Survivors: Series One Review
Survivors is sometimes called the archetypal cult TV programme, whatever that means. Like the word "camp", to which many connect it, the word "cult" is tricky to pin down. A matter of moods and undertones and bravado, we know it when we see it. It is drama which believes in itself absolutely, no matter what, and never makes a joke of itself or forgets what it is about, dissipating into an aimless soap opera. It is so unrealistic in its tight focus that it picks up the greatest realism of all: that the people on the box, and the people watching them, feel as if they are sharing something. On the other hand, this can be alienating for the casual viewer dropping in for five minutes - in particular, for controllers of BBC1 and the like, channel-surfing to sample their output.
But if television moguls once used the term "cult" as a sort of patronising dismissive, these days it has become respectable again. In the age of the DVD, cult shows do tidy business and you can buy them on every high street. In any case the explosion of broadcast channels has made programme schedulers revise their ideas of what a minority audience is - not that these minorities were ever small. The lowest-rated episode of Doctor Who ever made ("Battlefield" part 1, for those who care) pulled in 3.1 million viewers, whereas the highest ever Church of England attendance (the aggregate count for Christmas Day and Christmas Eve) presently runs at 2.6m. I am pretty clear which congregation was getting more out of it, but still, when you call offbeat television a cult you might remember that there are whole religions smaller.
Cult remains a useful word because the last thing these shows have in common is genre. The Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice was a cult show, but the same year's BBC version of Persuasion - infinitely superior in literary terms, better acted, better directed - was not. Cultishness is what unites the Clangers and the Sopranos, yet divides them from the EastEnders. Cult is not sci-fi, nor even fantasy. If we take Survivors, what do we have? Not science fiction in the ordinary way. You could say that it stands in a British tradition of post-apocalyptic novels (key documents: H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds; John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids; John Christopher, The Death of Grass). But there are no ray guns, no aliens, no rockets to other worlds: there is no Einstein-defying warp drive, no time machine: nothing about the scenario is impossible.
The opening sequence is a carefully scripted mime - a play without words, showing a scientist's spherical flask accidentally dropped and a kind of flu-like disease carried by businessmen to the airports of the world. In a first episode which begins lightly enough, the plague gradually overwhelms the whole structure of life: schools close, hospitals are swamped, the electricity fails, the rural railway station is mournfully deserted. The last train from London has been cancelled. There is never going to be another.
So far we could be watching a Play for Today, a straight one-off drama. We could be watching, say, Barry Hines's horrific BBC play Threads, about life in Sheffield after a nuclear war (moral: you really want to die in the first attack). We certainly recognise the first few steps down the road out of civilisation. Remember how the SARS epidemic spread from China, to Hong Kong, to Canada? Remember how the fuel protests briefly made bread impossible to buy, and petrol so scarce that people fought over it, and even the ambulances could not move?
But Survivors is not about the wiping out of the population of England until only a few thousand people are left: that is only a prelude. It has far more to say about how half of those survivors die in the months that follow, a good many of them at each others' hands, and how the rest learn to cope in a world which will never be normal again. There are no doctors, no policemen, no shopkeepers, no postmen. The fresh food is gone within days, unless it is still on the hoof. The tinned food does not postpone the problem for long. The question is always: what happens next? This, to get back to cultishness, is rather like Douglas Adams's view of what made The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy different from radio sketch shows. He starts with a skit about a man whose house is knocked down for a bypass, except then the whole Earth is demolished by aliens also building a bypass, and if it were a Monty Python sketch that would be the end of it. Adams ended up with a narrative instead because he could never stop asking the question: so, given that weird turn of events, what happens as a consequence? And then what? How would that work? This, I think, is the essence of cult TV, it is what made Buffy: The Vampire Slayer so inventive and yet consistent, and it is the whole point of Survivors.
Series 1 of the show, a run of thirteen 50-minute episodes handsomely presented in this boxed set, manages considerable variety as a result of the changing conditions in England. By the summer the survivors are living in island settlements, guarding their flocks, but in the wintry days that follow the plague everyone is alone. A typical small town produces just one person who lives through the fever. No two survivors come from the same family: no two have ever met before (with one slightly implausible exception later on). Our main characters are in a state of shock, but also a state of denial. The loneliness gets to them, but as much as they long for company, they dread having to become responsible for others. Jenny, soulfully played by Lucy Fleming, gives in first: she cannot bear the eerieness, or the rejection from the handful of people she can find. Greg, resourcefully played by Ian McCulloch, is the tough-guy engineer, much more wary of commitment to strangers. The last to pitch in is Price (Talfryn Thomas), a Welsh tramp, a nasty piece of work but who also provides drunken-porter scenes to soften the tragedy. Abby (Carolyn Seymour), a once-cosseted housewife who now has to cope for herself, is the only one with a mission: an obviously doomed quest to find her lost son. Since Jenny is the sort of girl who would always volunteer to take minutes at parish council meetings, while Price is so working-class that the others never use his first name, the power struggle is between Abby and Greg. Their dynamic is much that of Blake versus Avon in Terry Nation's subsequent series Blake's Seven. The rest of the cast are all "types" - a financier, a trade union baron, a hippie dropout, a dashing lord, a self-sufficiency nut - and make up a sort of cross-section of 1970s culture. All the faces are white, which might seem excusable due to the shortage of Asian and black actors of the day: until one remembers the Sikh family who appeared in the more progressive children's version of Survivors, an adaptation of Peter Dickinson's book The Changes which the BBC made at the same time.
That, at any rate, is the case against. It is true enough that the author and creator of Survivors, Terry Nation, was never a characters man. He had a brilliant and ruthless eye for situations, but he basically rewrote high-adventure yarns - this one is largely stolen from The Day of the Triffids - and recycled his own fascinations. (His most famous creations, the Daleks, were themselves a race of survivors from an apocalypse; when they returned for a sequel, they invaded Earth after subjecting it to a catastrophic plague.) Nation's treatments are woefully short on variety when it comes to people, who often seem drawn from the world of the 1940s matinee. His poor girls are submissive (Jenny is a case in point), his tough-cookie girls are unsparing (Abby after the plague), his rich girls are spoiled (Abby before); while his men are either cynics or idealists. And Nation was as casual about disposing of characters as he was about creating them, never hesitating to go for the cheap tragedy of a needless death scene. But no show belongs to the creator alone, and Nation's sketchy character outlines were fleshed out enormously by the sensitive playing of the three lead actors, by the producer Terence Dudley, and by the two other writers, both straight playwrights: and a lot of unexpected other people also Survive, two of them handicapped, for instance. I mentioned Blake's Seven a moment ago, but this is a very much more grown-up piece.
Survivors was not a show whose makers were of one mind. It is now tolerably well known that the two Terries - Nation and Dudley - had very different ideas about where their post-apocalyptic society would go. A nihilistic world of scavenging, ruled only by shotgun law, or a retreat for the middle classes to learn how to bake organic bread? Not an easy question to answer. Which would you loot first, when you smash in the windows of what used to be shops: a bag of flour, or a box of cartridges? In the show as broadcast the outcome was a bit of each alternative, which gives Survivors both a sharp edge and genuine charm. Terence Dudley was, from what one can tell, not always tactful in reconciling the alternative views of the three different writers - he acted as his own script editor, which was frowned upon in BBC circles at the time. Clive Exton, the P. G. Wodehouse buff who went on to adapt the Fry and Laurie run of Bertie Wooster novels, protested by replacing his writing credit with the pseudonym M. K. Jeeves. But all this pulling in different directions rebounded to the show's advantage.
Here, for instance, is a great moment from the dark side. Our heroes hold a harvest supper, drink wine, play folk songs on an old guitar by candlelight. One of the girls goes to bed early. In the morning, she is found murdered and, it is implied, raped. There are no judges now, no prisons. They solve the crime: but then what? Can they face up to what they have to do next? Could you? Terrific stuff, and this episode - "Law and Order" - may be the best thing that Jeeves ever wrote: clearly he was wasted as a butler. The episode carefully builds us up to a huge fall, and ends on a sequence of brilliant wordless scenes: it is perfectly executed, in fact. But now here is a great moment from another of the writers, Jack Ronder. We are back in the early spring. Greg and Jenny are relative strangers when they come across two children, whom of course they cannot abandon. Suddenly the dynamic has shifted: they have become husband and wife driving around with two kids in the back seat. They feel coerced into something which they are not, or not yet. They have enough to cope with as it is without the children starting to call them "Mummy" and "Daddy". This is a wonderfully truthful observation, but I doubt if Terry Nation would have thought it worth recording at all.
The children, John and Lizzie, make an interesting addition to the scenario. Real-life children of the production team, they come across without a false note, being too young to suffer from the self-conscious clumsiness of teenage acting. If they take their lines rather literally, it seems no more than how children speak; and their matter of fact-ness at the sudden death of adults around them seems a chilling comment on how they deal with the world they have inherited. It might be unkind to define them by negatives, but they are not annoying and not superfluous. (The extras on the fourth DVD do give us a chance to see how Lizzie, at least, might have grown up - Tanya Ronder, the actress, was reunited with the adults from the cast when they were brought together to be interviewed on camera.)
Like all television, Survivors was shaped by technical obstacles as much as by visionary planning. Series 1, by no means considered a dead-cert hit, was made under nail-biting time pressure. This is why there is no incidental music. Just lucky that this turned out to be a superb decision, enormously pointing up the emptiness of the new world... It was filmed four months late. That is why the story arc runs from winter to summer, not vice versa. Just lucky that this was exactly right dramatically... The format required extensive location filming, in huge landscapes free of cars or the sound of cars, with skies emptied of aircraft con-trails. This at a time when almost all BBC location work was being done in a radius of an hour's coach travel from Broadcasting House, and when outings were strictly rationed. Survivors solved this by abandoning the traditional mix of studio and location days entirely and camping out in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, among the empty lanes of the foothills of the Malverns. There was no question of monopolising the drama cameramen for endless days on location, so instead outside-broadcast camera crew were borrowed from BBC Sport. Reportedly the cameramen, liberated from the routine of First Division fixtures, became passionate auteurs. Just lucky, then, that the all-video look is clean and consistent, spared from the ugly unrealism of a jolt between interior (video) and exterior (film) shots, a besetting sin of 1970s drama. The absence of studio sets (from episode 7 onwards) would look positively modern, if it weren't for the deplorable flared trousers. But they tell me these are fashionable again.
At the end of series 1, those characters left alive are just beginning to be organised. They have made the perilous crossing from one society to another: they have Survived. If further series had not been commissioned it would have been a shame, of course, but the initial story had run its course. So what next? There were 25 further episodes, in two seasons, and at times there is a danger of too many trouble-on-the-farm stories - Emmerdale really, really isn't cult TV - but the show never loses sight of what it is really about: the question of what happens next to society. And there are frequent surprises. The high mortality rate, and the way people move around, means that the regulars are not so regular as might be expected, and the lead characters come and go. People often reappear in a way which would seem an unlikely coincidence, except that there are now so few people left in the world that it is no coincidence at all. In series 2 we see what has become of London - suffice to say, nothing good. By series 3, the survivors are starting to use electricity pylons to carry telephone messages, and a strange kind of nation state is emerging: a kind of travelogue format means that we see some of the strange communities which have developed, notably one led by Brian Blessed in one of his best ever performances for the small screen. The last few episodes make an excellent coda, not only winding up the show but making a last provocative stab at the society to come. This is a programme to stay with - if you get the chance.
Like the boxed set of series 1 of the slightly later television drama Secret Army, which I also reviewed for this site, Survivors is given a good clean DVD release by DD Video. We have had two opportunities to buy these episodes before, on video tape, back in the 1990s: but both previous releases stopped at series 1, so it is only UK Gold viewers with long memories who will know how the story works out. Let us hope series 2 and 3 also make it onto DVD. Series 1 will still appeal even to those who, like myself, bought the tapes way back when. The box comes with a 40-page booklet by Andy Priestner, author of one of the more sane Survivors websites (he doesn't go scouting every last ford and camping-ground in order to re-enact the episodes by pretending that nobody else in the world is still alive), and there are interviews with all three of the lead actors. Two of the episodes have commentaries: exactly the two I would have chosen, the first ("The Fourth Horseman", with Carolyn Seymour and director Pennant Roberts) and the strongest ("Law and Order", with Ian McCulloch and Lucy Fleming). Mr Priestner acts as a helpful prompt and keeps them talking, without talking over them. If they ever feel like saying God, you know a scary amount about this, they restrain themselves. Some archive-TV commentaries work, some don't: these do, the second perhaps more than the first.
All four commentators have something to say, but it is always good to hear a director joining the actors. Pennant Roberts is modest, but says enough to confirm that the plausibility of the slide into disaster was largely thanks to his sure touch. He cast real actors, not understudies, for the non-survivors. While he was good at the theatrical studio scenes - Abby cooks dinner for her husband (Peter Bowles) in a long, long take, which feels like a warm-hearted two-hander for the stage, say by Terence Rattigan - Pennant Roberts really came into his own when directing the exteriors. He found such communicative shots, often without words, that he could almost be credited as a co-writer.
In the opening frames of the first show, there is an amusing nothing of a visual joke as we start with Abby Grant, all rings and quality woollens, playing tennis on the court in her garden. The camera pulls back to show that her opponent is... a tennis-ball serving machine.
This is a joke with a point, that Abby wants for nothing, but there is a second point also being made when she is called away to the phone (for the last time in her life). When we see the tennis court again, the machine, oblivious to Abby's departure, carries on serving to nobody. It prefigures everything that is to come. The unnatural absence of people. The useless machines without owners. And the way that the problem of physical survival is so easily solved for us by society that we can afford to spend our time in surreal ways like designing, building and then playing tennis against ingenious mechanical toys: or, for instance, by buying and reviewing DVDs, and then wiring together every house in the world just so that we can argue the toss about them.