Very British Futures – The Uninvited

Man in front of a crashed car

The Nineties were a busy time for SF television, just not for British voices. Whilst the success in syndication of Star Trek: The Next Generation ushered in a purple patch for US television – The X-Files, Deep Space Nine, Stargate SG1 and countless short-lived shows with a range of quality, it seemed to me that the UK lost confidence in the genre once Doctor Who was cancelled (bar the one-off 1996 TV Movie). It’s noticeable that a lot of what was produced by TV companies in this decade for peaktime audiences put the emphasis on their ‘realism’ or carried assurances that they were not ‘science fiction’ but drama. Star Cops, Bugs, Space Island One. ITV’s The Uninvited is an interesting example of that. It’s an alien invasion story dressed up as A Ruth Rendell Mystery.

Visit the podcast’s home page at Anchor.fm

I enjoyed rewatching The Uninvited recently and I equally enjoyed talking with my friends John Isles and Nicky Smalley about it a few weeks ago for the next edition of Very British Futures. Turns out like me, John kept it on VHS tape for a long time, simply because it was British SF TV at a time of relative scarcity. I don’t think I quite managed to fit in my appreciation of Leslie Grantham as one of the chief alien bad guys, all intense stares and cool demeanor. This episode might feel a little different to the preceeding ones because I was testing the water by having a more wide-ranging conversation about the Nineties and novelisations too. Here’s some more details about the show for the record.

Principle Cast
Douglas Hodge – Steve Blake
Leslie Grantham – Chief Supt. Philip Gates
Lia Williams – Melissa Gates
Sylvestra Le Touzel – Joanna Ball
David Allister – James Wilson
Caroline Lee-Johnson – Sarah Armstrong

Writer – Peter Broker
Music – Martin Kizsko, Toby Gilks
Cinematography – Doug Hallows
Editor – Colin Goudie
Producers – Ruth Boswell, Leslie Grantham, Laura Julian, Archie Tait
Director – Norman Stone

I’ve been adding the RSS feed for the podcast to more online directories. You can find it at:
Anchor, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Spreaker, Blubrry, and Digital Podcasts.

However you can still listen or download the show from the link below too.

Very British Futures Episode 5- The Uninvited

Thanks for reading.

Very British Futures – Knights of God

Response to the first episode of Very British Futures was very warm, and now I am keen to push on and get several more recorded between now and September, when my workload will increase. Next out of the gate is Knights of God, the ITV 1987 family adventure series set in the then future year of 2020. Now 2020 was not a bundle of fun for most of us, but at least the country had not collapsed into ruins and being ruled by a jackbooted religious order. It’s an impressively mounted television series that recalls ITV’s ambitious children’s series from the Seventies such as Sky and Children of the Stones in its scope and grittiness.

I was glad to be joined over Skype by my old Westlake Films muckers Kevin Hiley and Dr Rebecca Wray to remember the show and discuss its themes. They were worried they wouldn’t have enough to say but as you’ll hear we filled an hour nicely.

You can listen to the podcast at Anchor or on one of these platforms: Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, RadioPublic, Acast or PocketCasts. Whilst I’d encourage you to use one of those, to build up my figures, if you need a copy for your MP3 player, you can download it below.

Very British Futures – Knights of God

Thanks for your support and join me next time, as we continue the theme of life under occupation and young resistance fighters with The Tripods.

Proceed… The Strange World of Gurney Slade

Man and dog look at a DVD

This first statement can be read as a symptom of age. My inner dad coming out. But its fair to say that it is quite rare for something genuinely innovative to appear. So much that people think is new and daring has often been done before. Take characters being meta-textual, self aware of the format they inhabit. Long before Fleabag was giving conspiratorial glances to the camera, or Gurney Slade worried about only having 25 minutes of existence left in his final episode, the Marx Brothers were bringing the audience into the artificiality of their adventures. Back in the 18th century, Lawrence Sterne was redefining what a novel could be with the tragicomic diversions of Tristram Shandy, and he in his turn was drawing on the Baroque poets of the previous century. All artists are standing on somebody else’s shoulders.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade has antecedents in The Goons, James Thurber’s humorous stories, Hancock’s Half Hour and Anthony Newley’s previous television shows. Nevertheless, in 1960, when the television sitcom was still inventing itself, there was nothing quite like it on the small screen, a fact that would ultimately doom it to cultdom rather than mainstream success. It’s a lazy cliché to say that some creative endeavour defies description. Besides which, I do have a few adjectives to describe these six episodes: odd, amusing, inconstant, clever, and a little too often – rather smug.

Gurney Slade and a scarecrow

The debut episode opens with the start of an unimpressive domestic sitcom about a working class family: harassed wife, cheeky kids, interfering mother-in-law and boring neighbours inviting themselves in. In the midst of it all and already clearly distancing himself is the man of the house – Gurney Slade (played by Anthony Newley). When it comes to his first banal line of dialogue, Gurney can’t take it anymore and walks off the set, past the floor manager, and out into what seems at first to be the real world but in fact is a fantasy created by his imagination, mixing mundane backgrounds with characters such as talking rubbish bins, conversational dogs and advertising posters which come to life. At this point we could be watching an actor’s nervous breakdown from the inside, but the programme never explores that bleak reading, even if it never contradicts it either. It prefers instead to suggest that we are joining the protagonist in “Gurneyland”, as he describes it in the fifth episode. That’s about it as far as the overall story is concerned. Gurney, virtually free of all commitments, wanders along musing about modern life and going on flights of fancy. The first three episodes are much more free form, almost like an illustrated stand-up routine. However the second half becomes slightly more narrative driven. Gurney is put on trial for producing an unfunny comedy show, has to venture inside his own mind to deal with some squatters, and finally is challenged to take responsibility for the characters he has imagined over the previous episodes.

Anthony Newley created the series alongside Sid Green and Dick Hills, at the time two of the most in-demand comedy writers in British television. It is a definitely a young man’s view of the world. Our hero often runs up against older men who are stuffy, hypocritical or unreliable authority figures. A politician who is only concerned with his young mistress, or a music hall bore of a comedian trading in ancient jokes. Meanwhile women remain resolutely two-dimensional, mostly unobtainable objects of desire, reflecting perhaps Gurney’s admitted failures to make any meaningful connections with girls. Mention ought to be made though of Joy Stewart, who has a reoccurring role as a stereotypical suburban wife/mother, who is involved with some of the most likeable sequences, remaining resolutely domestically minded throughout. In that she is a symptom of what stops this series really striking home. All the characters are cartoonish stereotypes aside from Gurney. What’s more, the show actually congratulates itself on being too clever for the average viewer. So there is a hint of Emperor’s New Clothes. Don’t find this funny? You’re obviously not sophisticated enough.

Man and woman picking flowers

Ostensibly a comedy series, it’s never laugh out loud funny but more endearingly whimsical. Moments that made me smile tend to involve the talking objects, such as the farmyard dog who regards the farmer and his employees as part of the livestock, or a bin which likes the read the newspapers that are thrown into it. Elsewhere in a moment of dark humour, Gurney helps a couple of children to assemble their perfect mother from a collection of female mannequin parts left on a tip. There’s some funny daft jokes too. Examining the control room inside his imagination, Gurney is glad to see “At least it’s a clean mind.” Later on in the same episode there some amusing physical comedy as he is trying to giving a speech whilst fending off an invisible elephant, which eventually picks him up in its trunk.

The monologues are less successful, coming off as sub-Galton and Simpson material. I could imagine Tony Hancock or Harold Steptoe delivering Gurney’s sour comments on an actor fronting an advertising campaign for screws, or imagining how much easier his life could be if he could simply choose his wife from a army style line-up. But in Newley’s hands they become selfish whinges rather than amusingly pompous. I generally enjoyed the show more when a little more storyline comes into it.

There are some fine meta-jokes in the final part, just the kind of comedy which Wandavision is currently being hailed for. The prosecutor from the trial episode returns and complains that all he knows how to do is aggressively prosecute. “Suppose I’m hungry? How do I order a meal in restaurant?” In a self-flagellating moment, the girl of his dreams from episode two, played by Anneke Wills who was 17 and having relationship with Newley in real life, is shocked when she finds out the age gap between them. But too often Gurney’s jokes about his failings seem more design to invite admiration for his clear-sightedness, rather than humility.

Courtroom

Director Alan Tarrant makes a real virtue of the its monochrome production. The photography is crisp, the outdoor filming is mobile and dynamic, the more stagey looking later episodes have been thoughtfully designed too and in places anticipate where Doctor Who and The Prisoner are going to go in a few years time. It was one of Tarrant’s first directing jobs and sadly for us, he never produced anything as unconventional again, but would go on to a long and successful career in ITV light entertainment and sitcoms.

For viewers interested in the more fanciful British comedy of Python, The Goodies and The League of Gentlemen, The Strange World of Gurney Slade is a fascinating artefact. It rarely made me laugh but it does stay in the memory and at six episodes it feels perfectly formed. If Newley, Green and Hills wanted to make a singular show, they did succeed, but they should not have given themselves a round of applause for doing so.

Thanks to Network, The Strange World of Gurney Slade is available on DVD, which also contains trailers and photos, and a limited edition Blu-ray containing many more features and Anthony Newley’s contemporary film The Small World of Sammy Lee.

Quatermass on Network’s blu-ray

Quatermass blu-ray case and novelisation

Twenty years after Quatermass and the Pit thrilled British television audiences, Nigel Kneale created a brand new science fiction adventure for a very different era. Instead of the cramped studios of Lime Grove and 405 line TV cameras, Quatermass was made in colour, on film and made on mostly on location. The result was was an epic piece of science fiction television that divided critics and audiences at the time but has gradually risen in appreciation and is now considered very much a part of the Quatermass saga, as well as a fondly remembered ITV drama.

The near future. Seemingly thanks to a worldwide economic crisis, Britain has descended into a state of anarchy. Professor Bernard Quatermass, now an elderly man, his British Rocket Group a distant memory, has come to London to take part in a live television broadcast celebrating a pointless US/USSR space mission. But really he is trying to find his missing granddaughter Hettie. Then to everyone’s shock the spacecraft is inexplicably destroyed. Escaping the furore with a young scientist called Joseph Kapp, Quatermass discovers that masses of young people are being drawn towards ancient sites. Intrigued he and the Kapps go to the nearby stone circle Ringstone Round, only to witness the horrific sight of the whole crowd being wiped out by a huge energy beam from space. With only limited resources and growing danger from fanatical Planet People, a shaky government and violent gangs, Quatermass tries to uncover the nature of a terrifying wholly alien threat.

Nigel Kneale originally approached the BBC with the idea of a fourth Quatermass story, then titled “Quatermass 79”. Star Wars had brought science fiction back into fashion and the corporation was enjoying success with both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. However the BBC executive most closely involved left for Thames Television and took the project with him. Thames and its cinema division Euston Films were keen to branch out from the gritty two-fisted action fare like The Sweeny which had made their name and correctly predicted that science fiction was going to be the next big trend. In order to raise the budget the project was planned to be made simultaneously as a four part mini-series and a feature film for the USA market. Kneale later said he regretted the strategy, feeling it harmed the structure his script, producing a television series that was too padded and a film that was too short for the story to be properly developed. I beg to disagree.

This set contains both the television series and The Quatermass Conclusion movie version and it is fascinating to compare them. In order for the story to work as a film, an exclusive scene was filmed to cover certain plot points. The biggest story difference between them is a sub-plot about Quatermass becoming lost after a London gang ambush and joining a community of elderly people living in hiding under a scrapyard. In the movie he simply arrives safely at the hospital and witnesses that bizarre transformation of a young girl hit by the alien ray, something that happens without him in the television version. Another major casualty is Quatermass’ friend Joe Kapp, whose family life and later mental disintegration is largely excised. Generally I much prefer the television version, which has room for its characters to develop and generally become even more sympathetic, which in turn makes the violence and the destruction more horrific. There’s also more room for humour too, such as the fuming of a camp director of a soft-core porn television show, whose studio is taken over to transmit a message.

It is wonderful to see Nigel Kneale’s literate, often downbeat, thoughtful script be realised with such an impressive production. Director Piers Haggard had previously helmed the 1971 cult British horror movie “Blood on Satan’s Claw” and many well regarded television dramas. He gives the series a great sense of scale, creating a convincing urban apocalypse and bringing energy and pace to a fairly conversational script. Compared to other British television SF of the time, such as Blake’s 7 and Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, it looks amazingly glossy, shot mostly on location, featuring night filming, and some impressively large scale sets such as Ringstone Round. Only the space shuttle interior lets the side down, looking distinctly like painted wood and lacking the accurate details. Special mention should also go to Marc Wilkinson and Nic Rowley’s melancholy and imaginative music, blending electronic and conventional musical instruments.

A common criticism of the series was that its main human danger, crowds of mesmerised hippies, was an out of date concept for 1979, a time when punk rock was the major youth movement. I’ve always found this a rather shallow argument. Its’ sense of urban decay seems relevant in any age, whilst the way that Planet People and other influenced humans reject science in favour of New Age beliefs is quite prophetic of the mood of anti-intellectulism that appeared in the nineties and continues to a lesser extent today. “Stop trying to know things!” shouts an angry protester at one point. Kneale himself said he felt the onscreen Planet People were too flower-power when he had intended them to be more manic and aggressive.

Quatermass marked John Mills’ third major British television role. As a well-known film star on both sides of the Atlantic, his participation guaranteed the production’s huge (for the time) £1.2 million budget. Playing the famous scientist at a very different time of his life, Mills brings out the professor’s humanity and decency, a man who regrets the way his obsession with manned spaceflight has damaged his family. Writer Nigel Kneale felt the avuncular Mills was miscast and lacked the authority needed for the character. Yet the Quatermass Kneale has written is initially a beaten, lonely old man who gradually rebuilds himself as the story continues and Mills is fine at playing this. Playing Joseph Kapp, Simon McCorkindale, a few years before his international fame in Dynasty, Falcon Crest and ahem Jaws 3D, in many ways represents the man Quatermass used to be, passionate, principled and driven by his work to the point where he puts his family in second place. Kneale was critical of him too in later interviews, saying he was better at playing foolish lightweight men and wasn’t good at playing an intellectual. Barbara Kellerman is excellent as Clare Kapp, his sensitive wife who begins to show signs of alien influence. Veteran actress Margaret Tyzack makes a good companion for the Quatermass as a government District Commissioner called Annie Morgan. The series is filled with familiar TV character faces like Brian Croucher, Brenda Fricker, Ralph Arliss, David Yip, Kevin Stoney and Bruce Purchase. Sharp eyed viewers will also see a pre-fame pop star Toyah Wilcox as one of the hippie travellers.

The serial has been released on VHS and DVD before but Network have once again worked wonders with the HD restoration of the 35mm film footage. The picture quality is quite incredible, filled with detail I’ve never noticed before and making the most of outdoor set pieces such as the riot at Ringstone Round or devastated London. I was worried that HD would be unkind to the special effects of the day. I shouldn’t have worried because the optical effects look better and more detailed than ever before, whilst the modelwork in the space scenes whilst obviously filmed models, looks perfectly acceptable and does not break the serious mood. The brand new 5.1 surround sound mix is equally impressive. However purists will be glad to know there is also the option of the original mono soundtrack.

Extras

With many of the principle people no longer with us, it’s perhaps inevitable that the extras on this release are fairly minimal. No commentaries or new documentary on the production. However this area is more than satisfactorily filled by the enclosed booklet by well-regarded archive TV historian Andrew Pixley. Pixley’s style of writing is exhaustively researched but very accessible. He is already something of a legend amongst cult TV fans for his work documenting series like Doctor Who, Mystery and Imagination, Out of the Unknown and many other Network and BBC DVD releases. Suffice to say that everything you need to know about the making of this series is in this slim volume. He also puts into the context of Nigel Kneale’s whole career.

There is the option for music-only soundtracks for all four episodes, and also whether the view the episodes with the original ITV episode recaps. A silent version of the cinema trailer is there. It’s a shame the soundtrack couldn’t be recreated for it. Probably the least essential extra is a silent, textless version of the movie credits, which is pretty similar to the first scene that opens the TV version. Finally there is an Image Gallery with many rare photos.

As an extra bonus (or gimmick depending on what you think), Network have released the first thousand copies of the blu-ray edition with one of four exclusive covers featuring artwork based on the original four TV title cards. The standard edition features a photo montage which is also used on the DVD release.

This new edition of Quatermass is definitely worth an upgrade if you have a blu-ray player. There is also a restored DVD edition being released simultaneously but with the blu-ray you’ll get a significantly upgraded presentation. It is a thoughtful, excellently made SF event series that deserves to be rediscovered by a whole new audience, as welcome as welcomed back by its admirers.