The block of three Parkes-scripted episodes towards the end of Survivors series 3 is so focused on one particular plotline – Charles’ increasingly fanatical quest to restore the electric power – that it’s a real wrench when the programme fundamentally shifts gears and tackles a wholly different story – namely, just what has Greg been doing all this time? It’s not just that – The Last Laugh functions on a wholly different level to the rest of series 3, if not the series as a whole. More than anything else it makes you incredibly regretful that Ian McCulloch wasn’t much more central to the creation of the final series, because it certainly seems like he had a much better idea of the potential of this programme than the people who were actually in charge of it.
It transpires Greg is looking for Dr Adams, a leading member of a community near the one Pet and the kids have settled at. On his journey he encounters a group of wanderers, led by Mason (George Mallaby), a former playboy-sheep-shearer turned full-time itinerant sheep-shearer (I kid you not). Greg is initially extremely suspicious of the group, suspecting them to be just another group of raiders, but when they express an interest in his scheme to federate the settlements, he lowers his defences. A bit too soon, as it turns out: he is knifed in the back and left for dead.
Unfortunately, Greg’s notes on the disposition of valuable resources scattered around the countryside are all in Norwegian, and so Mason and his men set off to find Anna, who is at the settlement with Pet, Jack, and the kids. One of them lingers, however, but lives to regret it (briefly) – Greg is not as dead as they assumed, and after a brutal fight the raider gets his head staved in with a rock.
Greg is still in a bad state, though, and makes his way to Dr Adams’ settlement – but there’s no sign of the forty people who are supposed to live there, and the two men who are resident are acting very suspiciously. Someone seems to be being held prisoner, and Greg discovers signs that human bodies have been burned there. Showing all his usual resourcefulness and determination, he outwits his presumed-captors, and breaks in to find Dr Adams (Clifton James)…
…who is in self-imposed isolation, disfigured and suffering from a mutant strain of smallpox that has already wiped out almost the entire settlement. The disease is usually lethal within two weeks and highly infectious. Greg initially thinks he’s cheated death yet again, not initially feeling any signs of infection, but his hopes are cruelly dashed the next morning. He has the virus. Dr Adams suggests the only thing to do is to make his peace and await the inevitable.
What follows, of course, is a tremendously powerful performance from McCulloch in a long two-handed scene between him and James. Lucy Fleming has spoken of the anger which is always at the core of McCulloch’s performances as Greg, and it is of course present. Greg speaks about his feelings for Jenny, and his regrets about the path his life has taken. And then, of course, being Greg, he sets out intent on revenge, determined to find the men who attacked him and share the virus with them as well. Adams is appalled, quite rightly suggesting that this may just lead to the virus spreading across the whole countryside, but Greg doesn’t give a damn. Has the shock of learning he is dying unhinged him? Or has he been less than entirely selfless all along?
Seeing an episode which mixes these kinds of big questions with decently-mounted action and a reasonably tight plot, not to mention one of the series’ most plausibly despicable villains in George Mallaby’s Ed Mason, really reminds you of what a great show this can be when handled properly. You can pick holes in the plot if you really want to – Pet’s settlement does seem rather sparsely populated, given all we’ve heard, and while I’m sure Greg is a bright guy, why on Earth has he learned to say ‘I have smallpox’ in Norwegian? – but this towers above the rest of series 3 on every level, with a thoughtful, allusive script – there are allusions to Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins – and great dialogue, too. After a raft of episodes which are ultimately hopeful, focusing on the threads of society slowly coming back together, The Last Laugh is shockingly dark and bleak, too. One of the handful of essential Survivors episodes, I would say.
Any episode following The Last Laugh would effectively have been slipped the hospital pass, but the thing about Martin Worth’s Long Live the King is… well, it’s not that it’s a bad episode, as such, it’s such an infuriating one, not just on its own merits, but in the way it epitomises all that makes the third series of Survivors such a frustratingly inconsistent one.
At least the makers of the programme appear to have realised that the death of arguably its central character could not go uncommented-upon by the other characters, and this episode is to a large extent about Greg’s legacy. The journey of Charles and the others up to Scotland is put on hold when he receives an urgent message asking him to meet Greg at an army camp on the east coast of England – Jenny’s response is ‘oh, no, not again’, quite possibly speaking for the viewer by this point. Charles resolves to go there; Jenny and the others press on.
Charles arrives at the camp to find ‘GP’ signs in evidence everywhere, and the place under the control of Agnes, who seems to have turned into a paramilitary version of Rosa Luxemburg. Greg’s most trusted associates from across the country have been summoned to form the new ruling council of Britain – the rebirth of the nation, even. The problem is that the coalition Greg has been putting together since his return from Norway is heavily reliant on his personal authority and charisma, and with Greg now, well, dead, the whole thing is showing signs of collapsing before it is even properly established.
And it turns out there is another problem – the Captain (Roy Marsden), the real leader of the band of raiders from The Last Laugh, has escaped from the farm which was destroyed by smallpox and is heading for the camp, too…
Watching Long Live the King made me realise there’s an element of classic theatre about the last series of Survivors, but only because it’s either very reminiscent of Waiting for Godot (to be more accurate, it’s Looking for Greg) or just Hamlet without the Prince. You get a very strong sense that there have really been two stories happening all season – that of Greg travelling the country preparing to restore the basis of civilisation, and that of the others rather haplessly wandering around in his wake, never quite catching up with him. On the basis of what we see on the screen, the story of Greg is considerably more interesting and involving than the story of the others: I feel cheated!
The plot gymnastics required to tie Long Live the King to the end of The Last Laugh are bizarre, and to be honest not that successful – some weeks have passed since the end of the previous episode, and exactly what has happened in the meantime is never completely clear. Given Agnes is lying her head off for most of the episode, can we really believe what she says about nursing Greg in his last days? What are we supposed to make of her claim that, having had brucellosis, she is now apparently immune to the mutant smallpox which was so terribly contagious and lethal last episode? Something very odd seems to be going on here, anyway – the Captain has had the smallpox but seems to be okay now, and not contagious, but what was he doing at the farm anyway? Did Martin Worth even see the finished script for The Last Laugh before writing this one? As I say, it’s infuriating and frustrating, not least because the Captain is an absurd, cartoon villain – he’s wearing a flat cap, welly boots, and a tie, for crying out loud – and arguably all he contributes to the story is to provide a sign of how much the backdrop is changing: despite having murdered two women in the course of the story, he is not executed out of hand but held as a prisoner at the end. The rule of law has been restored.
The episode is largely about what it takes to run a functioning, large-scale society, and it is impressively cynical about it (this angle is interesting enough that it makes the more peculiar elements of the plot even more annoying, as they’re spoiling a superior episode). The new society Agnes is proposing to inaugurate is essentially a massive scam, based on various deceptions. (It’s quite ironic that it’s Charles who takes her to task over this, given how ruthless many of his own recent activities have been – he does come across as a bit of a hypocrite in this episode.) But the episode makes it very clear that every society is, to some extent, based on exactly the same kind of shared fictions, especially when it comes to things like money. I’ve been reading Yuval Harari’s Sapiens recently, which discusses very frankly how cultures function, and Harari stresses that money, while being essential to a large-scale society, only has any utility as long as people believe in its value. But how do you create money for a society which hasn’t used it at all in years? How do you foster that kind of shared belief in the intrinsic value of bits of paper? It’s a fascinating area, one I’ve never seen dealt with anywhere else, and it’s just a shame so much of the episode is preoccupied with other business.
As I say, a real mixed bag of an episode, and rather infuriating as a result. At least the final irony of the story of Survivors is clear at the conclusion, and it’s one that says a great deal about the differences in how drama is written and produced now, as opposed to 40 years ago. Characterisation in genre series tends to be better these days, I suppose, but characters tend to be defined in very strict ways – they tend not to have space to develop or unexpectedly reveal surprising facets to themselves. Most of the time they just have one or two defining characteristics which they display over and over again. But in programmes like Survivors you do get a sense of the actors and writers learning about the characters as they go along, and often making surprising discoveries along the way. Real people aren’t as flatly and immutably archetypal as they’re usually presented on TV. One of the things that makes Survivors so special, for me, is the authentically human unknowability of the principal characters – their capacity to develop in genuinely surprising ways in the course of the story, while remaining recognisably the same individuals: Charles, the passionate visionary, shows signs of becoming a ruthless political operator as the series nears its end; Hubert, the comedy relief yokel, murders someone in cold blood for the good of the group.
And Greg Preston, the survivor who initially didn’t want to get tied down or take on any particular responsibilities at all, ends up as the man almost solely responsible for recreating his nation, with his initials on the flag. Long live the King, indeed.