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Category Archives: 1950s

The day the Sun went out: The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle (1957)

black-cloudIn previous posts I have looked at a number of novels by Fred Hoyle: A for Andromeda, The Andromeda Breakthrough, October the First is Too Late and The Fifth Planet. In this post I will be writing about The Black Cloud, his first novel, published in 1957.

The novel begins in January 1964,  when  scientists on both sides of  the Atlantic discover that a large cloud of gas has entered the solar system,  and is heading towards the Earth. They predict  that within 18 months it  will block out the light from the Sun for at least a month, thereby bringing chaos around the world. After convincing sceptical  governments  of the validity of their observations, a British group of scientists  is established at Nortonstowe,  a manor house in the Cotswolds, led by Chris Kingsley, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, with a remit to observe and report on the progress of the  Cloud. Within months the Cloud can be observed  by all in the night sky.

By the third week in January the fate of Man was to be read in the skies. The star Rigel of Orion was obscured. The sword and belt of Orion and the bright star Sirius followed in subsequent weeks. The Cloud might have blotted out almost any other constellation, except  perhaps the Plough, without its effect being so widely noted. The press revived its interest in the Cloud. ‘Progress reports ‘  were published  daily. Bus companies were finding  their Nighttime Mystery  Tours increasingly popular.’Listener research ‘ showed a threefold increase in the audience  for a series  of BBC talks on astronomy. …Now at last the population at large was starkly aware of the Black  Cloud , as it clutched like a grasping hand at Orion, the Hunter of the Heavens.

The scientists  discover something  inexplicable, that the Cloud is firing off gas as it approaches the Sun, slowing it  down. Then on 27 August  1965 Kingsley is awaken by the manor’s handyman, Joe,  who tells him that the Sun has not risen:

He rushed out of the shelter into the open. It was pitch black, unrelieved even by starlight, which was unable to penetrate the thick black cloud cover. An unreasoning primitive fear seemed to be abroad. The light of the world had gone.

The Cloud has blocked out the Sun. After three days some light returns, a deep red hue, seemingly emanating  from the Cloud.  Massive storms sweep the world as the temperature falls,  and  a quarter of the world’s population perishes in the snow and ice.   The scientists at Nortonstowe are unable to explain why the Cloud has stopped, but to their relief they observe that the gas between the Sun and the Earth is thinning,  and on 24 October “the Sun shone again in full strength on the frozen Earth.”

Radio transmissions from the Cloud are detected by the scientists, who are  forced to come to the conclusion that it is intelligent. They  reply with tranmissions containing scientific data and basic English, and  begin to receive messages they can understand,  and which  they can  convert into speech using the voice of Joe the handyman as a basis. The Cloud tells them:

‘Your first tramsmission came as a surprise, for it is most unusual to find animals with technical skills inhabitating planets, which are in the nature of extreme outpposts of life.’

The scientists  inform the governments  of the world of their discovery, but this is not relayed to the peoples of the world.  They continue their dialogue with the Cloud on topics such as human nature, philosophy  and science. However,  the Americans and Russians  see the Cloud as a threat and fire nuclear-armed rockets  into it. The Cloud responds  by reversing the trajectory of the rockets which  fall back to earth, obliterating  El Paso, Chicago and Kiev, killing tens of thousands.

black-cloud

The Cloud announces  that it is about to leave the Solar System, but before it does so it offers the scientists to  chance to learn what it knows about the universe, using an apparatus  to communicate  directly with the human brain.  Kingsley volunteers to undergo this,  but this is terrible mistake:  he is unable to cope with the amount of knowledge downloaded, and the differences  between what he believes and  what the Cloud tells him, and dies as a consequence. The Cloud then departs,  with most of the world’s  population still unaware of its sentient nature.

My 1960 Penguin edition of The Black  Cloud has the strapline “science fiction by a scientist”, which  is the problem with this novel: the original premise captures the imagination and the consequences are most plausible,  but  the story is clogged  up with page and page of scientific discussion,  speculation  and debate. No doubt it’s all  perfectly sound scientifically, but it makes for very dull reading,  and has the feel of a chat over sherry in a Cambridge college staff  common-room.  Also the characters in the story never really come to life, it’s hard to tell one pipe-smoking scientist in a tweed jacket from another.  Even the Cloud is dull…Finally,  this is a very male world: there are a few women in the novel,   but they are peripheral to the story.

A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough work far  better as novels because they written by John Elliot, who knew how to pen  a good story,  based on ideas provided by Fred Hoyle, an ideal partnership.

Productions

The BBC Home Service broadcast  a dramatisation  of The Black Cloud on 14 December 1957, written by Stephen Grenfell and produced by Archie Campbell. Chris  Kingley was played by Dennis Goacher, the Prime Minister  was played by Arthur Ridley, author of  the successful play The Ghost Train,  and later to find fame in  Dad’s Army as Private Godfrey.

So far as I  know no other production has been broadcast.

The golden-eyed Children: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957)

midwich-cuckoos-front-coverAfter the post-nuclear war landscape of The Chrysalids John Wyndham’s  fourth novel, The Midwich Cuckoos,  was a return to familiar (though  as we shall see unsettling) territory, a possible alien invasion of  the world.

It begins with a small ordinary  English village being subject to a mysterious field with renders all within it unconscious for a whole day on  Tuesday 27th September (which would have fallen in  1960).   The authorities outside cannot get in:  an aerial photograph reveals an object in the village  with “a pale  oval outline, with a shape, judging by the shadows, not unlike the inverted bowl of a spoon.” When the village come back to life the object has gone, while the villagers appear not to have been harmed by what they come to  call the “Dayout”.

Some months later, however,  every woman of childbearing age, married or single, discovers that she is pregnant. The story is told, partly at least, through the eyes of  village resident and  writer Richard Gayford and his wife, Janet, who fortunately were not in the village at the time of the Dayout.  Gayford is recruited by an old friend and government intelligence officer, Bernard Westcott,  to observe what takes place in the village after the Dayout and report back.  Gayford is the typical Wyndham protagonist, intelligent enough, but his wife is cleverer. The novel also has that familar Wyndham character, the older man who sees what is really going on, which in  The Midwich Cuckoos  is Gordon Zellaby, who lives in a large house in the village,  and writes learned books. His daughter Ferrelyn, planning to be married, is one of the pregnant women.

When the  61  children are born they appear  to be normal human children, except they all have a sheen to the skin, golden hair  and golden eyes. Soon, however, they  display mental powers, forcing those mothers who have left the village to bring them back so that they can all be together.  Zellaby carries out  some tests and realises that the Children of Midwich  are a single entity, one girl and one boy, who share intelligence, thoughts  and learning.A lready Zellaby suspects what is really going on,  but blanches at the course of action that  he feels is neccessary :

Cuckoos are very determined survivors. So determined that there is really only one thing to be done with them  once one’s nest is infested. I am,  as you know,  a humane man…As a further disadvantage I am a civilised man. For these reasons I shall not be able to bring myself  to approve of what ought to be done. Nor, even when we perceive its advisability, will the rest of us. So, like the poor hen-thrush we shall feed and nurture the monster, and betray our own species.

village-of-the-damned

The novel resembles The Kraken Wakes in that the tension and  the disturbing incidents  is built quite slowly. Unlike  his other novels all the action takes place within the village, and nowhere else, creating  a claustrophobic feeling. One of the odd things about the novel is  the chief storyteller up to now, Richard Gayford, whom the reader no doubt, expected would take the narative forward,    leaves the village with Jane  at the end of Part One,  and  is absent for  eight years.

 

Returning to London for a short visit he bumps into Westcott,  and accompanies him on a return trip to Midwich, during which he is brought up  to date with what has happened whilst he has been away.   The Children grew up much quicker than human children  – by the time they were nine, they were the size of teenagers – and eventually the authorities decided  that it was  best to set up a special  school in The Grange  to look after them together.  Westcott is  returning  for an inquest into the  death of a young man,  Jim Pawle, killed when his car hit a wall. The verdict is accidental death, but  Gayford learns  the truth from Zellaby, that the  car hit one of the Children by accident,   and they appear to have  deliberately made Pawle crash.

After the inquest Pawle’s brother, David,  shoots and wounds one of the Children,  who then make him shoot himself. This leads to an attaks by the villagers on the Grange which ends in deaths and injuries when the Children use their mental powers to make them attack each other. Afterwards, one of the Children gives Westcott  and the others a chilling warning

I will put it more plainly. It is that if there is any attempt to interefere  with us or molest us, by anybody, we shall defend ourselves. We have shown that we can, and we hope that that will be warning enough to prevent further trouble.

Zellaby  explains that he believes an interplanetary  invasion is under way:

we have not grasped that they represent  a danger to our species, while they are in no  doubt that we are a danger to theirs. And they intend to survive.

Westcott now  reveals there were other Dayouts in other parts of the world. In most  cases the Children were killed at  birth, but  in the Soviet Union one group of Children  survived in a town called Gizhinsk,  which  he has just learned, has  been wiped out by an attack by an atomic cannon, killing the entire population. The Soviets then issued a warning calling  on all governments to “neutralize” any such known groups as the Children were “a threat to the whole human race.” Zellaby sums up  the dilemma  they are now  facing:

In a quandary where  every course is immoral, there still remains the ability to act for the greatest  good of the greatest number. Ergo, the Children ought to be eliminated at the least possible cost, with least possible delay. I am sorry to have to arrive at the conclusion. …It is the right step…But of course, our authorities will not be able to bring themselves to take it…

At the end of the book it is  Zellaby who takes on the moral responsibility for dealing  with  the dilemma. Gayford accompanies him to the weekly film show that  he runs for the children at the Grange and  reflects as he watches them help Zellaby unload the equipment:

There was nothing odd or mysterious about the Children now…For the first time since my return I was able to appreciate that the Children “had a  small ‘c’ too”. Nor was there any any doubt at all that Zellaby’s was a popular event. I watched him as he watched them with a kindly, half-wistful smile. I had a confused feeling that these could not be the Children at all; that the theories, fears and threats we had discussed  must have to do with some  other group of Children.

Shortly after Gayford returns to Zellaby’s home he sees a flash of bright light and a blast hits the house, smashing the windows, He realised that Zellaby has blown up himself with all the  children. His wife Angela finds a note which  reveals that Zellaby  had a terminal illness and ends:

As to this –  well we have lived so long in a garden that we have all but forgotten the commonplaces of survival…If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does.

The core of the novel  is the moral  question of how  to act  against invaders who arrive,  not in spaceships or cylinders as in Wells; The War of the Worlds,  but in the form of children. Step by step Wyndham leads us  down  the path to a dreadful conclusion, that the Children must be killed. He emphasises the horror  of this of this by making the Childrem seem, just before this happens, the most like children they have been for the whole novel.

This is not Wyndham’s best novel,  but it is certainly his most unsettling one, sonething he perhaps empphasis  by  placing the action in the archetypal English village, where nothing ever happens. Is there a nod here,  perhaps,  to Went the Day Well? Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1942 film in which an English village  resists  a German invasion (the Germans are disguised as British soldiers).

Films and radio

The novel was filmed in 1960 by MGM , retitled  somewhat senastionally as The Village of the Damned.  The Richard  Gayford character does not appears , the film’s hero is Gordon Zellaby,  played George Sanders, whilst his wife is played by Barbara Shelley (who also appeared in the film version of Quatermass and the Pit in 1967) . You can watch a trailer here.

The novel was adapted by William Ingram in three 30-minute episodes for the BBC World Service, first broadcast in  1982. It was directed by Gordon House. Yiou can listen to this  here.

Another  adaptation by Dan Ribellato in two 60-minute episodes for Radio Four  was broadcast first in  2003. It was directed by Polly Thomas.

Surprisingly no television  version has been made.

Other posts

In my previous posts I have looked at Wyndham’s previous novels

The Day of the Triffids

The Kraken Wakes

The Chrysalids

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Watch Thou For The Mutant”: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)

chrysalids-front-coverIn previous posts I have looked at The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which were set in the contemporary Britain of the 1950s,  and showed the breakdown of society when faced with an unprecedented  threat.  John Wyndham’s third novel  The Chrysalids is quite different in tone and content.

The novel set  in the future, perhaps  several centuries after our own time. The story is told through the eyes of David Strorm as he grows  up in a rural part of Labrador, called Waknuk, which is a religiously fundamentalist society, fearful of any kind of physical difference in human bodies. Every Sunday  without fail they recite a creed:

And God created man in in His own image. And God decreed that man should have one body, one head, two arms and two legs; that each arm should be jointed in two places and end in one hand; that each hand should have four fingers and one thumb; that each finger  should have a flat finger-nail..

We, the readers, soon divine that the “Tribulation” of which  they talk of was in fact a nuclear war,  and that this is the society that has somehow survived,  plunged back into a subsistence way of life, based on farming, with no technology. They use  horses for travel, and  bows and arrows for weapons, for instance.  It’s clear that the fall-out is still creating mutations in humans, “deviations”,  which when discovered  are driven out of society to “The Fringes”. David’s father  Joseph, is particularly fervent on rooting out “blasphemy”. They believe:

The penance of Tribulation that had been put upon the world must be worked out, the long climb faithfully retraced, and, at last, if the temptations  of  the way were resisted, there would be the reward of forgiveness. – the restoration of the Golden Age.

chrysalids-1As he grows up David’s austere but orderly world is disrupted by a series of events. This begins when he becomes friends with a girl called Sophie,  and  discovers one day that she has six toes, not five. He  does not report this, as she is his friend and he does not see her as a “deviation” but as a person.  Eventually, of course,  this secret  is discovered: Sophie and her family are driven out, while David is brutally beaten by his father.

watch-thou

But David has his own secret, he too is a “mutant”,   able to communicate by telepathy with his cousin Rosalind and a number of other teenagers. Somehow they have made it  into adolescence  without being discovered. David does have one ally, his uncle Axel who finds out about David’s ability,  and warns him that he must never reveal his secret. Axel is that  familar figure in Wyndham’s novels, the older man who challenges  the received wisdoms and “commonsense”  of their time. He is a close cousin to Michael Beadley in the Day of the Triffids and Alastair Bocker in The Kraken Wakes.  A former sailor, Axel  has travelled widely and seen things on sea and land  which make him very  sceptical of the rigid pieties of his own society.

“Preacher words!” he said,  and thought for a moment. “I’m telling you,” he went on, “that a lot of saying a thing is so, doesn’t prove it is.  I’m telling you that nobody, nobody, really knows what is the true image. They all think they know – just as we think we know, but, for all we can prove, the Old People themselves may not have been the true image.”  He turned, and looked long and steadily at me again.

“So,”  he said, “how am I, and how is anyone sure that this “difference” that you and Rosalind have does not make you something  nearer to the true image than other people are? Perhaps the Old People were the image; very well then , one of the things they  say about them is that they could talk to one another over long distances. Now  we can’t do that  – but you and Rosalind can.  Just think that over, Davie. You two  may be nearer to the image than we are.”

chrysalids-3

David’s mother gives birth to another child, Petra, who appears perfectly normal  until  one day, when still  a young child,   she falls into the river, and in panic  displays  astonishing telepathic power,  summoning  Michael and the others to rescue her. As she grows up they are able to teach her to use her power – and to  keep it a secret. Then one day, whilst out riding,  Petra is attacked by a  wild cat which kills her pony. Again she screams for help telepathically summoning  all the group to help her. This gathering  is observed by a passing stranger,  who becomes suspicious and starts to make enquiries. A few days  later in the middle of the night two of the group, Sally and Katherine, are seized by the authorities  and tortured to make them reveal their secret. Alerted by the sisters,  David, Rosalind and Petra steal horses and flee towards The Fringes. Another of their group, Michael, undiscovered,  is with the armed posse which sets off to hunt them down. He tells his friends;

They’re afraid of us. They want to capture you and learn more about us – that’s why there’s the large reward. it isn’t just a question of the true image – though that’s the way they’re making it appear. What they’ve seen is that we could be a real danger to them. Imagine if there were a lot more of us than there are, able to think together and plan and co-ordinate without all their machinery of words and messages : we could outwit them all the time. They find that a very unpleasant thought; so we are to be stamped out before there can be any more of us. They see it as a matter of survival – and they may be right, you know.

That “matter of survival” is the key theme of the rest of the novel, both of the travellers and  of the human race.  As they flee Petra tells them  that she has made contact  with another “think-together” person, a woman who lives  a very long way away across the sea  in a place called “Sealand” where everyone is telepathic.  The woman tells them that she will come and rescue  them because of Petra’s remarkable power.  In the meantime,  Michael, Rosalind and Petra make it to the Fringes,  where they are helped by Sophie who is living there in poverty and squalor. The pursuing posse attacks the camp and Sophie is killed, but the group is saved when the flying  machine  arrives and sprays glistening threads that  land on everyone in the camp, and bind them tight. The  Sealand woman makes her way to the cave where they are hiding:

Petra raised her hand and tentatively touched the woman’s face, as if to assure herself that it was real. The Sealand woman laughed, kissed her, and put her down again. She shook her head slowly, as if she were not quite believing. “It was worth while,” she said in words  so curiously pronounced that I scarcely understood them at first. “Yes, certainly it was worth while!” She slipped into thought-forms, much easier to follow than her words.

“It was not simple to get permission to come. Such an immense distance; more than twice as far as any  of us has been before. So costly to send the ship: they could scarcely believe it would be worth it. But it will be…” She looked at Petra, wonderingly.”At her age, and untrained – yet she can throw a thought half-way around the world!”

David  suddenly realises that the threads have killed all the attackers, but  the Sealand woman is unrepentant, explaining that they are  a doomed race and that the  “think-together” people are the future:

Your minds are confused by your ties and your upbringing: you are still half-thinking of them as the same kind as yourselves. That  is why you are  shocked. …They  can see quite well that if it is to survive they have not only to preserve  it from detioriation, but they must protect it from the even more serious threat of the superior variant. For ours is a superior variant…The essential  quality of life is living: the essential  quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.

chrsyalids-2

The woman takes David, Rosalind  and Petra in the flying machine off to New Zealand:  Michael stays behind  to rescue another member of the group,  Rachel, promising to make their way to find them one day. The novel finishes as the machine  arrives above a sunlit city with  David sensing  something new,  a kind of suffused glow:

“What  is it?” I  said,  puzzled. “Can’t you guess, David? It’s people. Lots and lots of our kind of people”.

The Chrsyalids is Wyndham’s  masterpiece.  His chilling  vision of a dystopian  future is perfectly realised and the narative is compelling,  carrying the ring of truth  in its  depiction on how societies  can bond in fear against perceived “Outsiders” and repress dissent and change.

Wyndham wrote, of course, during the Cold War:  a time when there was a real fear that the two superpowers, the USA and  the Soviet Union – now armed with hydrogen bombs of enormous destructive power –  would  destroy the world between them. This  fear found its way  into a good few science fiction novels  and plays, some of which I have listed below  This survey is by no means exhasutive.

Novels

The Spurious Sun, by George Borodin (1948) begins  with an H-bomb-like explosion in Scotland which ignites the upper atmosphere; savage wars ensue worldwide, the UK is eliminated by nuclear weapons, and both Leningrad and San Francisco are obliterated. 

 Death of a World by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1948). An expedition to a deserted Earth turns up a diary describing the last days of Earth.

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (1948) is a  satire on the potential for the destruction of humanity.

Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril (1950)  tells the story of Westchester housewife, Gladys Mitchell, coping with the aftermath of a nuclear attack on New York.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)  is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war and  it portrays a world where scientific knowledge is feared and restricted.

 On the Beach by Neville Shute (1957) is   set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear  war,  and follows the fate of  group of  people awaiting the arrival of  the fallout from the northern hemisphere. The government  issues suicide pills to the population. The novel was a worldwide bestseller and  was filmed in 1959 and again in 2000.

On the Last Day by Mervyn Jones (1958)  features  a Russian/Chinese invasion of Britain, during a non-nuclear Third World War , and of the successful attempt of the British government in exile (in Canada) to build a new intercontinental missile. Jones was  an activist  in CND.

Two Hours to Doom by Peter Bryant (1958)  imagines an attack on the Soviet Union by American  planes,  ordered in by a paranoid general. The USA cooperates with the Soviets to shoot the planes down, and when one plane  gets through the Americans  offer to destroy one of their own  cities as quid pro quo. At the last minute the plane fails to reach its target. The novel was the basis for the the film Dr Strangelove.

Alas,  Babylon, by Pat Frank, (1959) shows the aftermath of a nuclear war as it affects a small town in Florida, Fort Repose.

The Last Day, a novel of the day after tomorrow  by Helen Clarkson (1959).  The story takes place in a  village on the New England coast, and tells what happens in the six days following a nuclear war.   You can read it here

Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1959) is the story  of soldier X-127 living with others  in an  underground military bunker,  Level 7,  who  narrates the tale of  life in the bunker  before, during and after a nuclear war that kills the rest of humanity. 

Dark December  by  Alfred Coppel (1960) is set in a world after a nuclear war. A soldier sets off on a journey to his home in California. En route he saves a captured Russian pilot.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960) is a  series of linked stories which begin  six  hundred years after a nuclear war.  Society rebuilds itself,  but political conflicts lead to  another  nuclear war.

Drama on television

Number Three, broadcast by the BBC on 1st  February 1953. This was dramatised from a novel by Charles Irving by Nigel Neale and  others.  Scientists at an atom research station  working on a new form of nuclear power discover  the project leader plans to  use it as a weapon.

Doomsday for Dyson  by J B Priestley, broadcast on ITV on 10th March 1958. An anti-war fantasy about a man standing trial in the afterlife for killing his family in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. It was followed by a short studio discussion on the issues raised.

Underground, broadcast  by ATV on 30th  November 1958 in the “Armchair Theatre” series.  It was written by James Forsyth, adapted from novel by Harold Rein Few Were Left, directed by William Kotcheff.  The survivors of a nuclear holocaust are trapped in the London Underground.

The Offshore Island, broadcast by the BBC on 14th  April 1959. It was written by Michael Voysey, based on a play by  Marganita Laski, an activist in CND.  A  drama about a family whose farm remains unaffected, eight years after a nuclear war. Their peace is disturbed by a force of American soldiers and then a Russsian one.

The Poisoned Earth, broadcast by  ITV on 28th  February 1961 in the “Play of the Week” series. It was written by Arden Winch. Moral problems are raised when a new type of nuclear bomb, with limited fallout range, is developed.

The Road, broadcast by the BBC on 29 September 1963.  It was written by Nigel Kneale,  and was  part of  the “First Night” drama series.  A  scientist and a philosopher  in C18th investigate  “ghosts” that appear on Michaelmass Eve each year. In the end we realise  that they are actually visions from  the future of  people fleeing down a road from a nuclear war.

Terror from the Deeps: The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (1953)

1075_JOHN_WYNDHAM_The_Kraken_Wakes_1960In a previous  post I discussed The Day of the  Triffids In his second novel  The Kraken Wakes John Wyndham again imagines  the  breakdown of  human civilisation, but in a very different  way and from a very different kind of menace. By contrast with  The Day of the Triffids  –  in which the Triffids were home-grown destroyers and  highly visible throughout the novel – in The Kraken Wakes  the  invaders appear  to be  from another planet,   and  are almost  never seen.

The story is told through the eyes of Mike and Phyllis Watson, radio journalists for the English Broadcasting Company, whose  profession  means  – conveniently for the narrative –  that they are either  present  at some of the key events or are in touch with the scientists or military officers trying to make  sense of what is happening. It’s quite clear that Phyllis,  like Josella in The Day of the Triffids, is the  sharper, more  prescient,  of the couple, and also has a greater imagination than Mike,  who comes across a stolid man of the 1950s: he probably wears a tweed jacket.

The story is spread  over several years as  the menace and terror  escalate a little at a time:  in fact the three chapters are titled Phase One, Phase Two and Phase Three. Phase One begins with Mike and Phyllis taking  their honeymoon  on a cruise ship from  which,  nearing the Azores, they observe  five fuzzy red  fireballs landing in the ocean and disappearing. After reporting this  when they get back home they learn that there have been  similar sightings around the world and that the sea sectors in which  the fireballs  land correlate with the deepest parts of the ocean.  The Watsons are invited to join a Royal Navy  expedition to investigate which lowers two men in a bathyscope,  equipped with cameras. Finding nothing in the depths,  they think  that they see something as they ascend to the surface, as Mike Watson relates:

This time we could undoubtedly make out a lighter patch. It was roughly oval, but indistinct, and there was nothing to give it scale….Again the camera showed us a glimpse of the thing as it passed  one of the bathyscope’s ports, but we were little wiser; the definition too poor for us to be sure of anything about it. “It’s going up now. Rising faster than we are. Getting beyond our angle of view. ought to be a window in the top of this thing…Lost it now. Gone somewhere up above above us. Maybe it’ll – The voice cut off dead. Simultaneously, there was a brief, vivid flash on the screen, and it too went dead.The sound of the winch outside altered as it speeded up….At last, the end  came up…Both the main and the communications cables ended in a blob of fused metal.

After this incident shipping starts to sink and the powers-that-be decide to drop an atomic bomb into the ocean near the Marianas, but with no effect. At this point Wyndham  introduces Dr Alastair Bocker into the narrative, whose analyses and predictictions are invariably derided by conventional scientific  and political opinion, but  usually turn out to be correct. Wyndham uses him to play a similar role to that of Michael Beadley in The Day of the Triffids. Bocker suggests that the intelligences in the deep have  come from another planet, possibly Jupiter, and that an invasion is under way. He also suggests that the discolouration of the ocean,  which has started happening, is  caused by the intelligences drilling communication routes between the various ocean deeps.

deep sea

In Phase Two  a string of ocean going  passenger liners  are sunk with the loss of all passengers,  forcing  the authorities to acknowledge the reality of the deep-sea menace, which  the public now reluctantly accepts, having been inclined to blame the Russians up to now. (This novel was written during the Cold War, remember). “Back room boffins”  eventually come up with   anti-attack devices, which when fitted to ships  deal with this particular threat,  but it’s far from  over.  Soon reports come in of  mysterious  raids on remote islands  in which the population vanishes: all that can be found are tracks leading to and from the sea and slime covering the ground and buildings. Mike and Phyllis go off on a expedition, led by Bocker, to an island called Escondida  where he predicts the next raid  may take place. Nothing happens for several weeks and the group takes it easy,  enjoying the sunshine. Then it starts.

What follows is one of the most  horrific episodes in modern science  fiction as Wyndham  presents us with grey metal  “sea-tanks”, some 35 feet long, which  grind their way  out of the sea and into the town square. They then release white cilia, sticky  tentacles,  which ensnare the  fleeing crowd. Phyllis physically stops Mike from going out (almost certainly saving his life),  so he watches from a window:

The thing that had burst was no longer in the air. It was now a round body no more than a couple of feet in diameter  surrounded by a radiation of cilia. It was drawing these back into itself with whatever they had caught, and the tension was  keeping  it a little off the ground. Some of the people it was pulling were shouting and struggling, others were like inert bundles of clothes.

I saw poor Muriel Flynn among them. She was lying on her back, dragged across the cobbles by a tentacle caught in her red hair. She had been badly hurt by the fall when she was pulled out of her window, and was crying out with terror, too. Leslie dragged alongside her, but it looked as if the fall had mercifully broken his neck.

Over on the far side I saw a man  rush forward and try to pull a screaming  woman away, but when he touched the cillium that held her hand his hand became  fastened to it, too, and they were dragged along.

As the circle contracted, the white cilia came closer to one another. The struggling people inevitably touched more of them and became  more helplessly enmeshed than before. There was a relentless deliberation about it which  made it seem horribly as though one watched through the eye of a slow-motion camera. ..the machines…still lay where they had stopped, looking like huge grey slugs, each engaged in producing several of its disgusting bubbles at different stages. …I looked out again. Half a dozen objects, looking like tight round bales, were rolling over and over on their way to the street that led to the waterfront.

After this the raids increase to a full onslaught on coasts  around the world with hundreds of “sea-tanks”  causing thousands of deaths. However the machines (if that is truly  what they are) are  vulnerable to explosive shells,  and eventually they are held at bay   by a combination of mines, weaponry and an alert public:

It was the Irish who took almost the whole weight of the north-European attack, which  was conducted, according to Bocker,  from a base somewhere in the Deep, south of Rockall. They rapidly developed a skill in dealing with them that made it a point of dishonour that even one should get away…England’s only raids occurred  in Cornwall, and they too were small affairs for the most part.

The raids cease but,  as  Bocker prophesies in a radio  broadcast, “These things, whatever  they may be, have not only succeeeded in throwing us out of their element  with ease, but already they have advanced  to do battle with us in ours. For the moment  we have pushed them back, but they will return, for the same urge drives them as drives us – the neccessity to exterminate, or be exterminated. And when they come again , if we let them, they will come better equipped…

icebergs

In Phase Three the intelligences succeed in melting the Arctic  and Antarctic polar ice,   and water levels around the globe start to rise rapidly.  As  London is progressively  flooded the government flees to Harrogate.  Mike and Phyllis stay on in the capital  to broadcast from an EBC studio  until   conditions  become impossible. By now the government has ceased broadcasting,  and the country has balkanised   into a series of armed enclaves of  desperate people,  ready  and willing to shoot at others seeking safety and food.  The Watsons manage to find a boat and, after a number of adventures, make their way to their cottage in Cornwall, where Phyllis, with her usual foresight,  has laid in stocks of food.

Some months later they learn from a neighbour that their names have been  broadcast by Bocker, who is  part of a Council  for Reconstruction. He wants  them to go London  to help in  the business of rebuilding a post-deluge society. What about the inteligences?  According to Bocker, scientists   have succeeded at last in building an ultra-sound weapon that is being used to systematically to kill them   and  clear the deeps.  The last words in the novel go to  Phyllis, wise as ever:

I was just thinking…Nothing is really new, is it, Mike? Once upon a time there was a great plain, covered with forests and full of wild animals. I expect our ancestors hunted there. Then one day the water came and drowned it all and there was the North Sea…I think we’ve been here before, Mike…and and we got through last time.

Stories about what might lurk in the sea and one day rise to the surface are part of folk-culture and go back centuries. Wyndham successfully plays on these primitive fears in what is a deftly plotted story, driven by  the narrative, which  slowly rachets up the tension.   He also  subverts the conventional alien invasion novel   in which “they”  crash to earth and set about  the violent destruction of humanity. In The Kraken Wakes  “they” arrive silently and stealthily: in fact we are never quite clear whether this is  really an  invasion at all;  are the intelligences  simply seeking a new home in the deeps, but are then forced to deal with  the intrusive behaviour of humanity who will not leave them alone?

In the end  it seems the planet  cannot be shared, a conclusion that  even the humanitarian Bocker is forced to accept. The idea of the aliens “shrimping” human beings in their sea raids,  as Phyllis graphically  puts it,  is surely a nod by Wyndham  to Wells’ The War of the Worlds in which the Martians’ war machines use their ” long, flexible, glittering tentacles” to harvest  human beings and put them in a basket to be later used,  as Wells hints,  for some ghastly alien purpose.

As in  The Day of the Triffids,  Wyndham cannot resist some social  satire, poking fun at the fickleness of public opinion which demands immediate action, any action, to solve  a perceived problem,  and the stock responses of the press:

The news of the latest sinking was announced on the 8am news bulletin on a Saturday. The Sunday papers took full advantage of  their opportunity. At least six of them slashed at official incompetence with almost eighteenth-century gusto, and set the pitch for the Dailies. The Times screwed down rebukes to make the juice  run out. The Guardian’s approach was similar in intention, but more like an advancing set of circular-saws in manner…The Worker, after pointing out that in a properly ordered society such tragedies would have been  impossible since luxury liners would not exist and therefore could not be sunk, rounded upon owners who drove seamen into danger in unprotected ships at inadequate wages. 

It  can plausibly  be The Sea Devilsargued  that The Kraken Wakes influenced Maclolm Hulke’s 1971  Doctor Who serial “The Sea Devils”,  in which an undersea colony of Silurians – intelligent reptiles who once ruled the earth millions of years ago –  are awoken and begin attacking ships, sinking them.  In one episode they also come ashore to attack the coast.  The Doctor tries to make  peace between the Silurians and humanity – but fails,  and they are destroyed.    As Malcolm once said,  What you need for science fiction is a good original idea. It doesn’t have to be your original idea.” You can read my post on the work of Malcolm Hulke here.

 

Productions

It is  surprising that The Kraken Wakes has never  been filmed or produced as a television  series, since it offers a great deal of dramatic incident, while the melting of the icecaps chimes with contemporary concerns over global warming.

The novel  has been produced as a radio series on a number of occasions.

In  1954 it was produced by Peter Watts  on the Third Programme from  a script by  John Keir Cross. Michael Watson was played by Robert Beatty, Phyllis Watson was played by Grizelda Hervey.

In 1965 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an adaptation starring Sam Paine, Shirley Broderick, Michael Irwin and Derek Walston. You can listen to this here

In 1998 it was produced by Susan Roberts on Radio Four from  a script by John Constable. Michael Watson was played by John Branwell, Phyllis Watson was played by  Kathryn Hunt.

In 2008  it was produced by Susan Roberts on Radio Four from  a script by John Constable. Michael Watson was played by Jonathan Cake, Phyllis Watson was  played by Sarah Todd.

On 8 January 2016 a new adaptation, written by Val McDermid, was recorded live in Media City,  Salford, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It  starred  Tamsin Greig, Paul Higgins and Richard Harrington. The score was composed by  Alan Edward Williams.  The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, played herself in pre-recorded section. This production was  broadcast on Radio Four on 28  May 2016. More information here

Finally, the title of the book comes from a poem by Tennyson, The Kraken.

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

 

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

 

 

 

Doctor Who and the Communist: The work and politics of Malcolm Hulke

Malcolm Hulke

Introduction

Malcolm Hulke was a successful writer for radio, television and the theatre from the 1950s to the late 1970s. For television his work included episodes for Armchair Theatre, The Avengers, and  Doctor Who, for which he is best remembered. My interest in Malcolm was sparked by coming across a pamphlet he wrote for Unity Theatre in the collection of the Working Class Movement Library. I already knew of him as a writer on Doctor Who and thought I would do some research on him, which  was published as a guest post  on the Lipstick Socialist blog in February 2013. I then forgot about it until Five Leaves Press approached me in December 2014,  wishing  to publish the post  as a pamphlet,  so I revised and expanded the article,   and this was published  in January 2015.

Malcolm was generally  known by friends and family as Mac, so that’s what I will call him from now on in this post. Whilst it was known that Mac was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) for some time, I failed to find out anything substantial about his time in the party,  despite my looking in all the obvious places: the Working Class Movement Library,  the People’s History Museum, the Marx Memorial Library, the National Archives and  the various histories of the CPGB. This surprised and puzzled me as the CPGB has been  heavily researched and written about over the last 20 years or so.

In  September 2015  Doctor Who Magazine  published an  excellent article about Mac written  by John Williams,   who had  managed to find out a good deal about Mac’s time in the party by examining his M15 file,  which had been released into the National Archives in October 2014.  John’s work has been invaluable in adding to what is known about Mac,  and I would like to acknowledge my debt to him in preparing this revised and updated  article.

Early Life 

Mac was born on 21 November 1924. When he became known as a writer,  he gave away very little about his personal life, except that he revealed that he was “illegitimate” (as it used to be called) in an article he wrote entitled “The stigma you can never escape” which appeared in The Observer on 14 October 1973.

One day when I was 21 I decided to track down my father’s relatives to find out why my recently dead mother always told me never to go near them. This well-to-do couple I found in a vast St John’s Wood flat offered me afternoon tea. As she poured, the lady I thought was my aunt said, ‘Well, where do you think you fit into our family?’. I explained I was the son of her long-dead brother and mentioned when I was born. “That’s quite impossible”, she said, because my brother died two years before then. Do you take sugar? I never called again. It isn’t nice to go round shocking innocent house-holders. When you’re illegitimate you feel completely alone…We are the totally silent minority.

In 1964 he took part in a radio documentary on this issue called Born Out of Wedlock, made by Tony Parker. Mac says of this:

For the first time we learnt we number two millions in Britain alone. Irrational joy filled my heart that I was not alone. But listening to the other 50 voices I realised that most of my people suffer terribly. Being brought up rather oddly, with countless moves to avoid creditors and bailiffs, I had been well prepared to learn of my bastardy. These less fortunates had not. They suffered because they clung to ideas of respectability.

Whilst  wary of  the modern trait of psycho-analysing a writer’s work solely in terms of their personal experiences,  I think it could be argued  that  one of the themes of Mac’s work is secrecy, deception  and illusion. As the Doctor says in “The Faceless Ones,” :”You don’t want to believe everything you see, Jamie.”

Le drapeau de la victoireWhen the Second World War broke out he was living in the lakes with his mother, Marian, and her companion, Winifred Boot.   Marian died in 1943,  and Mac was conscripted into the Royal  Navy after failing in an attempt to be registered as a Conscientious Objector.  He joined the CPGB in June  1945,  not, as he later wrote, because he knew anything about Marxism, but because he had “just met lot of Russian POWs in Norway, because the Soviet army had just then rolled back the Germans.”

Directed by Moscow, the CPGB had opposed the war because Stalin  had done a deal with Hitler in August  1939 not to attack each other, but after Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the party swung fully behind the war, its members setting up Anglo-Soviet Friendship Societies  and playing a leading role in committees to increase productivity in factories. The party gained a great deal of prestige when the Red Army held Hitler’s armies at  Moscow  and then  drove them all the way back to Berlin.

Mac and the Communist party

British road to socialismAfter the war Mac  not only discovered that he was illegitimate (as noted above) but also that he did not have a birth certificate and therefore had to apply for naturalisation.  His membership of the CPGB led M15 to open a file on him from 1949 owards. By now he was living in Marylebone, London,  and for a time worked as a typist  at the CPGB’s headquarters in King Street, Covent Garden, but was sacked after the party discovered  he had phoned  the Home Office from King Street to enquire about his application for naturalisation.

Mac moved back to the Lake District for several years,  but remained a member of the party,  although doubts had set in. In letter to Emile Burns,  who was head of the party’s  Cultural Committee set up in 1947 , Mac wrote:

Sometimes I think that many Comrades – and especially those deeply engrossed in party life – tend to imagine, rather hopefully, that the rest of the community, though they may be anti—Communist or anything else, are linguistically well-equipped and polemically astute. What’s more, they don’t always seem to be to realise that most people regard politics as not much more important than football pools or going to the pictures.

In 1951 he wrote to the District Secretary to announce that  he intended to leave the party,  citing as a reason  the CPGB’s  hostility to the Yougoslavian Communist leader  Tito (who had broken with Stalin in 1948),  and also its line on the Korean War. It seems that,  whilst believing in  Communism as an idea, he was less enamoured of  actual Communists. He wrote:

Once a man starts wanting to believe in a thing, it’s just about time he really set about some deep thinking…Could it be that Communism is a wonderful idea but that its philosophy is inherited with some not easily definable something that, at least, in present, day society, , tends rather to gather to itself mentalities of a not wholly desirable type?…And if that is the case, and if Communism, managed to gain control in this country, just what sort of people would we expect to find governing us?

M15’s monitoring of the party was  very efficient,  for just a day after Mac had  resigned a letter was sent by Sir Percy Sillitoe, Director-General of M15, to the police in Cumberland  advising them of Mac’s decision. Superintendent Baum responded that he suspected the resignation was a trick: “he should continue to receive every attention, as in my view he is a dangerous man and without scruples.

In September 1951 Mac returned to London,  and almost immediately re-applied to join the party. His application was handled by Betty Reid, head of the organisation department. Mac wrote to her  explaining that he had  found it “impossible to think other than  as a Communist “ and that his future aspiration ”was to hold a party card and …I intend to make a published writer of myself – until that goal is reached I do not see my way clear to becoming an active Party member again”. Which seems an  odd thing to write if you are seriously  hoping to be  re-admitted.

Mac’s involvement with the Notting Hill Progressive and Cultural Club,   an arts venue run by local party members,  but looked upon with deep suspicion by more puritanical elements of the party, including Betty, led to  his application being rejected. He carried on badgering the party to let him back,  citing his involvement in “squatting, the Savoy picketing, the British-Soviet Society, the 1950 General Election” and telling Betty” I cannot accept your attitude as correct, justified, fair or constructive” which again  doesn’t seem very tactful. In the end the party reluctantly let him back in,  but he was still being closely monitored by both the police and M15 as he moved from flat to flat around London and ended up lodging at the Notting Hill Progressive  and Cultural Club.

Betty Reid retained her suspicions of Mac. In 1953 he wrote to Sam Aaronovitch, then full-time Secretary of the party’s Cultural Committee asking for extra work for the party.  M15 recorded Reid asking Aaronovitch to “help put Hulke off.” Mac remained in the party after 1956 when something like a quarter of its members  left after the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising by Soviet tanks. He seems to have  either left or lapsed from the party in the late 1960s, perhaps when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.  His M15 file after 1962 has yet to be released.

Unity Theatre

unity-2In the 1950s and 1960s Malcolm was very involved with the socialist theatre company, Unity Theatre. Colin Chambers, who has written the history of Unity, says:

The theatre began with irrepressible determination amid the political struggles of the early 1930s that were fought against the savage cuts in state benefits, the imposed means tests, the waste of widespread unemployment and poverty, and above all against the rise of fascism. Four decades later, when the theatre’s auditorium was destroyed by fire, Unity had become a shadow of its former glories. Yes, despite its non-professional status and limited size, Unity made a major and lasting contribution to the British theatre through its own work and that of its members who became professional. It pioneered direct political commentary on stage, in its satires and documentary-based shows and developed a drama that represented working-class life and speech with insight and integrity.

Here Is DramaIn 1954 Malcolm was listed in the annual Unity report as the production manager. In 1961, to mark the 25th anniversary of the company, he devised, edited and produced a booklet here is drama- behind the scenes at Unity theatre. He stresses that almost all jobs at Unity “can be done, and are done, equally well and equally badly by women as well as men” and ends the pamphlet thus:

Unity is a theatre of ideals. But don’t you be too dreamy-eyed in your approach. Only the very mature, and the lonely, stand the test of time. Some people have even been known to use Unity as a jumping-board for West End theatre work, don’t forgot they may do a lot of good for Unity Theatre in the process. Never store up grievances : take them to the Management Committee. In the final analysis, however, there is only one person who will change and improve unity theatre. You.

He does not seem to have written for Unity himself, which is surprising in view of his later successful career as a writer. Eric Paice, with whom Malcolm worked in the 1950s and 1960s, was also involved with Unity,  and did write a number of plays for the company such as The Rosenbergs (1953), Turn It Up (1953) and World On Edge (1956). In 1962 Mac became Treasurer of the  Unity Theatre Trust

Mac’s early work on television

Mac began working with Eric Paice, writing for the new medium of television where there was an increasing demand for drama, both on the BBC and, after 1955, on its rival, ITV. Their first success was  “This Day in Fear”, rejected by ITV but then taken up by the BBC, and broadcast on 1 July 1958 in the series Television Playwright. The main character is a former IRA member who, having turned his back on the movement, is on the run after betraying a comrade and who seeks safety with the police. The Times described it as “the most arresting yet”,  in the series.  “The development is most graceful: irony discloses in advance that the courteous and solicitious ‘police’ are in fact the killers but there is no preparation for the bombshell that the protagonist himself is the Republican hero whose death was to be avenged…the revelation of identity kaleidoscopically shakes the disconnected ends of the plot into order.”

Armchair TheatreThey wrote four plays for Armchair Theatre,  a series was launched in 1956 by Howard Thomas, head of ABC, which had the franchise for the weekend for the Midlands and the North until 1974. Thomas said that “television drama is not so far removed from television journalism, and the plays which will grip the audience are those that face up to the new issues of the day, as well as to the problems as old as civilisation.”

Sydney Newman was approached by ABC to become the producer of Armchair Theatre and worked on the series between 1958 and 1962, often seen as its golden period. Newman came to England from Canada,  where he had made hundreds of documentaries and had  been Head of Drama at the Canadian Broadcasting Company

Newman produced 152 episodes of Armchair Theatre.  Many writers cut their teeth on the series. The programme went out on Sunday evenings: the viewings figures  often reached 12 million. Mac and Eric’s plays for Armchair Theatre were “The Criminals”, “The Big Client”, “The Great Bullion Robbery”, and  “The Girl in the Market Square.” Their other work at this time included three episodes for  Gert and Daisy, a comedy series starring Elsie and Doris Waters;  an episode for a series called Tell It to the Marines; and an episode for the police series No Hiding Place.

Malcolm and Eric also wrote the scripts for two films:  Life in Danger, released in 1959 by Butchers Films (who made many “B movies” in the 1950s and 1960s), and  The Man in the Back Seat,  released in June 1961 by Independent Artists Studio.

Pathfinders in Space
Sydney Newman commissioned Mac and Eric to write a children’s science fiction serial for ABC, Target Luna, which was broadcast in April and May 1960. Newman’s aim  for the programme was to educate young people about science. The series centres on Professor Wedgewood, head of an experimental rocket centre which launches missions into space from Buchan Island, a remote Scottish isle. His children, Geoffrey, Valerie and Little Jimmy,  who have  come to spend the holidays with him become involved in the project with  Little Jimmy being launched  into space to replace a sick astronaut. Geoffrey, incidentally, was played by Michael Craze who in 1966 joined the cast of Doctor Who in the serial “The War Machines”,  playing the companion Ben Jackson, a sailor.

Hulke was very keen to show a situation in which  the different nations of the world unite. “We soon see how the plight of one human being in an Earth-bound rocket catches the imagination of the whole world. Radar stations – Russian, American, British and others – are linked in a global effort to bring the rocket home. Space travel, it turns out, is a great unifying influence among the nations. The old law of the sea becomes the law of space too.”

PathfindersThis was a success with the public and Newman commissioned three sequels: Pathfinders in Space, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus, which aired between September 1960 and March 1961. The cast was completely revamped with new actors playing both the main roles and the children. There was greater emphasis on science in these sequels. “This is a more ambitious story,” announced Eric, with  Mac adding,  “We’re steeped in scienography.” In these new adventures the adults,  the children and Hamlet the Hamster travel to the Moon, Mars and Venus, encountering amongst other perils lost civilisations, an alien spaceship, sandstorms, dinosaurs and Venusians. In many  ways the series, with  its pedagogic intention and imaginative story lines,  was a predecessor to Doctor Who.

 

The Avengers
Patrick Macnee and Honor BlackmanMalcolm’s connection with Sydney Newman continued when he wrote nine episodes for the cult TV series The Avengers, which Sydney created for ABC in 1961. Howard Thomas, head of ABC,  suggested to Newman  that as the percentage of  realistic  and gloomy drama  increased, their schedules  needed balancing with something more lighthearted and sophisticated, something like The Thin Man films of the 1930s, for instance.   The Avengers originally starred Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel and  Patrick MacNee as John Steed, a shadowy character linked to the security services.   It ran until 1969 and  evolved over the decade from a crime and spy thriller to a stylish fantasy series, which combined English eccentricity with elements of Swinging London. After Hendry left at the end  of the first season, Patrick  MacNee took the lead,  whilst his partners in the nefarious  investigations were in order of appearance;  Julie Stevens playing Venus Smith; Honor Blackman playing Cathy Gale: Diana Rigg playing  Emma Peel; and Linda Thorson  playing  Tara King.

Of these nine episodes Mac co-wrote four episodes with Terrance Dicks, whom he got to know when Terrance rented a room in his house and whom Mac asked for help with writing the scripts when he learnt  that Terrance, an advertising copywriter, was very keen to write for television. In many interviews Terrance has acknowledged the influence of Malcolm  on his career, describing him as his mentor. In 1968, after a spell on Crossroads, Terrance  became assistant script editor on Doctor Who and about year later, the chief script editor.

Mac’s life had stabilised. He was now  lodging in the house of Betty Tate, a widow and fellow CPGB member who had three daughters. She had read history at Oxford in the early 1930s and joined the party. She married George Tate, who was a historian and journalist at the Daily Worker. George died in 1956,  which is why I imagine Betty started taking in lodgers. Mac helped out with her party activities, writing pamphlets for the Socialist Sunday School, selling the Daily Worker, and running fundraising bazaars. Then his mother’s friend Winifred Boot moved to London and she and Mac bought a house round the corner from Betty Tate which they set up as  a lodging house,  with Mac acted as landlord and general handyman. This is where Terrance Dicks lodged,  as mentioned above.

His career was taking off. Winifred wrote to one of Mac’s brothers in December 1963: “Mac is well but very busy. He is writing a six part serial for television to be produced in early 1964, and has just completed a one hour episode for The Avengers series. Somehow he makes time to see me every day and last week took me to St Martin’s Theatre to see The Sound of Music. It was a lovely evening there back in his lovely car, with the heater on. I wish your mother had lived to see his success.

The six  part serial was for a new Saturday early evening show called Doctor Who.

The origins of Doctor Who
Sydney Newman’s  success on ITV led him to being poached by the BBC, who offered a job as Head of Drama: he  started work in January 1963. Looking back 20 years later, when interviewed for a BBC oral history project, he described what he found at the BBC.

The material didn’t really cater to what I assumed to be the mass British audience. It was still the attitude that BBC drama was still catering to the highly educated, cultured class rather than the mass audience which was not aware of culture as such . But above all I felt that the dramas really weren’t speaking about common everyday things…” 

They needed to come up with a new series for was the late afternoon slot at 5:15 between the end of the afternoon sports programme Grandstand and the start of  Juke Box Jury. At a number of meetings in the spring of 1963 Newman and his staff evolved the notion of a mysterious Doctor who could travel in time and space. The aim of the series were educational, similar to Pathfinders in Space,  with the remit  of teaching its young audience in an enjoyable way  about space and history. In its first years the serials alternated between a science fiction adventure and an adventure set during a dramatic historical event such as the travels of Marco Polo, the Crusades, and the St Bartholomew’s EveThe_Cast_and_Verity Massacre of 1572  (an extraordinary subject for a tea-time children’s serial, although no actual killings were shown).

Newman brought in as producer a young woman he had worked with at ABC, Verity Lambert, which caused a stir as the BBC was then a very male world. Verity persuaded the veteran actor William Hartnell to take on the role of the Doctor. Hartnell had been working as an actor since the 1930s,  but was frustrated by the limited roles he was being offered, often as an army sergeant. Verity had been  impressed by his part in a recent British film This Sporting Life.

 

The First Doctor 1963 – 1966

Unearthly childThe first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast on 23 November 1963, “An Unearthly Child” which set the scene, introducing the mysterous Doctor and his grandchild, Susan,  whose science and history teachers at Coal Hill school , Ian and Barbara, are puzzled by her advanced knowledge on some matters and ignorance on others. They follow her a to junkyard at 76 Totters Lane and burst into what seems to  be a police-box,  but  is in  fact a space and time machine, the Tardis, as Susan has called it.  The Doctor sets the machine in motion.

In December 1963 Malcolm was commissioned to write a six part serial called “The Hidden Planet” and produced a number of scripts, but in the end, despite several rewrites, it was not proceeded with.

Mac later recalled:

“The Hidden Planet” was about a planet which is the same size as Earth, but on the other side of the sun, and therefore we have never seen it. The Doctor goes to the planet and for obvious reasons the Tardis crew think they are on Earth. But they find things are different. They landed in a field and Susan notices a four-leaf clover, and then they see they are all four leaf clovers. And then other mysterious things happen like birds flying backwards or having double wings, and things of that sort.

In an interview  Mac said that the success of the Daleks changed the nature of the show,  and it was felt that his serial would not  now fit in.

This idea of an identical planet crops up in a later serial “The Tenth Planet”, broadcast in the autumn of 1966, written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis,  in which the planet Mondas appears suddenly in the solar system, a twin of the earth,  except that this planet  has Cybermen on it who come calling on their new neighbours.

“The Tenth Planet” was William Hartnell’s last serial.  He had been suffering from ill-health and in those days Doctor Who was produced  for 40 weeks a year,  so it was a relentless work schedule. Rather than lose the programme,  the programme makers, Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis, took the bold and quite risky step of replacing the by now much-loved Hartnell with another actor, Pat Troughton, ascribing the change to the Doctor having worn out his old body. As the new Doctor explains at the beginning of “The Power of the Daleks”: “ I’ve been renewed. It’s part of the Tardis. Without it, I couldn’t survive…

The change of actors worked: the serial  continued and remained just as  popular.

The Second Doctor 1966 – 1969

The Faceless OnesIt was in this new era that Mac’s first serial for Doctor Who was broadcast in April 1967. this was   “The Faceless Ones”, written with David Ellis, whom he had started working with after meeting him at a party. The Doctor and his companions – Ben, Polly and Jamie – land at Gatwick airport and discover that aliens are stealing the identities of young air passengers in order to take over the world, their own planet  having been devastated in an explosion. They masquerade as an airline called “Chameleon Tours” whose  aircraft go into space to rendezvous with the alien’s satellite. The Doctor defeats them in the end, of course. Sadly only two episodes have survived of the serial. In tone this  serial  feels similar to an episode of The Avengers.

Malcolm next contribution to Doctor Who was “The War Games”, written with Terrance Dicks, and broadcast between April and June 1969, lasting an epic ten episodes, one of the longest  Doctor  Who serials ever made. It was written at haste, because, as Terrance admits in interviews, they had run out of scripts and needed something very urgently. He brought in his old friend Mac to help out and they were still writing the final parts when filming had  already started on the first episodes. Pat Troughton had decided he wanted to leave the series,  as had  the actors playing his companions, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury,  and so Terrance and Mac  had to find a way of changing the Doctor,  but leaving  it in the air as to who the next Doctor was to be as Jon Pertwee had not been cast yet.

In “The War Games” the Doctor and his companions, Jamie and Zoe,  lands in the midst of what appears to be the First World War. The Doctor tells Jamie:“We’re back in history, Jamie. One of the most terrible times on the planet Earth.” But  then  they discover that other wars from history such the Roman invasion of Britain, the Mexican Revolution and the American Civil War are taking place in different zones.  They are not on Earth at all, but on another planet where the war games are being run by an alien race so that they can create an invincible army to conquer The War Gamesthe galaxy, assisted by a renegade Time Lord, the War Chief.

The Doctor, his companions and a motley army of  rebels from different zones defeat the aliens,  but the Doctor  then has to summon the Time Lords, an idea that Terrance and Mac came up with. They put him on trial for interfering on his travels and not standing aloof. The Doctor defends himself :”All these evils I have fought, while you have done nothing but observe! True, I am guilty of interference. Just as you are guilty of failing to use your great powers to help those in need!” The Time Lords accept his plea,  but exile him to Earth with a new identity.

In this story Mac and Terrance show war as violent, brutal  and pointless, controlled by ruthless leaders who place no value on human life whatsoever and who, whilst apparently on different sides – German, British, Yankee, Southerner – are in fact  all working together. They  add to this by not giving the aliens any names, only titles such as “The Security Chief” and “The War Lord”, while we never learn the name of their planet which  is only ever  referred to as “The Home Planet”.  The serial seems to draw on Peter Watkins’ drama documentary about a nuclear attack on Britain The War Game and also Joan Littlewood’s theatre show Oh What A Lovely War. The writers go one further by showing that by combining together the soldiers can defeat their rulers, now that looks distinctly  like Mac’s touch.

The serial attracted the lowest audience of Patrick Troughton’s last season in the role, just 4.9 million. In the years since, however, it has attracted greater appreciation. Its my personal favourite of Mac’s serials for Doctor Who.

The Third Doctor 1970-1974
Doctor Who was re-born in 1970,  and re-established itself as a Saturday teatime must-see for a new  generation of young people. This was brought about by a number of  factors.

Firstly  the producers of the series opted for a new story line, anchoring the Doctor on Earth as a scientific advisor to UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), a quasi-military outfit first encountered by the Second Doctor in “The Invasion”. UNIT was led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who had first appeared as a regular army officer in “The Web of Fear”.

Secondly, the inspired choice of Jon Pertwee as Troughton’s replacement, a surprise to many as he was principally thought of as a light comedian. (You can still hear him on Radio Four Extra in The Navy Lark). Interviewed in 1994, he said “I wanted to play him straight, to be a figure that the children believed in, who have enough faith in the Doctor to say the Doctor will do it, he will look after us and we’ll be all right under his wings.“

Thirdly, the new series was driven forward by script editor Terrance Dicks, and the new producer Barry Letts, who formed a close creative working relationship which was instrumental in popularising Doctor Who to a fresh audience over the next four years

Finally the new series was filmed in colour which allowed a whole new look, although it was not without problems when the screen showed less than convincing monsters.

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Mac contributed six serials in this era, serials which often had a political dimension. Terrance Dicks says:”What we never did was commission a Doctor Who with a political message but nonetheless if you look at it there is a streak of anti-authoritarianism in all Mac’s work: he doesn’t trust the establishment.” Barry Letts concurs: “You could be pretty certain that anything that he wrote would have an underlying political message which we didn’t mind because we liked stories to have a reason.”

Mac himself said of Doctor Who: “It’s a very political show. Remember what politics refers to, it refers to relationships between groups of people. It doesn’t necessarily mean left or right…so all Doctor Who’s are political, even though the other group of people are reptiles, they’re still a group of people.”

“The Silurians”, broadcast January-March 1970
the SiluriansUNIT is called in to investigate why an underground atomic research centre – seeking to provide cheap, unlimited power – is suffering problems with their energy supply and experiencing mysterious attacks. The Doctor discovers that they have accidentally awakened an ancient race, the Silurians, highly intelligent reptiles who ruled the earth millions of years before the evolution of the human race. They  had gone into underground hibernation when they believed an approaching  asteroid would destroy all life on the surface – and never woken up. Despite the best efforts of the Doctor to broker a peace, suspicions on both sides prove insurmountable. The Silurians want their planet back, the humans are fearful of this alien invasion from within.

Mac says he was asked to do something in caves and that in science fiction there are only two stories. ”They came to us or we go to them and I thought, they come to us but they’ve always been here”.He  explores a number of themes in this serial, including the threat posed by unfettered scientific research, relationships between races and the military mind-set which believes that violence can solve all problems. The Doctor makes several attempts to persuade UNIT that they should not attack the Silurians, arguing that “they may not be hostile”. When Doctor first encounters a Silurian, he tries to communicate with it, asking  it“what do you people want, how can we help you, unless you tell me what you want the humans will destroy you.

In the end his efforts end in failure when the Brigadier orders the destruction of the Silurians’ base. The Doctor says : “…that’s murder. They were intelligent alien beings. A whole race of them. And he’s just wiped them out”.  Mac gives the Doctor’s companion, Dr Liz Shaw (Caroline John) some  good lines. When the Brigadier asks her to look after the phones, she snaps back,  “I am a scientist, not an office boy.” In 1970 the Women’s  Liberation movement  was beginning to make its voice heard.

“The Ambassadors of Death”, broadcast March– May 1970
The Ambassadors of DeathThis was originally written for Patrick Troughton by David Whitaker and then had to be rewritten for Jon Pertwee. Mac inherited the script after David Whitaker had given up on it. The serial very much harks back to the first Quatermass serial of 1953 with its storyline of  astronauts from a British space expedition to Mars who vanish as they return home. Instead three alien ambassadors land on Earth and are kidnapped by a cabal of politicians and military men, who force them to carry out a series of robberies. The Doctor and Dr Liz Shaw eventually defeat Carrington. the leader of the conspiracy,  rescue the aliens and avert a war. This theme  of an establishment conspiracy occurs in a number of Malcolm’s serials. Another theme in “Ambassadors” is paranioa about aliens, fear of the Other.

It’s probably my least favourite of Mac’s work and I don’t think it  overcomes the problems of the storyline,  although it is enlivened by some of the set piece action sequences with the stunt company Havoc,  and also a chase sequence with Liz Shaw, which ends with her running across Marlow Weir, a place I know well as I went to school  in the town.

“Colony in Space”, broadcast April-May 1971
Colony in SpaceIn this serial The Master steals information about a Doomsday weapon which could destroy the universe. The Time Lords pluck the Doctor out of exile on Earth and send him into space to stop him. He and his companion, Jo Grant, arrive on the planet Uxarieus in 2472, where a group of colonists (who with their long hair and clothes resemble a Californian commune) are building a new society. There is also a native race, the Primitives, who are telepathic and never speak. A mining company, IMC (the Interplanetary Mining Company), lands an expedition and plots to expel the colonists and extract the mineral wealth, using a robot to make attacks on the colonists and blame it on giant reptiles. The Master also arrives in the guise of the Adjudicator. The Doctor learns from the Guardian of the Primitives that they once had a very advanced civilisation which was destroyed by the radiation from the Doomsday weapon At the end the weapon is destroyed by the Guardian, the Master is defeated,  and the mining company is sent packing.

There is a strong storyline in this serial about the environment and the rapacity of international (or rather interplanetary) mining companies.  The colonists have left Earth because of a population and environmental crisis which is killing the planet.  The leader of the mining expedition, Dent,  states that “what’s good for IMC is good for earth. There are one hundred thousand million people back on Earth and they desperately need all the minerals we can find.” The Doctor responds, ” What those people need, my dear sir, are new worlds to live in like this one. Worlds where they can live like human beings, not battery hens.” The other theme is the threat of nuclear destruction which in the 1970s seemed very real as the USA and the Soviet Union squared  up to each other, each  armed with colossal nuclear arsenals.

The Sea Devils”, broadcast February-April 1972.

This serial brought back the Silurians, this time under the ocean  Exploration for oil in the Channel has re-awakened  another group of Silurians in a base under the sea who begin to attack shipping. The Master makes contact with them, offering an alliance to destroy the human race. The Doctor goes down to their undersea base in an attempts to broker a peace,  but this fails when a  bumptious politician, Walker (“Parliamentary Private Secretary”)  orders an attack. Finally, the Doctor defeats the Master while  the Sea Devils’ base is destroyed.

The storyline echoes the first Silurian story with attempts by the Doctor  to reconcile the two races

 

ultimately failing and ending in violence.  A key scene occurs in the Sea Devils base when the Doctor  argues for peace, a typical piece of writing by Mac.

DOCTOR: Your people went into hibernation and abandoned Earth to its fate.
SEA DEVIL: Our astronomers predicted that a great catastrophe would end all life on the face of the Earth.
DOCTOR: Yes, but the catastrophe that you predicted never happened. And the apes that you left behind on the surface to die became man.
SEA DEVIL: You know our history?
DOCTOR: Yes. Yes, I’ve encountered your people before. That is why I want to prevent a conflict that can only end in your destruction.
SEA DEVIL: We shall destroy man and reclaim the planet. Already we have begun to sink his ships.
DOCTOR: Yes, and already more ships are being sent to hunt you down.
SEA DEVIL: The submarine? We have captured it.
DOCTOR: You may win a few victories to begin with but eventually you’re bound to lose.
SEA DEVIL: There are many thousands of our people in hibernation in this base. We have other colonies hidden all round the world. We shall be the victors in the war against mankind.
DOCTOR: But there’s no need for a war. Why can’t you share the planet?
SEA DEVIL: That would be impossible.
DOCTOR: The depths of the sea and those areas on Earth where man cannot live can be yours.
SEA DEVIL: And man would agree to that?
DOCTOR: There’s a chance. Wouldn’t it be better to try for a peace, than to launch yourself into a war that you cannot possibly win?
SEA DEVIL: I will consider what you have said.
DOCTOR: Let me return to the humans, and I will endeavour to make a peace for you.
SEA DEVIL: Perhaps it would be possible.

 

“Frontier in Space”, broadcast February – March 1973
Frontier in SpaceThe Doctor and Jo land in the C26th where the Earth and the Draconian Empire are on the verge of war after a series of attacks which each blame on the other side. It turns that the Master, in alliance with the Daleks, is seeking to provoke a war, and then move in unimpeded to conquer the galaxy. The Doctor finally  convinces the humans and Draconians of the real threat and a joint expedition defeats the Master. Sadly this is the last time that Roger Delgado played the Master as he was killed in car crash in Turkey later that year.

This storyline is surely shaped by the Cold War when the United States and its allies confronted the Soviet Union and its allies. Both sides possessed vast arsenals of weapons, including nuclear weapons, and,  on a number of occasions,  came very near to war. The Doctor tells the Draconian Emperor:”..fear breeds hatred, your Majesty. Fear is the greatest enemy of them all, for fear leads us to war.” Mac shows how mutual suspicions can be manipulated, but also that they can be overcome.

It’s a very ambitious serial with scenes set on Earth, the Moon, Draconia and also on a number of spaceships, while the Doctor goes on spacewalk at one point.

Mac makes the President of the Earth a woman, quite a forward thinking idea at this time. However he also indicates that this is a repressive society as the Doctor encounters members of the Peace Party held in the Lunar Penal Colony. Finally I love  the line that  Mac gives to one of the Draconians: “The ways of the Earthmen are devious. They’re an inscrutable species.

“Invasion of the Dinosaurs”, broadcast January-February 1974

Invasion of the DinosaursMac’s brief was to come up with a story showing dinosaurs wandering around  London.

The Doctor and his companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Lis Sladen), land in a deserted London placed under martial law and learn  that dinosaurs have re-appeared, forcing the evacuation of the population. They discover a conspiracy of politicians, scientists and army officers who, concerned for the destruction of the environment and the threat of nuclear war, are planning to return the earth to what they believe will be a pre-industrial “Golden Age”, using a device called Timescoop. The planet will then be repopulated by an elite group who have been fooled into thinking that they are in a space ship going to a new world, but are in fact are sealed in  an underground bunker awaiting “the New Earth”. The Doctor defeats the conspirators, sending the leading scientist, Professor Whitaker, and the Government minister, Grover,  into the distant past after the Doctor has, of course, reversed the polarity of the Timescoop.

This was perhaps Malcolm’s most openly political storyline, which can be seen as a critique of some elements of the environmental movement of the 1970s, who believed that industrial society was killing the planet,  and that only a revolutionary change in society and its forms of production would suffice.

Captain Yates tells the Doctor, “They’re going to roll back time. The world used to be a cleaner, simpler place. It’s all become too complicated and corrupt.” The Doctor counters by saying, “Take the world that you’ve got and try and make something of it. It’s not too late.

Mac also includes a socialist slant on the environment crisis, giving the Doctor a speech at the end in which he says that at least Grover “realised the dangers this planet of yours is in, Brigadier. The danger of it becoming one vast garbage dump inhabited only by rats…Its not the oil and the filth and the poisonous chemicals that are the real causes of the pollution…Its simply greed

Mac says of this serial: “Sometimes people with very good, altruistic ideas can overlook the main issue, that’s really want the message was.” You could perhaps  also interpret this as a critique of the Communist  Party sealing itself  off  against reality.

Jon Pertwee left in 1974 to be  replaced by the then unknown actor Tom Baker who went on to play the Doctor  for seven  years. Philip Hinchliffe took over from Barry Letts as producer, while Robert Holmes took over as script editor from Terrance Dicks. Together they  built on the existing success of the show and took it to new heights of popularity,  but   in quite a different direction.   Mac wasn’t asked to write for the show again.

The Making of Doctor Who,  Target’s Doctor Who novels and other books
Making of Doctor WhoAs we have seen from his pamphlet on Unity, Mac had a strong interest in explaining how drama was produced. In 1972 he and Terrance Dicks wrote The Making of Doctor Who, described by Gary Russell as “the most important piece of work in the entire history of Doctor Who publishing.”

The book looks back to how Doctor Who was  started and developed, as well providing a précis of all the episodes up that point. It also explains in a straightforward way how the show is produced and filmed. Nowadays this kind of information is instantly available on the internet, whilst “Making of” programmes, such the sadly missed Doctor Who Confidential, lay bare the production techniques. In the predigital age, however, the book was groundbreaking and was seized on  by fans,  keen to know more about their favourite television programme.

The popularity of Doctor Who led to the publication of novels based on the TV serials, beginning with Doctor Who and The Daleks, written by David Whittaker, which appeared in 1964, published by Frederick Mueller. In  1973 Target books began publishinga new series of   Doctor Who novels, many of them written by the original scriptwriters. Mac wrote seven novels for Target, six of which were based on his own work, the other one was The Green Death,  written by Robert Sloman. The two remaining stories he  had written for the series,   “The Ambassadors of Death” and “The Faceless Ones”,  were turned into novels by Terrance Dicks after Mac’s  death.

In an interview Mac explained how writing television scripts was different from writing novels:

Remember that in a story you have really have two stories going at once, the good guys and the bad guys. On television you don’t do very long scenes, especially in show for younger viewers, people get bored. So therefore you cut from the good guys to the bad guys and from the bad guys to the good guys. In a book this would be very annoying… so you start each chapter with “Meanwhile…. “ Also when you have a book to write you suddenly realise you think can make this better…

Malcolm’s Doctor Who novels are more than just a straight retelling of the story using the original script. He often adds in extra scenes or references, sometimes alters the plot, and awards even minor characters a backstory and character. In The Cave Monsters, for instance, he gives the Silurians personal names eg  Okdel and begins with a prologue showing the intelligent reptiles bidding farewell to their world as they enter the shelters. In The War Games he adds the following scene:

They passed through several corridors, glanced into study rooms and kept seeing men dressed as officers from the armies of world history. They even saw two young women dressed in blue slacks and shirts with scarlet neckerchiefs and blue berets. “The Spanish Civil War”, the Doctor said quietly , “Women fought in the frontline there”.

Interviewed for On Target , a special feature on the DVD release of “The War Games”, writer Gary Russell, says of Mac:

Doctor-Who-The-Doomsday-Weapon-hardback-bookThe best legacy he has left us, apart from a canon of fantastic Doctor Who stories, both on TV and in book form, is his inspiration. I know from talking to other authors of Doctor Who books that he is a huge inspiration on everybody’s style of writing. Everybody sees that thing in Malcolm Hulke’s books and goes, that’s why I want to be a writer.

Ben Aaronovitch, whose parents were both in the party, writes in his  introduction to his novel of his own  Doctor Who serial  “Remembrance of the Daleks“  that he was given a copy of Mac’s novel Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon (which was based on “Colony in Space”) by his mum. He says,  “She approved of Hulke because she knew him through the party…which outweighed the fact that it was  science fiction – a genre she despised.”

Mac wrote another book Writing for Televison, published in 1974. In this he drew on twenty years of writing experience to explain the craft involved and also gives practical advice on the industry such as the need to get an agent. He naturally encouraged young writers to join the union, the Writers Guild of Great Britain. The book includes a number of examples of scripts, including an extract from the Doctor Who serial “Carnival of Monsters”, written by Robert Holmes, with a comment from Robert in which he says:

Doctor Who releases a writer from his normal mental straightjacket. He can, for once, leave the padded cell of reality and fantasise through eternal time and space. It is an enjoyable and refreshing exercise.

Mac’s other work

In 1972 Mac  was the  script supervisor on a series called Spyder’s Web, produced by ATV, which starred Anthony Ainley (later to play The Master in Doctor Who), Veronica Carlson and Patricia Cutts. This featured a shadowy organisation, responsible to the government, who take on cases too hot for the police to handle. They masquerade as a documentary film unit, based in Soho. The writers included Robert Holmes, incidentally, who wrote many scripts for Doctor Who.

Mac wrote six episodes for Crossroads between 1972 and 1974. This was a daily soap opera, set in a motel in the Midlands, which was broadcast by ATV (and later Central) between 1964 and 1988. It was very popular with the public, achieving ratings rivalling that of Coronation Street in the mid 1970s, but was consistently derided by the critics for its production values (there were never any re-takes), cheap sets and increasingly improbable story lines.

CrossroadsIn Writing for Television Mac  explains that to cope with the volume of output required, there is a storyliner and four writers who are assigned scenes. He quotes producer, Reg Watson

Over the years…we tackled subject like broken marriages, illegitimacy, divorce, malnutrition, mental health, alcoholism, kleptomania, fraud, murder, loneliness, gambling, cruelty, bankruptcy, childless couples, in-laws, big business, vandalism, abortion, anti-smoking, child-stealing, religion, education, bigamy, farming, the canals of the Midlands, cookery, travel, fashion, prisons, prostitution, illegal immigrants, teenagers, old age, death, local government, nursing, pollution, manslaughter, drunken driving, paraplegics, romance, respect, humour and happiness. I am grateful to Crossroads because it broadened my horizons and gave me an insight into many social problems I may otherwise have ignored.

Ronald Allen, who appeared in “The Ambassadors of Death” and “The Dominators”, was a regular  actor in Crossroads. Mac write several Crossroads novels, by the way.
Remembering Mac…
Malcolm died on 6 July 1979. Terrance Dicks recalls that, as a convinced atheist, he had left orders that there was to be no priest, no hymns or any other ceremony at his funeral and that therefore his friends sat by the coffin not knowing what to do. “Finally Eric Paice stood up, slapped the coffin and said ‘well cheerio, Mac’ and wandered out. We all followed him”.

The final word must surely go to Terrance.  he was “a very kind and generous man”.

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

 

 

 

 

Falling off the tightrope: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Falling off the tightrope: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

Triffids front cover

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.” This is the arresting first sentence  of  The Day of the Triffids, the novel  which made John Wyndham’s name as a science fiction writer and has remained in print  ever since its  first publication in 1951.

Wyndham was born in 1903: his full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. He had a public school education, including sometime spent at the liberal school,  Bedales. He tried his hand at a number of professions before turning, like many a down at heel young person, to writing.  By the early  1930s he was making a living selling science fiction stories to American  magazines such as Amazing Stories, under the pen names of John Beynon,  John Lucas Harris and Lucas Parkes. In 1933  his short story “The Puff-Ball Menace” was published in Wonder Stories,  in which  an enemy  country plants a fungus in Britain which breeds rapidly  and is fatal. He also wrote a  novel Planet Plane which was set on Mars. None of his work was noticed by the general public.

After serving in the army during the Second  World War he went back to writing, now using a new  pen name  – John Wyndham – and had his first success with The Day of the Triffids.

John Duttine as Bill Masen

Bill Masen (John Duttine) in 1981 TV adapatation

The narrator is Bill Masen  whom we find at the start of the novel in hospital,   having suffered a minor eye injury and awaiting the removal of his bandages.  He calls repeatedly,  but nobody comes.  Plucking up the courage to take off the bandages, and venturing on to the streets of London, he discovers that most of the world has gone blind overnight, apparently after watching a metor shower. He rescues a young woman, Josella Playton, and they  meet up with a group of other survivors, led by Michael Beadley, who  plan to leave London and set up in the countryside. Before they can do do so Bill and Josella are separated, captured by another group of survivors, led by a man called Coker.  Bill is forced  to lead a group of blinded people, finding food for them,  until he frees  himself when they die from a form of  plague. Bill teams up with Coker for a time, seeking Josella,  but they part when  Bill  heads off to Surrey looking for a farm house mentioned by her. On the way he rescues a young sighted girl, Susan, and eventually  they find Josella and her friends, who are blind. They survive by farming,  but are menaced by the triffids, a  plant which  mysteriously appeared around the planet some decades  before. It  was bred for its oil,  but can walk on three stalks and kill with a poisoned lash.

Bill and Josella (Emma Relph) battle a triffid

Bill and Josella (Emma Relph) battle a triffid

After six years the small group is found by a helicopter from the Isle of Wight,  where Coker and  Beadley have established a colony. They plan to go there,  but are  then found by another group, a para-military outfit from Brighton, who plan to turn the farm into a feudal-type seigneury. Bill, Josella  and the others get them drunk and successfully make their escape as the triffids pour into the farm.  The book ends with Bill completing his memoir:

” We think now we can see  the way, but there is still a lot of work  and research to be done before the day that we, or our children, or their children, will cross the narrow straits on the great crusade to drive the triffids back  and back with ceaseless destruction until we have wiped the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.”

The novel’s  opening grips the reader with its vivid scenes of a London where most people have gone blind, and which quickly descends into  violence  and chaos.  This  is not a sentimental read:  a number cannot face a future without sight and kill  themselves,  while others try and capture a sighted person to act as the guide. This is what has happened to Josella until Bill frees her.  Some can cope. I  like the little vignette  of Bill encountering a blind man who, when he learns what has happened , gives a short, bitter laugh and says “They’ll be be needing all their damned patronage for themselves now,”  and sets off again “with an exaggerated air of independence.

Having set out  the  opening scenes Wyndham goes back  into past to explain the presence of the triffids which, he suggests,  were developed behind  the Iron Curtain for their oil,  but then scattered around the world when a plane was shot down in which a man  was trying to smuggle the seeds  to a company in the West. As a young boy  Bill was nearly killed by one that grew in his garden, but then went on to work with them, which is why he is wary of them from the beginning of the novel.  He is proved right when the triffids escape from the farms and began  killing the now defenceless humans.

In  Wyndham’s  novels   his male leads, whilst  decent and  resourceful in the face of crisis,  are never   the smartest people in the room.  Josella is often sharper  on the uptake than  Bill;  Walter, his   work colleague at the triffid farm, theorises that  that the plants are using their rattling stalks to communicate (something Bill has never  noticed) telling him, “there’s certainly intelligence there,  of a kind.”;  Michael Beadley points that the world they knew has gone and will never return; Susan,  when grown up at the farm in Surrey, points out that the triffids respond to noise and can act in concert by massing together. Bill is given one  insight  when, towards the end of the novel,  he suggest that the blindness was not a natural phenomenenon,  but  caused by a satellite  weapon which had been accidentally triggered.  Wyndham did not invent the idea of satellites orbiting the earth,  but he was one of the first writers  to suggest their potential as weapons.

Whilst the 1950s has come to be viewed as era of   peace and stability,  this is far  from the truth.  The Second World War had devastated  much of Europe as cities were bombed and burned,  whilst millions died in extermination camps. This was followed by the Cold War  in which both sides stockpiled nuclear weapons: the threat of another, even more destructive war, seemed very real.  Wyndham gives a key speech to Michael Beadley,  near  the beginning of the book,  which sums this up: “From 6 August 1945, the margin of survival has narrowed appallingly. Indeed, two days ago, it was narrower than it is at the moment. If you need to dramatize, you could well take for your material the years succeeding 1945 when the path of safety started to shrink to a tight-rope along which we had to walk with our eyes deliberately closed to the depths beneath us.”  Society, Wyndham suggests, is  so fragile it  could vanish  overnight.  Bill suggests to Josella later in the novel: “You remember  what Michael Beadley said about the tightrope we’ve been walking on for years….Well,  I think what happened was that we came off it – and that a few of us just managed to survive the crash.”

still from 2009 TV version

a  still from 2009 TV version

Amidst his vivid depiction of the end  of the world,  Wyndham finds time for some social satire. At  the meeting chaired by Michael Beadley at the University, a Dr Vorless, a Professor of Sociology, shocks some of  the audience when he tells them  that conventional social morality is dead and that in order to survive, “The men must work and the women have babies…In our new world, then, babies become very much more important than husbands.” He suggests men should have three partners, one sighted, two blind. Bill is  taken  aback,  but Josella  reassures him, “You won’t need to worry at, all, my dear,  I shall choose two nice, sensible girls.”Oh“,  says Bill.

Wyndham gives a misogynist speech  to  Coker  who,  after  he and Bill have  made  their way a manor house  being used  as a refuge by survivors,   discovers that they are using candles. He  gets a plant going to provide electricity, but then  rails against a young woman: “You know perfectly well that women  can and do  – or rather did – handle the most complicated and delicate machines when  they took the trouble to understand them. What generally happens is that they’re too busy to take the trouble unless they have to. Why should they bother when the tradition of appealing helplessness can be rationalized as a womanly virtue – and the job just shoved off on to somebody else? …Men  have played up to it by stoutly repairing the poor darling’s vacuum cleaner, and capably replacing  the blown fuse. The whole charade has been accepatable to both parties.” This  feels like somehing said by a travelling commercial agent after several gins in the saloon bar of a Tudorbethan pub in Surrey. Did Wyndham personally  believe this  or did he wish to define Coker’s character more strongly?

John Wyndham

John Wyndham

Wyndham was interviewed on the Tonight programme on 6  September 1961. He said, “what one starts with is the theme, and then you work it out to the logical conclusion as far as possible…The upper limit of sheer invention is what is acceptable to the public whom you are hoping to please, whose attention you are hoping to keep.  Somebody once said that  the heart of fantasy is the willing suspension of disbelief. But you must not go beyond a certain barrier,   if you can find it, in which that willing suspension is shattered.” He explained  that the idea for the triffids came one night when he was walking along a dark lane in the country: “the hedges were only just distinguishable against the sky and the higher things sticking up from the hedges became rather menacing, one felt that they  might come over  and strike down or sting at you. The whole thing eventually grew out of that.” You can watch the  whole interview  here.

Overall The Day of the Triffids certainly stands the test of time as a well-plotted and  imaginative read. It sold very well and was followed by a number of other successful novels that I will be looking at in future posts.

Barbara Shelley

                             Barbara Shelley

The book was adapted for radio and broadcast on the BBC Home Service  in July 1953. In 1960 the  BBC  broadcast  another adaptation, written  by  Giles Cooper,   with Patrick Barr as Bill and Monica Gray  as Josella.  Another version was broadcast  in 1968, also written by Giles Cooper, with Gary Watson as Bill and Barbara  Shelley as Josella. You can listen to both versions here . The 1968 version has music created  by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  Incidentally, Barbara Shelley appeared in a number of films,  including  The Village of the Damned (1960) (an  adapation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos) , the film version of  Quatermass and the Pit (1968),  and also on television in  The Avengers‘ episode “From Venus with Love” (1967) (in which Jon Pertwee also  appeared).

An adaptation by Lance Dann in two 45-minute episodes for the BBC World Service was first broadcast on 8 and 22 September 2001. It was directed by Rosalind Ward , and the cast included Jamie Glover as Bill and Tracy Ann Oberman as Josella.

You also can listen  to the book being read by Roger May   in 17 episodes  here

In 1962 The Day of the Triffids was filmed with Howard  Keel and Jannete Scott  in the main roles,  while Carole Ann Ford had a small part, later to play Susan in Doctor Who in 1963. It’s not very good,  but if you feel you must,  you can watch it here.  In 1974 a triffid, presumably left over from the film, was amongst the props offered for sale in a huge clear-out at Shepperton Studios.

In 1981 the BBC broadcast a six part  adaptation,   written by Douglas Livingstone,  produced by David Maloney and directed by Ken Hannam. It starred  John Duttine as Bill and  Emma Relph as Josella. It been  updated to the early 1980s,  but otherwise follows the book very  closely and respectfully.  I think it’s very good, but you can judge for yourselves  by  watching  it on Daily Motion, beginning here.

In the mid 1980s a band from Perth, Western Australia called The Triffids achived a measure of fame.

Finally there is whole website devoted to the book:  The Readers Guide to Day of the Triffids.

Review

“John Wyndham in The Day of the Triffids writes a Wellsian fantasy and raises up a truly sinister vegetable for the chastisement  of mankind. He has imagination and wit, but to the averagely bedevilled awareness, his use of them here may seem mal a propos2. Paul Bloomfield,  The Guardian,  24 August 1951, p. 4.

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In my next post I will be looking at The Sleeper Awakes by H G Wells (1910)