With the Dr back tomorrow from her sojourn north of the border and after a very long day’s toiling myself, I’ve just finished the 1981 BBC Day of the Triffids.
I’d have sworn I’d seen it when smaller, but it was all so unfamiliar that this may be wishful thinking. I remember elder siblings speaking of it in hushed, horror-stricken tones, so probably conjured a version inside my head. Yes, I’d seen clips (some at school, when we read it in the second year), but that’s all.
Bill Masen (John Duttine from the hugely good and hugely different To Serve Them All My Days) is in hospital, his eyes bandaged up because he got stung by a triffid. He works on a triffid farm, studying the mobile, venomous plants and the precious oil they were created to produce.
Since he’s all bandaged up, he didn’t get to see the exciting shooting stars like almost everybody else did – and so is one of only a few in the whole of the country not to have lost their sight. London is soon a ruin of blind scavengers, bristling with violence and disease. But even the few able to see are being picked off by the organised triffids…
More than John Wyndham’s wonderfully vivid book, it seems it’s this version that’s the influence on 28 Days Later. Part six’s snapshot montage of the long-empty London – and a litter-strewn, quiet Piccadilly – was especially reminiscent, as is the not-brilliant guff with the soldiers at the end.
There’s also the same clumsy need to make the cosy catastrophe relevant (“It was star wars that did it!” or “It was animal experiments!”) where the end of civilisation is all the more chilling in the book for being so unexplained.
Yet it manages some very nice subtleties. Gary Olsen is not just (as the BBC’s old Cult site has it) “Man with Red Hair” blithely shooting at Masen’s gang in part four. Without it ever being commented on, it’s him again in part six, the officious war-monger running the police-state in Brighton (and maybe the inspiration for Eccleston’s character in 28 Days Later).
There’s also some great model work, with triffids surrounding a country house in panorama, and looking more scary than ridiculous throughout. Kingdom of the Blind is troubled by their “uncomfortable phallic appearance”, which I must admit I missed. They’re orchids not Vervoids, though they do seem to natter by rattling multiple willies against their stems.
Having put the thing on in tribute to the late, great David Maloney, I was not disappointed with the brilliant viciousness. There’s a lot more suggested than seen – Masen and Jo (his posh totty) listen at night to people being killed in the streets, rather than seeing the slaughter. I guess they also saved cash on those night scenes.
It’s a high-budget epic and Ken Hannam’s direction is thrilling, even giving life to the fixed studio sets that so show the production’s age. Breezing through other reviews of the thing, Hannam’s “documentary realism” is often referred to. For all the conventions of TV production at the time – where telly drama looked like they’d film in a theatre – this feels less staged and more like a movie. The shingly beach in the final episode reminded me especially of Get Carter.
There’s plenty of Dr Who people to spot, all practised playing “serious dread”: that bald bloke from the Mutants; Pat Gorman without lines; Sevrin accepting his disabilities and sure that the Norm will help out; Lytton being thuggish and then turning out good; even some mugging from Morris Barry. There’s also one of my friends in episode two.
Christopher Gunning’s score reminded me of Lygeti. The simplicity of the title sequence made me think of Nigel Kneale’s heydey, and the neon-tube typeface of the BBC’s other newly good-looking sci-fi of the time.
The end of the world is all rather abrupt, as is the end of the serial. Part five ends on a cliffhanger that’s left hanging for six years, and part six cuts out just as things are getting exciting, guns are being fired and the triffids are attacking en mass.
So it’s probably fitting I couldn’t think of a conclusion to this blog entry either.