Play for Today: Z for Zachariah

It’s been a while since I wrote about “things that frightened me as a kid”, but I thought I’d revive the practice for a Halloween mewsings. The Play for Today adaptation of Robert C O’Brien’s 1974 novel was broadcast on 28th February 1984 (and this was the last year for Play for Today, a strand of one-off dramas that had been broadcast by the BBC since 1970). I didn’t see it at the time, but was shown it, perhaps later in the same year, in an English class at school — meaning it also falls into the narrower category of “things that frightened me in the classroom”, which includes a forced watch of another 1984 teleplay, Threads (still the bleakest thing I’ve ever seen), and a far more pleasant classroom watch of the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula. (And I’ll also add to the list a story a supply teacher, Mrs Mud (or perhaps Mudd), told us at the end of one day in my penultimate year at primary school — probably making it up on the spot— called “The Ear”, about a man persecuted by a reanimated Van Gogh-style severed ear.)

This adaptation of Z for Zachariah moves the events of the novel from the USA to a remote valley in Wales, whose isolated weather system protects it when the rest of the world is destroyed and/or poisoned in a nuclear war. 15-year-old Ann Burden’s parents go off to check for survivors in the locality but never come back. Ann (Pippa Hinchley) soldiers on, keeping the farm as best she can, then one day sees a weird tent set up on the road that leads into the valley.

She retreats up the mountainside and watches as a man in a radiation suit (Anthony Andrews), lugging a survival kit on wheels behind him, enters the valley, tests the water, and, finding it radiation-free, disrobes and jumps into a stream. Ann, watching, realises his mistake — the man only tested one stream, which she knows to be clean, but didn’t test the other, the one he’s jumped into, in which she found dead fish. (One stream has its source in the valley, the other brings in water from outside.) The man soon falls sick with radiation poisoning, and Ann overcomes her fear to come down from the mountains and tend to him.

He describes the symptoms of his coming sickness to her:

“It goes through stages. First you have two or three days’ vomiting. Second stage, radiation causes intercellular ionisation. Molecules within the cells are destroyed. Cells can no longer grow or divide. Plus, you’ll be much sicker. With a high fever. Blood cells are damaged. They can no longer reproduce, resulting in anaemia. No resistance to germs or infection… Susceptible to… mild impurities in food and water, resulting in vomiting, and, more seriously, dysentery.”

He is John Loomis, an organic chemist who, before the bombs dropped, had been helping develop a form of magnetised plastic. The magnetism wards off radiation, hence his radiation-proof suit and tent, which allow him to survive in the post-holocaust world. In his fever, it soon becomes evident that his story of how he got the suit may be more complicated. There were two researchers — John, and a man called Edward, who was his senior on the project — but only one suit.

As he recovers from the sickness, John tries to instil in Ann a sense of the delicacy of their situation. This valley, he says, is now a colony, the one chance for the human race to survive. He gets her to think about the sort of crops they’re going to need — wheat for flour, beets for sugar. And, somewhat mockingly, he says of her regular visits to the valley chapel: “Next time you go to your church, pray for a bull calf.”

Things take a darker turn after Ann celebrates her sixteenth birthday. She wakes up one night to find John sitting on her bed, touching her. She escapes his assault, and the next day offers a truce, saying she’ll continue to help farm the valley, but she’ll be living elsewhere. John, though, starts to impose control, keeping the key to the tractor, padlocking the local shop they’ve been using for supplies and, finally, using Ann’s own dog to track her to her hiding place. The play ends with Ann taking John’s radiation suit and survival kit and leaving the valley to find other people, rather than continue to live with this dangerous man.

It’s a bleak story, feeling like one of the darker one-off episodes of Terry Nation’s Survivors from the previous decade. It’s hard not to watch this adaptation of Z for Zachariah and feel pretty little hope for mankind. John Loomis seems too little like an unbalanced individual, too much a representative of men in general, or scientists in general, or adults in general, casting them all as a bunch of control-hungry rapists and murderers.

Reviews of the teleplay over at IMDB rate it low in comparison to the book, certainly for its lack of moral shading (the book is written as Ann’s diary, and she can be read as an unreliable narrator, a possibility the TV adaptation doesn’t address), as well as the general coldness of the two main characters’ relationship. But I suspect it got the green light at the Beeb not because of its potential for moral complexity but for its basic message — one that was desperately hammered home throughout the 1980s, in a barrage of pop songs (“Two Tribes”, “99 Red Balloons”, many others), films and TV dramas (Threads being the main one, but the nuclear threat was omnipresent, and the standard threat in thrillers like Edge of Darkness and Defence of the Realm), documentaries (two major ones about nuclear war were shown the same week as Threads), and so on — that nuclear war is BAD, that it could be the END OF EVERYTHING, and, if it happens, it’s all MANKIND’S FAULT.

We can become fond of and familiar with most characters from supernatural horror. No one, I think, would be too shocked at seeing a kid dressed up as a vampire for Halloween. But I can’t imagine anyone ever being comfortable at seeing a kid dressed up in a radiation suit, with a clicking Geiger counter in their hand…

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah can be watched at Daily Motion. (It’s just under two hours long.)

Break in the Sun

The Hill and Beyond by McGown and DochertySome time ago I bought Alistair D McGown & Mark J Docherty’s The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama — An Encyclopedia (published in 2003 by the BFI), and one of the things I was hoping to find out from it, aside from as many obscure telefantasy offerings as I could, was the name of a serial I remembered watching in the early 1980s, about a young girl running away from home, which I remembered as having quite a bleak, realistic feel to it (compared to other kids’ serials of the time, anyway), and which had made enough of an impression that I was still thinking about it more than thirty years later. It turned out to be Break in the Sun, but I had to wait till the BBC Store made it available last year to watch it again.

Based on a 1980 novel by Brian Ashley, and adapted for TV by Alan England, it was shown in six parts between 11th February and 18th March 1981. It starts with Patsy Bligh (played by Nicola Cowper), living with her mother, stepfather and new baby half-brother in a tower block in London somewhere close to the Thames. Patsy, whose terror of her take-no-nonsense stepfather has resulted in a cycle of wetting the bed because of worrying about being hit for wetting the bed, longs for the days when it was just her and her mum living in Margate, in the house of the grandmotherly Mrs Broadley. One day, walking home from school, she gets talking to a young woman on a boat who’s part of a travelling actors’ troupe. They’re in need of a girl to play a minor part, and Patsy tricks her stepfather into writing a letter (she tells him it’s so she can go on a school trip), which she uses to convince the troupe she can spend half-term with them. Her ultimate aim is to get to Margate and live with Mrs Broadley once again.

A Break in the Sun - Eddie and Kenny

Although I mainly remember it being about Patsy, the story actually follows a pair of plot strands. On the one hand, we’ve got Patsy developing as an actor while trying to keep her fellow troupe-members from finding out that she’s run away from home, and on the other we have her stepfather, Eddie Green (played by Brian “My karate means a lot to me, Mr Fawlty” Hall), setting off after her with her schoolfriend Kenny (who’s there because he’s the only one who can recognise the boat Patsy went off on). As they make their way Margate, Eddie reminisces about his own childhood, how he feared and hated his father, and how it led him into playing some pretty dangerous games as a way of either proving to himself he was worth something despite what his father thought of him, or, if nothing else, as a way of ending his childhood misery for good. It still takes, of course, young Kenny to point out the obvious to Eddie right near the end — that he’s been acting towards Patsy exactly as his own father did towards him, and that’s why she’s run away — but at least it means that, rather than simply being the story of a young girl running away from a monstrous, abusive step-parent, it’s about both sides coming to understand each other better, and overcoming the problem together.

A Break in the Sun

It certainly makes for a highly dramatic (Patsy threatens to throw herself off the top of a tall slide in an amusement park when finally cornered by her stepfather) and emotionally satisfying ending, without seeming cloying or unrealistic. Patsy’s frequent lapses into silence are, no doubt, what gave the series its bleak, thoroughly convincing air when I first saw it, but on this second watch, Eddie’s bluff, laddish lack of self-reflection adds a welcome second strand, preparing you for his ultimate rehabilitation.

McGown and Docherty say that “Break in the Sun was almost certainly the toughest serial made for children by the BBC up to that point. What makes it so affecting is that the dramatic threat comes not from a bank robber or smuggler [as was common in kids’ adventure serials of the time] but from within an unstable family unit.” And it certainly feels, apart from being in colour, like a direct descendent of the Kitchen Sink dramas of the 60s, without, at any point, overplaying the misery card.

Flowers

Flowers, first broadcast in 6 parts in the UK on Channel 4 last April, begins with children’s author Maurice Flowers (played by Julian Barratt) heading towards a tree at the bottom of his garden with a rope in his hands. The author of the much-loved Grubbs books about a family of goblins, he’s run out of ideas, and run out of excuses for his publishers, so he’s decided to hang himself. But he can’t even do that right, so he picks himself up, hides the rope, and goes off to mope in his writing shed, unaware that his aged mother was watching.

Meanwhile his music teacher wife Deborah (played by Olivia Colman) is desperately frustrated by the utter lack of affection her eternally depressed husband shows her. They’re supposedly in a Bohemianly ‘open’ relationship, and she pretends she’s taking full advantage of it, but in fact the extent of her dalliance with the opposite sex is to take the neighbour’s builders a tray of tea and cakes, and pretend everything they say is a wildly suggestive remark (it isn’t), while pointedly ignoring the only one of them who actually fancies her.

Their children aren’t much better. A pair of mid-twenties live-at-homes, daughter Amy is a bedroom-bound Kate Bush, son Donald a hopeless inventor. Constantly bickering if not actually fighting (‘You don’t shoot family!’), both of them fancy neighbour Abigail, whose father George — the one real monster in the story — is a plastic surgeon who sees no situation (including the Flowers’ disastrous anniversary party, and, soon after, the hospital bedside of their dying mother) as inappropriate for a barrage of sexual innuendo and attempted seduction, all in the name of drumming up business.

The whole situation’s one massive emotional powder keg. The spark comes when, during Deborah’s desperate attempt to hold a party to celebrate her and Maurice’s anniversary, Maurice’s dementia-addled mother gets up on a chair with the noose her son used to try and hang himself (which was once part of a stage act she performed with her magician husband), falls off, and has to be hospitalised, but not before being found by one of Deborah’s young music students. (To avoid traumatising the boy, Maurice explains the noose away as a ‘magic snake’, just one of many avoidances of the truth which go on to have potentially disastrous consequences.)

Flowers is a wonderfully dark comedy about a very dysfunctional, emotionally messy, flailing and floundering family. Virtually all of the main characters have some sort of deeply painful secret and a desperate need to share it, along with a complete inability to do so. (The son Donald has, instead, an inability not to open his mouth and give away both his and everyone else’s most intimate secrets, usually at the moment when doing so will help the least.)

Julian Barratt’s Maurice is a big, bearded, awkwardly shy man, constantly brandishing a rictus grin of emotional mortification, incapable of admitting the depths of his own despair, slouching around in a chunky cardigan like an embodiment of the “dishevelled British countryside aesthetic, that sort of folky heritage thing” that writer/director Will Sharpe (in an interview on Channel 4’s site) says he was trying to evoke in the series, with its tattily Bohemian country cottage home.

Sharpe himself plays Maurice’s live-in Japanese illustrator Shun. Shun is the only person who’s actually willing to listen to everyone’s problems. He’s desperate to be of any help he can, but his every attempt to understand what’s needed misfires, in the end draining even his seemingly boundless optimism. (And he, too, has his secret, a story that remains untold for so long simply because nobody in the Flowers family pays any attention to him.)

Despite all the despair, despondency, and difficulties with communication, Flowers is, I think, ultimately uplifting, even life-affirming, but only once it’s gone through some pretty dark areas. Its depiction of Maurice’s depression is certainly uncompromising. After describing what he’s going through as being like facing ‘an invisible monster with no shape, no form, but it’s loud, and fierce, and it never ends’, Deborah asks:

‘So how do we defeat this monster?’
‘We can’t.’
‘There must be some way. All monsters have a weakness. Maybe it’s love? Maybe love is how we defeat this monster, together?’

Which would, normally, be the point where we’d find some relief, some hope. But instead, all Maurice can say is:

‘Love makes it worse.’

I suspect it’s not for everyone, but it certainly worked for me, and was one of the TV highlights of 2016. At the moment, it’s still available to watch on Channel 4’s website.

Timeslip

timeslip_dvdBroadcast in 26 episodes from the end of September 1970 to March 1971 (only one of which survives in colour), Timeslip was intended as an ITV rival to Doctor Who. Its two mid-teen leads, Simon Randall (Spencer Banks) and Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield), discover the ability to slip through a time barrier they find by the fence of an old military base while on holiday. In the first adventure, it takes them back to the Second World War, when the base was in use as a research outfit. The kids arrive at the same time as some disguised German soldiers who are intent on nabbing some of the latest British technology. The bounders!

A few things made the series immediately different. Usually, kids’ time travel (or any time travel — The Time Tunnel, for instance, or Doctor Who) takes its heroes to the distant past or distant future, but Timeslip stuck to the 20th Century (including trips to a pair of alternative 1990s), with its final adventure being set in 1965, a mere five years in the show’s past. In addition, Liz & Simon are constantly meeting the same people in different adventures, or different future versions of them. In the first story, ‘The Wrong End of Time’, Liz meets her as-yet unmarried father (just before he has an amnesiac episode that explains why he doesn’t remember meeting her), while in the two 1990s adventures, Liz gets to meet two entirely different versions of herself, as well as a future version of her mother. The great thing is that Liz hates the first version of herself she meets, and Beth (as she’s come to be known) hates her back:

Beth: At a certain time in my life I had to take some important decisions. Break with the past, become a different kind of person.

Liz: But why? What’s the matter with me? I’m still as I always was. I don’t want to change.

Beth: My dear, I was a little idiot when I was you. I had to do something about forcing myself to grow up, finding a purpose to my existence. We can’t be fools all our lives, I’m afraid.

While, in the last episode of that adventure — ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ — Liz gets her own back:

Beth: (of Liz) She’s nothing to do with me.

Liz: But I am. I am you. Only you’re not me and that’s the trouble. You’ve changed too much.

Things get complicated once Liz & Simon realise they can change the futures they visit by going back to their own era and making sure certain things don’t happen. After ‘The Time of the Ice Box’, Liz & Simon take another trip to the 1990s, only to find it now ‘The Year of the Burn-Up’, a technocratic future where a sabotaged climate control is making a serious mess of things. (But at least, here, Liz likes her future self.)

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As if the protagonists meeting various versions of their future selves isn’t complicated enough, there are also a number of clones of various people. (The first one we meet is the Director of the ‘Ice Box’ research establishment. Played by John Barron, who I’ve only ever encountered before as CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin, he comes across as an unintentionally comic version of CJ, with an attempt at an American accent. I kept expecting him to say, ‘I didn’t get where I am today by slipping through time barriers…’) And, once it’s clear some of these futures are only possible futures, Simon starts talking about there being both clones and projected clones, who are only possible-future clones… And this in a final story appropriately titled ‘The Day of the Clone’.

‘The Day of the Clone’ is, I think, the best story of the lot. (It’s also the only one by Victor Pemberton, writer of the Doctor Who story ‘Fury from the Deep’; the other Timeslip stories are by Bruce Stewart, and can get a little repetitive with all their being captured/breaking free/getting recaptured loops.) If nothing else, this last story ties up the whole serial neatly, which is some feat, considering the number of different timelines, and different versions of people, we’ve encountered.

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By the time of ‘Day of the Clone’, Timeslip is taking a decidedly anti-technocratic stance. ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ takes place in a future research establishment trying to develop an immortality drug, HA57, under the command of an autocratic Director who believes his computer to be faultless, and so it can only be deliberate sabotage by his employees that’s making things go wrong. In ‘The Year of the Burn-up’, there is actual sabotage to the climate control computer, but all the technocrats are too busy hunting down the un-sociables and outcasts who refuse to be part of their Brave New World to realise the sabotage is happening, till it’s too late. In ‘The Day of the Clone’ the technocratic future is the present, with a secret government-funded research base, R1, being used to develop the same immortality drug, HA57, as appeared in ‘Time of the Ice Box’, only they’re testing it on student volunteers, and it’s having the opposite to its intended effect. To keep the volunteers quiet, they’re given ‘hypnotherapy’.

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It’s here you get a sense of the mood of the times. One of the young volunteers, a student who thought she’d do a bit of good for society in her university holidays, learns what’s been done to her, and reveals the growing feeling, by the start of the 1970s, that early-60s optimism, with its faith in paternalistic governments and the forward march of technology, was getting a little tarnished:

Maria: Trust you? Trust… That’s something I’m rapidly forgetting. I came to this place with hopes. We all did. Hopes we could help build a decent future. Now you tell us we’re only helping to destroy the future. Well I don’t know who to trust or believe anymore.

Key to all this is the often-ambiguous character of Commander Traynor, who encourages the children’s time-hopping in the hope of learning a few technological secrets from the future, and who becomes an increasingly darker figure as the series progresses.

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Timeslip stands on the border between being a fun kids’ SF-adventure series and the slightly weirder, more idealistic one-off productions of the 70s, like Children of the Stones, The Changes, and so on. Alistair D McGown and Mark J Docherty, in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama, say Timeslip was ‘perhaps the most ambitious serial of the 70s in storytelling terms at least’. It backed its science fictional ideas with advice from Geoffrey Hoyle (son of, and collaborator with, SF author and astronomer Fred Hoyle), and managed to sidestep becoming a mere attempt at cloning Doctor Who by tying its stories up so tightly with the possible future and actual past selves of its key characters, something most SF (apart from Back to the Future, which shows how much fun can be got from the idea) does its utmost to avoid.