A for Andromeda, broadcast by the BBC, October – November 1961
Cast: Julie Christie (Christine Flemstad and Andre), Peter Halliday (John Fleming), John Hollis (Kaufman), Patricia Kneale (Judy Adamson), Esmond Knight (Ernest Reinhart), Mary Morris (Madeleine Dawnay) Frank Windsor (Dennis Bridger), and others.
The series was created by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot. Hoyle was an astrophysicist at Cambridge, one of the best known in the country, who often appeared in the press, on the radio or in television documentaries.
He also wrote science fiction eg The Black Cloud (1957), a bestselling novel about a sentient gas cloud which enters the solar system and causes devastation on the Earth when it blocks the light from the sun. (It bears some similarities to H G Wells’ short story The Star, published in 1897). His science fiction play for children, Rockets in Ursa Major, was performed at the Mermaid Theatre in December 1962.
The BBC broadcast a radio adaptation of The Black Cloud in December 1957, and entered into discussions with Hoyle about a six part television adaptation, which in the end fell through. However John Elliot, assistant head of the BBC’s script unit, accompanied by Norman James and Donald Bull, had a meeting with Hoyle in a pub in Cambridge by the end of which (after a few pints no doubt) they had come up with the basic outline for A For Andromeda. Hoyle provided the scientific background: Elliot, an experienced writer for television, wrote the scripts for the seven episodes.
Hoyle’s involvement meant that the science was up to scratch and up to date. The Jodrell Bank radio telescope (undoubtedly the model for the Bouldershaw Fell radio telescope in the story) had only opened in 1957, while the double helix structure of DNA – the basis for the creation of Andromeda – had only been conclusively identified by James Watson and Francis Crick a few years earlier.
The 1950s (which I was born in the middle of, by the way) is often portrayed as a conservative era as Britain recovered from the war and enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom under a succession of Tory governments. There were, however, increasing signs of change. Britain invaded Egypt in 1956 but then had to pull out after the Americans told them to: many of its colonies were demanding independence and there were conflicts in places such as Kenya, Cyprus and Malaya. There was a growing sense that Britain was no longer the world power it was, unsettling to many who had taken this for granted, something played on in the series when the government realises what the computer can offer by way of technology, or appears to offer anyhow. In 1957 the Russians shocked the world when they put the first satellite “Sputnik 1” into space. What might come next? A message from space?
On October 1961, to coincide with the broadcast of the first episode, The Observer ran a profile of Fred Hoyle. “International intrigue, gunplay and cunning, romantic interlude with nubile woman security officer, alien cosmic intellience darkly threatening over all, is this the ultimately revealing common touch?…This Hoylian swoop to the popular level has by now become of his best known characteristics. He first made his mark as a straightforward populariser of science ten years ago with a series of broadcast talks on astro-physics that were scholarly, imaginative, and lucid – qualities that seemed to grow naturally out of his passion for the subject and that people should be on the same affectionate terms with outer space as he himself is.”
Unfortunately, due to the BBC’s policy in the 1960s of wiping the video tapes of programmes that it thought it no longer had any use for, only the sixth episode “The Face of the Tiger” has survived in its entirety, along with some short filmed extracts from other episodes, and, fortunately, the dramatic scenes at the end of the seventh and final episode, “The Last Mystery”. Fortunately photosnaps of the missing episodes have survided and these have been used to recreate the missing episodes for the DVD release with subtitles and ambient music. Viewed as a whole this is enough to give a flavour of the serial, at least. Outside filming for the series was done at an army camp on the coast near Tenby, standing in for Scotland.
The story begins in 1970 when the radio telescope at Bouldershaw Fell, designed by two scientists, John Fleming and Dennis Bridger, detects a complex radio message from the direction of the Andromeda Galaxy. Fleming realises that the message contains the design and programme for an advanced computer and decodes it, assisted by Christine Flemstad. The government agrees to build the computer at Thorness, a remote military location in Scotland. But other people are also interested in the message: Bridger is covertly handing over information to a German named Kaufman who works for a shadowy multi-national corporation, Intel. On completion the computer is switched on and prints out information on how to create living cells. A biologist Madeleine Dawnay is brought in and succeeds in creating a primitive one-eyed organism. Fleming has now become very suspicious of the computer and its true motives: “Dawnay thinks the machine’s given her power to create life; but she’s wrong. It’s given itself the power.” He urges them to destroy the organism, but is ignored.
Bridger’s espionage activities are discovered and he dies after falling over a cliff whilst being pursued by Judy Adamson, ostensibly the press officer, but also a covert MOD security officer. Christine is increasingly drawn to the computer and is killed after receiving a high-voltage charge through a terminal. The computer now produces a fresh set of instructions which enable Dawnay to create a fully-grown young woman who when she comes to life she is the double of Christine, except she is blonde. She can communicate directly with the computer: the team name her Andromeda, Andre for short.
Frankly the series takes a long time to get going. Whilst A for Andromeda is remembered for Julie Christie’s performance as Andromeda (she was offered the role as she completed her final year at drama school), she does not appear as that character until the fifth episode. Before that she plays Christine in a dark wig.
The plot up to this point has revolved around the message from space, the construction of the computer, and Bridger’s spying activities. In its look the series has a lot in common with the Quatermass serials, broadcast by the BBC in the 1950s, with the screen being filled with politicians, civil servants, scientists and the military, almost all male. Although set in a decade in the future there is little effort made to show what this might look like, except that there are more women in the main roles than was usual. Michael Hayes suggested that by 1970 women would be more equal and the part of Dawnay was therefore rewritten for a woman.
In the sixth episode the plot moves forward a good deal. Andre provides the plans for a successful anti-ballistic missile and also apparently for an enzyme which can reverse cell damage. Fleming challenges Andre: is she really human or merely an extension of the computer? Andre tells Fleming, “I do not understand you. Nice, nasty, good, bad, there is no logical distinction…You are like children with your missiles and rockets. All the same, I am going to save you. It’s quite simple really.”
Fleming attempts to humanise Andre by suggesting that she wears perfume and kissing her forcibly, not a scene you would include today. Kaufman meets Geers, the project director, to discuss an agreement with Intel to market the healing enzyme, his role in the death of Bridger brushed aside when Judy objects: “the climate has changed…the government needs world markets“. The Prime Minister (looking remarkably like Harold Macmillan), broadcasts to the nation, announcing that Britain will have “a new, and a finer Industrial Revolution.” Fleming is now even more suspicious : “A year ago the computer had no power outside its own building, and even then we were in charge of it. Now it’s got the whole country depending on it and the original team are all pushed out…This machine wasn’t programmed for our good.” At the end of the episode Dawnay has been poisoned by the enzyme, but Fleming realises this and is able to save her by creating a new formula.
In the final episode Andre is freed from the control of the computer after Fleming manages to get into the control room and smashes it. She tells him that she and the machine are slaves to an intelligence that will take over humanity, that she is only human by accident: “The logic you can’t deny is the strongest chain. I did what I had to but now the logic is gone, and I don’t know what to do...” Fleming persuades Andre to return to the control room and burn the message, ensuring that the computer can never be rebuilt. Then in some well-handled dramatic outdoor scenes scenes, shot at night, she is chased by the military. Fleming finds Andre, uses a digger to get through the security fence, and they head off in a boat, pursued by a launch. Landing on an island, they seek refuge in some caves where they get separated and Andre vanishes, apparently having drowned after falling into a deep pool. Fleming comments bitterly, “We taught her everything else. We didn’t teach her to swim, did we“: Judy tells him, “…You don’t have to do anymore…It’s all over..It’s finished“.
To truly enjoy A for Andromeda you have watch it, not with the eyes of own era – when we are used to quick-fire storylines, rapid editing and an overload of CGI effects – but with the eyes of 1961, as best you can. At this time television drama was only just emerging from the era when it was broadcast live with actors racing between sets in time for their cues. A for Andromeda has sound scripts and direction, and a solid cast. It has also a luminous performance by Julie Christie in her first important acting role, who makes Andre both human and alien.
The series has some intriguing scientific ideas (more ideas than the entire Star Wars oeuvre, in fact) mixing astronomy and biology. It was also in tune with the idea current in the early 1960s that, having lost its empire, scientific advances would be the way forward for the country. The Prime Minister’s speech in episode six anticipates Labour party leader Harold Wilson’s speech in October 1963, in which he spoke of a new Britain that would be forged in “the white heat” of a “technological revolution.”
In terms of the history of science fiction on television A for Andromeda clearly follows on from the three Quatermass series of the 1950s and points the way towards Out of the Unknown, four series of science fiction stories broadcast by the BBC between 1965 and 1971, and also series such as R3 and Undermind (1965).
I do not see it at as a predecessor to Doctor Who, whose direct ancestor is surely Pathfinders in Space, written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice. I do see a parallel with Doctor Who in so much as that in the mid 1960s its script editor Gerry Davis brought in Kit Pedler to act as the scientific advisor to the show, creating serials such as “The War Machines”, “The Tenth Planet” and “The Moonbase”. And there is perhaps an influence in the sense that a sentient computer with a plan to dominate the world and the ability to exercise mind control appears in number of storylines; WOTAN in “The War Machines” and BOSS in “The Green Death.”
The series was very popular with the public, with the numbers watching rising from 6 million at the start to nearly 13 million by the end. Reviews in the press were mixed, though, as can be seen below.
John Elliot wrote a novel of A for Andromeda, based on his scripts, which was published by Souvenir Press in February 1962 and sold well. It has been republished several times since. In 1971 the Italian television company RAI made their own version, A Come Andromeda, which followed the original version very closely, even keeping the English names of the characters. If you have good Italian (there are no subtitles), you can watch it here.
In 2006 BBC Four showed a remake of A for Andromeda, written by Richard Fell, and lasting a mere 85 minutes with a number of plot and character changes. Personally I thought it completely failed to capture the feeling of the original and was a pointless exercise.
Also in 2006 the BBC released a DVD comprising A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough. This includes the surviving episodes and telesnaps, extensive notes on the history of the production of both series prepared by Andrew Pixley (which were invaluable for this post), and interviews with some of then surviving cast members, including Peter Halliday, Michael Hayes, Patricia Kneale, Frank Windsor and Susan Hampshire. Sadly since then we have lost Peter Halliday and Michael Hayes.
You can watch episode 6 on Daily Motion.
Reviews in the press
“Although it is encouraging to have the authority of Professor Fred Hoyle for the scientific credibility of the new BBC science fiction serial A for Andromeda, which he has written with Mr John Elliot, evidently it is the skill of Mr Hoyle the novelist which will mainly be called upon to hold our attention for the next six episodes. In the first episode last night it was well in evidence. The tensions and cross-currents in the scientific establishment , where a new giant radio telescope is about to be inaugurated, were economically hit in the first few minutes: the little bouts of feline malice among the scientists, the general disaffection among the staff so far as the tactical aspects of the work are concerned (they are all ex-Communists, Aldermaston marchers and other ‘undesirables’ by western alliance standards), the mysterious new ‘press officer’ who is clearly not what she seems. Interest has certainly been piqued and, if one major character, the angry young physicist Fleming, who is drunk for much of the time and transported by wild-eyed attacks of hysterical fury when sober, seems likely to prove wearing, in compensation the series promises us Mary Morris as a leading player in later instalments.” The Times, 4 October 1961, p. 16
“Fred Hoyle is my favourite cosmologist and astronomer. The news that he written a science fiction serial script for the BBB to be this autumn’s Quatermass equivalent would have excited me had I not read or failed to read his science fiction thriller. The first instalment of A for Andromeda was as dense as one of those White Dwarf stars a pinch of whose dust weighs a ton. There may be a nice globally significant plot working out with messages from Andromeda coming through on the radio telescope, but the earthly characters are terribly hard to believe in yet. They telegraph their punches like old pugs.” Maurice Richardson, The Observer, 8 October 1961, p.26.
“Professor Fred Hoyle’s science -fiction serial on the BBC appears to be a cooling star – but let us hope it is not a dying one. Last night the second episode of A for Andromeda got very little further forward than the first instalment. Although one had hoped that the slowness and stodginess of the opening would loosen up and give way to some exciting events, as the meaning of the code message from the Andromeda constellation came through, this expectation was not fulfilled. Very little happened in the second instalment: the events were all on the celestial plane, and the plot and the dialogue were not at all arresting. There was no hint of any thrilling or extraordinary events until the very last moment of the episode, when we were, exactly as at this time last week, left with a question which could possibly mean that terrifying posibilities were in the air. While one still believes in Professor Hoyle’s capacities as an astronomer and a science fiction writer, the progress of A for Andromeda makes one doubt his ability as a television writer, something very different. Still, we must give him the benefit of the doubt, and there are still five episodes in which the serial can make headway and pull out something really impressive.” Mary Crozier, The Guardian, 11 October 1961, p. 9.
“Another programe that is picking up a bit is the BBC’s A for Andromeda. Its characterisation is and always be epileptic, but some combinations of producer and script-doctor seems to have provided a powerful transfusion. Both Fleming and that almost equally hysterical woman scientist madden me: before, they merely perplexed. The beautiful blonde zombie under the spell of the computer is a distinctly welcome addition to one’s hearth rug. Her innocence of right and wrong is very neat: a genuine piece of science fiction, as distinct from the amorality which magistrates discern in teenagers.” Maurice Richardson, The Observer, 5 November 1961, p.25.
“A for Andromeda moves towards its close next week with little hope now that it will ever make the grade. When the computer girl was created there was a hope that she might be really horrid but now the scientist Fleming has started kissing her, it looks like happy ever after. True, Madeleine Dawnay and some of her staff are dying of a myserious illness, but in science fiction thrillers one expects an authentic jab of fear which we have never had from Andromeda. One reason may be that everyone talks too much. As a compensation Maurice Hedley has been as mischeviousky satirical as the Prime Minister we saw making an amusing speech about television at the BBC anniversary dinner immediately after A for Andromeda.” Mary Crozier, The Guardian, 9 November 1961, p. 9.
Where else have I seen them?
Peter Halliday appeared in Doctor Who four times. In The Invasion (1968) he plays Packer, Tobias Vaughn’s not very bright henchman, and is excellent in the part. (The company that Vaughn runs is called International Electromatics, by the way, which could be shortened to Intel, perhaps). He is even better in Carnival of Monsters (1973), playing Pletrac, one of the annoying rulers of the planet Inter Minor. He had a small part in City of Death as a soldier, holding the Doctor at swordpoint when he goes back in time in search of Leonardo da Vinci. Finally he had a cameo role in Remembrance of the Daleks as a blind priest., presiding over the Burial of the Hand of Omega.
Mary Morris appeared in Doctor Who in Kinda (1982) , playing the shaman Panna, and is wonderful in the role. She lived in Switzerland and was so intrigued by the mystical nature of Christopher Bailey’s script, one of most beguiling in the history of the show, that she drove across Europe to take part. She also appeared in The Prisoner as Number Two, in an episode called “The Dance of the Dead” which you watch here.
John Hollis played Kantwich in The Avengers episode “The Superlative Seven” (sounding very like Kaufuman). He played Sondergaard in the Doctor Who episode ” The Mutants”, again sounding much like Kaufman.
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In my next post I will be looking at the sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough.