– ‘People are so...hard’
– ‘It seems to be the style these days’
For any aficionados of vintage or cult television, particularly of the Seventies, the repository of nostalgia DVD websites such as Network and Simply Entertainment are absolute God-sends for those desperately seeking out some classic titles to give them the kind of intelligent and imaginative escapism and drama that modern television seems almost pathologically incapable of providing us. A provisional caveat here is that both these sites, Network most particularly, cater mainly for vintage ITV series, and as many nostalgia-viewers are probably in vague agreement on, on the whole, the BBC traditionally had the edge on drama – but note the emphatic past tense here (nowadays their Licence Fee seems grossly exorbitant in proportion to the quality of their output). But Network has made available a breathtaking array of some of ITV’s more obscure output from, especially, the Seventies – that definitive golden era of British TV drama, sci-fi and comedy, still un-bettered to this day. And far from these being understandably neglected series in ITV's patchier canon, most I’ve viewed from this resource have surprised me in their sheer political grittiness of approach, concept and writing. The two series under discussion here, in particular, also showcase a gallery of underappreciated classically-trained supporting actors of their time, in possibly the only leading roles of their television careers.
To take first the highly political and genuinely 'adult'-oriented ‘children’s series’ from 1979/80, Noah’s Castle – here’s the plot synopsis and other details from the back cover of the DVD:
"It is the near-future and Britain faces social and economic collapse. Hyper-inflation leads to rioting and chronic food shortages but Norman Mortimer is determined to protect his loved ones from the encroaching chaos. Mortimer moves his family to a large house in the country and strengthens the cellar in preparation to hoard the food they will need to survive. The Mortimer children are shocked by their father’s behaviour and argue that food should be fairly distributed to all those who need it. As the crises deepens the Mortimers arouse the suspicions of starving neighbours, blackmailers and the ruthless criminal Vince Holloway. As Norman struggles to keep his feuding family together news of the secret food store spreads and his ‘castle’ comes under siege... Produced by Southern Television in late 1979, this remarkable seven-part series was intended for younger viewers but praised by the London Evening News as “strong meat indeed... it is perhaps a pity that drama bosses haven’t the nerve to serve up anything quite so spicy for the rest of us”.
And this was intended at the time as a children’s serial, probably on at 5 ‘o’ clock in the evening, viewed by an audience of Seventies’ kids whose evident political and intellectual sophistication is reflected in the sheer ambition and grittiness of a plot summary for what was then a fairly standard tea-time drama. The series does not disappoint in the least and creates for the viewer an all-too believable social reality in which mass unemployment, sky-high inflation and strikes have led to a national food shortage, rationing, and near-starvation for the poorest. Naturally, in such strained circumstances, social unrest is rife, and individuals and families are faced with the moral challenge of either fending for themselves and hoarding as much food as possible, or trying to share out the shallowing supplies among as many people as possible; to do their bit in the face of mass adversity to stave off the encroaching moral entropy of a society at starving point. Here the themes of mass unemployment, strikes, social unrest and urban violence echo the political turbulence of the late Seventies, but in their very style of contemporary dramatisation - one which exhaustively analyses and dissects the various moral dilemmas of such a situation - serve as a sort of televisual salvation for the viewers of the time; reflecting again that in more transparently troubled periods in our recent history – at least, pre-Thatcherism – most people were also continually questioning things: as much the dubious policies of governments compromised by the economic trappings of capitalism (whether Tory or Labour) as the political alternatives, most particularly, extremisms of either Left or Right. The Seventies was a more radicalised time in the UK, and the type of television drama serials throughout the decade tended to reflect this, as they did the radical fluctuations of the period itself. A reciprocal, triangular relationship seemed to exist back then between political society, dramatisation and audience.
It’s not banal to claim that much of the TV dramas of the Seventies served a strong sociological function, as well as an escapist one: one only has to consider just how much the social and political issues of the time found their way, often through satire, into even sci-fi serials such as the uniquely political Blake’s 7, in which the heroes were, in their own context, political criminals operating as terrorists, albeit idealistic ones who opposed a corrupt and authoritarian Federation; numerous stories within the canon of Doctor Who, at its most openly political in the early to mid Seventies, with political and ecological evils of the period anthropomorphised into metaphorical monsters; and escapist ‘children’s’ serials such as the psychically subversive Tarot-themed Ace of Wands (1970-72), its successor, the less well-articulated but no less imaginatively subversive The Tomorrow People (1973-9); and perhaps most strikingly of all, the superbly disturbing and disorienting The Changes (filmed 1973; broadcast 1975), which plunged a young girl into a society entering a new Dark Age after an irrational and inexplicable mass pogrom on all forms of technology, triggered by a mysterious noise vibration emitted from pylons (still, equally mysteriously, unreleased by the BBC, and, like The Guardians, never even repeated).
Noah’s Castle is another series of the era that provides further evidence of such popular sophistication. It presents to a juvenile audience an uncompromising state of societal breakdown, and then throughout its run, challenges them to 'shadow -roleplay' their way through with the youthful protagonist, en route to finding political and philosophical solutions to the privations at hand. This is seriously intelligent television, and compared to most of the so-called 'adult' viewing of the trivial Noughties, comes across as infinitely more questioning, disturbing, compelling, and sophisticated in its lacing of suggestive moral innuendo. True, this series was transmitted in 1979/80, so on the last cusp of the next decade, but as we all know, the interminable Thatcherite ‘transformation’ had yet to fully set in until the Eighties proper; and arguably between 1979 and around 1982, there was still a strong mood of very healthy and - as it turned out, wholly justifiable – opposition to what were to become the almost Malthusian economic doctrines of the new Tory government. Social turbulence would continue in various forms throughout the Eighties - most notably the Miners' Strikes - but ever more dissipatedly as the Iron Lady took hold of the public consciousness with all her various avaricious carrots, duping many into a callous denial that gratuitous material gain for some, obscured a burgeoning epidemic of increased impoverishment and polarisation for many others. Thatcherism, and the unthinking culture it promulgated into the Eighties, one which eventually resulted in the philistine celebritism we’ve known in more recent times, had yet to set comprehensively into the minds of the many in 1980; at this time, the tail-end of the post-War communitarian orthodoxy was gasping its last questioning of the validity of the very society it was a part of, and politics, most importantly of all, socialism, was not yet the sneered-at term it was to become, but still a vital, if slightly battered, ingredient to British thinking.
And it is a spirit of socialist thought that runs through the themes - and articulations of those themes - in many of these half-forgotten Seventies dramas. Basic quandaries of the Left as to the conflict between the individual and the community, ends and means; just how far a state should go to try and impose policies intended to ‘do good’, or how much the individual should be left to choose his own methods and motives. The muddy clash between, on the one hand, the almost primal fear of the Orwellian nightmare of Thought Police, and the more leftist horror at the prospect of equally arbitrary private capitalists and unaccountable corporations covertly running society without anyone actually realising (i.e. what we have today). Ultimately of course, both extreme forms of social control are one and the same, whether termed Stalinist or Stalinist, and the real battleground is in the greyer area of the more moderate political wings: the establishment Right and the democratic Left. It's primarily in these more nuanced ideological areas - the murkier waters in-between extremes - that these two series operate.
Noah's Castle is a brilliantly written, directed and acted drama (replete with eerie electronic signature tune and haunting slow-footage riot-scene title sequence); its story is that of a young boy torn between his sense of loyalty to an increasingly paranoid and reactionary father (played in an unusually central role by character actor David Neal) who hoards as much food as possible and then buries it and his family away in the safety of a barbed-wired country retreat, and his compassion for others less fortunate in the wider community. This is an excellent and highly ambitious position to put a central juvenile character in, and the always convincing child actor Simon Gipps-Kent (notable also in other challenging serials of the time such as Midnight Is A Place and To Serve Them All My Days; who tragically died at only 29 in 1987), gives compelling expression to the idealistic son Barry Mortimer.
But perhaps the most compelling dialectic in this little gem of a serial, is between the nuanced difference of methods taken by two characters who both wish to find solutions to the current crisis and its aftermath, both fundamentally motivated by humanitarian instincts, but both taking very different routes; the perennial ends and means debate. Cliff (played by Christopher Fairbank, later known for his portrayal of Moxley the pock-marked scouser in Auf Wiedersehen Pet) is an altruist, who musters his resources to take vans of food out to the people and keep as many of them fed as possible, the standard moderate socialist shall we say; the other, Terry (played by one Alun Lewis), is a puglistic radical, who seeks to use his energies to subvert the status quo which is using ever more oppressive measures to contain the nascent anarchy, and seeks ultimately to overthrow it, through violence if necessary – the revolutionary. The altruist criticises the revolutionary for his morally compromised means, while the revolutionary mocks the altruist for his impractical naivety and political timidity. By the end, there is a form of combined resolution from these two sides of the same coin, and the two work together to both fend off a predatory mob leader (played with reliable rough-diamond charm by a subtly menacing Mike Reid), and to face off the apparent callousness of the hoarding Mortimer Snr. Add into that heady mix also a deeply disturbing interloper in the Mortimer household who manipulates his professional influence over Mr Mortimer to attempt seducing his teenage daughter, and you have a very tense scenario sustained expertly over the episodes. Nuanced as this series is, there are no lazy black and white brushstrokes, and Mr Mortimer is left with the final word, self-doubtingly trying to justify the extremes he has gone to in order to fulfil his duty to the welfare of his own family; and it is his slightly misanthropic, family-centred obsession with kith and kin over all others, that lingers with you at the end, as a rather disturbing philosophical problem, far too rooted in human instincts of familial protectionism to warrant the gauche abuse of ‘Fascist’.
Ultimately, the paradigm of Noah's Castle is the perennial conflict between the animalistic instinct to survive and the inspirited will to transcend circumstance and seek more compassionate solutions, even if its moral basis seems on the surface flimsily inadequate in such a situation.
A more recent release, this time from the ITV nostalgist outlet Network DVD, is the no less beguiling ‘adult’ serial, The Guardians, predating Noah’s Castle by about eight years, but already tackling similar themes, with, again, a society broken down to its base constituent parts following a period of mass unemployment and hyper-inflation, resulting in a sinister parliamentary reformation from democracy to neo-Fascist dictatorship, politely presided over by the avuncular puppet Prime Minister Hobson (played by the peerless Cyril Luckham) who spends most of the series trying to convince himself that such strict and authoritarian methods are required during a period of unprecedented economic instability. Hobson, again, rather like Mr Mortimer in Noah’s Castle, is a misguided lone crusader who thinks it his personal moral duty to impose a paternalist social and economic protectionist regime on others, in this case, on an entire society (his family on a macrocosmic level). Hobson is growingly uneasy with the increasing powers arbitrarily handed to the Guardians (or the G’s), a militaristic form of state police (rather similar in style and uniform to the Federation guards in Blake’s 7 ; and more obviously prefiguring the subjects of the title to the 1987 children's dystopian series Knights of God), who seem to be run autonomously to his puppet Cabinet, though, as becomes apparent later, are effectively co-ordinated by the PM’s distinctly Fascistic Chief Secretary (played with supreme unctuousness by Derek Smith), whose Sir Humphrey-esque obfuscations frequently provoke the hilarious haranguing from the PM, ‘I ask you again, where have you put our nuclear weapons?’
The PM is a paternalistic Liberal at heart, trying to balance the power during a turbulent period which, in his absence, could so easily be exploited by an unscrupulous out-and-out despot. He is however a morally compromised character, in spite of his avuncular reasonableness of private persona, and has sanctioned a block on immigration, as well as, most sinisterly (and only mentioned by one character very briefly in passing) an exportation of ‘the blacks’ from the country, during his dubious premiership so far (though this is contradicted slightly by the appearance of one black woman in a later episode (played by Elizabeth Adare shortly before her debut in The Tomorrow People), albeit a brief appearance since she shockingly douses herself in petrol and sets herself alight in a public park). But the PM’s trust in the use of necessary force and imposition for the common good inevitably plays into the hands of his Machiavellian subordinate, resulting in his own covered-up assassination, and the ultimate recruiting of the PM’s previously sceptical son into what appears to be a brewing dynasty, the only hint of future salvation in the inheritor's allusion to the disastrously brief reign of 'Tumbledown Dick', Oliver Cromwell's haplessly ill-suited son Richard.
The characters throughout this genuinely disturbing and grittily executed series – ironically, adapted for adults from a children’s novel by John Christopher – are sufficiently nuanced in motives and traits to keep one interested through its twelve episode run, even if the rota of different episode writers robs the serial as a whole of the more cohesive dramatic drive it could have potentially had under just one writer (a similar effect to the mid-Seventies post-apocalypse drama Survivors, some later episodes of which uncannily echo this series' scenario, with some communities reverting to forms of Social Darwinism and even Fascism as an irrational response to the threat of anarchy). Later episodes tend to the patchy in places, one or two overly ‘talky’ even for my tastes – and I frequently lambast modern television for lacking the kind of fully involved dialogues which were par for the course for most series back in the Seventies – and a few plot red herrings throw the storyline a little of course here and there. The core plotline of Weston, seen in the first superb episode, 'The State of England', as an outright thug of a Guardian officer, but later turning out to be a Communist infiltrator, who gets found out, captured, tortured, brainwashed, then finally escapes, only to die while drugged in bed, seems in the end a little pointless in its laboured exposition, even if his character is being flagged up as an example of just how complex the internecine intrigues of espionage are in such a society; how one can’t tell anything about others on the surface, and any one might be a dissident in disguise as a Guardian, or vice versa.
Probably the most fascinating character is the psychiatrist, played expertly by the narrow-eyed David Burke (the first Dr Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes), whose rather affected and bourgeois establishment facade slowly reveals an idealist in disguise, a secret democrat with an existentialist will to give freedom of choice back to the people, but whose methods prove highly ethically dubious and morally compromised further in; again, the means and ends argument, which his character very much personifies. The motif this character serves in the series is excellently dissected when he comes into contact with an even less scrupulous, more cold-hearted, Communist, who ends up through some brilliantly scripted dialectic (appropriately argued out on a theatre stage) being the Doctor’s salvation, in that he suddenly sees a side to his own character reflected back from a harder individual than him, and from then on begins to be ever more plagued by doubts on his previous methods. The psychiatrist character is a secret member of Quarmby, a liberal democratic movement which opposes the Guardians, and – rather like the Fabians who (after their namesake, the Roman general Fabius) hoped patiently that capitalism would eventually destroy itself and then give way to socialism – are using sporadic terrorism to provoke the neo-Fascist system into becoming more and more openly oppressive, in the rather convoluted hope that then the masses will rise up against their government. The great strength of Quarmby is in its complete anonymity and invisibility: it has no organisational centre, and is simply a disconnected network of autonomously operating individuals who contribute spontaneously to the slow erosion of the Guardian state by enacting various subversive deeds. In one late episode, the deeply unsettling 'I Want You to Understand Me', this manifests even more obscurely through a bizarre, scatological neo-religious sect, which subtly encourages random acts of public suicide. This episode, to my mind, represents one of the most brilliantly subversive and unsettling pieces of television I've seen (matched only later on in the decade by the notorious Survivors episode 'Law and Order').
All in all, The Guardians, though uneven at times and perhaps foiled in part by its sheer ambition, is still an exceptional piece of television drama, containing as it does in only twelve episodes the all-too-convincing realisation of a near-future neo-Fascist dystopian England (set, with some aspects of precognition, in the 1980s), mottled with all manner of fully nuanced characters, in-depth and genuinely compelling moral and political debates and dialectics (perhaps the best written scene is one between the PM and his sceptically probing old Cambridge colleauge, played by Richard Hurndall), and some very classily directed action scenes that must have had some pedestrians at the time more than a little taken aback. An uncompromisingly political and cerebral script is served well, too, by strong visuals, imaginative designs and costumes – quirky interpretations of what a near-future 1980s might look like – and last but not least, a superbly subversive title sequence which, after announcing the title for each episode, posits the caption ‘England soon?’, with ever more zoomed-in urgency, a satirical blatancy that reinforces one’s sense of nostalgia for the more politically aware and questioning Seventies culture. Finally, in true vintage TV style, The Guardians has its own utterly distinctive signature tune, a strident composition by composer Wilfred Josephs, which instantly gets the heart beating with its marching, ambulant brass.
There is perhaps something unconsciously prescient in the marketing strategies of Network DVD and Simply Entertainment, by serving up these two lost Seventies classics of political apocalypse and social and democratic breakdown following capitalist crises that have incurred mass unemployment and hyperinflation, where Far Right factions start to wield worryingly disproportionate influence and powers: in our current economic climate, with our democratic parliamentary system near-discredited, unemployment, poverty, crime and racial tensions on the increase, and at the fringes, the likes of the BNP starting to penetrate a jittering democracy on the backs of misguided votes from a minority of disaffected working-class ex-Labour voters and a growing sense of public alarm at the rate of immigration, these timeless slices of drama seem ever-relevant and perhaps should be required viewing for most of us at this time. The worst projections are played out in both compelling serials, and we can only hope that the dystopias they depict will only ever be a televisual extrapolation, and never a reality. But don’t let such questions spoil your enjoyment of a standard of television drama that will serve as a much-needed nostalgic repast in the long starvation-diet of today’s hyper-inflated TV triviality.
Alan Morrison © 2010
Alan Morrison on
Two Seventies’ doses of apocalyptic
political drama belatedly released on DVD
(Southern TV, 1979/1980)
By Nick McCarty
From the novel by John Rowe Townsend
Simply Entertainment DVD, 2009
From the novel by John Christopher
Created by Rex Firkin and Vincent Tilsley
Network DVD, 2010