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A Plague on all our Houses
on 30 July 2013
What if a super strain of Bubonic Plague wiped out 99% of the population? In Terry Nation's Survivors, it seems to take out the UK (or most of it) in about a week. When Abbie Grant falls ill, the epidemic is just kicking in; by the time she recovers, it's pretty much over, and the next thirty odd episodes, broadcast over three years, deal with picking up the bits.
Self-sufficiency was a big idea in the 1970s, and the Beeb explored it to great effect in The Good Life. Survivors, it is safe to point out, is not remotely funny.
It's also worth noting that the first series was significantly the best of the three. Terry Nation clearly had a hot nut for the zeitgeist, and worked out thirteen episodes dealing with the various 'what if?' questions arising from his apocalypse, and being a writer with a consummate eye for a good tale, he went for the gangsters, robber barons, feudal overlords and scheming adventuresses. survivors works best when it's got an adventure to go on, and being prime time viewing, that's part of its stock in trade. Invite the viewer to think by all means, but drama demands conflict.
All three series are well acted, with a policy of securing a guest star turn every week - Glyn Owen, George Baker, Peter Bowles, Richard Heffer, Peter Jeffery, Brian Blessed, Peter Myles, John Bennet, Patrick Troughton Sylvia, Coleridge to name ten. The regulars are good; Carolyn Seymour as Abbie, Ian McCulloch as Greg, Lucy Fleming as Jenny, and Chris Tranchell and Paul the charismatic hippy. Terrence Dudley's son Stephen and Jack Ronder's daughter Tanya are the kids, John and Lizzie, and blatant nepotism aside, they're very good. Talfryn Thomas provides grubby light relief as the deeply dodgy Tom Price (until he kills somebody), replaced in Series 2 & 3 by John Albineri as the dour, equally dodgy (if much less funny) Hubert Goss. Denis Lill guest stars in Series 1, then returns as a regular in Series 2 & 3.
While it works very well as an action vehicle, Survivors has an unfortunate tendency to proselytise, which it does far too often, and far too long, rather as if it's all too conscious of an Important Message that it has a bounden duty to teach.
Looking a little more closely at the history of the show, it's hard not to wonder if it was this dichotomy that divided the company. Terry Nation left the show, reportedly in high dudgeon, at the end of Series 1, as did Carolyn Seymour, who had a problem not just with drink but Terrence Dudley. Script Editor Jack Ronder left after Series 2, taking his daughter with him (the replacement child actor has the wrong colour hair - for goodness sake!), as did Ian McCulloch, only returning for two stories, both of which he wrote himself about Greg in action hero mode, and those results are very good, but it's hard not to see a large ego having been frustrated by Series 2.
None of this suggests a company at all at peace with itself. Terry Scully launched the character of Vic Thatcher, eventually wheelchair bound and trying to cope with it, but Mr Scully had a nervous breakdown during Series 1 and was replaced (quite quickly) by Hugh Walters (doing a good job in an unenviable position). It doesn't seem a happy ship.
Vic and a number of previous regulars die in a fire at the start of Series 2 (and are lamentably un-lamented); Series 2, centred on Charles's settlement at White Cross, occasionally concerns itself with the search for Abbie, and Series 3, which is much more nomadic, with the search for Greg, and ultimately restoration of the National Grid, and there it ends.
The mortality rate is considerable, and born of a sensible realism, but an effect of this is that good characters often die with their potential unexplored; Lewis the parson deserved more, as did John the boatman (Patrick Troughton on fine form). Tom Price is side-lined and perfunctorily killed, which is a waste. It's realistic, but ultimately enervating to the story; `Do they want to watch next week now that x isn't in it?'
One criticism made by real former Resistance fighters on the first series of Secret Army was `Why is everyone so serious? We laughed all the time' In spite of the fact that for many, the way to cope is to laugh, Survivors lacks humour, and to remove the ability in humans to make each other laugh is to cause a glaring omission.
Much of it is shot in the Welsh Marches, and what we see looks good, though it starts to get samey after a while (that's about one third into Series 2), and visits to cities, which offer so much potential, are limited and brief. Though `going to Cheshire to get salt' is talked about, we never see it. When Greg and Charlie visit London, we see very little of the place, which seems an opportunity not just wasted, but actively thrown away.
It's also very clean - the BBC wardrobe found it much easier to maintain continuity by laundering the costumes - so the aspect of grubby and increasingly threadbare clothes is never really addressed - Working Class characters like Tom Price and Hubert Goss are generally dirty, but not the nice Middle Class, they are always properly turned out. What it is to be British. In spite of grumbles about returning to a pre-plague status quo, it's the Middle Classes that run things (until they run into Iain Cutherbertson as a Scottish laird in the final episode!) . The analogy with Orwell's pigs is never pointed out.
Even the pack of `wild feral dogs' that feature, particularly in Series 3 are clean, shampooed, and really quite well behaved.
All of this is to damn a series that that set off with the best intentions into uncharted territory and then, unsurprisingly, lost its way occasionally. There are episodes of Series 2 (those dealing with Mina being suspected of witchcraft, and the arrival of Parson Lewis are prime examples) that are terminally thin on plot (oh dear, what *shall* we do next...), while others (the justice episode in Series 1, the Parasites story in Series 2) are just the excellent drama that the BBC was so good at in the 1970s. By turns, Survivors can be turgid or superb, but 50 mins per episode can be a long time to expect people to watch if the engrossing sub plot is all about the rendering of fat to make soap, or squabbles over the rights to a pig.
And here lies the central problem; if it's about `What form of society would we build if all this were wiped away?' (ie `What do we really want?') then it consistently fails to come up with an answer. What we don't want - that it's very clear on - crooks, gangsters, bandits, fascists, despots, random murderers, football hooligans, and Tom Price - but in the end it becomes a race to get the power back on before a daft bugger, with a half-baked agenda that technology is bad, throws his spanner in the works, because we're all so sick of making soap and gathering firewood, and confronting what it really means to be human, and we all want, very much, to get back to a far more superficial way of life.