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.)

The Laughing Ghost

Not a poem for Halloween, this time, but a song:

It’s easy to summon a demon

A poem for Halloween, one of a very occasional series.

It’s easy to summon a demon…

imp by mje

It’s easy to summon a demon
You’ll need paper, a pencil, and something to lean on
A wide, flat space and a chunk of chalk
A parrot or raven you’ve taught to talk
A brace of candles in candlestick-holders
Two contracts in two foolscap folders
A sound-proofed room with a double-locked door
A key that’s never been used before
A cloth, a towel, a bottle of water
A looking-glass and a vicar’s daughter
An hour of your time, a year off your life
A conscience that’s clear and a tongue like a knife
An iron-strong will and a singular aim
A clean length of twine and a secret name
And then, only then, you’ll be ready to start
Oh — I hope you’ve thoroughly practised your Art?
If you haven’t, God help you, and all of your kin
You’ve no idea of the mess that you’re in!

Toby – a Halloween rhyme

They wondered why Toby was always so cold
He was only, they calculated, five years old
Yet his skin was the colour of moonlight on ice
And crystals of water had formed in his eyes
 
“I don’t feel cold,” he said, looking up
As they gathered around him and gave him a cup
Of cocoa as hot as they could possibly make it
And told him to drink it as fast as he could take it
 
“The problem,” one said, “is not the coldness of the skin,
“But the coldness of the child, as it were, within.”
They nodded, and asked, “Do you think cold thoughts?”
“I don’t know,” said Toby. “Do you think that I ought?”
 
They murmured, considered, and angled their heads
Then told him to lie on an unyielding bed
“Bend your knee” — “Cough hard” — “Open wide” — “Wag your ears”
They ordered, all at once, till he was in tears
 
But the tears didn’t fall, they just iced up his eyes
And a nurse had to come with a dropper and pliers
Then they gave him more cocoa, and conferred in a corner
On the best proven method to make Toby warmer
 
An operation, of course, was out of the question
A scalpel wouldn’t make the slightest incision
A pill might have worked, if they could be sure
That a pill could be found not to burn but to thaw
 
“And what of his brain?” one learned man asked
And ventured that he to this end might be tasked
For the psychotherapeutic, transcendental
Cure was his thing (though still experimental)
 
A second said that physiotherapy might
Given time make his joints less frozenly tight
A third disagreed. “A month of rest at least!”
While a fourth proposed a diet of malt extract and yeast
 
And Toby, in the corner, sipped his cocoa and wondered
Against which of the Commandments he had so blundered
To be stuck on a bed in a room with these men
And when he might be let out again
 
After hours of conferring, an elected man came
And smiled at young Toby, and addressed him by name
“We’ve decided at length,” this studious man said,
“That you cannot be helped, and must be declared dead.”
 
The man raised his eyebrows in question and waited
While Toby, mouth open, eyes wide, contemplated
Then asked, “Will I be allowed outside to play?”
“You’ll be expected to stay out all night and all day.”
 
“And will I be sent to some special school?”
“No school.” “Or a prison?” “That would simply be cruel.”
Then Toby, with a shrug, agreed to be dead
So they signed off his case, and then sawed off his head
 

(Previous Halloween ditties can be found here (2010) and here (2007).)