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Posts Tagged ‘John Duttine’

It was with bemusement, shading into horrified disbelief, that I realised not long ago that the classic BBC adaptation of The Day of the Triffids is thirty years old this Autumn. Thirty years? Thirty? But I remember watching it on-broadcast so vividly. It would mean that I’m… well, anyway, how old I am is irrelevant (honest).

The BBC had another go at adapting John Wyndham’s classic novel at Christmas 2009, and the result was an ugly travesty, which did no justice to the book and can’t have inspired anyone to read it. But seeing the 1981 version was a key moment in my life, one of those things which are so influential you can’t imagine how your life would have developed otherwise.

The Day of the Triffids was the first piece of grown-up TV I was allowed to watch – probably the first piece I even wanted to watch – and I was given special dispensation, bed-time-wise, in order to do so. Even then I was reluctant to do so alone, so addictively terrifying was this programme.

It’s a story which sounds ridiculous and pulpy – and, perhaps, a little incoherent. An unexplained celestial light-show blinds the vast majority of the world’s population, with the catastrophic results you’d expect. This would be bad enough, but the survivors are also preyed upon by mobile, lethal, and borderline-sentient carnivorous plants which have been bred for their oil – these are the triffids of the title, of course. A deadly plague is also a key plot element.

Picking his way through the aftermath is Wyndham’s narrator, Bill Masen, a biochemist and triffid-expert (portrayed in the TV show by John Duttine). Masen is a very typical Wyndham protagonist in that he doesn’t start off with any particular goal worth speaking of, he just wanders around watching more than doing anything. He eventually becomes involved with a wealthy young woman (Emma Relph) and after they are separated his determination to find her propels him through a fairly large chunk of the plot.

But, on the whole, the structure of the story is… well, if Wyndham turned up to a modern creative-writing class with his first draft of The Day of the Triffids, he’d have been told in no uncertain terms to go away and have a good hard think about the idea, because in some ways it’s sort of hopeless.

Bill Masen doesn’t have a particular goal he’s looking to achieve beyond simply staying alive. Most characters drift in and out of the book for one or two chapters. Even the triffids don’t show up that often; the TV show has to write a brand new triffid sequence unconnected to the main plot in order for them to make it into every episode. There isn’t what you’d call an actual antagonist, and the ending is very low-key. Even so, it’s not as if the book doesn’t contain blatant plot devices: Wyndham spends many chapters setting up a situation out of some ghastly nightmare, with the main characters having to choose between their own survival and helping the blind survivors who constitute the overwhelming majority. It’s a terrible moral dilemma, which Wyndham eventually resolves by means of a massive cop-out: a plague of unknown origins suddenly manifests and conveniently wipes out most of the blind population, freeing Masen and the others to get on with the plot.

And yet it’s an extraordinary, haunting book, one that essentially created a new genre. It’s fashionable to dismiss the works of Wyndham as ‘cosy catastrophes’ – civilisation falls without the protagonists seeming to suffer in any real way – but this is not the impression you get upon reading the book. Masen witnesses numerous suicides in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and later assists in a mercy-killing. You don’t notice the unwieldiness of the structure: society itself has fallen to pieces, so the collapse of conventional narrative seems somehow appropriate. Wyndham even manages to pull all his elements together, near the end, suggesting that all the diverse woes he’s inflicted on his characters are ultimately the result of science gone out of control.

One of the reasons the horrible 2009 adaptation is so horrible is because it attempts to fix all of the problems, by turning The Day of the Triffids into a much moreĀ conventional story: a proper bad guy is introduced (a relatively minor character is promoted to full-scale villain status), the convenient plague is snipped out, the long tail of the book (four chapters, over a period of six years, recount Masen and his adoptive family eking out a living on a farm in southern England) is collapsed into a much shorter period. And it’s awful. Awful, awful, awful. Only one moment is genuinely surprising, and that’s because a line of dialogue from the book makes an unexpected appearance.

The 1981 version is brilliant precisely because it sticks so closely to the hopeless plot of the book. Only one section has been cut, and it’s possibly the least vivid – where Masen and his associate Coker encounter a small group of other survivors and together try to set up a community – the rest of Wyndham’s story is there, entirely intact. Wyndham himself might not have approved (his family apparently weren’t impressed) – John Duttine plays Masen as rather more Northern and lower-middle-class, and less detached and wry, than he’s written in the book, and a lot of Masen and Coker’s discussions about post-apocalyptic ethics and sociology have been excised.

But, despite that, and the fact the TV show was clearly made on a fairly low budget, it works. Duttine holds the whole thing together admirably, though the biggest impression on the acting side is probably made by Maurice Colbourne as Coker – Colbourne had an edgy charisma that made him extremely watchable in this kind of drama (the reasons why such a powerful actor ended up fronting ridiculous yachting-soap Howard’s Way remain a mystery).

John Wyndham made a career out of Omegas – the destruction of Civilisation As We Know It looms large in most of his novels, one way or another. But for me he was an Alpha: not only was The Day of the Triffids the first piece of adult TV I watched, but the book was the first piece of adult SF I read. And from then on, I was surely lost. In its own way it was probably as crucial a moment in my life as my first episode of Doctor Who or the first time I saw Star Wars.

I’ve been drawn back to the end of the world, in its various different iterations, ever since – can it be any coincidence that my other favourite stories include The Death of Grass, Survivors, Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later? (28 Days Later in particular owes a massive debt to Wyndham and Triffids, which screenwriter Alex Garland openly admits.) And the last time I sat down to write for NaNoWriMo, my goal was to produce a very Wyndhamesque tale of the collapse of civilisation. And so I did, but where Wyndham abandoned structure to produce a chilling masterpiece, I only managed to come up with an unreadable shapeless mess. Still, one would have expected no less: there’s no point in copying genius. Recognising and appreciating it when you find it is surely enough.

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