The Chocky Trilogy

I always felt John Wyndham was something of a presiding spirit over the culture of the 1970s and early 80s, because the two genre tropes I most associate with him — “cosy” catastrophes, and mind powers (especially in kids) — achieved something of a peak at this time (thanks to SF-tinged shows like Survivors and Doomwatch for the catastrophes, and The Omega Factor and The Mind Beyond for the mind powers, as well as YA fiction such as H M Hoover’s Morrow series). Hard evidence didn’t arrive till the 80s, though, when proper Wyndham adaptations hit the screens. First there was the BBC’s Day of the Triffids in 1981, then Thames TV’s Chocky in 1984. The Wyndham estate were so pleased with the latter, they allowed its adapter, Anthony Read (who’d been script editor for Doctor Who in 1978, as well as writing for shows like The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel), to follow it up with a couple of sequels.

Chocky must surely have been commissioned on the back of the success of Spielberg’s ET, which came out in the UK in December 1982, but the show itself has a bleaker air, in part thanks to the rather melancholy, Eno-esque theme music (which no longer matched the show’s feel by its third series). Aside from a few 80s updates — a Rubik’s cube, Space Invaders on a home console, a Rodney Matthews poster on Matthew’s bedroom wall, and the way he does some Uri Geller-style spoon-bending early on — the adaptation’s pretty faithful to the book. Perhaps too faithful, as the book itself is quite episodic. The dramatic highpoint, Matthew’s kidnapping, takes place within about ten minutes of the final episode and gets a fairly limp resolution, and surely it, with its hints of ill-defined but oppressive government/corporate forces taking an interest, deserved to be brought more to the fore in a kids’ TV show. On the other hand, it’s nice that the low-key family-drama elements were given so much room to breathe.

Matthew (Andrew Ellams) chats with Chocky, from the first series

Chocky’s Children, from 1985, is perhaps a bit more satisfying purely as TV, even if, to be so, it has to drop the more atmospheric elements of the first series. Matthew, now Chocky-free but missing that sense of inner connection, goes to stay with his arty Aunt Cissie while his parents jet off on a business-and-pleasure trip to Hong Kong. (The little sister, meanwhile, gets left with the neighbours!) Following his post-Chocky interest in art, Matthew has been drawing various scenes from around the world — in surprising detail, considering he’s never been to them — one of which is a windmill. When he finds the actual mill in a field near his aunt’s house, he also meets Albertine, a young maths prodigy whose grumpy, over-protective father (who once had a stand-off with the police over his refusal to let his daughter be educated by anyone but him) is preparing her for an early entrance to Cambridge. The story comes to be about the relationship between these two sensitive, talented children, both of whom have been — knowingly or unknowingly — touched by Chocky’s influence. The oppressive government/corporate interest — now firmly corporate — is there from the start, and given the whole six-episode run to build more satisfyingly into a much more active kidnap-and-rescue than the first series.

Matthew and Albertine (Anabel Worrell), from Chocky’s Children

One thing that’s interesting about the way Anthony Read took his Chocky sequels, is how they seemed to naturally fall into line with other Wyndham novels. Matthew meeting up with, and finding he has a telepathic link to, another of Chocky’s protégés in Chocky’s Children brings in the secret, shared telepathic connection of The Chrysalids and the gestalt power of minds-combined from The Midwich Cuckoos. The next instalment, Chocky’s Challenge (broadcast in 1986), with its gathering of Chocky-influenced children from across the world, even starts to recall that other Wyndham sequel, Children of the Damned (the 1964 sequel to the Midwich film, Village of the Damned), but it’s the polar opposite of it in feel. With so many kids with even more explicit mind-powers (not just telepathy, but telekinesis and mind-projection to the stars), and a lot more appearances from Chocky (who even drops in to back up Albertine in her application for a research grant), the supernatural/spooky elements are no longer spooky or even unusual, and the more psychological elements — Matthew’s inner-world development from the first series, the relationship between him and Albertine in the second — are dropped entirely.

The kids from Chocky’s Challenge.

The story follows Albertine, now a (still very young) Cambridge graduate, wanting to bring Chocky’s gift of free-and-plentiful cosmic energy to the world. To do this, she applies for a research grant, wins the only one remaining, and assembles her team of Chocky-chosen kids from around the world (or the USA and Hong Kong, anyway). There’s no room, really, for character drama — except for a brief subplot with one boy’s search for his mother — and the feel is more along the lines of, say, The Tomorrow People, in that it’s an adventure story first and foremost. Only, where the threat in The Tomorrow People would be something strange or alien, here the main focus of the drama is… research funding. With the kids essentially super-powered, and guided by a highly intelligent mind from the stars, the only limiting factor is how they get the money to pay for the equipment and materials they need. (Nobody suggests asking Chocky for some cheap-and-easy invention they can flog for a quick cash boost.) For a while, the main villain is a rival astronomer who loses her grant to Albertine, and does her best to win it back. Meanwhile, the military only gain a hold on the kids because they can promise unlimited funds. Lessons the kids ought to be learning — such as Albertine’s very thoughtless ruining of Dr Liddle’s astronomical experiment, or the kids’ being too immature to handle the inevitable disappointments when their experiments don’t all go right on the first try — don’t get learned, and there’s a feeling that the kids are in the right simply because they’re telepathic kids, so they must be right. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. But even so, I think the third Chocky series took the show too far from its more emotional/spooky roots. John Wyndham’s novel is, really, about how something special and unique in a child can get crushed by the forces of commercialism and social propriety; the third Chocky TV series was basically about the kids crushing all those forces thanks to their super-powered (but still morally and emotionally immature) minds. Fun all the same, though.

Reaching out to the stars… From Chocky’s Challenge.

The Chocky trilogy began with the feeling that it had one foot firmly planted in 70s kids’ telefantasy. The Chocky sound effect recalled the weird electronic sounds of The Changes, and it had enough environmental concern (the need for a new source of energy to replace our reliance on fossil fuels) to feel it was still waving the flag brandished by The Changes, Raven and Sky. But by the end, it had lost those elements, and so, perhaps, had the culture as a whole. There were a couple of New Zealand kids’ shows mixing alien influences, telepathy, and environmental concerns at the same time — Under the Mountain (1981) and Children of the Dog Star (1984) — but to my mind, kids-with-psychic-powers stories seemed to give way, as the 80s went on, to adaptations of fantasy classics, often based in the past (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, Moondial), often better made, but perhaps less connected to the pressing issues of the day. Or it may be that, having grown up myself by then, I simply saw fewer of them. (There’s a psychic-twins TV series, The Gemini Factor, from 1987, that I’ll have to check out, for instance.)

And perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but as the idea of kids-with-psychic-powers is so closely tied to the notion of a new stage in human evolution — Bowie’s “homo superior” — it came with a feeling that, even without super-powers, kids had the potential of bringing something new into a world very much in need of fresh ideas and un-cynical outlooks. Part of me wonders if something of that empowering influence might have been lost when kids’ TV fantasy switched to classic adaptations (with The Box of Delights the first to be deliberately developed as an internationally marketable commodity), and the revolutionary ideals of the late 60s, which were so evident in those 70s shows, gave way to the more money-minded 80s. But even if so, it wasn’t permanent. The current generation, raised on tales of teens standing up to dystopian governments, has certainly been making itself felt, and rightly so. Now, if only some of them had super-powers…

The Morrow Books by H M Hoover

Cover to 1987 Puffin UK version, art by Michael Heslop

Tia and Rabbit are a little bit different from the other children at the Base, a primitive hunting and farming culture lorded over by the Major and the other Fathers (any man who sires a child is admitted to the upper ranks), who worship the relics of the ancient past, chief among which is a missile in a silo under their “church”. It’s an utterly repressive society, and a life of endless toil and constant fear of punishment for any transgression against the Major’s whims. Tia, though still a child, is taller than most of the other women and men at the base, though she gets breathless more easily; Rabbit, a younger boy, stammers. The two have shared a connection ever since Rabbit fell down a hole in the woods outside the Base’s grounds, and Tia, somehow hearing his cries for help, knew exactly where to find him. Ever since, she’s been branded a witch by the superstitious-minded people of the Base.

And, it turns out, she sort of is. She and Rabbit share dreams in which they talk to Ashira and Varas, a man and woman living in a far different community called Morrow. The Morrowans are telepathic, and survived the ecological “Destruction” of the past (which began with the “Death of the Seas”, during which 93% of all living creatures died of suffocation) thanks to the foresight of Simon Asher Morrow, who created a subterranean complex into which he and his chosen few could retreat while the Earth recovered. Tia and Rabbit can communicate with Ashira and Varas because they too are telepathic, and when Rabbit’s nascent mind-powers result in him killing one of the more abusive Fathers in Tia’s defence, the two children flee the Base and, guided by Ashira and Varas but pursued by the Major and a handful of hunters, make their way down a hundred miles of river to meet the Morrowans on the coast of what was, many years ago, San Francisco.

(The writing really comes alive, I think, when the children encounter things on this journey they at first can’t understand — a ruined and overgrown city, for instance, or the sea, whose strange, distant noise and smell puzzle them at first.)

Beaver Books, cover by John Raynes

Helen Mary Hoover’s Children of Morrow was first published in 1973, and has much the same scenario as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, though the emphasis is less on that book’s struggle to keep its child protagonists’ telepathic powers secret, and more on the post-discovery chase and rescue. Unlike Wyndham, though, Hoover returned to the world she’d created with Treasures of Morrow (1976), a book that starts right where Children of Morrow ends, meaning the two can be read quite satisfyingly as a single story.

In Treasures of Morrow we get to see Tia and Rabbit’s journey to Morrow and their assimilation into a culture completely alien to them because of its technological advancement and its capacity for kindness. After this, Tia, Rabbit, Ashira, Varas and some other Morrowans go on an expedition back to the Base, and Tia and Rabbit get to look at the grim, unforgiving and brutal culture in which they were raised with fresh eyes:

“Did I ever look like that?” Tia wondered as she stared at them. At this distance, in their still pose, the women’s faces were blurs, one indistinguishable from the other. All had the same wild, tangled hair. All wore the same sacklike brown leather dress. Their feet and arms were bare and muddy. But it wasn’t their bedraggledness that bothered her so much as their hangdog air of subjugation. She had not been so aware of it before, and seeing it now, and remembering, disturbed her.

Although there’s less plot and less urgency to Treasures of Morrow (there’s still a tense, action-filled ending, but it feels a little less desperate than the first book’s, thanks to the comforting presence of the technologically-advanced and cool-thinking Morrowans), to me the second book feels a bit more emotionally satisfying. Revisiting their abusive childhood world, Tia and Rabbit get to see it for the sad, demeaning tragedy it is. They can even feel pity for their abusers, seeing many of them as doing the best they could in pitiless circumstances, or simply acting out of unthinking ignorance. Ultimately, they have to turn their back on the Base, but seeing it again, now they know a better alternative, allows them to properly leave it in the past.

Although it might sound like Morrow and the Base are being presented as moral opposites, Hoover makes it clear that Morrow isn’t entirely a utopia. It was founded by one of the very industrialists whose greed caused the ecological Destruction in the first place, and who did so out of the desire for personal survival rather than an ideological investment in humanity’s future. And a potted history of Morrow in the aftermath of that mass extinction makes it clear how close it came to falling apart, with a slow deterioration of its power structures, and the enforced inbreeding of its limited population. A contamination of its main protein supply led to a chance evolutionary leap, killing some, but resulting in a few children being born with telepathic powers, after which a strict programme (still adhered to) of controlled breeding led to their present state of all being telepaths. There’s still a hint, in Treasures of Morrow, that Morrow is in danger of cultural sterility, due to there being no other equivalent civilisations to interact with:

“I mean, we’re smarter than any of the old civilisations. But there’s no one else to care what we are—or do. For example, my sister, Elizabeth, says the neutron star in the Crab Nebula is winking out. Once that news would have excited astronomers all over the world. Now it excited about six people.”

Helen Mary Hoover

It would be interesting to read a third book on how Morrow deals with this situation — something Tia and Rabbit, raised in a different culture, might have a vital perspective on. It also seemed, in Treasures of Morrow, that one of the Morrowans, Senior Geneticist Elaine, was being set up to act as a Morrowan villain, with her coldly scientific attitude towards the people of the Base, and her disapproval of Tia and Rabbit. She accompanies the expedition to the Base, but pretty much fades from the narrative, except to make the occasional offensive comment, but I felt she had the potential to underline the sort of extreme Morrow might go to, if it ever lost touch with its humanity.

There’s also the question of Tia and Rabbit’s origins. In Children of Morrow, we learn they’re the result of an unauthorised experiment in artificial insemination by a Morrowan who happened on the Base, though even the Morrowans who discover the diary describing this incident agree it sounds unlikely. It sounds as though the Morrowans have a dark side to their nature they’re perhaps not confronting. So, plenty of potential for a third book, but as it is, the two we have feel complete, so far as telling of Tia and Rabbit’s escape from an unpleasant childhood goes.

I bought the first book because of the UK edition’s Michael Heslop cover. Treasures of Morrow doesn’t seem to have been published in the UK in paperback, so perhaps the first wasn’t as successful over here as the publishers were hoping. They’re both now available for Kindle.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

John Christopher’s Death of Grass (published 1956) came out five years after John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Both are about how the precariousness of modern life can so easily give way to a tooth-and-claw battle for survival when civilisation breaks down. Christopher’s chosen disaster — a virus that destroys all grass-related plants, including wheat, rye, barley, oats and rice, and which soon threatens the world with starvation — isn’t as instantaneous as Wyndham’s, but that’s only to give its English characters a brief chance to look on in combined pity and superiority as China, where the virus originates, descends into chaos. As the virus spreads, the Brits tighten their belts and roll their eyes at the thought of going back to war-time rationing, sure they’ll handle the situation with the same dignity:

“Yet again,” a correspondent wrote to the Daily Telegraph, “it falls to the British peoples to set an example to the world in the staunch and steadfast bearing of their misfortunes. Things may grow darker yet, but that patience and fortitude is something we know will not fail.”

But when our hero, John Custance, learns the government’s latest efforts to combat the virus aren’t working, he, his family, and a small but growing band of taggers-along, head for his brother’s farm in the north. Situated in a narrow-entranced valley, it should be easy to defend as the country goes feral — as long as they can get there in one piece.

They certainly can’t do so peacefully. Leaving London, they’re faced with a military roadblock. By this point, Custance is convinced the government are planning to drop hydrogen bombs on the major cities, including London, to bring the population down to the sort of levels that can be maintained with new levels of food production, so he knows it’s a matter of kill or be killed. This close to WWII, Custance is the sort of man who has had some experience of this:

He brought the rifle up and tried to hold it steady. At any fraction of a second, he must crook his finger and kill this man, unknown, innocent. He had killed in the war, but never from such close range, and never a fellow-countryman. Sweat seemed to stream on his forehead; he was afraid of it blinding his eyes, but dared not risk disturbing his aim to wipe it off. Clay-pipes at a fairground, he thought – a clay-pipe that must be shattered, for Ann, for Mary and Davey. His throat was dry.

The most significant addition to Custance’s group is Pirrie, an older man whom they encounter when they try to first buy, then rob, guns for their trip up north. After the robbery fails, they explain what they know and Pirrie agrees to provide them with guns in exchange for him and his wife being able to come along. He proves to be a crack shot, and soon becomes their most valuable asset. He is also quite ready to take advantage of the new lawlessness to his own advantage — not to the point of betraying the group, but certainly in getting his own, sometimes brutal, way. His pragmatism quickly becomes the embodiment of what this new world is going to be like. John Custance comes to rely on, and trust him, more and more.

There’s an uneasy air of compliance, in the book, in Custance’s shift from civilised man to survivalist leader. Perhaps because we started it off by taking his side — he was the reasonably-sounding, civilised one in the early chapters, as opposed to his friend Roger’s pessimism — but as we rarely get to see inside his head, we don’t witness the inner moments when he gives in to the way the world is going to be. We just see his actions getting darker and darker. At times it’s hard to tell if Custance is taking a certain pride, or grim satisfaction when, for instance, he finds his children being that much more obedient to him — and the women too — now he’s taken on the role of leader of a band of survivalists.

So, it’s an uneasy book. But, of course, it’s meant to be.

Day of the Triffids was far more about the ecological disaster, the loneliness of the survivors, and the many different types of challenges they’d have to face in order to survive. Although it addresses the same sort of moral issues as Christopher’s book, Christopher’s is more wholly, and brutally, about the moral issues alone. In Death of Grass, there’s no real concern for the idea of trying to preserve civilisation, or mourning its loss, just a cold looking on as it dies. As Roger says, “We’re in a new era… Or a very old one…” and everyone seems quite happy, after an initial inner tussle, to take that as read and join in:

“It’s force that counts now. Anybody who doesn’t understand that has got as much chance as a rabbit in a cage full of ferrets.”

It’s easy to see Christopher’s characters as the sort Wyndham’s might meet, try to talk to, and quickly need to escape from. Wyndham had no illusions about the depths human beings could sink to, but he did believe that some might (successfully) choose not to sink all the way — which is, after all, the basis of civilisation. Christopher’s book doesn’t really debate the point. The pragmatists are the most eloquent, and they are the ones with the guns. They survive, but we do, at the end, get to see some of the cost of that survival. (It should also be said that Christopher’s characters suffer more than Wyndham’s. Not only do they kill others, but two of the women are, early on, kidnapped and raped, something that Wyndham would never have included in a book. It’s not dwelt upon, but it certainly sets a grim tone for the mental state the group falls into.)

There was a 1970 film adaptation, named No Blade of Grass (after the US retitling of the novel), which is mostly faithful, and fits in neatly with the 70s fascination with ecological disasters and survival scenarios. The smaller cast changes the dynamics of the group, even improving on Christopher’s plot at one point, when Pirrie (here a younger rather than an older man) chooses Custance’s daughter Mary to replace his wife (instead of, in the book, another young woman picked up on the way), which makes Custance’s acquiescence all the more damning — or it would, if only Custance (played by Nigel Davenport) wasn’t so stolid and matter-of-fact throughout the film. The whole mood of the film really depends on how Custance is portrayed, and Davenport doesn’t bring the slightest hint of moral doubt to the role. The group might as well be out for a country stroll, for all the horrors (made all the more horrific by being depicted in lurid 70s fashion) they meet with, and perpetrate. (It doesn’t help that, with his eyepatch, jacket, and moustache, he’s the mirror image of Julian Barrett’s 80s action-star parody Mindhorn.) Plus, there’s a rather silly stand-off near the end with a motorcycle gang, who seem to be there simply to use up the film’s stunt budget. You can see its trailer at Trailers from Hell.

Nigel Davenport’s Custance, Julian Barrett’s Mindhorn