Come the seventies and the imbedding of colour television, through the eighties and the viral spread of home video, such one-off plays have not been so difficult to find, although fewer one-off television plays were being produced than during the first two decades of television. Although there is so much more material now available on DVD, there are nevertheless many eighties video releases that have yet to find distribution on DVD, and some programs have never been released at all, in any format. 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.
WINE OF INDIA (April 1970): Two years after presenting a disturbing look ahead in The Year Of The Sex Olympics, Nigel Kneale took a different, more civilised route into the future. Wine Of India was set in the year 2050, in a world where illness and natural death have been abolished through perfected medical techniques, enabling people to be maintained at an optimum age indefinitely. But there is a price. To prevent the world from bursting at the seams, society and the individual make a contract guaranteeing people a set life-span, at the end of which they must go quietly. The play took the form of a funeral for Julie (Annette Crosbie) and Will (Brian Blessed), both almost a hundred years old who barely look a day over thirty. The funeral is like an episode of This Is Your Life, at which all the couple’s relatives and friends gather for a farewell celebration during which film of the subject’s earlier life is flashed on screen by the Undertaker of Mortality Control. He carefully stage-manages the proceedings to ensure the couple go through with their side of the deal, even arranging for a ‘spectre at the feast’ in the form of Bea (Catherine Lacey), a genuine old lady who has refused to sign a contract and is growing old naturally, so convincing the couple that their guaranteed youth has been worth the price. In the end the couple pass through the curtains to their deaths and the guests disperse. All very civilised, really.
NEVER COME NIGHT (October 1972): Presented as part of the BBC Drama Playhouse, Never Come Night was the pilot episode for a prospective series that never got made. Written by Daleks creator Terry Nation, The Incredible Robert Bald*ck was originally conceived in 1969 as a possible replacement for a waning Doctor Who. Bald*ck was to be a Victorian adventurer striving to extend the boundaries of man’s knowledge, who traveled the country in his private train, complete with laboratory. Never Come Night was a tale of exorcism, of a supernatural force from the past or the unknown. “A fear so old it can kill, a fear so old it defies reason.” Character actor Robert Hardy took the title role and turned in a typically larger-than-life performance, and a comparatively subdued performance came from John Rhys-Davies as Caleb Selling.
THE STONE TAPE (December 1972): A ghost-busting play from Nigel Kneale that combined the supernatural and high technology in arguably the most creepy drama ever seen on television. Originally commissioned as a Christmas ghost story, The Stone Tape was first screened on BBC2 on Christmas day 1972 and proved a palatable antidote to the seasonal sludge. A research team from Ryan Electric Products arrives at a Victorian mansion (Taskerlands House) where they are due to start work on developing a new, improved recording medium. In an old storeroom, computer programmer Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) has a strong psychic experience, hearing footsteps, a piercing scream and seeing a ghostly figure on a stone staircase. She and the team’s director Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) make enquiries about the house’s history and discover stories of exorcism and mysterious deaths. When Brock too hears the scream he announces his plans to analyse and exorcise the ghost, using their modern technology. His theory is that traumatic emotions leave an impression trapped in the stone walls of the room. The team’s first effort to ‘play’ the ‘stone tape’ using amplified noise and ultraviolet light, seems instead to wipe it clean. But Jill continues to investigate and believes something else now haunts the storeroom, that only the top layer of the recording was erased. Drawn back, she confronts a strange, terrifying force and in trying to escape falls to her death in a bewilderingly surreal sequence, becoming the latest layer on the stone tape. Kneale’s script and Peter Sasdy‘s atmospheric direction drew some powerful performances from the cast, notably Jane Asher as the tortured Jill, and the play featured particularly eerie music from Desmond Briscoe and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
A.D.A.M. (April 1973): A psychological horror story, with a vindication of the neuroses of anyone who has ever lived in dread of household appliances taking on a life of their own. Beautiful but disabled Jean Empson (Georgina Hale) moves into her new home, built by her husband, to find it is a completely automated house in which everything is controlled by a computer called ADAM (Anthony Jackson), an Automated Domestic Appliance Monitor. ADAM is programmed to talk and all goes well until it proceeds to take their relationship a step further, becoming emotionally involved with Jean. Put simply, it fancies her – a situation replicated years later by author Dean R. Koontz in his filmed novel Demon Seed (1977). The play was produced by Doctor Who pioneer Verity Lambert and drew a strong performance from Georgina Hale as the crippled wife. In many scenes she was the only person on screen, talking to only a disembodied voice.
INTO INFINITY (December 1976): This outer space odyssey was produced for NBC in America by Gerry Anderson as a contribution to an educational series called The Day After Tomorrow. It was a $250,000 lesson in space travel in a fantasy form which starred Brian Blessed, Joanna Dunham and Martin Lev as a family who set off to explore deep space, with Australian Nick Tate (of Space: 1999) as their pilot. Launched from Earth in their prototype spacecraft Altares, they accelerate to a faster-than-light top speed for a journey to a remote solar system, a voyage that would seem like thirty years to the folks back on earth, but during which they will hardly age at all. “Ah, Einstein, what a genius he was!” says the mother, as his Theory Of Relativity is dutifully spelled out. The special effects by Oscar-winner Brian Johnson – Alien (1979), Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – were elaborate and spectacular, with the ship traveling past exploding stars and eventually being sucked through a black hole and into a new universe. That could have been the cue for a new adventure, and Anderson had hoped to turn it into a series, but Into Infinity remained a one-off, and a rather dull one at that. It does however have the curious distinction of being the only Gerry Anderson production to have been screened by the BBC, who had bought the film with a possible series in mind – if it had been a success, that is. Also of special note was director Charles Crichton, who was behind the camera on many of the best Ealing comedies, directed many episodes of Space 1999 and later made the box-office smash A Fish Called Wanda (1988).
ALTERNATIVE THREE (June 1977): A belated April Fool’s Day hoax that drew comparison with Orson Welles’ famous War Of The Worlds radio broadcast in the 1930s and drew protests from thousands of anxious viewers. Alternative Three purported to be a dramatic, shock-horror documentary revealing that America and Russia had founded a secret colony of scientists on the dark side of the Moon because, it was claimed, the greenhouse effect (climactic disasters caused by the Sun’s heat becoming trapped by thickening layers of pollution) had made this dear old Earth of ours a lost cause. The three alternatives put forward by one expert were: (1) Cut population, (2) Cut consumption or (3) Cut-and-run. Anglia Television’s Science Report team supposedly discovered during an eighteen-month investigation that some four hundred scientists had gone to the Moon, and even interviewed Bob Grodin, an ‘alcoholic ex-astronaut’ played by Shane Rimmer, who states “Those late Apollo’s were just a smokescreen to cover up what’s going on up there!” Using familiar and plausible tricks of investigative documentaries such as case histories of vanished scientists, footage of droughts and disasters, plausible scientific doom theories, smuggled video tapes, 8mm home-movie sequences and the clinching authority of former newscaster Tom Brinton as front-man, Alternative Three presented a compelling case, challenging the powers-that-be to ‘Tell us the truth!’ A cast list and the date 1st April appeared in the end credits, but the ball was well-and-truly rolling by then. The hoax misfired (or worked, depending on your point of view) with thousands of alarmed viewers failing to see the joke and calling Anglia Television to tell them the truth! Writer David Ambrose and director Christopher Miles weathered the storm with a wry smile saying they had felt viewers would be sophisticated enough to take it, and besides, the program did have a serious point to make. Ambrose was quoted at the time as saying he was constantly amazed at the gullibility of people. Most critics, being in on the joke, loved it, and Alternative Three was broadcast in several other countries. American networks turned it down, however, fearing another War Of The Worlds.
STRONGER THAN THE SUN (October 1977): Writer Stephen Poliakoff said “I hope my play gave a true picture of the urgency of the situation as it appears to many people.” Stronger Than The Sun is a powerful nuclear-age thriller with the plutonium industry rather than the bomb the target for the author’s anxieties, as he charts one woman’s attempts to halt what she sees as a suicidal nuclear energy program. Kate (Francesca Annis), a research officer at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, is recruited by a concerned colleague, Alan (Tom Bell), to ferret out details of a covered-up mishap, and sets out to highlight the dangers of plutonium by showing how easy it would be to steal some. At horrifying risk to herself, she smuggles some plutonium out of the factory only to find no one is interested. An anti-pollution group is too intent on achieving power through respectability to have anything to do with her, and a notorious investigative journalist can’t be bothered to hear her out. In a final suicidal protest, Kate kills herself by taking a bath in plutonium-contaminated water. Every bit as strong as the thriller angle was the play’s psychological drama. As her mission becomes an obsession, kate is transformed from an attractive, ambitious worker into a fanatical campaigner, growing more and more disturbed as she crumbles into a kind of repressed hysteria which ends with her final act of self-destruction. Stronger Than The Sun launched the BBC Play For Today season and both it and Francesca Annis won widespread praise. Daily Mail critic Shaun Usher called it “An ambitious and serious theme cast in human, emotional terms.”
STARGAZY ON ZUMMERDOWN (March 1978): Billed as a visionary fable of Britain in the 23rd century, this was an optimistic look at the future by a historian specialising in the 17th century. England, or rather Albion, has reverted to a country of peaceful rural communities and small towns in a happy balance of high technology, industry and nature, called the Commonwealth of New Harmony. At the Stargazy, the annual midsummer meeting of the agricultural folk (Aggros) and industrial workers (Toonies), among the megaliths on top of Zummerdown, the two communities come together to settle the terms for the following year’s exchange of products and know-how, and engage in the ritual discharge of mutual aggression. Under the amiable supervision of the Reformed Celtic Church, they enjoy themselves in dancing contests, onion tastings and a swearing contest of Chaucerian earthiness. Stargazy On Zummerdown was science fiction that drew heavily on history. Author John Fletcher called it “The Anglo-Saxon constitution plus industrialisation.” The talented cast included Roy Dotrice, Stephen Murray and John Gillbyrne.
ORION (September 1979): A space-age musical that was a cross between the tales of Moses and Noah, written by British television guru Melvyn Bragg. A boy tells how his father escaped from a doomed planet in an enormous spaceship on a mission to lead the Earth’s survivors to a new world. Interesting story and good visuals, with a cast that included Richard Barnes, Leueen Willoughby and Eric Roberts.
FRIENDS IN SPACE (March 1980): A science fiction comedy co-written by John Ratzenberger who also starred as one of a bunch of UFO freaks summoned to the secret hideaway of professor Rex Thornton (Robert Stephens) for a special meeting of the Friends In Space Society. Thornton announces that he has something to show them that will silence the skeptics once and for all, and in an upstairs room introduces an alien creature who waves back at them. A reliable cast was assembled for this ITV Playhouse which The Daily Mail called “An unusual and unpolished piece which lacks a hard centre, but is often very funny indeed.” Although John Ratzenberger also appeared in Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), he is probably best known as the know-it-all postman Cliff in the sitcom Cheers. More recently he has found a permanent home at Pixar as a featured voice in almost every film produced by the award-winning animation studio.
THE FLIPSIDE OF DOMINICK HIDE (December 1980): One of the more unpredictable successes of the early eighties, The Flipside Of Dominick Hide was a simple, engaging time-travel adventure about a prim young man of the future on the loose in present-day London. Dominick (Peter Firth) arrived in his flying saucer from a future shown as a formal, hygienic and largely unimaginative, where The Beatles music is played by holograms of medieval musicians with lutes. His naive bewilderment at the rough-and-tumble of the 20th century provided scope for a kind of topsy-turvy nostalgia about the rituals and artifacts of our time. The play was so unfathomably optimistic and positive about the human spirit and its upbeat ending helped generate a tremendous response from the public and normally cynical critics. The Radio Times reported a bumper ‘Post-Bag’ section and the play carried off two awards at the 1981 Banff Television Festival. A series was suggested, but resisted by writers Alan Gibson and Jeremy Paul who felt it would be impossible to sustain the novelty and humour. However they did find room for a sequel two years later, which performed new time tricks and added a thriller element. Called Another Flip For Dominick, it assembled the same cast, though his reappearance as Dominick’s outwardly stern boss Caleb proved to be Patrick Magee‘s final television role before his death, three months after filming wrapped. Other impressive cast members include Denis Lawson and Michael Gough.
SIN WITH OUR PERMISSION (May 1981): Strong overtones of The Prisoner made this 1981 drama a gripping and intelligent ITV Playhouse production. It was set in a futuristic New Town where all inhabitants are under constant surveillance and a daily television soap opera is used to provide solutions for the individual problems of the citizens, including a small matter of euthanasia. Gregory Floy played a social scientist who, in true Number Six style, discovers that the city is also a prison from which there is no escape. Paul Eddington (who coincidencentally was in the first episode of The Prisoner) played the head of the development corporation’s Information Department, and Robin Bailey played the lead actor in the city’s soap opera.
ARTEMIS 81 (December 1981): A mystical thriller about a battle between good and evil that ranged over a North Sea ferry, a Danish Cathedral, an old seaside tower and an alien planet, and tipped its hat to Alfred Hitchcock along the way. Artemis 81 crammed extraordinary imagery into a bewildering plot that evolved into a kind of nightmare with disjointed sequences making little rational sense. It opened on an alien world where the Angel Of Life, Helith (Sting) is ranged against his evil brother Asrael (Roland Curram) for control of man’s destiny. The metaphysical plot thickened via pieces of a stolen pagan relic hidden in cars on a North Sea ferry, the subsequent suicides of ferry passengers, and a haunted-looking old organist, Von Drachenfels (Dan O’Herlihy), who is terrified that a curse put upon him will cause the devastation of the Earth. To Gideon Harlax (Hywell Bennett), novelist of the paranormal, such events are grist to the writer’s mill. But as he coldly exploits human tragedies, angry powers are gathering. Artemis 81 also starred Dinah Stabb, Daniel Day Lewis and Ingrid Pitt, and featured pop musician Sting in his first major dramatic role. Indulgently long, it ran for more than three hours. Too long by half was verdict, with one critic stating Artemis 81 is “Disturbing, beautiful, and almost incomprehensible.”
K9 AND COMPANY (December 1981): The first television spin-off from Doctor Who was a special Christmas show for 1981, starring the Doctor’s canine computer K9 (John Leeson) and one of the most popular previous companions, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). The earthbound story called A Girl’s Best Friend, involved Sarah Jane and K9 Mark III (who had arrived in a crate as a gift from the unseen Doctor) trying to prevent a coven of witches from sacrificing her Aunt Lavinia’s young ward Brendan (Ian Sears) to ensure a fruitful future harvest. It called for a lot of frantic to-ing and fro-ing as Sarah Jane did the rounds of the local churches, desperately trying to find the coven’s meeting place, and the production veered from the banal to the atmospheric, notably the climactic sacrifice scenes. Elisabeth Sladen reprised her assistant’s role as Sarah Jane and Bill Fraser played market gardener Commander Pollock, successfully unmasked as the coven’s high priest.
FACE LIFT (April 1983): Television musical set in the year 2074 with Martin Shaw of The Professionals as workless-class hero Zax, dispensing pleasure to the impoverished idle masses through his ‘Theatre Of Glamour And Magic’. But Zax aspires to be more than a mere conjurer and when a beautiful elite technocrat (Eleanor David) goes slumming at the theatre, Zax tries to capture her soul. The relatively small cast included the magnificent John Le Mesurier and choreography by Arlene Phillips.
Z FOR ZACHARIAH (February 1984): A nuclear parable by Anthony Garner set in a remote Welsh valley which, due to a climactic quirk, has been left virtually untouched by a nuclear attack that has devastated the rest of Britain. Teenager Ann Burden (Pippa Hinchley) is alone after her parents left to seek a new life and never returned. Ann has learned how to survive and has built a life for herself within the valley. Then scientist John Loomis (Anthony Andrews), sole male survivor of the holocaust, arrives at the valley in his prototype plastic radiation capsule. The play traces their developing relationship which ends in tragedy when Loomis contracts radiation sickness after bathing in a contaminated stream. Star Anthony Andrews had to endure a four-hour makeup job to present a convincing portrait of a radiation-ravaged victim. The idea of an area untouched by the holocaust was not a new one, as it had already been explored in the Marghanita Laski play The Offshore Island a quarter of a century earlier.
THREADS (September 1984): A chilling drama-documentary that imagined the unthinkable, the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain. Threads looked at one city, Sheffield, and showed the horrific story of a nuclear strike through the eyes of two ordinary Sheffield families (the Kemps and the Becketts), and their designated wartime controller, the city’s peacetime Chief Executive, Clive Sutton (Harry Beety). It traced the events of the four weeks that led up to the nuclear exchange, as the East and West power blocs stumbled into war over a crisis of control in the Middle East. It showed in graphic detail the inferno of suffering inflicted on the city and its population, and followed the scenario through the first post-holocaust decade as the ‘threads’ of civilisation unraveled. Writer Barry Hines and producer/director Mick Jackson drew on reams of scientific studies to make Threads vastly more factual than the American television movie The Day After (1983) and brought the images of the banned BBC film The War Game (1965) right up to date. The city of Sheffield also responded with more than a thousand volunteers to play victims. There was no light relief in Threads, watching it was a chastening experience.
THE GALACTIC GARDEN (January 1985): Entertaining natural-history-science-fiction-drama-documentary (whew!) set among the wildlife of an English garden. The project was a labour of love for its star and co-writer Andrew Sachs, who played Vektor, a timid three-quarter inch tall time-and-space traveler who arrives from the artificial planet Orbito in the future, seeking data on how humans used to live. But instead of gathering historical tidbits, Vektor and his colleague Plasmid (Sarah Neville), a confident career spacewoman, find themselves in danger at the hands and jaws of the garden’s natural (and giant) inhabitants. In quick succession, Vektor is waylaid by an array of wildlife including goldfish, worms, spiders and a tortoise.
TIMESLIP (December 1985): This Timeslip was a futuristic thriller about a computer which locks a couple inside an office block and tries to hunt them down as intruders. John Taylor (of Duran Duran fame) appeared as a computer hacker, while American actor Jeff Harding and Australian actress Virginia Hey – of Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1981) and Farscape – shared a torrid love scene that raised tabloid eyebrows. The half-hour story was filmed as a pilot for a futuristic anthology series that never materialised.
QUEST BEYOND TIME (May 1988): Part of an Anglo-Australian series called Winners, shown on Channel 4 in 1988, which was intended to use stories to raise issues relevant to contemporary children. Quest Beyond Time was the series only science fiction offering and propelled a young hang-glider through a time warp a thousand years into the future. The youth, Mike (Daniel Cordeaux), is mistaken by the clan Murray as a post-holocaust saviour and he, with young warrior Katrin (Rebecca Rigg), set out to glide to a nearby island where a cure may be found for the clan’s sickness. On the way they encounter various adventures which highlight each others strengths and weaknesses. The friendship leaves Mike with a decision whether or not to return to his own time. Other cast members included Roger Ward and Jeanie Drynan.
MURDER ON THE MOON (August 1989): Take a dead body, a moonbase full of suspects and a pair of contrasting investigators, and you’ve got the makings (if not the trappings) of a traditional country-house murder mystery. Murder On The Moon was ITVs 1989 flirtation with science fiction. Commissioned by London Weekend Television, the two-hour, five-million-dollar production was made in Britain by an American company and starred Brigitte Nielsen and Julian Sands as an initially mismatched detective duo. Inspired partly by the excellent 1987 series Star Cops, Murder On The Moon is set in 2015, ten years after the superpowers have been to the brink of nuclear war and back. Jake Elezar, Israeli security chief of an American titanium mine operating in the Russian sector of the Moon, is found dead at the bottom of a disused shaft. As it’s Russian territory, the Soviets send one of their military cops, the frostily-efficient Stephen Kirilenko (Sands), to investigate. As it’s their man, the Americans send one of their NASA agents, the impulsive but intuitive Maggie Bartok (Nielsen), first seen in a tight red dress after stepping out of a spacesuit. Naturally the two don’t hit it off at first, but as the investigation pans out into a murder hunt, you just know the frost is going to thaw. Sure enough, the furtive glances conclude in an erotic detente as the duo seductively (and symbolically) disarm each other in their sexual foreplay. As for the murder itself, Bartok and Kirilenko quickly conclude that Elezar had been looking for someone and was killed because he finally found him. The mystery man turns out to be former terrorist Juan Pedro Vogler, the man responsible for a Jerusalem bomb attack that had nearly provided the spark to ignite a nuclear war. However, ‘he’ is now a ‘she’ with Mister Vogler having escaped capture via a sex-change to become Ms Louise Mackey (Jane Lapotaire). A brief struggle in a draining airlock ends with Bartok and Kirilenko getting their ‘man’ and, of course, they also get each other. Murder On The Moon never gripped, but was quietly claustrophobically absorbing, the low-key suspense broken by just two scenes of explosive action, with Bartok proving she can survive and talk in a dramatically depressurised room while a companion and contents are being sucked out to space. Notable names in smaller roles were Michael J. Shannon as an abrasive worker, David Yip as a computer operator, Georgina Hale as a barmaid, and Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter) as Voronov.
Rare British Television (part 2)