There’s an old adage that says “Television is a medium, as it is neither rare nor well-done.” But this hasn’t always been the case. Long before The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Britain was producing fantastic television written and produced specifically for adult audiences. Many of these English productions were one-off single plays, often performed live. You may notice that nuclear holocaust becomes a recurring theme, almost to obsession. Not only does it lend itself to small casts and limited budgets, but it also reflects the truly powerless position many Brits felt they were in at the time, often represented as ‘caught in the crossfire’ between other world superpowers. You should also discover an amazing amount of originality, full of seminal concepts, powerful drama and prophetic imagination sadly missing in much of today’s science fiction film and television. Due to an unforgivable purge in the seventies of all BBC black-and-white material, many of these original classics were lost forever. Since the eighties video boom, the BBC has made a concerted effort to recover lost black-and-white prints (in particular Doctor Who) with some success, searching the vaults of European, Australian, even New Zealand television stations, but unfortunately many of these shows will remain lost forever. Thankfully, contemporary English newspapers (namely The Times, The Observer, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, Daily Mail, the Radio/TV Times magazine, as well as The Complete Directory To Prime-Time Network TV Shows by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Encyclopedia Of TV Science Fiction by Roger Fulton and Wikipedia) maintain thorough records and archives, which have assisted research greatly.
NUMBER THREE (February 1953): A group of atomic scientists at a nuclear research station in the north of England who are working on a process to drastically cut the cost of electricity face a crisis of conscience when they discover their leader plans to use the research to create an explosive rivaling the H-bomb. Soul-searching drama on a now-familiar theme, but this was made in 1953, for the BBC Sunday night drama slot, and marked an early pre-Quatermass contribution from Nigel Kneale. Number Three starred Philip Guard, Jack Watling and Peter Cushing.
TIME SLIP (November 1953): This BBC short drama had a premise worthy of The Twilight Zone. A man (Jack Rodney) dies and is brought back to life by an adrenalin injection. Everything about him is normal except that his time-sense is out of sync by 4.7 seconds. He can even answer questions 4.7 seconds before they’re asked (there are similarities to Philip K. Dick‘s novella The Golden Man published the following year). A hospital psychiatrist who takes an interest in the case hits on an unorthodox treatment – he smothers him with a pillow, then revives him again with a more carefully administered dose of adrenalin.
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (December 1954): Television’s capacity to shock its audience has rarely been more chillingly demonstrated than by the first British production of George Orwell‘s classic novel. The play, adapted by Nigel Kneale and produced by Rudolph Cartier, was performed live on Sunday 12th December 1954, watched by some nine million viewers. The controversy it aroused led to calls for the scheduled second performance to be banned. The production kept faith with Orwell’s nightmare vision of a world in which the nature of human thought has been debased and morality turned upside down, to serve the totalitarian regime of Big Brother, who sits atop a population pyramid which spreads down through an Inner Party and the Outer Party to the unwashed masses, the Proles. Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, works in the Ministry Of Truth, rewriting history to accord with the Party Line. His unease at his work turns to dissent as he falls in love with a co-worker, Julia, but his individual aspirations make him a thought criminal in the omniscient eyes of the Party regime. And the bleak world Orwell depicts there is no happy ending – the rebellious sparks are cruelly extinguished. Introducing the play in the Radio Times, Nigel Kneale wrote: “Orwell guessed at a final evil to consolidate all others, the abolition of ideas through the destruction of words to express them.” His audience, however, found plenty of words to express their opinions, ranging from outright hostility to stunned admiration. The shock waves spread rapidly to parliament where colourful motions for and against the play flew across the House Of Commons. One motion, tabled by five Tory Ministers, sharply deplored “The tendency, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.” A barbed amendment expressed gratitude that “Freedom of the individual still permits viewers to switch-off and, due to the foresight of Her Majesty’s government, will soon permit a switch-over to more appropriate programmes.” The first alternate television channel, ITV, was just months away. The play’s producer, Rudolph Cartier, strongly defended the broadcast, telling the Daily Express “Our job was to shake, and if we have succeeded in shaking half the nation, then we have done the job we set out to do. It was right and wise to put this terrible vision before the largest possible audience, as a warning against totalitarianism in all its forms.” Despite the furor, the BBC stood firm in its resolve to screen the second performance which went out, again live, on the following Thursday, and attracted the biggest television audience since Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation. Although the novel had been around for about five years, its impact on the British public had been marginal – television changed all that. Nineteen Eighty-Four was the second collaboration between Kneale and Cartier, coming some seventeen months after the success of their first, The Quatermass Experiment. An ambitious enterprise, it utilised twenty-eight sets and used filmed sequences interspersed between the live scenes to enable set and costume changes to be made smoothly, without disturbing the dramatic flow. Cartier drew powerful performances from his leading players, notably Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, Donald Pleasance as Syme and Andre Morell as the odious O’Brien. Missing from the credits, though, was the face of Big Brother, Roy Oxley, a television production designer from Twickenham. A tele-recording of the second performance was shown on BBC2 in August 1977, and Nigel Kneale’s script was remade in 1965 for The World Of George Orwell. Kneale brought the narrative more into line with the situation eleven years nearer the title year, an updating shared by director Christopher Morahan. Despite some solid performances (particularly Joseph O’Conor as O’Brien) this version caused barely a ripple. Eleven years is a long time in television, even back then.
THE CREATURE (January 1955): A television play by the prolific Nigel Kneale which furthered his reputation for original drama. Written against a background of speculation about the existence of the Yeti, Kneale called it a fictional guess at the answers. The Creature provided another strong role for Peter Cushing, just two months after his acclaimed performance as Winston Smith in the Nigel Kneale production of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Cushing played scientist John Rollason, whose expedition to the Himalayas in search of the Yeti brings him into conflict with colleague Tom Friend (Stanley Baker). The play was performed live on a Sunday night, with a second performance the following Thursday. It was later filmed by Hammer Studios as The Abominable Snowman (1957) with Cushing again in the lead role.
THE VOICES (January 1955): Barely a month after BBC audiences had been stunned by the nightmarish vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1954, they were faced with another futuristic power struggle in George Kerr‘s television adaptation of the Robert Crane novel Hero’s Walk. The play’s theme was the perils of cosmic ambition in the interplanetary era and told the story of three days of world crisis in the year 2021. A world government runs Earth, and its delegates have met at the Palace of InterCos to discuss the latest program of space exploration. One huge artificial planet known as Platform One already orbits Earth, and Mars has been colonised and made fertile. Now plans have been developed for a second such platform round Mars, to enable mankind to venture even further. Behind these plans is the InterCos president Doctor Werner (Walter Rilla), a man with despotic ambitions. He is backed by the Russian and Chinese delegates and opposed by America and Britain. But another voice is struggling to be heard. Professor Mark Harrison (Willoughby Goddard), a scientist dying from radiation poisoning caused by atomic experiments, has sounded repeated warnings about signals from outer space. The Voices he has heard are those of an alien avenging force bent upon punishing mankind for having overreaching itself. Now the world faces annihilation in an interplanetary war. Ultimately the power struggle is resolved and Werner is replaced by Sir Alton Berkeley (Terence Alexander) who charms the voices back home. For the television audiences watching the two live performances of the play, the most disturbing image was of the hero, Professor Harrison, whose hideously scarred and bloated face filled the screen like a gruesomely benign Big Brother. The play had a generally fair reception, though The Times called it “A trying essay in science fiction.”
THE BURNING GLASS (April 1956): The accidental discovery of a destructive weapon vastly more powerful than the H-bomb formed the basis of this drama by novelist and playwright Charles Morgan which considered the issue of who should assume responsibility for such awesome power. During his meteorological research into weather control, British scientist Christopher Terriford comes across a device that can harness the Sun’s power. It can roast lizards, split rocks and sizzle cacti but, more to the point, it can concentrate the Sun’s rays accurately on any chosen city or other target on Earth and burn it totally. Terriford’s problem is, what to do with his celestial flame-thrower, his ‘burning glass’. Should he turn it over to the politicians who might misuse it, or should he say nothing? In true British tradition he decides on a compromise and gives his wife Mary enough information to enable her to act in the event of his death. He then informs Prime Minister Montague Winthrop, offering to use it on Britain’s behalf only in a supreme emergency. He also has to cope with being kidnapped for a foreign power by Hardlip, a drinking companion of his talkative assistant Tony Lack. Originally performed as a two-hour stage play in 1953, The Burning Glass was adapted twice for television, once as a sixty-minute condensed version for a 1956 Television Playhouse presentation, and secondly in 1960 as a ninety-minute version for the ITV network’s Play Of The Week slot. Terriford 1956-style was played by John Robinson, another ‘scientist with a conscience’ role for the star of Quatermass II. Generally praised by critics as a polished drama, the 1956 version caused a mild stir when scores of viewers rang a Whitehall phone number given in the play as “Getting you through to the PM” and found they had got through to the real Cabinet Office.
ONE (April 1956): Billed as a story of the foreseeable future, this 1956 play was one of ITVs earliest forays into the realms of visionary drama. Adapted by John Letts from a novel by David Karp, it depicted a society of the future based on uniformity, with all personal ambition having been eradicated by an apparently benevolent State. Then, from the midst of the unquestioning millions, emerges one man with the will of an individual. Donald Pleasance starred as Burden, a Cambridge don who has been secretly reporting on his colleagues to the omniscient Ministry Of Internal Security. Suddenly he himself is suspected of desiring to be different and the State turns to brainwashing to quash such desires. A new identity is created, turning Burden into a meek civil servant. But the experiment fails as the original personality breaks through again. In the end Burden is led away to face execution. Less than two years earlier, the BBC production of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had sent shock waves crashing round the country, but this play, One, caused hardly a shudder. Describing the ninety-minute play as “A long-winded bore”, the Daily Express said that “Not even the shadow of the ghost of Nineteen Eighty-Four crossed this brainwashing play of the future.”
MAN IN A MOON (November 1957): “The time is tomorrow. Twenty-seven satellites are circling the Earth. The twenty-eighth is about to be launched, but what is the secret that it holds?” While the world waited for the first manned space flight, this 1957 play by Michael Pertwee (brother of Doctor Who‘s Jon Pertwee) for ABC’s popular Armchair Theatre series anticipated the event with more emphasis on the ethics than the mechanics. Set in a country called Mittel Europa, its cornerstone was that while it might be possible to send a man to the Moon, that man might not return. After discussion on the morality of sending a volunteer on such a voyage of no return, a convicted murderer is plucked from his life sentence to be dispatched into orbit as the human guinea-pig. Director Stephen Clarkson told The TV Times that Man In A Moon was intended to break new ground as “Realistic drama, or dramatic reportage, using television as a news medium, in a way we hope will intensify the suspense of the play.” Donald Pleasance starred as a cold-blooded scientist whose single-mindedness prevails in setting up the flight. His performance won praise, though the play itself was not so well received. The Daily Telegraph called it “A play notable more for topicality than dramatic content” and complained that viewers were left as much up-in-the-air as the spaceman, concluding with “The script has been too hastily prepared and even more hurriedly produced.”
THE CRITICAL POINT (December 1957): Science fiction combined with murder in Evelyn Frazer‘s 1957 BBC drama (remade in 1960) about the first human guinea-pig to undergo a deep freeze experiment of ‘hibernation anesthesia’. Brilliant young scientist Philip Gage (Eric Lander) has been closely involved with tests that have so far been carried out only on animals. When he strangles his wife, he suddenly has a good reason to volunteer to be the first frozen man. But though he is successfully frozen, the murder hunt closes about him and he is eventually mercy-killed by his boss Doctor Mortimer (Leo McKern). Writing about the 1957 version, critic Maurice Richardson singled out one performance for particular praise, describing the play as “Redeemed by elementary tension and some fine underplaying by Leo McKern.”
DOOMSDAY FOR DYSON (March 1958): J.B. Priestley‘s third play for television, Doomsday For Dyson was a satirical fantasy that wore its heart on its sleeve in an uncompromising fashion. A passionate campaigner for disarmament, Priestley poured all his arguments into an emotive, deliberately shocking dream scenario intended to jolt his audience out of complacency. Its central character, Tom Dyson (Ian Hunter), is an ordinary man who dreams himself into the chaotic horror of an atomic explosion and an aftermath in which he shoots his blinded daughter and scorched wife, then turns the gun on himself. The play follows Dyson into the next world, becoming a trial and investigation as Dyson attempts to find out who is to blame for the holocaust. Military men, scientists and politicians are all wheeled on to say their piece, but Dyson is painted as the real criminal, guilty of apathy and complacency. In the end, Dyson awakens from his dream and decides to go with his wife and daughters to a Priestley protest meeting, the implication being that if all the Dysons of the world did likewise, mankind might be saved. The forty-five-minute play was followed by an inconclusive studio discussion, with Peter Thorneycroft and Manny Shinwell in the anti-disarmament corner, and Reverend Donald Soper and Barbara Castle on the pro side. Doomsday For Dyson polarised its audience. The Observer called it “An hour of compulsive viewing, as sincere as a reflex” while The Daily Telegraph line was “A disappointing forty-five minutes in which the performers seemed like platform puppets.” A large cast featured George Baker, Bill Fraser, Harry Fowler and William Mervyn.
2000 MINUS 60 (April 1958): Suspense drama about a runaway rocket heading for London, screened by ITV in its Television Playhouse series. The one-hour play begins at 11pm on New Year’s Eve 1999, just sixty minutes before midnight and the year 2000. The peoples of the world have been at peace for forty years. Yet suddenly they are menaced by a threat of destruction more terrible than war. A runaway freighter rocket containing a thousand tons of high explosive, is due to detonate over London at the stroke of midnight. As the minutes tick by, General Trent (John Robinson) and his staff at the UNICON control centre try every means they can to intercept the runaway missile. But one-by-one their efforts fail until zero hour approaches. John Robinson, whose rocket flight had saved the world three years earlier when he played Professor Quatermass in Quatermass II, starred as Trent, and there was a brief role for his daughter Jane Sothern as a young woman who refuses to be evacuated from London because she wants to go to a wedding.
I CAN DESTROY THE SUN (October 1958): In 1958 ABC Television signed up Sydney Newman from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to guide its live drama output. Newman promised an increased commitment to contemporary drama dealing with contemporary issues. I Can Destroy The Sun, part of his first season of Armchair Theatre productions, was one of the first fruits of that policy. Written by Jimmy Sangster, who went on to script some of Hammer Studios best horrors, its theme was the quickening pace of the nuclear rat race, and told of one man’s desperate attempt to halt it. The central character (whose identity remains a secret until the last moment) is a man exasperated by the futility of top-level talks to thrash out the H-bomb problem. He conceives a means of destroying the Sun and uses that threat to blackmail world leaders to come to terms over the bomb. The pivotal idea, that it actually is possible to destroy the sun, came from Ingram D’Abbes who based it on the principle of using a radio telescope to direct powerful signals at the heart of the Sun. A strong cast included Maurice Denham as observatory head Doctor Lunn, John Robinson (Quatermass II) as Foreign Office official Lloyd Crichton, John Barron as his cynical colleague, Leslie Sands as a ponderous Scotland Yard cop, and Carmel McSharry as a tea lady. It all prompted one critic to remark “The mixture was original, the outcome ingenious and not without serious implications.”
UNDERGROUND (November 1958): This live Armchair Theatre drama about a group of H-bomb survivors trapped in the London Underground is remembered not for its story or dialogue, but for the macabre event of one of the cast dying in the middle of the production. Actor Gareth Jones played one of a small band of people trapped when a nuclear explosion in London seals off a section of the underground rail network. The action called for him and others to crawl through rubble in a sequence supposed to be taking place over the course of three days. This meant they had to appear progressively more disheveled, so while the camera focused on two people crawling, one would nip off to be dirtied up. When it was Gareth Jones’ turn to be dirtied he complained of feeling unwell then passed away, leaving the show to go on without him, while director William ‘Ted’ Kotcheff rearranged the dialogue and action to get round his unexpected demise. The play itself was described by one of its stars, Patricia Jessel, as “…very depressing and offering no hope.” Other noteworthy actors included Warren Mitchell and Peter Bowles.
BEFORE THE SUN GOES DOWN (February 1959): The main story of this ITV play by American author Lester Fuller was not science fiction, but its opening was, and it sparked widespread alarm and anger that had Fleet Street luridly recalling Orson Welles’ 1938 War Of The Worlds radio broadcast. Without any introduction or on-screen credit sequence, the play began with a simulated news-flash that took hundreds of frightened viewers totally by surprise. “We are interrupting this program for an urgent announcement.” After his initial interruption, the news-reader unveiled this jolly little scenario: “A new and terrifying satellite has been launched into outer space. Defying all previous scientific theory, it hangs stationary over London. Is this an enemy space platform armed with H-bombs and aimed at the heart of the city?” Viewers were told to clear the streets, stay in their homes and keep watching their televisions. Unfortunately, hordes of people did quite the opposite, running into the streets to try to catch a glimpse of the satellite. Once smelling salts had been administered and realisation had dawned, police, newspaper, ITV, even the BBC switchboards lit up as the complaints rolled in. In response, Sir Robert Fraser, director-general of the Independent Television Authority, admitted that the announcement had been a bad blunder, though advance publicity in TV Times had made the fictional nature of the beast quite clear, and a hurriedly convened inquiry pledged to tighten up on possible areas of misunderstanding. As for the play itself, the appearance of the satellite and the subsequent evacuation of London were simply a device to clear the stage for a slight romance between two maladjusted people: Vek (Eddie Byrne), an eccentric Irish drunk, and Anna (Margot Van Der Burgh), a lonely, unhappy foreign maid, who elected to stay in the city. Their courtship ended in a sentimental mock marriage. One critic wrote “The play itself did not merit the attention drawn to it,” while another called it “A bad blunder followed by a poor play.”
THE OFFSHORE ISLAND (April 1959): A parable on the suicidal inhumanity and futility of nuclear politics, The Offshore Island was a controversial first play by writer Marghanita Laski, arousing a mixed reception from its 1959 audience. Set in an England eight years after the country has been turned into a radioactive graveyard by nuclear war, the play centred on young widow Rachel Verney (Ann Todd) and her two adolescent children James (Tim Seely) and Mary (Diane Clare) who survived the holocaust and are now farming contentedly enough in an isolated valley which has somehow escaped contamination. Having remained completely cut off from the outside world, their idyll is shattered when an American patrol unit drops out of the sky and informs them that the war is still going on and that their tiny plot of uncontaminated England is to be nuked, in close cooperation with the Russians who also march in as ‘friends’. The final suggestion, that the ‘islanders’ should go to America, to a special camp for contaminated people, is met with little enthusiasm, the family preferring to die with their chosen lifestyle. The play itself was received with little enthusiasm in some quarters. Protest callers complained to the BBC about the anti-American sentiment and strong language, while The Times described it as “A gimmick construction with no strong dramatic impulse”. However, The Daily Express called it “A brilliant and most moving adult play, entertaining, angry and full of passionate argument.”
BELLWEATHER NINE (May 1959): A farcical ‘nudge-nudge’ for rockets and space travel. Its central character was professor Humphrey Bellweather (Charles Lloyd Pack) who, aided by his scatty sister Amanda (Joyce Carey), dotty secretary Doris (Josie Read) and brainless assistant Monty (Peter Myers), moves into the satellite business and prepares to beat his own government at the space race. Everyone thinks Bellweather has been successfully launched into space in his rocket number nine. In fact, though suffering the same delusion himself, he was firmly earthbound in Bellweather Eight. The Daily Telegraph said of the play, “It got off to a shaky start, never gathered the necessary acceleration. and fell to earth having failed to get into orbit.” The Times was more succinct, calling it “Banal, witless and pointless.”
HANDS ACROSS THE SKY (February 1960): Television’s first space opera, Hands Across The Sky was a one-act comic opera combining romance, science, and a touch of Jekyll And Hyde, in a tale of two scientists and a visitor from outer space. Working in their laboratory are Professor Neutron (Eric Shilling) and his assistant Miss Fothergill (Julia Shelley). She is devoted to science, and he is devoted to her. All is changed by the arrival of Squeg (Stephen Manton), a green-skinned alien with whom Miss Fothergill becomes wildly infatuated. The comic resolution of the unusual triangle involved magic potions from Doctor Jekyll’s recipe book. The enterprise was generally well-received though there was an element of Jekyll And Hyde about the critics. The Times said “Witty, tuneful and written with delightful economy” while The Daily Telegraph said “Vocal monotony a stumbling block to enjoyment.”
THE NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT (June 1960): This adaptation of a novel by John Lymington about an alien invasion earned the unusual tag of television’s sweatiest play. According to Lynn Lockwood of The Daily Telegraph, “The warning that it was unsuitable for adults of a nervous disposition was highly necessary. I was positively limp at the end and so were the hard-working, sweat-soaked cast.” The ‘big heat’ was an intense localised heat-wave caused by a short-wave radio beam on which maggot-like invaders materialised, in this instance at a remote village on Salisbury Plain. There, the fantastic combined with the everyday at the local pub where much of the action involved the landlord (Lee Montague), his wife (Melissa Stribling), his girlfriend (Sally Bazely), and a mysterious scientist (Karel Stepanek), all contriving to look increasingly hot and bothered. In the end, the invasion is thwarted because the heat set fire to everything and roasted the unwelcome visitors though, with typical horror-comedy perversity, the cunning invaders then switched their target to the Sahara Desert. The Observer noted that the play was “A poor man’s Quatermass, more than a bit crude, yet remarkably good sport.” The Night Of The Big Heat was filmed in 1967, though America lumbered it with the ridiculous title Island Of The Burning Damned (1967).
THE POISONED EARTH (February 1961): Didactic drama airing the pros and cons of the nuclear disarmament debate of the early sixties. Set in a boom town beside a weapon-testing range, its premise was the invention of a new atomic bomb which contaminates only one square mile, thus making conventional warfare possible again, but with nuclear weapons. The morality of such a device, and of the tests which form the scenario for the play, are brought into focus when a protest group arrives announcing its intention to be blown up by the bomb. There follows much posturing and manipulation, argument and counter argument by characters on both sides of the fence – and astride it. The protesters clash with the locals, farmers, shopkeepers, even the town prostitute, all of whom never had it so good. Tight-lipped scientists mingle with cynical reporters while the bomb’s inventor wrestles with his own conscience. Caught in the middle are the honest cop and the intelligence man just trying to do their jobs. All the views were strongly held and forcefully expressed, it was left up to the audience to decide where their sympathies lay. The Observer stated “Once again television proved itself a popular medium for deeply serious subjects…but we hadn’t seen a play.” The impressive cast included Michael Gough, Stratford Johns and Frederick Bartman.
THE MAN OUT THERE (March 1961): An Armchair Theatre essay in suspense that propelled Patrick McGoohan into space as a Russian astronaut, then jammed his escape mechanism, cut off contact with his base and gave him just five sweaty hours to live, trussed up in a spacesuit, grimacing and panting through his visor opening. By a freak of radio reception the spaceman makes contact with Marie (Katherine Blake), a trapper’s wife in a remote blizzard-swept region of Canada, who is facing her own life-or-death struggle, with a daughter dying of diphtheria. With his own survival chances receding as rapidly as the Earth in his porthole, he is able to take her step-by-step through a life-saving tracheotomy on the child. The woman in turn takes down the information he needs to transmit before he becomes irrevocably lost in space, leaving the audience with a quiet moral of common humanity – but only just. Critics complained that the play’s “extremes of hysteria” took it perilously close to absurdity. The Man Out There was McGoohan’s second television role as a space traveler. In 1958 he played a returning astronaut in James Thurber’s satire The Greatest Man In The World. In some areas ITV viewers saw McGoohan twice that evening, as he also starred in the superb secret agent series Danger Man.
COUNTDOWN AT WOOMERA (June 1961): An ambitious production presented live from the Associated Rediffusion Wembley studios with a cast of forty, huge sets and a ‘blind-them-with-science’ script. Set in the year 1968, it launched the first man to the Moon (British, of course), tossed in telepathic communication between the astronaut (Neil McCallum) and his earthbound girlfriend (Sylvia Kay), and stirred up a new form of germ warfare capable of destroying all life on Earth and the Moon, all against a background of high-level treachery and misguided patriotism. Other stars included Patrick Barr as the tough Aussie mission controller, Allan Cuthbertson as a bigoted security chief, John Tate as professor Leighton and John Welsh as an Empire-loving tycoon. It was author Henry Bentink‘s first television play, he’d previously worked as a producer of radio shows and television commercials. The Daily Telegraph said “It was a play of pure hokum. Phase three of the great launching looked more like the 9.30 steam engine leaving Liverpool Street.”
THE SHIP THAT COULDN’T STOP (July 1961): The 40,000 ton nuclear-powered cruise ship Crusader, making its maiden voyage, develops a fault in its reactor controls and becomes a runaway liner heading for an explosive docking in the heart of New York. It sounds like a job for International Rescue, but this was Armchair Theatre, not Thunderbirds, and in the absence of Scott and Virgil, it was down to young nuclear scientist Michael Holland (Donald Churchill) to step into the breach. Could he fix things in time to save the ship and its passengers? Of course he could, just like the climax of every disaster movie, catastrophe was averted in the nick of time. Predictable suspense, but good clean fun nevertheless. Also found in the cast was Philip Stone of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), and a fresh-faced Michael Caine in one of his earliest roles.
THE TEST (November 1961): A study in tension based on the novel Breakdown by Patrick Marsh. A scientist (Nicholas Selby) comes under increasing strain while preparing for the testing of a top-secret defence project involving forces of terrifying potential power never before harnessed. One, bureaucratic pressure to hurry through the test before all the equipment has been fully checked. Two, a suspicion of sabotage is in the air. Three, the haunting fear that something could go wrong, and four, his wife’s fallen in love with one of his colleagues. Nicholas Selby (who went on to join the staff of the BBC soap-opera magazine Compact) played the stressed physicist.
MURDER CLUB (December 1961): Runyonesque Armchair Theatre offering that has a naive 22nd-century social climber pressured by his boss into taking up hunting to improve his promotion chances. A straightforward enough proposition, except that in the year 2110 murder is legal and ‘the hunt’ its most socially acceptable form, with the human victims selected by computer. Stanley Frelaine (Richard Briers) is eager to get on in the world, but if he is to gain membership of the exclusive Tens Club he must notch up ten kills. After opening his account, Stanley is dismayed to find his next victim notified victim is a woman (Barbara Murray) and reluctantly heads for Manchester (conveniently ‘preserved’ as a historic monument) to search her out. The comedy thriller also starred Patrick Magee as Stanley’s boss and was initially set on Venus where an audience follow Stanley’s quest as a documentary on ‘Sporting Customs Of The Universe’. The play was based on the Robert Sheckley novella Seventh Victim which was filmed as The Tenth Victim (1965) starring Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni.
COURSE FOR COLLISION (June 1962): An early mid-air drama from Arthur Hailey, father of the Airport (1973) disaster movies. Set in the future, it concerns the almost impossible decision taken by an American president (Alexander Knox) flying to a last-minute summit conference in Mongolia, to avert World War Three by ordering his pilot to ram a Chinese bomber carrying weapons of mass destruction. Produced twice for television, first in 1957 as part of a series of Canadian Television Theatre Productions, with a cast of just six, and again in 1962 with an enlarged BBC passenger list.
VIRUS X (June 1962): An hour-long suspense drama that begins with a girl on holiday in Bristol who develops flu on her return to London, and in two days is dead. A member of the Virus Research Institute comes down with flu and dies. Something, it seems, is turning an ordinary flu virus into something much more deadly. Tests are made to find an antidote, but only one man can provide the answer – embittered scientist Doctor Bennett, and he’s disappeared. Writer Evelyn Frazer drew on her experience as a secretary to the director of a medical research institute at Mill Hill in London to spice the drama with scientific authenticity, and character actor George Coulouris played the scientist whose wartime experiments take on a greater relevance. Other noteworthy names in a very large cast included Richard Carpenter (creator of Catweazle and Robin Of Sherwood), Jean Anderson (Tenko) and Kenneth Kendall as the inevitable reporter.
DANGER ZONE (January 1963): Keeping up with the nuclear arms race has been a global preoccupation since Hiroshima, and the apparent impotence of the individual to affect the outcome had become a regular theme of television plays. In this offering from Anglia Television, the individual is able at least to trip-up one competitor, even if he doesn’t force a total withdrawal. Two hours before an American nuclear test in the Pacific Ocean, airline chief Henry Brunewald (Oscar Homolka) shanghais eight world-famous celebrities on a routine flight from London to Sydney and deliberately flies them into the danger zone in an attempt to blackmail the authorities into canceling the test. After ninety minutes of ‘will they, won’t they?’ suspense, the test is indeed canceled. A critic for The Observer stated “The plot was creaky, the characters were marionettes and the dialogue was painfully banal.” The wasted cast also included William Sylvester of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Jean Marsh and John Sutton.
THE ROAD (September 1963): Presented as part of the BBCs First Night season in 1963, The Road was an 18th century ghost story with a science fiction punch-line which maintained Nigel Kneale‘s reputation as a writer of ingenious television drama. In 1770 Sir Timothy Hassall (James Maxwell), a rural squire and self-taught scientist or ‘natural philosopher’, constantly striving for greater knowledge, comes into conflict with visionary Gideon Cobb (John Phillips) as together they investigate a wood reputedly haunted by the spectres of a long-slaughtered army. After various red herrings more suited to a serial than a one-off play, the haunting turns out to be a traumatic ripple from the future, and echo of the dropping of the bomb and the panic of people trying to escape.
LOOP (October 1963): One-hour play specially written for ATVs Drama ’63 season by Giles Cooper, previously a regular adapter of ghost stories for Associated-Rediffusion’s Tales Of Mystery series. The world is facing its end, not now but millions of years hence. Mankind can no longer go forward, so an attempt is made to evacuate to the past and a group of people in ‘the present’ – 1963 – find themselves living in a nightmare. A sudden sound pulsating from a television set puts viewers in a state of suspended animation (a wry waring if ever there was one). Among those unaffected, for various reasons, are a young lodger Peter (Rodney Bewes), his landlord’s daughter Fenella (Moira Redmond), and neighbour Matthew Dowd (Geoffrey Bayldon).
THE CRUNCH (January 1964): Could a former British colony somewhere to the east of Suez hold the mother country to nuclear ransom? That was the question posed by Nigel Kneale in this suspense drama. The nuclear device is in the cellar of the Makangese embassy in London and will be detonated at midnight unless Her Majesty’s Government coughs up a cool quarter of a billion pounds in cash. The capital is evacuated as flustered Prime Minister Goddard (Harry Andrews) debates whether to send in the troops or call the bluff of the megalomaniac Makangese President Jimson (Wolfe Morris). The crunch comes when the mad dictator decides to detonate anyway and it takes a touch of the supernatural from his mystical ambassador (Maxwell Shaw) to ensure London is spared. A large cast included Peter Bowles, Olivia Hussey, and Anthony Bushell as a military chief, a few ranks higher than the colonel he played in Kneale’s Quatermass And The Pit. The play was the first in a new ITV approach to drama called Studio ’64, in which a group of directors and writers were brought together and given Carte Blanche to create a series of plays for television. Kneale teamed up with Michael Elliott, a partnership that later also produced the controversial Year Of The Sex Olympics. When it came to The Crunch, critics tended to praise Kneale’s gripping plot but were less happy with Elliott’s “Showy and strident production.”
THE CAVES OF STEEL (June 1964): BBC2′s first venture into science fiction was this Terry Nation adaptation of Isaac Asimov‘s story combining an imaginative vision of the future with the more traditional narrative of a police murder hunt. The Caves Of Steel is set two centuries in the future, in a New York that has become a city of fourteen million people living in one vast domed hall, looking on the open countryside as dangerous territory. Beyond is Spacetown, where alien scientists who have subjugated earth study the human race in the hope of saving it from self-extinction. But when one of their scientists is found murdered and a human is suspected, the Spacers issue an ultimatum: Unless the killer is found within 48 hours, New York will be destroyed or ‘occupied’. Deputy police commissioner Elijah Baley (Peter Cushing) is assigned the task of solving the case with the aid of a robot detective from Spacetown called R. Daniel Olivaw (John Carson). The play was first shown in June 1964 as part of the new channel’s Story Parade series of plays adapted from modern novels. It gathered good reviews and was chosen as one of five plays to be repeated as a ‘Best Of’ showcase two months later.
CAMPAIGN FOR ONE (March 1965): This BBC play was a Freudian drama wrapped in a spacesuit. British astronaut Squadron-Leader Osborne (Barry Foster), is nearing the end of his ten-day solo mission orbiting the Earth. Due to a malfunction, the only way he can get back down is to fly his craft manually. But Osborne’s nerves have reached breaking point and he’s not sure he wants to come down at all. He orbits the Earth broadcasting military secrets and private jokes, before finally pouring out all his troubles to the psychiatrist on the ground as it is revealed that Osborne is a man trying to opt out of society because he has failed sexually. Campaign For One was screened in the BBC 1 midweek drama slot, The Wednesday Play, and also starred Jeremy Kemp and David Bauer.
A VOICE IN THE SKY (March 1965): Single one-off science fiction plays had become a rare event on ITV when this Armchair Thriller drama was screened in 1965. Reality rather than fantasy was in vogue, and it had been eighteen months since ITV’s last excursion (Loop in 1963). An astronaut returns to Earth claiming to have heard ‘The voice of the Almighty’ telling him the world is evil and must be destroyed. The scene shifts between America and Britain, from Cape Kennedy to the London Planetarium, as a secret space organisation called The Angels prepares to unleash a nuclear holocaust. Jack Hedley starred as Jerry Noble, a failed astronaut who fights to thwart The Angels, aided by Paul Maxwell as a United Nations space expert and Ann Bell as the astronaut’s girlfriend. In a climactic scene Hedley balanced precariously on a rooftop trying to re-erect an aerial while Miss Bell performed a diversionary striptease. Very sixties indeed.
THE WAR GAME (August 1965): Where Stanley Kubrick approached the subject with of nuclear war with cold irony, British filmmaker Peter Watkins used anger and outrage bordering on the hysterical in his pseudo-documentary The War Game, which showed a nuclear attack on England and then concentrated on the aftermath in a small town in Kent. Though clumsily made it is full of shattering images, including the glare and concussion of the bombs, the raging fire storms, the hideously disfigured casualties, the torment and slow death from radiation poisoning, mass cremations, buckets of wedding rings being gathered from the dead, and execution squads composed of English policemen shooting looters. For all its faults it creates a graphic picture of nuclear war and also demonstrates just how ineffectual civil defense organisations would be in such an event, all of which explains why the BBC refused to show it on British television even though it had been made especially for television by the BBC. “It might disturb audiences” explained a BBC spokesman at the time, which is exactly what the film was designed to do. However, despite the difficulties involved with distributing a sixty-minute film, it received a theatrical release and even won an Academy Award.
THE GIRL WHO LOVED ROBOTS (October 1965): Ingenious murder thriller set in the near future. Nightclub hostess Victory Du Cann (Isobel Black) is found murdered. Investigating detective Inspector Antrobus (Dudley Foster) tracks down his man, an arrogant astronaut about to fly off to the Moon, but is prevented from arresting him by the space project boss. One critic described it as a play with dialogue rich in advertising copywriters style, including the line “She liked the smell of outer space on her men”. The Girl Who Loved Robots was shown as part of the BBC1 series The Wednesday Play.
APE AND ESSENCE (May 1966): Horrific, bawdy satire by Aldous Huxley about the humanistic and religious consequences of dropping the bomb. In his vision of a Britain eighty years after the bomb, its inhabitants are not only badly mutated but are also worshiping the devil. Huxley’s tongue-in-cheek contention that a race wicked enough to explode a nuclear device must, perforce, be damned. Alec McCowen played a shy botany professor who was part of a New Zealand Rediscovery Expedition to Great Britain in 2048 which comes across a pocket of survivors near London. Under the sway of the Arch-Vicar of Belial, they are sacrificing their deformed babies and indulging in orgies of communal sex. The play drew some calls of protest to the BBC, but was widely praised by the critics.
THE DEVIL’S EGGSHELL (June 1966): Mysterious egg-shaped objects are found at the scene of train crashes, famines and deaths. They purport to be alien in origin, but turn out to be the work of a conspiracy of scientists intent on shocking politicians into behaving themselves by presenting the world with a universal scapegoat. Doubtless a good idea at the time, the conspiracy misfires, the scientists are publicly executed in Trafalgar Square, and power politics and tyranny return with renewed vigour and momentum. The Devil’s Eggshell received lukewarm reviews, and was generally felt to be a good idea which went on too long, despite an interesting cast that included Leonard Rossiter and Burt Kwouk.
DAYS TO COME (October 1966): Wellsian love story about two young people at odds with their world, a nightmarishly efficient society of the future where productivity is all. Based on a novella by H.G. Wells, the story is set in the year 2122. London is an insulated air-conditioned city, sealed in a vast plastic bubble. It never rains, and the temperature is thermostatically controlled. The world is at peace and society run as a benign Meritocracy in which children are streamed into three IQ grades (Alpha, Beta, Gamma) though there is a fourth category, the Deviants, who cannot adjust to society. Elizabeth Moris (Judi Dench) is a problem girl, an old-fashioned romantic in love with Jon Denton (Dinsdale Landen), a mild-mannered rocket launch-pad official. But her father wants to marry her off to up-and-coming bureaucrat Bindon (John Quentin), and sees ‘psychojustment’ as the only way to bring her round. But Jon objects violently and the star-crossed Beta-class lovers escape from the city to rediscover fresh air, flowers and birds of the countryside, as well as the cruelty of nature. Also starring Michael Gough, Days To Come was praised by The Daily Telegraph as “An ingenious production.”
THE METAL MARTYR (December 1967): Short drama screened in BBC2s Thirty Minute Theatre series. It depicted a society in which the robots had rebelled against man and now ruled the Earth. Then one day Robot Two (Geoffrey Matthews) has a new thought – he thinks he is a man. His thought has far-reaching consequences for mankind who, through Robot Two, learn something of their rich heritage.
THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS (July 1968): Sean Day-Lewis of The Daily Telegraph said it was “A highly original play written with great force and making as many valid points about the dangers of the future as any science fiction work I can remember, including Nineteen Eighty-Four!” Nigel Kneale‘s provocative parable of the future depicted a society totally dominated by television. In his air-conditioned, fully-automated England of the future, known as Area 27, the population has become split into the 2% ‘high-drive’ people who make the television programs, and the 98% ‘low-drive’ masses who watch them. The television network Output uses techniques of mass voyeurism to stifle the population explosion and quell the attendant tensions such as war, love, hate, and loyalty. Even language has become virtually redundant for the passive low-drives who don’t need to read, write or even speak. Television runs their lives, dulling even the most basic urges. There are gluttony programs such as The Hungry-Angry Show to put them off food, and ‘applied p*rnography’ programs to put them off sex, including Artsex and Sportsex. But when these start to lose their impact, coordinator Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter) finds a new way to involve the viewers: The Love-Life Show. Volunteer family Deanie Webb (Suzanne Neve), Nat Mender (Tony Vogel) and their child are sent to a small island where life is far from feather-bedded. The camera are on them twenty-four hours a day and their ‘show’ is soon top of the ratings. But there’s a murderer about, and the outcome is violence and death, something that’s greeted with with glee and delight by the watching millions. The Year Of The Sex Olympics was first screened as part of the BBC2 series Theatre 625, with a repeat on BBC1 in 1970. Also worthy of note was an early performance from Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter) as Lasar Opie.
THE FRIENDLY PERSUADERS (June 1969): The basic premise behind this play was that a similar planet to ours exists in another galaxy, but where man’s evolution began 50,000 years earlier. When a delegation from this advanced civilisation, the Taraxans, arrive on earth, they paint a Utopian picture of life on Tarax where machines do all the work, freeing the people to devote themselves to the typically sixties pastimes of leisure and love. It’s an irresistible vision, except to Whitehall skeptic Steve Leach (Edward Judd), who suspects that a sinister purpose lies behind the seductive facade.
SALVE REGINA (July 1969): The final bomb has fallen. In the basement of a gutted department store an old hag (Miriam Karlin) exercises imperious authority over two buffoon-like men (Al Mancini, Graham Crowden), believing herself to be the only woman left in the world. But she has reckoned without astronaut Marina Palek (Glenda Jackson), who was in space when the holocaust occurred, and who now makes a landing. A strong cast was assembled for this half-hour drama, one of the six prizewinning entries from The Observer television play competition, but they were eclipsed by Apollo 11 – the play was screened on the eve of man’s first landing on the Moon.
Rare British Television (part 1)