby, at least, is still carrying the lethal plague virus, and will spread it to any other pockets of untouched civilisation they encounter. (Again, later episodes give the impression of a different status quo being in operation.) Needless to say, the Angels all sicken and die as a result of Abby’s visit.

The episode is beautifully written and performed, in its oblique, reflective way, but it does rather reinforce the impression that Survivors is at its best when it’s most depressing. At its conclusion the characters depart to continue their search, taking the two children with them (there is the implication that John at least has been left rather traumatised, if not downright messed up, by his experiences, but this is never really developed in other episodes). Perhaps the whole story is intended as a comment on the foolishness of faith, with Abby’s belief that she can find her son counterpointed by the misguided faith of the Angels, that God has kept them safe from the plague for a reason. Whatever the writer’s intentions, these two episodes do function on a level higher than that of simple action-adventures with a little political debate, and they do show the real potential of the series’ format off to great effect. The series at close to its best, I would say.

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