The privatisation of public utilities and services in Britain has been a disaster for everyone apart from those given carte blanche to loot the public purse. Oligopolistic consolidation. Unemployment annd precarity. Taxes paid more or less directly to shareholders as dividends. The undermining of democracy. The ‘greed is good’ excesses of the 1980s, the TINA lies of the 1990s, the austerity bullshit of the new millennium. The preening arrogance of the corporate elites and their political lackeys. No scandal seems to have the power to even shock any more, let alone lead to criminal investigation or – can you still even imagine? – jail time.
That might be about to change.
In Bristol, evidence has been found of the most profound malfeasance, the crossing of a boundary that we can all surely agree is a step too far.
The cloning of Thomas the Tank Engine.
Is there not something sinister in their fixed grins that speaks of our age?
This is the first episode not to have survived (apart from its credits sequence). It is an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1950 story, originally published in Collier’s as ‘To the Future’ but collected in The Illustrated Man (1951) as ‘The Fox and the Forest’.
By 1965, Bradbury was already probably the sf writer most adapted for television, and he had begun to branch out into film and television writing: he wrote the screenplay for Moby Dick(Huston 1956) and, uncredited, the narration for King of Kings (Ray 1961); and for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) he adapted stories by himself and others and wrote an original script, too. This familiarity with the industry might explain why, in addition to the $1000 he was paid for rights to the story, his contract stipulated he would be paid the same every time it was repeated (typically, authors received only 50% for reruns). It might also explain why it was never repeated and thus, maybe, how it did not survive.
It was directed by Robin Midgley, primarily a stage director, although he had already notched up a number of television credits, including several episodes of Z Cars.
Irene Shubik initially commissioned a 75-minute adaptation for Story Parade, but struggled to find the right writer. It was offered to Ken Taylor, and then to Ilona Ference, who turned in an unusable script that had failed to take account of the economics and logistics of shooting a television drama. Next, Terry Nation produced a script that Shubik found vulgar. It was offered to Michael Simpson to revise, but he turned it down. Finally, Meade Roberts, who scripted the previous week’s ‘Sucker Bait’, shortened the teleplay to Out of the Unknown’s 60-minute run time and rewrote Nation’s dialogue.
Bradbury’s name was undoubtedly a draw, and Shubik even at one point considered ‘The Fox and the Forest’ as a potential season opener, but it is difficult to work out why she thought there was an hour of television drama in Bradbury’s story (let alone 75 minutes).
The story opens in Mexico in 1938. A tourist couple, William and Susan Travis, seem a little disoriented by it all. Which is not surprising because, it is quickly revealed, they are actually Ann and Roger Kristen, on the lam from an unbearable future. They were born in the middle of the 22nd century,
in a world that was evil. A world that was like a great black ship pulling away from the shore of sanity and civilization, roaring its black horn in the night, taking two billion people with it, whether they wanted to go or not, to death, to fall over the edge of the earth and the sea into radioactive flame and madness. (189)
A time-travel technology has been developed that allows inhabitants of this dismal world of the permanent warfare state to take holidays in the past. Ann and Roger, determined not to return, have gone into hiding. But a Searcher is on their trail. They evade him, and walk right into the rather obvious twist/trap laid for them.
By the standards of almost any other sf writer of the period, it is pretty slim. The opening is quite atmospheric, if in that rather vague way Bradbury has; the future world from which the protagonists are fleeing is every bit as vague, just a concatenation of phrases from Bradbury’s usual shorthand dystopianism (nuclear threat, totalitarianism, book-burning); the cat-and-mouse thriller element is not particularly suspenseful, and the action scenes no less perfunctory. Apparently, the episode follows the story rather closely, but extends it by adding on an opening section in which the protagonists kill the first Searcher sent to track them down. According to the Guardian, the opening quarter of an hour was difficult to follow, while Television Today suggested it was ‘one of the most convincing produced plays in the series’ (Ward 110).
Apparently Danny Cohen, the BBC Director of Television, is struggling to work out the fate of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. He has already described those defending Clarkson as being like those who covered up Jimmy Savile’s paedophilic predations. The Mail, in its typically confused manner, has implied today that Cohen accused Clarkson of paedophilia.
Obviously, this cannot go on.
It is tedious beyond belief, and Clarkson should have been sacked years ago.
But Top Gear is ‘the most-watched “factual” programme in the world’, and a huge money-spinner. No wonder Cohen knows what to do but cannot manage to do it.
It seems to me the answer is clear.
The BBC should take Clarkson back, but return Top Gear to the format originally proposed by JG Ballard.
This is the one with the inestimable Burt Kwouk – not the first actor of colour in the series, but the first one with a substantial role. Called upon, it seems, whenever British television or film needed a Chinese, a Japanese, an unspecified oriental, he is part of the furniture of my life; I suspect I will be devastated – not Elisabeth Sladen or James Garner devastated, but devastated nonetheless – when he dies. (I seem to have always known that he was born in Warrington, but what I did not know was that he was raised in Shanghai, his family only returning to Britain during the Chinese revolution; in my mind’s eye, I see him in the streets of thirties Shanghai, running into a young JG Ballard – only to appear 50 years later as Mr Chen in Empire of the Sun (1987).)
This is also the one – actually the first of three – directed by Naomi Capon, one of just two female directors at the BBC at the time (the other, Paddy Russell, directed the previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ .) British-born, Capon worked on American television before returning to the UK to commence, in 1951, a twenty-year career as a director and producer, almost exclusively of drama. She also directed ‘The World in Silence’ (17 November 1966), based on John Rankine’s 1966 ‘Six Cubed Plus One’, and ‘The Prophet’ (1 January 1967), based on Asimov’s ‘Reason’ (1941), one of the stories collected in I, Robot (1950). Capon’s set designer has clearly learned the dangers, so evident in ‘Time in Advance’, of signifying futurity through shiny surfaces. If the spaceship interiors are not quite as impressive as those in ‘The Counterfeit Man’, the multilevel set becomes impressive when you realise it contains an actual elevator, rather than trickery, to move between levels (although the bridge set then looks quite silly because it involves climbing up ladders to reach the door). Videoscreens and oscilloscopes abound, accompanied by some groovy radiophonics.
After ‘The Dead Past’, it is the second of six episodes based on stories by Isaac Asimov. It was adapted by Meade Roberts from Asimov’s 1954 Astounding story, ‘Sucker Bait’, collected in The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955 (published in the UK by Dennis Dobson in 1964). The adaptation was originally commissioned as a 75-minute drama, presumably for Story Parade. (Roberts also adapted the following episode from Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Fox and the Forest’ (1950).)
As with ‘The Dead Past’, this is a story built around the problem of specialisation – the idea that as knowledge develops, scientists will increasingly specialise, leading to a potential hazardous compartmentalisation of information and ideas. In Asimov’s future – distant enough in time for humanity to have colonised 83,200 worlds but still be feeling population pressures, and for the ‘2755 para-measles epidemic’ to be an historical event akin to ‘the 1918 influenza epidemic, and the Black Death’ (163) – specialisation has reached the point that it has become necessary to institute an experimental method of education in order to produce individuals capable of remembering every fact and idea they encounter, regardless of discipline. The teenage Mark Annuncio is one of the first hundred such ‘Mnemonics’.
The Trojan planet Troas, which is in a stable orbit around the differently coloured binary stars Lagrange I and II, was long ago the site of attempted colonisation. But after the entire colony, more than 1300 people, died, apparently of a disease, the world was forgotten until Mark discovered an account of it in the archives. He is included as part of the scientific expedition to investigate the world, to find out what destroyed the colony and whether it is habitable by humans. The expedition consists of single scientists from individual disciplines who accept without question each others’ views – one simply does not query specialists in different disciplines. Character names suggest that they are rather a multicultural bunch, but the only exception to their whiteness seems to be
Miguel Antonio Rodriguez y Lopez (microbiologist; small, tawny, with intensely black hair, which he wore rather long, and with a reputation, which he did nothing to discourage, of being a Latin in the grand style as far as ladies were concerned). (156)
The crew of the spaceship, however, know nothing of the mission, and knowledge of the failed colony and the possibility of fatal disease is deliberately kept from them.
The story chugs along, readable enough but distinctly minor Asimov, until Mark, ostracised by the specialists, must take desperate action to save the expedition from the same fate that befell the colony – something only he can discern, thanks to his disregard for disciplinary boundaries and his amazing powers of recall (and his chance reading of an old book some years before).
The dilemma Mark faces once he solves the mystery is very Asimovian – like those faced by robots and computers who know what is best for humanity, but must proceed indirectly and find ways to circumvent the rules constraining their action. Mark’s solution is a little surprising since, like the Book People of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), he is such a curiously passive figure. If he is in some way intended to serve as an argument in favour of generalists, of inter- and trans-disciplinary thinkers and processes, of more efficient and effective communication between disciplines, it might have been an idea to allow him some kind of creative or imaginative role, rather than casting him as a cross between a database, a search-engine and a sulky teen.
Indeed, in the adaptation, Mark (Clive Endersby) mostly comes across as an argument for sending sulky teens to their rooms without any dinner.
The main point of interest in Asimov’s story comes in the way in which it can be used to map claims for the relationship between science and sf. There are various infodumps, showing off the time Asimov has put into designing Troas as a plausible planet, including two pages (153-155) in which
Boris Vernadsky (geochemist; dark eyebrows, wide mouth, broad face, and with an inveterate tendency to polka-dot shirts and magnetic clip-ons in red plastic) (133)
belabours the atmospheric composition. Most of the information is unnecessary, other than that it situates the story within the hard-sf norms developed at Astounding and provides both a plausible framework and essential camouflaging for a latter tidbit of information, the relevance of which only Mark can realise. I honestly cannot tell whether the clue that is thus slipped into the story – and hidden by it – was ever enough for a reader to beat Mark to the solution. (It involves beryllium, which is just not used in this future universe, although the reasons for abandoning it have been long forgotten; they would perhaps have been quite fresh in the minds of many of the story’s early readers.)
HG Wells, Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville and others have argued that the relationship between sf and science does not depend upon the accuracy of the scientific knowledge being drawn upon, but on the persuasiveness with which scientific-sounding discourse can be deployed and manipulated by the writer (in Carl Freedman’s terms, sf is not about cognition per se, but about the creation of particular kinds of cognition effect). And of course this relationship is always a relative, not an absolute, one. Different authors and readers bring different levels and kinds of knowledge, different desires to persuade and different desires to be adequately persuaded. The nature and degree of that adequacy shifts depending on circumstances, not least because sf is far from monolithic. Claiming superiority for sf stories because of their greater scientificness is merely an attempt to impose a particular hierarchy of taste. Often reversing the polarities can be perfectly adequate and is not at all necessarily inferior. The most intriguing sequence in Asimov’s story is concerned with these ideas.
In an attempt to persuade Cimon, the mission commander, to allow Mark to accompany the expedition onto the surface of Troas, Dr Sheffield attempts blackmail. This involves using the professional protocols around specialisms so as, over the course of several pages, to trick Cimon, and then threatening to release an illicit recording of him making a fool of himself. Going into the scene, we know nothing of this scheme.
Sheffield suggests that the combined effect of the planet’s two suns – one of which casts blue-green shadows, the other red-orange – and of the light reflected from its moon could
exert a deleterious effect on mental stability [resulting in] chromopsychosis [that] could reach a fatal level by inducing hypertrophy of the trinitarian follicles, with consequent cerebric catatonia. … red-green chromopsychosis has been recorded to exhibit itself first as a psychogenic respiratory infection. … Surely you must be noticing just a small inflammation of the mucus membrane of the nose, a slight itching in the throat. Nothing painful yet, I imagine. Have you been coughing or sneezing? It is a little hard to swallow? (174-175)
This is, of course, all nonsense, as Sheffield admits once he has panicked Cimon. But it does cut to the core of the issue of persuasion and persuasiveness. At what point does the reader or viewer spot what Sheffield is doing? This is more complex than it might sound, because the discursive register is more or less identical here as in the other passages of exposition which Asimov wants/needs the reader to accept. There is time in these few pages to wonder whether Asimov genuinely intends to extrapolate future ailments – chromopsychosis and psychogenetic symptoms – that might lie in wait for humans who travel to alien worlds. And to wonder what he might jeopardise his act of persuasion with a term as clumsy as ‘trinitarian follicles’. And, to be surprised at how it got past his editor, John W. Campbell.
I am pretty certain that when I read this story as a kid, thirty-odd years ago, I would not have spotted Sheffield’s trick until he admitted it. (I know I read the collection, but I had absolutely no memory of this story until rereading it this week.) This time around, Sheffield sounded suspicious from the get-go. But if the solution to the mystery did lie in chromopsychosis, I would have probably cut Asimov some slack – since this is a minor story, it would not have been surprising that the exposition was also weak in places.
The adaptation gives a really interesting version of this scene, thanks largely to John Meillon’s softly-spoken performance as Sheffield. He begins with a kind of boisterous uncertainty, as if to test whether he is going to get away with it, but also signalling to the audience that something is amiss with what he is going to say. This caution disappears as he quietly concatenates and escalates the threat. He ends with the claim that chromopsychosis can also affect the hearing. And as he asks whether Cinam (David Knight) is experiencing such a symptom, he drops his voice just a little. It is a delightful touch, something Asimov could not have conveyed.
Other things to watch out for — The giant playing cards from ‘The Counterfeit Man’ put in another appearance, as does a game of multidimensional chess – well before Star Trek — The table-top model positioned in the foreground so as to make the studio-bound planet’s surface look much bigger than it is
The second original script for the series has, like ‘Stranger in the Family’, a contemporary setting (but is rather less adventurous in its use of location shooting – just the exterior of an old suburban home and the Putney street outside). The writer, Mike Watts, had primarily worked for various ITV companies, although in 1965 he also scripted a couple of episodes of the BBC’s The Troubleshooters (1965–72); in addition to writing original dramas and episodes, he wrote or co-wrote several British crime movies, all of them comedies, The Pot Carriers (1962), The Cracksman (1963), Crooks in Cloisters (1964), which I remember fondly but haven’t seen in about a million years, and Joey Boy (1965). The director was Paddy Russell, one of the first two women directors at the BBC. Originally an actress, she appeared in a 1950 adaptation of Karel Capek’s The Insect Play for BBC Sunday-Night Theatre (1950–59) and in two different and uncredited roles in a couple of episodes of Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier’s The Quatermass Experiment (1953); she quit acting to become Cartier’s floor manager and then a director. Despite a long and varied career that lasted until around 1980, and included everything from 55 episodes of Z Cars (1962–78) to 15 instalments of the gameshow 3-2-1 (1978–87), she is probably best remembered as the director of Doctor Who’s The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (1966), Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974), The Pyramids of Mars (1975) and The Horror of Fang Rock (1997). Here, she does an excellent job of never letting the potentially ridiculous aspects of the story teeter over into the comical.
‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ tells the story of Henry Wilkes (Milo O’Shea), a fishmonger and an obsessive gardener who, thanks to his weekly, year-long correspondence with the mysterious Mr Pringle, has managed to grow a number of exotic species which should not even survive in the UK. He has, in fact, grown them to monstrous size, feeding them experimental foodstuffs as well as diced rabbit and cockles. There is something odd about them, though. Birds stay away from the garden. Wilkes, who has given the plants names, also talks to them, and they respond, although we do not hear their voices or what they say; their sentience, however, is confirmed for viewers by their physical responses to his proximity and touch, and the way they extend feelers to grasp at the food he scatters on the soil. Wilkes goes as far as to steal hextellenium, a dangerous chemical, from the pharmacy next to his shop to use in an experimental formula to make Nobby, his favourite among the plants, grow even bigger and stronger.
Indeed, Wilkes is so obsessed with plants as living beings that he berates his new shop assistant, Anne Lovejoy (Patsy Rowlands), for dressing the displays of fish with parsley – he refuses to stock the herb in an effort to discourage his customers from making parsley sauce – and for putting tomato and lettuce in her cheese sandwiches. She is extremely devoted to her new boss, ever so slightly a-quiver when he is around.
Monica Wilkes (Christine Hargreaves) is a nervous mess, concerned her husband no longer loves her and driven to distraction by the weirdness the garden exudes. Although she has witnessed nothing in particular to distress her so, she senses it is somehow unnatural. She suffers from headaches and depression, and her only comfort is her pet dog, Mina, an obvious child surrogate whom she obsessively sketches and paints. (If the story was told from Monica’s point of view, it might be rather like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892).)
This potential middle-class love triangle comes to the fore when Dr Chambers (Desmond Jordan) is brought in to consult on Monica’s ‘nerves’. (He is a private specialist, rather than an NHS doctor, which is significant to the class politics of the story: there are clear social hierarchies, including ones around education, the amateur and the professional.) Chambers bluntly asks Wilkes whether the source of Monica’s anxiety could be that he is having an affair with another woman.
But something else entirely is going on. Something rather queer.
There is a tradition of sf/horror stories about sentient plants, from HG Wells’s ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (1894) to John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) to The Thing (from another World) (Nyby 1951) to Scott Smith’s The Ruins (2006). Many of these stories are obsessed with reproduction, especially Don Siegel’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which the peculiarities of human sexual reproduction are mapped onto a post-war world world being transformed by commodity production. In ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’, though, the plants are partly about masturbation and all about homosexual desire.
Wilkes comforts Monica with transparent – to us – lies. He is oblivious to Anne, even as he seeks her collusion in his secretive schemes; in a quite agonising scene, his efforts to make up for snapping at her lead to an intimate conversation, during which he is completely unaware of quite how likely she might be to misinterpret his sudden attention (Rowlands excels, as always, at combining self-deprecation, class aspiration, timidity and repressed desire). He has been engaged in a secretive correspondence with Pringle, a man whom no one has met and who regularly sends him odd packages. Wilkes takes special pleasure in the plant he calls Nobby. He thrusts his hands deep into Nobby’s leaves to administer a ‘morning tickle’, during which he calls the plant what sounds like ‘a little old plonker’ and then unquestionably a ‘great big silly old faggot’. And when he plunges a syringe full of his special formula into Nobby’s roots to make his favourite even bigger, the framing of the shot makes it look as if Wilkes is fumbling with his penis. Elsewhere, he describes himself to Anne as ‘the biggest cockle-eater in the business’.
And Nobby is a jealous lover. He devours Mina, and then barks like the dog so as to lure Monica to her death; and then when Anne turns up, laden with cockles for Wilkes…
The script was originally commissioned as a seventy-five minute drama; cutting it down to sixty-minutes (even then, it overruns by a minute), might be why the end seems a little rushed, fizzles a little. On the one hand, there is no revelation that Pringle is really an intelligent plant, which is probably a good thing; but there is certainly left open the unexplored possibility that Nobby or the other plants are telepathically controlling Wilkes and others…
Other things to watch out for — Patsy Rowland’s reverse acting when the plant wraps its tendrils around her neck
— The quite astonishing line after Wilkes tears a plastic flower off one his customer’s bosoms: You can’t go out for a pair of kippers nowadays without getting raped.
— The expression on Patsy Rowland’s face when she walks out of the shop just in time to hear that line being delivered. — And Norman. Watch out for Norman. He is the pharmacist. He is also Eric Thompson, Emma’s dad and, far more significantly for world culture, the narrator of the English-language dub of The Magic Roundabout (1965–77).
A giant figure in immaculate evening dress looms over night-time Paris. Stepping over familiar landmarks, he gazes out at us from behind a domino mask. And in his outstretched hand is a bloodied dagger. The image, by Gino Starace, is iconic. It is Fantômas. The Lord of Terror. The Genius of Evil. But despite his costume, he is not a gentleman.
Created in 1911 by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre for a series of 32 monthly novels, the enormously popular Fantômas soon crossed over to the movies. In 1913 and 1914, Louis Feuillade directed five films about the endless quest of Inspector Juve and journalist Jerôme Fandor to capture the criminal mastermind. However, although Starace’s picture was used to promote Feuillade’s Fantômas, he only once appears costumed like this – and then as a figment of the defeated Juve’s imagination.
The head of a vast criminal organisation and a master of disguise, Fantômas has less in common with the gentleman thief than with the villains of Fritz Lang’s Die Spinnen (1919-20), Spione (1928) and Dr Mabuse films (1922, 1933, 1960), in whom the terrors of disempowerment and anonymity that accompany capitalist-industrial, urban modernity coalesce. Brutally instrumentalist and utterly impersonal, there is no true identity to be discovered behind his series of disguises.
Starace’s dapper but knife-wielding gentleman is – in the face of the globalising forces of empire and capital squaring off on the eve of World War I – at once reassuring, anachronistic, transgressive and fantastical. Perhaps this is why Fantômas, the product of arch-conservatives, so appealed to such radical avant-gardists as Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Blaise Cendrars, René Magritte and Kurt Weill. He embodies the contradictions of his age.
The probable source of Starace’s gentleman-thief image is AJ Raffles, perhaps channelled through Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin. Created by EW Hornung in the 1890s, Raffles is the finest slow bowler of his generation. Penniless, he is nonetheless proud to be a Gentleman rather than a Player, and likewise insists on his amateur status as a thief. Selecting only the most challenging jobs and most exquisite loot to support his bachelor lifestyle, he robs from the rich and is not averse to others helping the poor.
He appeared in a dozen films between 1905 and 1939. Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917) stars John Barrymore in a breakneck mash-up of Hornung’s stories that only ever pauses to display The Great Profile’s great profile. This Raffles appears to be not so much a gentleman as someone who knows a gentleman’s tailor (Barrymore, his looks and his star both fading, is a more compelling gentleman thief in Arsène Lupin and Grand Hotel, both 1932). In Raffles (1925), House Peters, known as ‘The Star of a Thousand Emotions’, can muster only a handful of them, including ‘stolid refusal to be charismatic’ and ‘discomfort in ill-fitting evening dress’. In contrast, Ronald Colman in the first talkie Raffles (1930) gives one of his most effortless-seeming performances – as if acting were too vulgar even to contemplate – and the warm timbre of his Surrey burr modulates plummy received pronunciation into something quite sensuous. But the narrative material had already been filleted of its fundamental queerness. Hornung’s stories, focused on the close bond between Raffles and his accomplice Bunny, are full of innuendo and double entendre, with occasional allusions to amyl nitrate and Oscar Wilde.
Once the Production Code was enforced, the gentleman thief became not merely straight but almost completely desexualised. In the 1940 Raffles, David Niven is too young, his Raffles too boyish, and the casting of classical Hollywood’s very best good girl, Olivia de Havilland, as his love interest compounds an error that would not be corrected until Yorkshire Television’s 1977 Raffles series, starring Anthony Valentine. Perfectly cast, Valentine’s precise delivery and slightly faded looks – the contrast between his crow’s feet and seemingly plasticised cheekbones suggests more than merely a youth misspent – unleash the homoerotic appeal of the gentleman thief: the tastefully furnished, comfortable quarters, devoid of women; the endless flirtations, but avoidance of romance or entanglement; the gentlemen’s clubs; the secret nocturnal identity; the dressing-up to break into other men’s houses; the crossing of class barriers; the mixing with rough trade…
But, queer or otherwise, this sexual undercurrent is not the only source of the gentleman thief’s appeal. The flipside of Fantômas, that anonymously devastating force of modernity, the gentleman thief negotiates modernity’s transformations of economic and social structures. This is beautifully captured by the prominence afforded a bust of WG Grace in the apartment of Valentine’s Raffles. As the finest cricketer of his generation, Grace is worthy of Raffles’s respect. But despite being a Gentleman, he was only nominally an amateur, making more money from the sport than any professional Player. A similar whiff of disrepute surrounds Raffles.
As old hierarchies crumbled, signifiers of social class were disrupted by wider access to certain varieties of commodity. Appearances begin to deceive. In Ernst Lubitsch’s racy, pre-Code Trouble in Paradise (1932), a Baron (Herbert Marshall) and a Countess (Miriam Hopkins) only fall in love when each discovers the other is a fake and a thief. Self-made and simulacral, they can play any social role – given the right costume – but the only place they really belong is with each other, conning, stealing or on the lam. However, such semiotic manipulations rarely succeed. In Pépé le moko (1938), Jean Gabin’s proletarian thief is unutterably stylish, but he cannot escape his class or fate.
In the post-war period, values shifted. Consider the contrast in The Pink Panther (1963) between the aristocratic Phantom and his nephew: David Niven is too old, Robert Wagner too American, too glib. A new consumerist masculinity was taking over, and gentleman thieves were no longer gentlemen. And they were as likely to solve crimes as commit them.
The character-type saw a popular resurgence in 1966, the year in which Cary Grant, Hollywood’s master of sartorial transformation (and a gentleman thief in To Catch a Thief, 1955), retired from films. The charm of Gambit’s Harry Dean (Michael Caine) is located in the gulf between his East London vowels and his dubious received pronunciation when posing as Sir Harold Dean. That of Kaleidoscope’s Barney Lincoln (Warren Beatty) depends entirely on his transparent reliance on a broad smile to buy time when he is out of his social depth. This league of ‘gentlemen’, which also includes Oliver Reed in The Jokers (1967) and Stanley Baker in Perfect Friday (1970), consists of working- (or middle-) class boys made good, and valorised for doing so. The very best of them is to be found in How to Steal a Million (1966), less a film than an opportunity to ponder whether Audrey Hepburn – as elegant when disguised as a cleaning lady as when dressed by Givenchy – or a young Peter O’Toole is the more beautiful (although it is probably a draw, O’Toole does showcase some of the most remarkable cigarette-handling you will ever see).
Costume, commodities and consumption are also at the heart of Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968). The eponymous Jaguar-driving criminal mastermind (played by John Phillip Law, who looks like the offspring of Alain Delon and a Vulcan mod) dresses in full-enclosure leather and rubber body suits to commit his crimes, only his eyes visible through a domino-shaped cutaway. Based on a 1960s Italian comic book character, Diabolik is an intriguing inversion of Fantômas. His ‘terrorism’ is restricted to destroying the taxation system because the government have wasted so much public money pursuing him, and his subterranean base is a fantasy of modish, high-tech apartment living – a love-nest shared with Eva (Marisa Mell), his beautiful blonde accomplice with a taste for mini-dresses, hotpants, hipsters, peekaboo tops and kinky boots. Crime, for them, is passionate foreplay and, in contrast to poor Raffles and Bunny, it need never go unconsummated.
This dynamic between class and consumption was repeatedly played out on British television in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Adam Adamant (Gerald Harper), a Victorian secret agent revived in swinging London, was a gentleman (and misogynistic prig) but not a thief. Peter Wyngarde’s deliciously-voiced Jason King was no gentleman, although he was certainly a player. Tony Curtis’s brash self-made millionaire Danny Wilde partners up with Roger Moore’s Lord Brett Sinclair to fight crime in expensive locations in The Persuaders!, although Moore always seemed less an aristocrat than a bemused estate agent. However, the pattern was most decisively set when, in the fifth season of The Avengers, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, formerly so well-dressed that you forgot he was a government functionary, let himself be costumed by Pierre Cardin. Bringing modern touches to classic Savile Row designs might have sounded innocuous, but from there it was only a short step to working with Gareth Hunt…
Perhaps it was the backlash against the ‘excesses’ of the 1960s and 1970s, or perhaps it was neo-liberalism’s success in persuading otherwise sensible people that there are no such things as society or social and economic classes, that finally did for the gentleman thief. Where is he now?
In Entrapment (1999), Sean Connery – whose James Bond negotiated so intriguingly between working-class physique and access to style, articulating social mobility as a semiotic possibility – is just some rich guy, no more convincing as a gentleman than he was as a Soviet submarine commander. There is too much of the catalogue model about Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and George Clooney’s Danny Ocean merely gentrifies the rat pack. Remorselessly heterosexualised, they reek of new money. And then there is The Gentleman Thief (2001), which only exists because the BBC realised – far too late – that they should lazily cast Nigel Havers as Raffles before it was too late. Or former Eastender Michelle Ryan as Doctor Who’s ‘aristocratic’ thief/Emma-Peel-wannabe, Lady Christina de Souza…
Frankly, I’d rather work with Gareth Hunt.
[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 12 (winter 2009), is now out of print.]
This episode is based on ‘Time in Advance’ (Galaxy 1956) by William Tenn, the pseudonym of Philip Klass, UK-born but US-resident since childhood. He published only one novel, Of Men and Monsters (magazine version 1963; book version 1968), but around fifty short stories in the second half of the 1940s and the 1950s. ‘Time in Advance’ was reprinted as the title story of a 1958 collection of his work by Bantam in the US and in the UK by Gollancz in 1963 and the Science Fiction Book Club in 1964; Brian Aldiss also included it in Introducing SF: A Science Fiction Anthology for Faber and Faber in 1964. It has been anthologised a handful of times since then, though the reasons for its early prominence rather elude me.
The premise of the story is neatly ironic. In the future, in order to reduce crime and also to provide labour for the arduous colonisation of other worlds, murder is made legal – sort of. If you announce your intention to kill, you can serve a halved sentence breaking alien rocks in perilous circumstances, and if you survive, you return to Earth and receive a license permitting you to commit the murder (or equivalent crimes, the sentences of which equal that which you have already served; and you do not have to identify your intended victim). Often, just a short stint off-world is enough to dissuade people from murder, and they return home chastened; those determined to see it through rarely survive. (Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’ introduced a rather different notion of pre-crime earlier the same year, in the January 1956 Fantastic Universe.)
The story opens with Nicholas Crandall and Otto Henck, who have kept each other alive through countless dangers, returning aboard the convict ship Jean Valjean, their sentences completed, their desire to kill unchanged. And then, in rather a schematic manner, Nick encounters an array of people who either assume they are his intended victim or wish him to use his immunity from prosecution to other ends. He learns that everyone is kind of shitty and that he does not have the will to kill even his worst enemy, while Otto is denied the possibility of revenge upon his unfaithful wife.
It is entertaining enough in its jadedness, but rather poorly constructed. Nick tends to meet other characters just once, with each exchange being wrapped up and effectively forgotten before the next commences, and a number of passages – such as Nick’s explanation of his grievance – seem very first draft, not so much in the quality of their prose as in their off the cuff rationalisation. According to Tenn, the story was written in one night, after a friend, Calder Willingham was mugged on his way over to visit. The seed of the story was Willingham’s sense that he would never again feel safe in Greenwich Village:
‘That’s the worst thing about these rotten criminals – not what they do to you at the moment, but what they do to you in the future, when they’re not even around’. (370)
Tenn took the completed story to Horace Gold the next morning, who promptly bought it without requiring any changes.
The episode is the first of three directed by Peter Sasdy, the others being ‘The Midas Plague’ (20 December 1965) and ‘The Eye’ (24 November 1966). A prolific director of serial and standalone television drama since 1959, he had previously directed the Terry Nation-scripted, Peter Cushing-starring, Irene Shubik-script-edited adaptation of Asimov’s ‘The Caves of Steel’ (5 June 1964) for Story Parade (1964). He graduated to films with Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Countess Dracula (1971), written by Jeremy Paul, author of ‘The Dead Past’, and Hands of the Ripper (1971), all made for Hammer, and the 1972 Doomwatch spin-off movie, written by Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, made for Tigon. He directed a few more films, including the horror movies Nothing but the Night (1973) and I Don’t Want to Be Born (1975) and the Canadian sf-western Welcome to Blood City (1977). But the remainder of his career was spent primarily in television, directing Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), as well as episodes of Arthur of the Britons (1972-73), Great Mysteries (1973-74), Supernatural (1977), 1990 (1977-78), Return of the Saint (1978-79), Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (1979-80), Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984-85) and Imaginary Friends (1987). Which means I saw an awful lot of his work while growing up, albeit without knowing it.
The script by Peter Erickson, who would next year co-write Doctor Who’s ‘The Ark’ four-parter, does the best it can to make the story less schematic. It also, thankfully, omits the wealthy and strikingly beautiful woman who tries to persuade Tenn’s Crandall not to commit murder but instead to rape her in as brutal and degrading a manner as possible – since it carries the same sentence, he couldn’t be prosecuted for it. And Erickson changes the conclusion of the story – while Tenn cannot quite maintain his misanthropy to the end, Erickson introduces one more betrayal:
I was his best friend. It was my turn to make a profit out of him.
Erickson works hard to create a more distinctive future world than the one Tenn sketches in, albeit from familiar enough building blocks. Scarcity has been banished, and most people live lives of leisure. Redevelopment projects turn massive apartment blocks into nature parks (!), and automation is widespread (in a nice touch, which plays a little clunkily now, it is implied that revolutionary power source behind Crandall’s desire for revenge has lead to sufficient changes in his and Otto’s seven year absence that they have to figure out and explain to each other – i.e., the audience – how things work). The existence of voluntary euthanasia suggests a certain ambivalence about this future, as does the fact that pretty much the entire cast sport similar white-blond/e wigs. On the one hand, this merely suggests alterity, a kind of Thal-like premature glam-rock; on the other, some kind of Aryan uniformity. The skin make-up on some characters anticipates the gold-skinned cast of Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), and it remains unclear whether the excessive eyeliner worn by some of the male characters signifies, along with the psychedelic wall displays, the perpetuation of a youthful culture or queasiness about so much leisure and its potential for decadence. Certainly, as Crandall, Edward Judd’s trademark ability – exercised so well in the Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), First Men in the Moon (1964), Invasion (1966), Island of Terror (1966) and The Vengeance of She (1968) – to play sympathetic but unlikeable characters allows a kind of manly robustness to be let loose in this queer future.
Other things to look out for: — Judy Parfitt as Marie, and Mike Pratt (y’know Randall, from Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969-71)) as Otto
–Numerous reflections of the microphone boom and sometimes the entire crew in the metallic walls – one of the real problems when shininess signifies futurity.
There is an ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of Doctor Sleep (2013) that, under the guise of clarifying that it is a sequel-by-popular-demand to his 1977 novel rather than to Kubrick’s 1980 film of The Shining, says of the latter: ‘many seem to remember [it] – for reasons I have never quite understood – as one of the scariest movies they have ever seen’ (483). The next paragraph does not proclaim the TV miniseries King himself adapted as superior to the movie, but it does sing the praises of his more-or-less-reliable-hack director Mick Garris’s Psycho IV, as if to trump Kubrick with a Hitchcock.
It is coyly done, as if King knows it is not at all convincing.
But anyway, as part of my ongoing preparation for teaching Kubrick’s film as a cult movie, after reading the novel I watched the miniseries over several nights. I would have got through it sooner, but after episode one my ever-patient housemate cried no más, and scheduling became an issue – poor thing missed out completely on the slightly less terrible second and third episodes…
The main problems with the miniseries are its plodding adherence to the novel and the deadening literalness of its treatment of the supernatural elements. All it takes is that first glimpse of Danny’s (Courtland Mead) imaginary friend Tony (Wil Horneff) bobbing about in the air to realise quite how brilliant Kubrick was to have Danny (Danny Lloyd) talking to his finger instead. (Probably didn’t help that it immediately took me back to being thirteen and watching Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979) miniseries and bursting out laughing at the supposedly scary bit when the fat vampire kid taps on the window.)
These two intertwined problems began to fill me with dread when the first episode started obsessing about the topiary animals, trying to make them ominous. Will they be brought to life as badly as the cgi hosepipe? How could the bush-animal attack sequences – presumably originally inspired by Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Veldt’ (1950) – possibly work?
I generally find Bradbury overrated, but even I must concede the novel’s reworking of this material makes make him seem subtle.
Garris very sensibly, if not very effectively, relies on camera movements, editing and switching-in props to bring the topiary lions to life. Until the ‘cliffhanger’ ending of episode two, the final shot of which shows Danny being stalked unaware by three cgi shrubs. (They do not appear again except fleetingly in the climax of episode three. Thankfully.) To be clear, this is not ragging on the special effects because they are bad, but because they are badly chosen.
Generally, the physical effects work best, but there is something so amiss about the individual episodes’ and the series’ pacing that they too become a problem. The first couple of times a door opens or closes or an object moves mysteriously is fine, but you pretty quickly find yourself wondering whether it is always the same bloke hidden just out of shot pushing the door, how much he gets paid, what he had for lunch… Not so much ‘how did they do that?’ as ‘why?’ And it does make you wonder what exactly they spent the $25 million budget on.
I guess, in part, the format is the problem. Economics dictate that a network TV miniseries made in the 1990s can’t be too scary or unnerving or disturbing, so the supernatural horror has to be blandly by-the-numbers and the domestic abuse material has to be displaced as far as possible.
So I have a lot of sympathy for the cast.
Winifred Torrance is a badly underwritten character in the novel – all I can really remember is King banging on about her breasts – and she is no better served by a script that slaps on a bunch of embarrassing clichés. Garris does not seem to have any idea what to do with her, and Rebecca De Mornay struggles. Indeed, in episode one, she even seems to struggle to walk across rooms, although she does do one brilliant bit of almost indiscernible crabstepping down a hotel corridor that is simply not wide enough to accommodate three or four actors walking abreast.
Steve Weber, as Jack, has the easier job – do what Jack Nicholson did but not the way he did it. Even so, it is only when the later episodes allow Weber to ham it up that he becomes even remotely effective, and in the second half of episode three, this is largely down to his make-up – which gives him the appearance of a beaten-up, tear-stained clown.
As Danny, basin-cut Courtland Mead clearly shares no genetic material with either of his parents. He looks like one of those profoundly unattractive children who used to get cast in Dallas or Dynasty for no reason other than that their dad was a producer on the show. His performance does get better in the later episodes, and his unexpected ‘I love snow’ song is a bizarre delight, but I kept finding myself wondering whether the alcoholic, physically abusive Jack ever used his son’s enormous teeth to open beer bottles.
Most of the time the three principals, especially De Mornay, have the air of people wondering how much longer they are going to have to keep this up for…
The decision to play Ullman (Elliot Gould) as a mincing lisper is a really poor choice, but not as badly judged as Stephen King’s cameo as bandleader Gage Creed – at least he didn’t black up for his terrible Cab Calloway impersonation. (There is a chummy array of horror-related cameos: Frank Darabont, Peter James, Richard Christian Matheson, David J. Schow – and Sam Raimi stealing the bread from his brother, Ted’s, mouth.)
Pat Hingle, as Pete Watson, is probably the only actor to escape with his dignity intact, professionally ploughing through this nonsense the same way he has done since the 1950s.
But it is Melvin Van Peebles, as Dick Halloran, who has the best line:
This is the first of the series’ six episodes based on the fiction of Isaac Asimov, its most adapted author. The others are ‘Sucker Bait’ (1954; 15 November 1965), ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ (1951; 29 December 1966), ‘Reason’ (1941; 1 January 1967 as ‘The Prophet’), ‘Liar!’ (1941; 14 January 1969) and ‘The Naked Sun’ (1956; 18 February 1969). Only the first two episodes survive.1
‘The Dead Past’ was directed by John Gorrie, who had previously worked on Doctor Who, directing ‘The Keys of Marinus’ (1964) and possibly one episode of ‘The Reign of Terror’ (1964), though this seems to be disputed, not least by Gorrie himself.
The adaptation of Asimov’s 1956 Astounding story was by Jeremy Paul, probably best known in sf circles for a pair of original Play for Today (1970-84) teleplays, The Flipside of Dominick Hide (9 Decemeber 1980) and Another Flip for Dominick (14 December 1982). Paul also adapted John Brunner’s ‘The Last Lonely Man’ (1964; 21 January 1969) for Out of the Unknown, and scripted ‘Poor Butterfly’ (9 January 1969), an original Journey to the Unknown (1968-69) teleplay, and Hammer’s Countess Dracula (Sasdy 1971).
Asimov’s story presents a particular set of problems for the adapter in that it typifies both the strengths and weaknesses of his fiction as fiction. Take, for example, the opening scene, around 800 words long, in which Arnold Potterley, a Professor of Ancient History, has an appointment with Thaddeus Araman, head of the Chronoscopy Division, to plead once more for access to a chronoscope so that he can further pursue research into ancient Carthage (primarily to prove that the ancient civilization was not a brutal regime, given to sacrificing its children by fire to appease Moloch in times of adversity, and that this idea is merely a lie spread by the Greeks and Romans). There is a brief description of Potterley’s appearance, but no clues at all as to what Araman looks like or where the scene is set – presumably Araman’s office, since he looks through a folder of papers and has a buzzer (on his desk?) with which to summon his secretary; there is also some sitting down and standing up, implying there are chairs. But overall, there are few visual cues of any kind, and no other appeal to senses whatsoever, just two talking heads expositioning at each other. (Yes, I know it’s not a verb, but at times like this it needs to be.) Readers are left to themselves to fill in as much or as little of this detail as they want.2
Yet somehow it works, probably because Asimov is such an effective writer of exposition – it is why he was drawn to the kind of logic-problem stories typical of both his sf and crime fiction, and it is why he is better as a science populariser (or vulgariser, as I seem to recall him insisting) than a fiction writer. It is also part of his role in the hegemony of Campbellian sf. Asimov’s fiction so very effectively denies human material embodiment, it could not help but appeal to readers of a genre constantly and anxiously constructing its self-image (in opposition to fantasy, horror, the weird, romance, science fantasy) as one of reason and rationality. Presumably, this denial of embodiment, emotionality, irrationality, etc, also appealed to many adolescents and to the core lower-middle-class genre readership of the period, precariously positioned just that little bit higher up the class system than their parents and aspiring to at least remain there.
Of course, television drama – and particular the tradition of single plays – urgently wants to be more than just an interchange of talking heads, and this becomes difficult when depicting a future world on a budget.3 The episodes has just six speaking parts (and three extras), and nine sets, all of them interiors. The only external views are a couple of glimpses of the past on chronoscope screens and the city vista outside of Araman’s office window. Futurity is conveyed through fashion (suit jackets without lapels, collars or pockets; matching waistcoats and trousers revealed in medium and long shot to be one-piece outfits; shirts that fasten up one side rather than centrally; invisible fastenings, and especially no buttons, which seem to have become every bit as disinvented as seatbelts in the Star Trek universe) and some minor technological innovations, such as a small desktop videophone and the chronoscopes’ giant wallscreens. Dialogue can bear some of the weight, but exposition has to be briefer, tighter, sketchier when spoken than when on the page (at least within the magazine sf norms of Asimov’s time).
Part of the dilemma faced by Arnold Potterley is that he lives in a society in which the boundaries between – and indeed within – disciplines are heavily policed. As he expositions at a junior faculty member Jonas Foster, a physicist who has yet to make his first grant application, which will fix his specialism for his entire career,
Scholars … could be free only if they could freely follow their own free-swinging curiosity. Research … forced into a predesigned pattern by the powers that held the purse strings became slavish and had to stagnate. (15-16)
Actually, Asimov does not even try to stage this as a conversation between people. Foster’s thoughts soon slip into authorial exposition:
No one would advocate running a factory by allowing each individual worker to do whatever pleased him at the moment, or of running a ship according to the casual and conflicting notions or each individual crewman. It could be taken for granted that some sort of centralized supervisory agency must exist in each case. Why should direction and order benefit a factory and a ship but not scientific research?
People might say that the human mind was somehow qualitatively different from a ship or factory but the history of intellectual endeavor proved the opposite. … as knowledge grew, more and more data had to be absorbed before worthwhile journeys into ignorance could be organized. … More and more, the individual researcher gave way to the research team and the research institution. … By 1940, only the government, large industries and large universities or research institutions could properly subsidize basic research.
By 1960, even the largest universities depended entirely upon government grants, while research institutions could not exist without tax concessions and public subscriptions. By 2000, the industrial combines had become a branch of world government and, thereafter, the financing of research and therefore its direction naturally became centralized under a department of the government.
It all worked out naturally and well. Every branch of science was fitted neatly to the needs of the public, and the various branches of science were co-ordinated decently. (15-16)
This resonates with concerns voiced by JBS Haldane and Bertrand Russell in the 1920s, JD Bernal in the 1930s, Robert K. Merton in the 1930s and 1940s, among others, that the industrialization of science by states, especially for military purposes, and by corporations leads not only to secrecy but also distorts the practice of science for purposes of profit and social control. For the contemporary reader, especially if an academic in a UK university, such passages reek of the disastrous consequences – well, some of them – of the RAEs and REFs, and of the reorganization of research councils so as to channel research funding to the already-wealthiest universities and to promote top-down agendas of questionable merit.
Potterley goes so far as to claim that the government is actively preventing research using the chronoscopes – time windows, which enable one to see and hear the past – and into neutrinics, the science underpinning the technology. Against his better judgment, Foster is drawn in, and recruits the assistance of his uncle, Ralph Nimmo, a science writer whose job seems to combine science journalism, ghost-writing grant applications and ghost-writing refereed journal articles (I am not sure such a career actually quite exists yet, but again this seems prescient of the significance now given to ‘impact’ in the funding of UK research).
And, of course, once Foster is able to develop a low-cost easy-to-build version of the chronoscope, it turns out that Potterley’s suspicions are well-grounded. In a pretty well-orchestrated escalation, Asimov reveals that chronoscopes can only view the past up until about a century and a quarter previously, after which the noise to signal ration becomes impenetrably high. After some moral-panicking about new media – that people will spend all their time watching this new channel, close themselves off from the world and become obsessed with trying to relive the past – a far more significant point is made. The ‘past’ actually begins a split second ago, which makes the chronoscope a highly effective surveillance device – and one that, thanks to Foster and Nimmo, anyone can now build. It is the end of privacy, the beginning of an utterly new world.
Asimov’s conclusion also includes the suggestion that what Potterley saw as state tyranny was actually the state acting in the best interests of all. This tension runs through a lot of his work – partly a typical American obsession, partly a Wellsian desire for rational management by a benevolent elite, and partly the Technocracy and Michelism, perhaps tinged with debates about radical democracy versus centralised control (Trotsky vs Lenin vs Stalin), picked up in his Futurian days. The story’s abrupt conclusion, its refusal to try to imagine the world that might be created by the widespread use of chronoscopes, is among other things a reiterated terror of the supposedly irrational (and embodied) masses.
The episode does a pretty good job of capturing the various arguments and counter-arguments driving Asimov’s story forward, but sometimes struggles to enliven them, despite a strong cast of character actors and competent direction. The latter sadly fails to transform the sense of confinement produced by the limited sets into the oppressive claustrophobia that would lend more urgency and conviction.. A small but key change to the story comes at the end of the first scene – rather than completely forgetting about Potterley, Araman sets in motion a game of cat and mouse, once more channeling into television sf Orwell’s and Kneale/Cartier’s Nineteen Eight-fours. But even when Araman visits the Potterleys’ house while Foster is working in the basement there is little real sense of tension or suspense.
Solid production design does visually elaborate on the generational gulf between the Potterleys and Foster quite effectively, though, through the contrast between their Victorian house and his one room apartment, and the set-dressing of these spaces, including rather different artworks on the walls. (Foster’s apartment includes an alcove that can be separated from the main room by one of those sliding/concertinaing plastic doors. In the early 1970s we moved to a house with one of those separating the lounge space from the dining space, and even then it seemed so modern and swish. How wrong we were! My dad, being an omnicompetent sort of chap but not an open-plan kind of guy, had by the mid-seventies ripped it out and built a partition wall, and suddenly we had a living room and a dining room. Woo-hoo!)
Oddly, the aspect of the story the episode does not capture particularly well is Asimov’s cod-Freudian attempt to create psychological depth for Potterley. His strong, seemingly irrational, aversion to cigarettes is gradually revealed as a symptom of his guilt over this three-year-old daughter Laurel’s death in a house fire twenty years earlier, for which he may or may not have been responsible. He becomes terrified that his wife, already more or less obsessed with their long deceased child, will use the technology not only to spend all her time watching the infant Laurel but also discover whether or not he caused the fire. There is also the implication – made more explicit in the episode – that this underlies Potterley’s obsession, which he thinks of as a rational cerebral pursuit, with Carthage’s fiery infant sacrifices. It is all rather clunkily schematic and unsophisticated, and the episode has the unenviable task of compressing it while also playing it down.
It is unclear quite how aware Asimov was of the Freudian imagery in his story. A cigarette is not always just a cigarette and the Carthaginian Moloch took
the form of a hollow, brazen idol with a furnace in its belly. (19)
Although the story seems to imply Laurel’s death was the origin of Potterley’s symptom, this imagery points to a more deeply rooted Oedipal trauma, an unresolved castration anxiety and a terror of the archaic mother that includes terror of engulfment, of a lack of separation from others and, once more, of embodiment. This underscored by the final images of Caroline Potterley.
One real strength of the episode is its transformation of the story into a commentary on television as a medium. When it is highlighted that the past is not some fixed distant object but a constantly unfolding present-moment-just-gone, there is a moment of hesitation between archive and stream and a resonance with the transformations of television drama in the post-war period from live broadcast to recorded/edited more or less as-if-live to recorded and edited post-production. Furthermore, in a nice final touch, the episode also considers the role of audivisual media in the constitution of memory, affect and identity. Footage of a younger Potterley playing with Laurel ends with her running into the foreground and freeze-framing – a nod to the final shot of François Truffaut’s Les quatre cent coups (1959), already paid homage by Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). But unlike these precursors, the episode then shows this fragment, which recalls home movie footage, several times, revealing Caroline Potterley as its obsessive viewer. It is a complex moment. On the one hand it emphasizes the construction of her character by both Asimov and Paul as consisting entirely of maternal neurosis – a fate shared by both Ripley and Sarah Connor – while repeating a masculine terror of the archaic mother. But it does also suggest how ungrounded that might be since she would rather take joy in seeing her daughter again than pin down her husband’s guilt and punish him.
I have no idea whether or not Bob Shaw was familiar with ‘The Dead Past’, but his Other Days, Other Eyes (1972) reworks an awful lot of this material rather effectively. The first of the stories in his fix-up novel was published in Analog (August 1966) less than a year after the episode was broadcast.
Other things to watch out for — It is not quite clear where ultimate responsibility lies, but either Dudley Simpson, credited with incidental music, or Brian Hodgson, credited with radiophonics, or their guvnor really needs to lay off the theremin. Don’t get me wrong. I love the theremin. It so brilliantly evokes weird alien otherness, conveys a sense of futurity and even, now, of pastness (this is how the future used to sound). But it is overused in this episode – at least it now sounds overused – and without adequate attention to its connotations. The most hilarious sequence comes when Foster is slaving away, secretly constructing a chronosocope, in the basement of the Potterleys’ home. There is a montage of one or other or both Potterleys rising anxiously as if to go down and see what he is doing. But it now comes across as a couple of dissatisfied parents, whose son has returned from college without a job and is now living in the basement, trying to get up the nerve to go and complain that he is playing his theremin too loud.
— The curious maintenance of Asimov’s US framework, particularly of Foster’s education at MIT, presented as the absolute imprimatur of a properly scientific education. Even though he and everyone else in the story sounds impeccably English, and it perhaps being set in London (is the ancient dome visible among the futuristic skyscrapers from Araman’s window St Paul’s Cathedral?). Does this betray a sense of the future as being American? Of an eye being cast to export markets? Or an inattentive adaptation?
Irene Shubik had previously script-edited a 75-minute adaptation of The Caves of Steel (1953; BBC2 5 June 1964), written by Terry Nation, directed by Peter Sasdy and starring Peter Cushing and John Carson, for Story Parade (1964-65), and a 60-minute adaptation of ‘Little Lost Robot’ (1947; ITV 7 July 1962) for the Boris Karloff-hosted Out of the This World (1962), starring Maxine Audley as Susan Calvin and directed by Guy Verney, whose many other television credits include Sydney Newman’s early sf serials for ITV Pathfinders in Space (1950), Pathfinders to Mars (1960-61) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). Only a few fragments of The Caves of Steel survive, while ‘Little Lost Robot’ is the only episode of Out of the World to survive and is available on a BFI DVD (which includes audio recordings of the series’ adaptations of Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (1954; 14 July 1962), starring Peter Wyngarde (!) and Jane Asher, and of Terry Nation’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s ‘Imposter’ (1953; 21 July 1962), and the script for the series opener, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s ‘Dumb Martian’ (1952; 24 June 1962).)
This makes me really curious to see ‘Little Lost Robot’, and perhaps even more curious to see the script, since Terry Nation has a reputation for not including details of character or setting, arguing that that sort of things was the job of casting, wardrobe and production design. I’m guessing the director had very little to work with.
Asimov’s 2050s seem to have become the 2030s in the television episode, but at one point Asimov’s wording implies a much later date than the story logic demands, and the episode is rather vague about when it is set (an observation, not a complaint).
Sources Isaac Asimov, ‘The Dead Past’, Earth is Room Enough. London: Panther 1960. 9-50. Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.
By all accounts, although ‘Stranger in the Family’ was one of the three episodes already completed when the Irene Shubik and Sydney Newman were deciding upon the series opener, neither of them seems really to have considered David Campton’s original drama as a serious contender. Newman wanted the big name appeal of John Wyndham; Shubik, who would have preferred the Alan E. Nourse adaptation despite the relative littleness of his name, seems to have been more concerned with establishing Out of the Unknown as incontrovertibly science-fictional. Which is a shame, as whatever the merits of its competitors, ‘Stranger in the Family’ is easily the strongest drama of the three, its quiet menace well suited to the intimacy of television viewing. This should come as no surprise.
Some of this can be attributed to Alan Bridges, probably the most experienced of the first three directors to work on the series.1 He makes effective use of possibilities for location shooting provided by the story’s contemporary London setting – opening shots overlooking the flight exhibition at the Science Museum, sequences in the streets of (I think) Hammersmith and Fulham and along the south bank of the Thames by Southwark, the potent juxtaposition of a Victorian pub with a new tower block. Although lacking the overtly science-fictional images of the first two episodes, Bridges’ location shooting is a far more effective way to open up a drama than could be provided by their studio-bound extraterrestrial settings. Bridges also offers us several striking (really) high- and low-angle shots, but in the studio, especially, his careful direction works to let the story flow and a sense of threat to build.
But the real reason for the episode’s success is David Campton’s script. One of the first British practitioners of the Theatre of the Absurd, his The Lunatic View (1958) is often considered – alongside Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1957) – as the foundational example of the ‘comedies of menace’, a term taken from its subtitle. He was primarily a playwright – he ‘discovered’ Alan Ayckbourn – but he was active for about five years as a television writer. When Shubik commissioned ‘Stranger in the Family’, the first original piece for the series, Campton already had a couple of genre pieces to his credit. In 1966, he adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839) for Mystery and Imagination (1966-70), starring Denholm Elliott and Susannah York as Roderick and Madeleine. In 1968, he adapted H. Russell Wakefield’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1949) for Late Night Horror, directed by Rudolph Cartier and starring Claire Bloom. Shubik would later commission him, in 1966 and 1969 respectively, to adapt Frederik Pohl’s ‘Tunnel under the World’ (1955) and Isaac Asimov’s ‘Liar!’ (1941) for Out of the Unknown. ‘Stranger in the Family’ was remade in 1969 as an episode of Journey into the Unknown (1968-69), with an entirely different cast including Janice Rule, Gerald Sim and Glynn Edwards.
The eighteen-year-old Boy (Richard O’Callaghan) flees from the Science Museum, tailed by the purposeful Hall (Joby Blanshard). Boy eventually confronts him, ordering his stalker to get away from him. Hall steps into the road and is killed by a van. But by the time Boy gets back to the flats where he lives with his ageing parents, Charles (Peter Copley) and Margaret (Daphne Slater) Wilson, another anonymous figure has him back under surveillance. The next-door flat has a new occupant, too, a man called Brown (John Paul) who makes no real effort to conceal his interest in Boy. The troubled family contemplate the need to move on – yet again – to evade their pursuers. They have clearly done this many times before and at some personal cost – Charles once worked at Harvard, but is now a lab assistant at a secondary modern school.
Boy does not want to leave, though. He has fallen for an actress/model, Paula (Justine Lord), and believes she is genuinely interested in him.
More deaths follow. And they are not the first in which Boy has played a part.
For he is a mutant. His sensorium perceives the world differently, something he struggles to express in words. He is telepathic. And he is able to force others to do his will.
‘Stranger in the Family’ is a worthy addition to those British tales of an emerging posthumanity, exemplified by JD Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) and Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935). It recalls Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and its adaptation, Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla 1960), and its quiet delineation of state surveillance and hinted-at machinations adds something of the underrated Children of the Damned (Anton M. Leader 1963) and the remarkable The Damned (Joseph Losey 1963) into the mix. Despite the melodramatic incidents around which the story is articulated, it remains ominously understated. Agendas compete, shift according to circumstance. Some motives are obvious, others remain ambiguous. When the boss of the surveillance team finally talks to Boy’s parents, he speaks reassuringly of the state intervening merely to keep such exceptional individuals safe and to observe their further development. He speaks of a new species that will end war and supplant homo sapiens entirely, and he seems pleased with the former and unfazed by the latter. But he is an agent of the state, and there is absolutely no reason to believe anything he says.
Other things to look out for One of the pleasures of these shows is recognising the actors, many of whom were never stars but had long careers on British television, appearing in an episode here and there of pretty much everything. The reason Justine Lord looks familiar is that she is Sonia, the girl who was death, in the Prisoner episode ‘The Girl Who was Death’ (1968). Hall, in the opening sequence .. . is it? … yes, it’s Colin from Doomwatch. Hold on, I recognise that voice, that’s John Hall, Spencer Quist from Doomwatch! (Peter Copley and Bay White also each did a Doomwatch.) Copley was also Dr Warlock in Doctor Who’s ‘The Pyramids of Mars’ (1975), and other cast members appeared in ‘The Sea Devils’ (1972), ‘The Invasion’ (1968) and ‘The Space Pirates’ (1969). Jack May, who was in the last of these, was also in A for Andromeda (1961) and was the protagonist’s butler in Adam Adamant Lives! (1968-69). And so on. Other genre shows crop up in more than one cast member’s credits: The Avengers, The Champions, Department S – as well as less fantastical dramas and soaps. Oh, and if Richard O’Callaghan looks familiar, he is the son of Patricia Hayes – and the actor who was brought in when Jim Dale quit the Carry On… series (see him in …Loving and …at Your Convenience).
Notes 1 In 1966, Bridges would direct the Robert Holmes-scripted sf movie, Invasion, and although he continued to work primarily in television, his other films include The Hireling (1973), Age of Innocence (1977), The Return of the Soldier (1982), The Shooting Party (1985) and Apt Pupil (1987).