First Born Review

First Born begins in 1975, with Edward Forester (Charles Dance) and his wife Ann (Julie Peasgood), who is days away from giving birth. Cut to the delivery theatre, and a baby boy is born, only out of the ordinary by having an unusual amount of body hair. But then the mother goes into convulsions, and a large hairy arm is seen: the mother is a gorilla called Mary. Edward Forester has succeeded in producing the first hybrid of primate and human, a boy he calls Gordon, or Gor for short.

First Born was adapted by Ted Whitehead from a novel by Maureen Duffy called Gor Saga, a title which rather unfortunately conjures up the sword-and-sorcery-and-bondage novels that John Norman produced in quantity in the 70s and 80s. As retitled for TV, First Born caused some controversy on its first broadcast on BBC1 in 1988, due to its subject matter with its inevitable overtones of bestiality. It’s certainly an unsettling work, but it stands up – nearly twenty years later – as an intelligent, well made and acted piece of small-screen science fiction of the awful-warning kind.

The opening sequence sets up an ongoing correspondence between Gor and the daughter Ann does actually give birth to, Helen (or Nell for short). This comes to the forefront in the final episode when both are eighteen (and played by Jamie Foster and Gabrielle Anwar), and a perhaps inevitable attraction is formed between them. This results in another taboo being broken (which you’ll have to see for yourself), leading up to a nasty twist in the tale just before the end credits roll.

For the first two thirds, Edward is the central figure. Charles Dance gives a commanding performance as a man who while clearly devoted to his wife and daughter has a chip of ice in his soul: ultimately his driving obsession is to his work, and he thinks nothing of using people towards that end. First Born is flawed in its final third, by shifting the emphasis to Gor and Nell. That’s no reflection on Foster and Anwar, who are capable enough, but they are much less interesting as characters than Edward is. Gor is more interesting as an idea: attempts to get into his head (visions of jungles and waterfalls) don’t really come off. And ultimately, the moral dilemmas and conflicts are all Edward’s, and it’s right that the final freeze-frame is of him.

The decision to set the story in the recent past, jumping five years into the future in the final third, is a good one and avoids unnecessary dating. (Check out the vintage computer Edward keeps his notes on.) Philip Saville has had a long career on both small and large screens, but somehow seems always to be overlooked, possibly because his usual style is self-effacing. His direction is entirely capable, and the story is well-paced over its two and a half hour length. There’s a strong supporting cast, including some familiar British character actors. The score is by Hans Zimmer, fairly early in his career: it’s full of choral chants, but a lot less overblown than some of his later Hollywood work. David Feig’s camerawork is also very good. Even the various apes (supplied by Jimmy Chipperfield’s circus) play their parts well.

First Born is in a long tradition of British TV drama that isn’t afraid to be provocative and unsettling. It’s picked up something of a cult following since its first broadcast, so it’s good to see it receiving a DVD release.

First Born was originally broadcast as a serial of three episodes of fifty minutes or thereabouts (though the final one is closer to an hour). However, 2 Entertain’s DVD – unlike those of other TV serials they released at the same time – presents First Born in omnibus format, edited together to make one long feature. As far as I can tell (and I hadn’t seen this since 1988), nothing is missing except for the closing credits of Episodes One and Two and the opening credits of Episodes Two and Three. Even so, I would have preferred this in its original form: if you wish to replicate this, Part Two begins with Chapter 9 at 50:27 and Part Three with Chapter 16 at 97:40. There are twenty-four chapter stops in all. The DVD is encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only.

As you would expect from 1980s television, First Born is presented on DVD in its original 4:3 ratio. It harks back to a (quite recent) time when quality drama was shot on 16mm film rather than video. In these days of DigiBeta and High Definition (not to mention 35mm-originated American shows) it looks a little soft and a little grainy. Ultimately it looks the way it’s meant to look – and don’t forget that TV sets now are much larger and more unforgiving than they were in 1988.

The soundtrack is mono. NICAM Stereo was introduced around the time First Born was made, but presumably not all programmes had such a soundtrack straight away. (In any case, NICAM broadcasts were not available throughout the UK at first.) I’m quite prepared to accept that this is the original sound mix: it’s a professional job of work, with dialogue, effects and music well balanced. Please note the opening few words of dialogue are intentionally muffled, as the hard-of-hearing subtitles make clear!

There are no extras on the disc itself. 2 Entertain do include a booklet with the disc, but this was not supplied with the checkdisc for review. Going by the booklets I have seen for other releases, it should be worth reading.

2 Entertain are releasing a lot of cultish TV, both older and more recent, and I would be glad to see them continue. I would have preferred First Born in its original three-episode format, but I’m glad it is on disc.

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