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“Prophets of Doom”: An interview with Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis in The Guardian in December 1973

As a follow-up to my last post about the novel  on Mutant 59; the Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, this is an interview with them  I came across in The Guardian on the occasion of the publication of the novel in paperback by Pan. The interviewer was Raymond Gardner and the interview was published  in the newspaper on 13 December 1973. It was entitled “Prophets of Doom”.

“London is melting” screams the blurb on the back cover of the American edition  of an uncomfortable  bit of predict-fiction which will hit the station bookstalls here this week. The French titled it ” La Mort du Plastique” , which if spoken slowly in a gravelly voice , has a nice doom  laden aura. In Britain we’ll just be reading “Mutant 59; the Plastic Eater”. It’s just as well that the British title  keeps its cool, otherwise London Transport might find itself with a few more recruitment headaches since the book opens with the extermination of King’s Cross station, its environs and a few thousand hapless humans. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis have certainly devised a novel if extreme solution to the Kit Pedler and Gerry Davisproblems of one of Britain’s most grotesque city environments.

But it’s all  in the cause of science fiction, although the reader might hesitate over the book’s fictional qualities since Kit and Gerry have an uncomfortable knack of finding their creativity come true. They devised the BBC-TV’ s ecological drama “Doomwatch” and stayed with it until the fiction became larger than the science, which is to say that the originators of the series wanted a fairly tweaking sort of programme which might encourage gran to stop ditching her empty stout bottles in the canal while the BBC had its eye on a straightforwad science fiction cops and robbers. And so  “Doomwatch” lost its story editor and scientific adviser. But before their resignation the programme chalked up a few notably uncomfortable coincidences.

There was the one about the trawler which hauled up a neat piece of nuclear hardware in its nets and almost solved the problem of the fish shortage by killing off the demand. Kit and Gerry set off for the Holy Loch to confirm that their idea was feasible. They were sufficiently impressed to ditch  the story whereupon the US Air Force wrecked a neat PR job by accidentally dropping a warhead in Texas. When the top brass went to inspect their toy they discovered that five of the six failsafe devices were in the unsafe  position. Four days later Kit and Gerry emerged sleepless but triumphant with a new script for ” Doomwatch”.

Kit and Gerry are an unlikely  duo, not quite Eric and Ernie, but they have their moments. Gerry has been in television, as he puts it, for 20 years. He worked his passage to Canada on a Clyde-built tug, which  almost foundered in mid-Atlantic, worked for the CBC and the Canadian  Film Board, and returned to Britain and Granda for the early days of Coronation Street. Then he freaked out to Italy to train as an opera singer. He mumbles something about music being his hobby, a notion which  is readily confirmed since his front parlour bears more than a passing resemblance to a recording studio.

Kit graduated as a medical doctor in 1953 and practised in medicine and surgery for two years  before taking a second doctorate in experimental pathology. He then spent 12 years in brain research. His publisher obviously thinks this is a fitting start for the doom business. Pan’s PR man waxes eloquently about their author being into electron microscopy cybernetics.  Gerry says that his colleague concocts a very nice home brew.

The two met via a Horizon programme on Kit’s research. They continued their discussions at The Contented Sole, a pricey fish and chip shop in Knightsbridge. There, says, Kit. science and show business met in order to save “Dr Who” from too few Daleks and too much fantasy. It seems that when the Daleks departed “Dr Who” could only muster an audience of three million. And so Kit and Gerry devised their Cybermen. very frightening, says Kit. Not at all toylike, says Gerry. In fact the Australians refused to screen one of the Cybermen episodes, says Kit. A great seethe, says Gerry. Kit confides they did go a bit over the top with the things spewing “Fairy Liquid”  out of their joints and generally writhing around.

While contemplating  their repective soles Kit and Gerry came up with the idea of an ecological adventure series. They brought together  the story lines, wrote the first four episodes , and sold the complete package as “Doomwatch”  to the BBC. Kit was moonlighting  at the time between his university research project and the studios. The boffins didn’t like it. He says:

“While I was still working in university I got a tremendous amount of crap flung at me. I  was a popularist. I was a fiction writer. I had to take this and my skin was no thicker than  anyone else’s and it upset me a great deal. But now I’ve left the organisation within which that criticism starts and I’ve started on my own, hopefully, socially responsible science. I think that science  must turn towards the needs of people  socially. But it was a a bad time. At one point I was almost kicked out. I wrote about animal experiments which were being conducted for careerist  rather than  scientiific purposes. I knew perfectly well that it was true but I made  the mistake of saying so in a daily paper and so they tried to grind my testicles in public.”

Kit has left the university and continues  his scientific endeavours  in ecology. He has finished his first project on ecological housing, which will be published shortly. His own Victorian house in Clapham has already found itself shot into the twentieth century with a methane and gas fed generator which  provides lighting and eventually he hopes to run this from the family garbage. And just in case it all sounds a little po-faced Kit is thinking about a rate rebate when his house becomes fully self-sufficient.

Going public has had its problems for Kit. Whilst guesting on a television programme he referred to a number of atom bomb experiments in Nevada where rabbits were put in cages with  their eyelids  sewn back. Their eyes were burned. He said that this was bad science because the dosage  could have been found by calculation.  It was degrading both to the animals and to the experimenters. Next morning a lady phoned the Home Office  to complain that a British scientist called Kit Pedler  was conducting a series of brutal experiments. Kit calls it the media problem.

In “Mutant 59” a series of scientific accidents and straightforward short cuts  result in the destruction of all plastic in London. Electricity cables are exposed and ignite gas supplies and an explosive chain reaction begins. The fact  that we can read  such a book and then toddle off to bed for a peaceful night’s sleep is a small example of our conditioning which scientists like Kit Pedler would like to change. Kit believes that one of the problems of the environmental  issue is that people are saturated with horror stories. If energy sources are drying up, says Kit,  it is no use saying to people that they have been wicked  and raping the earth far too long. You must say that, but you must also suggest what they can do.

Kit says that the best title for an ecological documentary  was “Due to Lack of Interest Tomorrow has been Cancelled.” And as evidence of his concern he points out that the documentary was shown on BCc-2 to a small converted audience. Which is why he was pleased to work with Gerry Davis  on “Doomwatch.

“Mutant 59” is based on an idea being worked on at a British university which Kit refuses to name.  Their concept was of a biodegradable plastic which would  break down under ultra-violet light. It may seem unlikely  thatas the first biodegradable milk bottle goes on sale in their novel  that another scientist working in the same area of self-destruct plastic should release a plastic-eating virus into the sewers of London.  But then no one ever thought the Americans would accidentally drop a nuclear warhead in Texas.

 

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

 

 

“All that is solid melts into air”: Mutant 59:The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1972)

Mutant 59

The Apollo 19 space mission explodes as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere. BEA flight 510 crashes into a suburban street on its approach to Heathrow with devastating results.  A computerised traffic system fails, bringing  chaos to central London.  A nuclear submarine, HMS Triton,  sinks with the loss of  all hands. This is the dramatic opening of Mutant  59:the Plastic Eater, a novel written by the scientist Kit Pedler and the television writer and producer, Gerry Davis,  and published in 1972.

The two men met in 1966 when Gerry was the script editor at Doctor Who, and was looking for a scientific advisor to inject a greater degree of scientific speculation  into the programme.  Kit  was head of a research unit at  the Institute of Opthamalmology  at the University of London which was investigating how the eye worked,  using an electron microscope, and whether it might be possible to devise a camera which could  restore sight to the blind.  A doctor by training,  Kit read widely,  and had  a zest for  explaining  science topics  to a wider public. (He  also read science  fiction). Kit came to the attention of the BBC after Tomorrow’s World visited his unit, and  was then  invited to meet Gerry. Straightaway they formed a close working relationship.

Kit  suggested that the newly built Post Office Tower, then the tallest structure in London, could be used by a computer to take over the capital using the telephone network to control the minds of humans. This  evolved into the serial The War Machines, broadcast in the summer of 1966, featuring the computer WOTAN and its war machines. They then  came up with the idea of the Cybermen: humanoids who have replaced so much of their  bodies with technology that they have lost all emotion and empathy.  Their first story featuring the Cybermen “The Tenth Planet”  aired in the autumn 1966. The silver monsters were a big hit with the public,  and  were quickly brought back in “The Moonbase” (February 1967) and then in  “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (September 1967).  After Gerry left Doctor Who Kit worked with Victor Pemberton on  “The Wheel in Space”  (May 1968),  and with Derrick Sherwin on another Cybermen serial “The Invasion” (November 1968).  This was Kit’s last involvement with Doctor Who.

Kit PedlerBy 1970 Kit was becoming disillusioned  by science and increasingly alarmed about the effect that  technology and the headlong rush for economic growth at all costs was having on the environment. He, and many  others around the globe,  feared   the possibility of ecological collapse. Working together again, Kit  and Gerry created a series for the BBC called Doomwatch.  “Doomwatch” is the nickname for  special government  unit established to monitor environmental and other threats to the public.  The first series created a sensation with storylines on issues such as  transplants, genetic mutation of rats,  melting plastic, chemical poisoning,  and a crashed and armed nuclear bomb on the south coast. The extensive scientific research  done by Kit  for the series meant that the storylines appeared to anticipate news stories, and he  soon became a public figure, frequently appearing on television and the radio to comment on  environmental and other scientific matters.  However, Kit and Gerry disagreed with the direction that the producer , Terence Dudley,  was taking Doomwatch  and left after the second series. The third and final series had little impact.

Kit and Gerry continued their working relationship in a series of novels published in the early 1970s,  the first of which  was Mutant 59.  This was inspired by the first  Doomwatch episode  “The Plastic Eater”,  but was not a novelisation:  instead  it was  a complete re-imagining  by Kit and Gerry of their  original  concept.   The central  character is  Luke Gerrard, a doctor  working for a  chemical company run by the scientist Arnold Kramer which has pioneered a plastic for bottles, Degron, which disintegrates after use.

Luke  investigates what is happening to plastic components  which  appear to be failing. He is  sent to to look at a robot that runs amok  in a toy shop, and then at melting cables in a Tube tunnel, along with a journalist, Anne Kramer, wife of the magnate. Whilst  they are down there there are series of catastrophic explosions  in the underground  which  bring the centre of London to  a halt. These are caused, we eventually learn,  by Degron combining with  a plastic eating virus, Mutant  59,  which has accidentally  been released into the sewer system.

The result is a virus  which melts plastic, gives off gas,  and spreads rapidly.  The central part of the novel describes Luke and Anne’s  exhausting  trek  to escape from the underground,  and the  desperate efforts of the government to stop the infection, which include  imposing a military cordon  that  seals off much of  central London. In the final part of the novel Arnold Kramer  takes the infection onto a  trans-Atlantic  jet airliner which horrifically  melts around the crew and passengers in  mid-flight, while Luke  succeeeds in finding an antidote to the virus at the eleventh hour (as they always do in such novels).

This is a slickly written thriller, drive by incident  rather than character, which reflects Gerry’s  skill as a writer.  Kit’s contribution  is the credible  scientific background on the creation of the  virus and  its role in  breaking down  systems, including in Chapter 8 a  detailed account of  how the melting plastic would impact on the sub-structure of London.

Down in the gas-filled Samson line tunnel two copper cables finally lay bare. One was above the other on the wall of the tunnel and slowly sagged towards its fellow. the upper carried 170 volts of electricity  and  the lower was at earth potential. They touched. There was a  small spark and power abruptly drained away.

In the Coburg Street control room, a duty engineer raised puzzled eyebrows at an unfamiliar light signal in front of him. In the tunnel came the first explosion as the trapped gas ignited. It occurred in the space between two northbound trains and so was confined to the cylindrical space of air between them. A racing wall of flame slammed into the rear of the train ahead and shattered the window of the driver’s cab in the train behind.

As the force of the explosion reached its maximum, the bolted-concrete segments of the tunnel split, carrying with them the mass of steel plates and concrete which held the overhead Metropolitan line tunnel from collapse. One of the two twenty-four inch gas mains embedded in the concrete of the roof support sheared open  releasing  a flood  of town gas into the shattered tunnel….Finally, the  the mixture of tunnel  gas reached its optimim concentration and exploded…At that moment, deep below, Gerrard and the others were thrown  to the floor of the tunnel.

On the surface, the road slowly bulged upwards, split, and flung out like a slow-motion mud bubble, bursting into a ball of orange and yellow flame which shot skywards like a small nuclear  explosion. Shock waves ballooned out into the fog, sweeping it aside in curved veils of force which flashed through the tightly packed lines of traffic.

As a character Anne Kramer seems to have been introduced principally  as the sex interest in the novel.  “She was a beautiful  woman by any standards. Tall with thick dark-brown hair, large fine hazel eyes, and a slightly olive complexion…She could certainly handle men.”  Luke Gerrard  is strongly attracted to her, particularly  when she strips to her undies to dry her clothes by a fire  when they are trapped underground. They get together, of course. All very 1970s.

One of the themes of the novel is how the pursuit of profit corrupts science. Luke went to work for Arnold Kramer because he believed in him,  but Kramer changed when the money started rolling in. “Every remark, every concept, every speculation was now directed towards the profit motive…does it, or does it not, make money!”  With her husband  perishing in the air crash, Anne successfuly schemes to place  Luke in charge of the company. He offers a new vision:”None of us  set out to do anything more than be technically  ingenious. We succeeded and London nearly  died. ..the next time it may be the whole world…we can surely find ways of being creative on behalf of society.”

The novel ends ominously  with a unmanned probe from Earth, Argonaut One, landing on Mars.  “Two hours after sunrise the following morning, Argonaut One died abruptly. Inside its shiny body, plastic began to soften…”

Further reading

You can read an interview with Kit and Gerry from 1973 about the novel  which  I have posted here.

Michael Seely has produced an excellent  biography of Kit Pedler: The Quest for Pedler:the Life and Times of Dr Kit Pedler (2014), published by miwk.

You can watch one  episode from Mind Over Matter, a television series presented by Kit in the spring in 1981, which looked at the possibility of telepathy and other  paranormal activity being scientifically possible.

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