As a follow-up to my last post about the novel on Mutant 59; the Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, this is an interview with them I came across in The Guardian on the occasion of the publication of the novel in paperback by Pan. The interviewer was Raymond Gardner and the interview was published in the newspaper on 13 December 1973. It was entitled “Prophets of Doom”.
“London is melting” screams the blurb on the back cover of the American edition of an uncomfortable bit of predict-fiction which will hit the station bookstalls here this week. The French titled it ” La Mort du Plastique” , which if spoken slowly in a gravelly voice , has a nice doom laden aura. In Britain we’ll just be reading “Mutant 59; the Plastic Eater”. It’s just as well that the British title keeps its cool, otherwise London Transport might find itself with a few more recruitment headaches since the book opens with the extermination of King’s Cross station, its environs and a few thousand hapless humans. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis have certainly devised a novel if extreme solution to the problems of one of Britain’s most grotesque city environments.
But it’s all in the cause of science fiction, although the reader might hesitate over the book’s fictional qualities since Kit and Gerry have an uncomfortable knack of finding their creativity come true. They devised the BBC-TV’ s ecological drama “Doomwatch” and stayed with it until the fiction became larger than the science, which is to say that the originators of the series wanted a fairly tweaking sort of programme which might encourage gran to stop ditching her empty stout bottles in the canal while the BBC had its eye on a straightforwad science fiction cops and robbers. And so “Doomwatch” lost its story editor and scientific adviser. But before their resignation the programme chalked up a few notably uncomfortable coincidences.
There was the one about the trawler which hauled up a neat piece of nuclear hardware in its nets and almost solved the problem of the fish shortage by killing off the demand. Kit and Gerry set off for the Holy Loch to confirm that their idea was feasible. They were sufficiently impressed to ditch the story whereupon the US Air Force wrecked a neat PR job by accidentally dropping a warhead in Texas. When the top brass went to inspect their toy they discovered that five of the six failsafe devices were in the unsafe position. Four days later Kit and Gerry emerged sleepless but triumphant with a new script for ” Doomwatch”.
Kit and Gerry are an unlikely duo, not quite Eric and Ernie, but they have their moments. Gerry has been in television, as he puts it, for 20 years. He worked his passage to Canada on a Clyde-built tug, which almost foundered in mid-Atlantic, worked for the CBC and the Canadian Film Board, and returned to Britain and Granda for the early days of Coronation Street. Then he freaked out to Italy to train as an opera singer. He mumbles something about music being his hobby, a notion which is readily confirmed since his front parlour bears more than a passing resemblance to a recording studio.
Kit graduated as a medical doctor in 1953 and practised in medicine and surgery for two years before taking a second doctorate in experimental pathology. He then spent 12 years in brain research. His publisher obviously thinks this is a fitting start for the doom business. Pan’s PR man waxes eloquently about their author being into electron microscopy cybernetics. Gerry says that his colleague concocts a very nice home brew.
The two met via a Horizon programme on Kit’s research. They continued their discussions at The Contented Sole, a pricey fish and chip shop in Knightsbridge. There, says, Kit. science and show business met in order to save “Dr Who” from too few Daleks and too much fantasy. It seems that when the Daleks departed “Dr Who” could only muster an audience of three million. And so Kit and Gerry devised their Cybermen. very frightening, says Kit. Not at all toylike, says Gerry. In fact the Australians refused to screen one of the Cybermen episodes, says Kit. A great seethe, says Gerry. Kit confides they did go a bit over the top with the things spewing “Fairy Liquid” out of their joints and generally writhing around.
While contemplating their repective soles Kit and Gerry came up with the idea of an ecological adventure series. They brought together the story lines, wrote the first four episodes , and sold the complete package as “Doomwatch” to the BBC. Kit was moonlighting at the time between his university research project and the studios. The boffins didn’t like it. He says:
“While I was still working in university I got a tremendous amount of crap flung at me. I was a popularist. I was a fiction writer. I had to take this and my skin was no thicker than anyone else’s and it upset me a great deal. But now I’ve left the organisation within which that criticism starts and I’ve started on my own, hopefully, socially responsible science. I think that science must turn towards the needs of people socially. But it was a a bad time. At one point I was almost kicked out. I wrote about animal experiments which were being conducted for careerist rather than scientiific purposes. I knew perfectly well that it was true but I made the mistake of saying so in a daily paper and so they tried to grind my testicles in public.”
Kit has left the university and continues his scientific endeavours in ecology. He has finished his first project on ecological housing, which will be published shortly. His own Victorian house in Clapham has already found itself shot into the twentieth century with a methane and gas fed generator which provides lighting and eventually he hopes to run this from the family garbage. And just in case it all sounds a little po-faced Kit is thinking about a rate rebate when his house becomes fully self-sufficient.
Going public has had its problems for Kit. Whilst guesting on a television programme he referred to a number of atom bomb experiments in Nevada where rabbits were put in cages with their eyelids sewn back. Their eyes were burned. He said that this was bad science because the dosage could have been found by calculation. It was degrading both to the animals and to the experimenters. Next morning a lady phoned the Home Office to complain that a British scientist called Kit Pedler was conducting a series of brutal experiments. Kit calls it the media problem.
In “Mutant 59” a series of scientific accidents and straightforward short cuts result in the destruction of all plastic in London. Electricity cables are exposed and ignite gas supplies and an explosive chain reaction begins. The fact that we can read such a book and then toddle off to bed for a peaceful night’s sleep is a small example of our conditioning which scientists like Kit Pedler would like to change. Kit believes that one of the problems of the environmental issue is that people are saturated with horror stories. If energy sources are drying up, says Kit, it is no use saying to people that they have been wicked and raping the earth far too long. You must say that, but you must also suggest what they can do.
Kit says that the best title for an ecological documentary was “Due to Lack of Interest Tomorrow has been Cancelled.” And as evidence of his concern he points out that the documentary was shown on BCc-2 to a small converted audience. Which is why he was pleased to work with Gerry Davis on “Doomwatch.
“Mutant 59” is based on an idea being worked on at a British university which Kit refuses to name. Their concept was of a biodegradable plastic which would break down under ultra-violet light. It may seem unlikely thatas the first biodegradable milk bottle goes on sale in their novel that another scientist working in the same area of self-destruct plastic should release a plastic-eating virus into the sewers of London. But then no one ever thought the Americans would accidentally drop a nuclear warhead in Texas.
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Great read and some nice background to Doctor Who’s enigmatic writing duo.