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Category Archives: John Brunner

Out of the Unknown, Series 1: episode 10, “Some Lapse of Time” by John Brunner.

Cast: Max Harrow – Ronald Lewis, Diana  Harrow – Jane Downs, Smiffershon – John Gabriel,  Gordon Faulkner – Richard Gale, Laura Danville – Delena Kidd, Professor Leach – Moultrie Kelsall,

Script:  Leon Griffiths

Director: Roger Jenkins

Designer: Ridley Scott.

Producer and Story Edtor: Irene Shubik, 

Associate Producer: George Spenton-Foster.

“Some Lapse of Time” was first broadcast on  8 December 1965.

It is based on a short story by  John Brunner, published in February 1963 in Fantasy magazine. Brunner began writing science  fiction in the late 1950s and went on to write such influential novels as Stand on Zanzibar (1968) about overpopulation,  The Sheep Look Up (1972) about pollution,   and The Shockwave Rider (1975) about the threat to liberty posed by computers.

Like many young people in the late 1950s  Brunner was a member of Campaign  for Nuclear Disarmament,   founded  in 1958 to campaign   against the H- Bombs posssessed by  Britain the USA and Soviet Union,  which many  feared would end civilisation if  they were ever used in a war. For a time CND attracted tens of  thousands on its “Ban the bomb” marches.  Brunner organised CND caravans into Europe,  and wrote several songs for the movement, including the CND Marching Song,  which was sung on the first London to  Aldermaston March in 1958. His non-SF novel The Days of March (1988) is set in the early  days of the movement.

Leon Griffiths wrote for the Communist party newsaper  the Daily Worker for a time before going on to write for television, most famously creating Minder.

The opening  shows us  Max Harrow having a nightmare in which what look like cavemen are gathered around a fire,  performing  a ritual,  chanting and  waving what seems to be a bone of some kind. Then he dreams that he is being hunted.  When Harrow  finally awakes we learn that this is a recurring nightmare; his wife Diana  urges him to see someone at the hospital where he works.

As they talk  a policeman  rings the doorbell asking Harrow to see  a tramp they have found collapsed near his car. When he is brought in Harrow   diagnoses that the tramp is suffering from “heterocardia”,  a disease caused by radiation  from which his son Jimmy  has  died. Tests at the hosptial convince his sceptical colleagues that his diagnosis was correct, even though sufferers invariably die when young.  The tramp is clutching  something which, when they persuade him to let it go,  they realise  is a fingerbone.

Harrow and Smiffershon

When Harrow meets his wife for lunch, she is reading a newspaper whose  main headline is about an accident  at an atomic weapens base. He tells her about the tramp. He’s a very sick man…nobody knows where he came from or how he managed to stay alive until now…the police think that he came round to my place  to ask for help, but why? Harrow becomes angry when his wife presses him to see somebody about his dreams.

When the tramp regains consciousness Harrow recognises him from his dream, while the tramp recognises him. They are able to glean that his  name is Smiffershon but cannot comprehend  anything else he says.  Smiffershon   bursts into laughter when he sees Harrow’s finger.

At home Harrow again rows with his wife about the tramp. If we know what he knows about heterocardia Jimmy wouldn’t have died. Doesn’t that matter?…  It’s hard to understand but this tramp means something more. It wasn’t just chance that brought him here,  carrying that fingerbone. It’s as  if  he’s if slipped out of one of my nightmares….I just know that tramp means something special to me. ..Where does he come from?.

Laura and Smiffershon

Harrow calls in a philologist Laura Denville, an attractive blonde,  in an effort to identify his language which sounds Scandanavian.  She  comes to an unsettling conclusion, namely,  that he is speaking a form of English. He’s speaking our language as if it’s undergone a series of extreme changes. It’s the sort of difference between the English of  Langlands’  day and our own…These changes take place over hundreds of years. 

His fixation with Smiffershon leads to Harrow having another  argument  with his wife,  who  is suspicious  of  Denville.  Diana accidentally  catches his fingers in the  car door,  resulting in the end  of  one of them having  to be amputated. The dream is starting to come true, the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.

When Smiffershon is given a routine X-ray they discover that  he is  full of Strontium 90 and should be dead. He is immediately placed in isolation. Harorw calls in  archaeolgist who discovers that  the fingerbone  which they took from Smiffershon  is also full of radiation.

Both Jane and his friends are increasingly concerned for Harrow’s mental health. His colleagues try to assure  him that there is a rational explanation,  but he is now convinced that Smiffershon has come back through time after a nuclear war  to warn them of the dangers of what they are doing.

I know all about our friend the tramp now…I even recognise his face from my dreams…That old tramp hasn’t just been dusted with radioactive particles, it’s inside him, in his muscles, in his glands. He’s lived through something pretty terrible, a world we can hardly even imagine…Seven, eight, nine generations after the bombs..I am talking about an island  when the cities have gone, when fires, a hundred miles wide,  consume the fields and forest, when there’s nothing left. That’s when people stop using words like “blankets”, “shoes”, “pints  of beer”, “cigarette”. And, of course,  there’s still be people, people saturated with radioactivity like Smiffershon. 

Harrow is drugged  and is given therapy, but it does not help. Despairing, he tries to attack Smiffershon. When he is restrained he  suffers a  complete collapse and begins speaking in the same language as Smiffershon. He is taken to a psychiatric hospital with little hope of recovery. In the final minutes of the drama Laura  is able to converse with Smiffershon who confirms that everything that Harrow  suspected is true.

In my view this is the best  in the series  so far,   with real tension and disquiet created.  Ronald Lewis and John Gabriel,  in particular,  give superb  performances.

At the time of transmission the viewing public would have been familar with the idea of a nuclear war that would destroy humanity. This theme was explored in numerous novels,  television plays  and films. I have already written in an earlier post on The Chrysalids by John Wnyndham,

In addition there were the following:

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. 

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

 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.

 British 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, and 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.  This drama   was wiped by the BBC,  but an excellent  radio radio dramatisation was broadcast in 2018, adapted by Toby Hadoke.

The War Game (1965) . Devised by Peter Watkins, this is a drama-documentary, depicting a nuclear attack  on Britain, and showing us the aftermath. The Labour government forced the BBC to cancel the screening which had been due to take place on 5 October 1965. Instead it was shown around the country by CND groups. It  was finally shown on television in July 1985.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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