Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Tomorrow People, series four to eight

More from the archives on The Tomorrow People:

The Tomorrow People reached its mid-life crisis with its fourth series. Ruth Boswell was no longer producer, and creator and since series two sole writer Roger Price took over. The last story of the third series, The Revenge of Jedikiah, had been intended by Price as the series conclusion, but The Tomorrow People was too popular to end, and John, Elizabeth, Stephen and eventually Tyso jaunt back into a cobwebbed Lab, just as teenager Mike Bell is demonstrating to his deeply indebted, gambling-addicted neighbour Mr O'Reilly how he can open locks.

There's something of a reappraisal of the format here. Stephen even questions why there aren't as many tomorrow people as were once expected, given that they reveal themselves at yearly intervals. Breaking out stops being as traumatic from now on; Mike alerts the others by telepathically laughing. Having had false starts with the badly acted Kenny, the increasingly middle-class Stephen, and the ethnically stereotyped Tyso, Roger Price has now found his genuine working-class East Ender to act as the voice of liberated teendom, Mike Holoway as Mike, who will stay for the rest of the series. Holoway was discovered by Price with his band Flintlock in a Saturday music class in east London, and was called up into Price's anarchic youth comedy series.

There's been a suggestion that Ann Curthoys as Tricia, who broke out at the end of The Revenge of Jedikiah, was asked to return; Jackie Clark thinks that this must have been for a version of the story which became The Dirtiest Business in season five. It's difficult to imagine Tricia returning for more than one story without Nicholas Young or Elizabeth Adare leaving, given that Ann Curthoys was (I think) older than both the 'senior' Tomorrow People regulars; and I can't see even Price, who played fast and loose with continuity when it suited him, returning Tricia to the SIS and taking on the position Major Turner has in The Dirtiest Business. The most plausible set-up, if Ann Curthoys's memory is correct, might be that series four was to start with something like The Dirtiest Business, perhaps introducing a new young female tomorrow person (perhaps played by one of Price's comedy leads, like Linda Robson or Pauline Quirke), who would be rescued from the SIS but not without Tricia dying. Or Tricia was to appear in a different story entirely, given that series four seems to have been curtailed.

The other change to the format is that The Tomorrow People is more assuredly comedic for the first story under Price's producership. A Man for Emily was awkward because it was straining at the leash; with One Law, which introduces Mike, the leash is off. Laboured jokes are flagged up for the children watching with hackneyed sound effects. The tomorrow people's deal with the government, used to stress the fragility of their position in series three, already seems tired and is used, like so much in this storyline, to support Price's cynicism towards all forms of authority. The show is remarkably self-assured, but misconceived; this is a series aimed at children which often makes serious points about growing up and dealing with the adult world, and while there were solid examples in the 1970s of corrupt police and corrupt businessman peers, making them buffoons (particularly the police inspector) played for laughs leaves Price unintentionally pulling his punch.

There appear to have been some months between the making of the three-part One Law and its successor Into the Unknown. Mike Holoway and particularly Dean Lawrence (Tyso) seem much older than they did in One Law. There's a change of tone again, as the four-part story - the last The Tomorrow People will attempt until the very last serial, War of the Empires in 1979 - is somewhat more earnest than most Tomorrow People adventures and shows its awareness of its limitations not by a gentle self-awareness that the regular cast are participating in a television programme, but by confining the action to what looks like one set. The result is visually boring and the characters are all rather flat. This story was written by Jon Watkins, best remembered for 1980s BBC sitcom No Place Like Home, with William Gaunt and Martin Clunes. It's perhaps significant that Ruth Boswell returned to lend a hand as script editor. This was the only story which I didn't manage to sit through; it's tedious viewing and the cast on the commentary track sound as if they have been chained to their chairs.

After series four, The Tomorrow People pulls itself together and accommodates itself to its reduced circumstances. From seven episodes in series four, there are only six in series five (1977) and series six and seven (both 1978). For only the second time in the series, the cast is ruthlessly pruned. Not only Tyso (who was never really there anyway) but Stephen, the ostensible focus of the first series, are gone from the Lab, and in a break from tradition there is no explanation; the new-look series doesn't have the time for talking. The sacrilege is marked on screen: series five opens with the Lab under attack, and John, Elizabeth and Mike in agony as they undergo telepathic assault; a blonde woman in military uniform enters and surveys her conquered territory.

The blonde woman turned out to be Major Turner, icily portrayed by Vivien Heilbron; another tomorrow person gone bad, but unlike Tricia, happy in uniform and definitely not open to persuasion. It was another blonde who would be the focus of this story, The Dirtiest Business, the first (and last) one in which a new tomorrow person is lost in the process of recruiting them. Oddly, perhaps, Pavla, the schoolgirl KGB agent, was played by former Playboy centrefold Anulka Dziubinska, a full ten years older than the character she was portraying, though maintaining a suitable air of injured innocence throughout. The story extracts a little comedy from the arrival of Anulka Dubinska when John insists on accompanying Mike on one jaunt in search of her, only for him to be restrained by Elizabeth. Price's message is downbeat, though: the KGB are depicted as installing remote-controlled explosive devices in their agents, and the tomorrow people are vulnerable in the face of 'sap' militarism throughout, leaving Mike feeling like an accessory to murder.

There's a change of tone here, perhaps an expression of Price's weariness with the series, but also of the arrival of Vic Hughes as producer. From now on it's far more questionable whether young people will overcome the mistakes of previous generations, and the tomorrow people themselves seem more vulnerable when on contemporary Earth. Of course, the message of the television series was always compromised by its proximity to "the star-making machinery of the popular song". Peter Vaughan Clarke was part of it, with his fan club and a management which wanted to turn him into the British David Cassidy, and Mike Holoway was too, even wearing his Flintlock member's 'F' during The Dirtiest Business. The third and last story of series five, The Heart of Sogguth, could be seen as a dramatisation of Price's guilty conscience. "Rock and pop" (to use a 1970s conflation) music isn't bad, but the uses to which it's put and the interests of those who wield the commercial power can be. Mike Holoway appears with Flintlock here as 'The Fresh Hearts' - everyone who uses the name in the story treats it as an expression of idealism, but it sounds as if Mike and the band are laying themselves out for sacrifice, and Price knows it, because The Tomorrow People is one of many knives.

The reduced set-up for this series emphasises John and Elizabeth's seniority over Mike's youth a lot more; Stephen isn't there to bridge the age gap, and Mike often seems put upon by his elders. Yet he can go to places John can't. It's a small plot point in The Dirtiest Business that John leaves checking discos for Pavla to Mike; and this is built upon in The Hearts of Sogguth when it's clear he's never been to a club. It's no protection; John is more vulnerable to the influence of the buried demonic Sogguth than Elizabeth. There's some potential racism here, where Elizabeth is depicted as resistant to Sogguth perhaps because of her African origins - the eponymous heart of Sogguth seems to be an African drum. Still, the stalking of Elizabeth through the gantries of Teddington Studios - self-referentialism again, treating the studio as a location - is reasonably well-executed.

Ethnicity is foregrounded, one way or another, throughout series six. The child-worshipping, adolescent-murdering cult from which Hsui Tai is rescued during The Lost Gods is placed in the Far East, with Burt Kwouk on hand as the second-in-command of the religion only just finding out that his faith is based on a lie. Hsui Tai seems to have been a deliberate attempt to internationalise the tomorrow people, though little is done to hide that she originates as Elizabeth Adare's maternity leave. Misako Koba, playing Hsui Tai, returns to the Sammie Winmill precedent of older actress playing a teenager, but her lack of acting experience and her idiosyncratic pronunciation of English (but still better than my, or many other viewers', Japanese) support her status as neophyte and comrade-in-arms for Mike. The last story of the season, The Thargon Menace, bravely recreates a South Pacific island in Teddington. Plastic trees they may be, but the focus is always tight and the result at least bears comparison with Doctor Who's Kinda four years later. While officially in the South Pacific, the inhabitants of the island all seem to be black Africans, and their self-congratulatory megalomaniac leader, Papa Min, owes more than his name to Idi Amin, rarely out of the news in the 1970s. One is left with a feeling that to the producers all non-whites were interchangeable.

The most notorious story of the series was the middle one, Hitler's Last Secret. There was disquiet in the media at the time of the appropriation of Nazi symbols by the punk movement, and one can see how Roger Price, a sort of late flower child himself, would have been ill at ease with punk's celebration of primal aggression rather than primal inner calm. Hitler's Last Secret gives the tomorrow people shadows, in the form of a band of teenage SS cadets in a bunker in Germany whose ageing process has been stopped by diet for over thirty years, while their fellow-soldiers sleep in suspended animation. Meanwhile a fashion for dressing in SS uniform is sweeping the world's youth. It's revealed that in the closing year of World War Two German planes seeded combat zones with DNA hidden on e.coli bacteria, and a generation later the new generation of adults are emerging as programmed Nazis. At the end of the first episode Hitler himself is revived. Michael Sheard delivers a suitably intense performance as Hitler as he prepares to hijack western Europe's television networks; but such a story needs a get-out clause, and it turns out (perhaps half-remembering a line from The Medusa Strain back in series one) that Hitler is an alien. Deprogramming is achieved by encouraging xenophobia, as the shape-changing Hitler has a 'skin' of oozing green slime, and his eyeballs fall out during the transformation process. This is all rather uncomfortable in its ineffectualness, as if the series can't cope with humanity producing its own evils, and the final mock-equation of Hitler with John is tasteless.

The Tomorrow People wasn't winding down in 1978, and its last ten episodes, series seven and eight, successfully make use of a cast of five. John and the returned Elizabeth gain new photographs in the title sequence which emphasise their seriousness and maturity; a prank played on John in the Lab by Mike and Hsui Tai leads John to explode that the place is becoming a kindergarten. Investigating telepathic projections of ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster, the tomorrow people end up at a hotel by Loch Ness, where a research team are looking for the monster, and there's a nice bit of character-reinforcing when John and Elizabeth become excited by the idea that one of the research team might be a tomorrow person. It is of course the hotel owner's thirteen-year-old son Andrew who is behind the apparitions, and much of the second and final episode of his introductory story, Castle of Fear is taken up with a mutual confidence-building exercise, where Andrew's projections of eighteenth-century highlanders take on John's redcoats. It's probably the best introductory story, bar the note of cynicism at the end when all agree that Andrew can continue to project apparitions of ghosts in order to boost the flagging fortunes of his father's hotel.

The castle setting, with the character of Andrew's father Bruce, is carried over into the next story, Achilles Heel. This story expects some of its child viewers to be in on the jokes. The villains are two telepath-hating aliens hoping to bring down the Galactic Federation by mining Barlumin, which removes the capacity for telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation, and is found in abundance on Earth - another excuse by Price for the slow rate of break-outs, after his Kulthan pyramids in Worlds Away. One of them is seen reading the novelisation of Star Wars early in the story; and the pilot, Grip, is a cheap version of Chewbacca, with an actor wearing a large wig and lots of fake facial hair, and a nose made up in black. The actor concerned is Stanley Bates, who plays Grip using the same voice and movements he used to play Bungle in Rainbow. The humour manages to be carried off lightly in this one, perhaps due to director Gabrielle Beaumont, who has also directed episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. Oh, and one of the Beast Master TV movies, apparently... maybe that's why the villains, played by Hilary Minster (from Allo, Allo!) and Christian Rodzka, spent a good chunk of part one wearing towels around their waists and little else.

Throughout the commentaries on the last two series of The Tomorrow People, there are digs from moderator Peter Vaughan Clarke that Mike Holoway had to watch his back, as Andrew was about to replace him. However, throughout Andrew is set up as a more conservative character than Mike, and while off-screen Nigel Rhodes was in the tradition of the cheeky schoolboy, with a strong range of vocal impressions - he was not Scottish himself, and managed a decent American accent in the last story, War of the Empires - Andrew seems more likely to have been a successor to John as the 'balanced' member of the team. In The Living Skins, a second 1978 attack on incomprehensible youth fashion trends by Price, only Andrew refuses to wear the Bubbleskins, plastic garments which are really parasitic alien life forms which bond with their wearers and eventually digest them. The tale is played straight, despite the enemy taking the shape of giant balloons or cellophane wrap when not being sold as brightly-coloured jumpsuits. Everyone else has a turn at being possessed, Mike Holoway and Misako Koba being particularly good in the first episode. Nigel Rhodes later took the name of the shop in The Living Skins for his rock band.

There was only one Tomorrow People story in 1979, the unhappy War of the Empires which reversed the successful, but modest, creation of an alien environment from A Much Needed Holiday two years before, with its ludicrous one-handed sausage-like Sorsons and the now metallic-pink skinned Thargons being nothing compared to the vacillating council of the Galactic Federation, whose 'Chairbeing' is a sort of flouncy mushroom, though that look was fashionable at the end of the 1970s... The decision to go into space again might have been made to give Philip Gilbert more screen time as Timus; since series six the Lab set had been smaller, and Tim was no longer an organic presence speaking from the ceiling but integrated into the entire Lab, but a smaller, occasionally mobile table, demoting him from TARDIS to K9. It's with some overacting from Gilbert that The Tomorrow People ends.

War of the Empires was meant to have been followed by a two-parter called 'Mystery Moon'. The script is online, and reveals how much characterisation was left to the actors and, by this stage, the production team. For Price it was enough to denote Andrew's character that he wear a kilt wherever possible, and full highland dress whenever there was an excuse. At its kindest this links to Price's interest in improvisational comedy, where his proteges would be placed on a set and work material out; but at its worst it's very limiting for the character's development. Then producer, Vic Hughes, seems to have requsted a rematch with the Gremlons, the enslavers of A Much Needed Holiday, but Price makes the sole Gremlon in the story a loyal servant of the Federation, acting as Elizabeth's driver. As for the plot, the alert was raised as soon as I saw that the young couple in it were called Tadam and Yeva. The Guardians of Time, from The Medusa Strain and A Rift in Time in the first and second series, were also to make a reappearance, with Price admitting in the script that they were based upon Doctor Who's Time Lords. Tikno, another alter ego for Philip Gilbert not seen since The Revenge of Jedikiah, would also have appeared. This continuity- and cliché-fest never reached studio after Thames refused to allocate Vic Hughes more than one studio day, which didn't leave enough time for the effects to be completed. Those who wish that The Tomorrow People had ended with The Living Skins might be glad, on the basis of this script, that it ended with War of the Empires.

So The Tomorrow People fizzled out. Roger Price wrote his last scripts from Canada, where he was launching what would become one of Nickelodeon's hit series of the 1980s, You Can't Do That On Television. The Tomorrow People was relaunched and recast with no references to past continuity in the 1990s, but that is a story for another time, as is the Big Finish audio series.

To be one of the leads in The Tomorrow People seems to have been a kiss of death for a long-term acting career - though Mike Holoway has enjoyed reasonable periods of stage work - supporting actors included future television presenters such as Keith Chegwin in Worlds Away and Peter Duncan in A Rift in Time. The Blue and the Green included a classful of future leads and character actors, including Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, with Ray Burdis as the lead classroom thug. Later, in between The Prince and the Pauper and Butterflies, Nicholas Lyndhurst appeared as a preserved Nazi in series six's Hitler's Last Secret; Ray Burdis turned up again as one of the new breed.

The Tomorrow People didn't survive into the 1980s, but it's tempting to speculate on what form it might have taken. At some point John and Elizabeth would probably have been written out or had their roles further transformed into parental figures, though Roger Price himself has said (I think in an interview for Starburst in the late 1980s) that the series without Nicholas Young was inconceivable, as he practically co-produced it without being paid. The landscape of children's drama was changing in the wake of Grange Hill, although as a blend of two distinct ITV strands, the fantasy and the urban, The Tomorrow People had contributed to the shift. With Roger Price busy in Canada, it's probable that Vic Hughes or his successors would have found other writers, and Price once said that he thought discussions to that effect had taken place after the cancellation of 'Mystery Moon'. After The Tomorrow People Hughes worked on an adaptation of John Wyndham's Chocky and subsequent series derived from it, the scripts for which came from former Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read. Perhaps the early disciples of Phil Redmond at Grange Hill could have demonstrated a taste for science fantasy, but if Dramarama still launches in this scenario, its writers would no doubt have been canvassed too.

The Tomorrow People, series one to three

My second post on Danger UXB will follow later in the week, but to mark the fortieth anniversary of the series, here's something I wrote five years ago on The Tomorrow People:

The Tomorrow People is one of those television series which lurk in the memory of a generation. It was never quite part of the popular culture mainstream, explicitly made as a children's series for a children's timeslot - usually 4.45 on Mondays - on ITV, unlike Doctor Who, which bridged 'grown-up' and juvenile viewing. My household was a BBC one, and I discovered The Tomorrow People first through the books (one original novel, two anthologies of three original stories, one full-length novelisation and one book of three shorter novelisations) and the comic strips in Look-In before I actually saw an episode, which I think was part of a repeat of Into the Unknown during 1977.

Unusually for the period, The Tomorrow People is largely the vision of one writer-producer, Roger Price, who seems to have some form of managerial responsibility for the series throughout, though he is only credited as producer on two stories in series one (jointly with Ruth Boswell) and on the two stories which make up series four. There's a sympathetic interview on Tomorrow People superfan Jackie Clark's site (2013 note - link no longer active), which reveals many of Price's preoccupations - impatience with authority and hostility towards the exploitation and domination of children influenced by his 'traumatic' experience at prep school. The Tomorrow People enabled Price, a child of the Dick Barton generation of the late 1940s, to be the advocate of the youth encouraged by the optimistic popular culture of the late 1960s and 1970s, rejecting the shibboleths of the immediate post-war period and embracing social experimentation.

The first three series of The Tomorrow People, broadcast in 1973, 1974 and 1975, were transmitted as thirteen half-hours each, including a commercial break. All were produced by Ruth Boswell, and were made up in the case of the first two series of one five-part story and two four-part stories each, and in the case of the third one four-part story and three three-parters. Of these the third season's structure is possibly the best, despite the third story being A Man for Emily, the most ill-advised Tomorrow People adventure. All three series allowed room for a modicum of character development - and though there is not as much there as the twenty-first century viewer would expect, the 1970s child could fill in the details themselves, whether alone or in the playground. At its best, this format allowed the gradual expansion of the universe of the tomorrow people in a way which the shorter seasons of 1976-1979 didn't.

The first episode of The Tomorrow People is well-remembered and contains probably the best depiction of one of the regulars 'breaking out', or gaining the special powers - telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation, the latter called 'jaunting' within the jargon of the series - which marks them out as 'tomorrow people'. (The preferred Latin term for the tomorrow people was homo superior - of course! - though the second story, The Medusa Strain, offers the alternative and less self-important homo novus.) The first four series began with the introduction of a new tomorrow person, and the first episode is largely about the break-out of Stephen, played by Peter Vaughan Clarke. Reading articles on the series written by Doctor Who fans in the late 1980s or 1990s it was clear that for a sizeable section of the audience the series was Peter Vaughan Clarke's show, and he's probably at his best in the first two series when he can play the chirpy kid tomorrow person, before he became too old for this role.

Casting was always a problem for children's series. Roger Price became known from the mid-1970s onwards for making semi-improvised light entertainment series with casts of real teenagers, such as You Must Be Joking! or Pauline's Quirkes; but in The Tomorrow People the usual rules of 1970s children's television applied, and the older tomorrow people, initially supposedly mid-to-late teenagers, were played by actors in their twenties. One of the flaws in the script of the first story, The Slaves of Jedikiah, is that it draws attention to this anomaly. Sammie Winmill as Carol, having jaunted to Stephen's hospital bedside, explains that the tomorrow people's leader is John, the oldest of the group, who is "seventeen" - yet Sammie (who had already played a series of sex object characters in sitcom) was well into her twenties, like Nicholas Young who played John. Carol is probably sixteen at the very oldest, and Sammie Winmill herself proves time and time again unable to act opposite her younger colleagues, Peter Vaughan Clarke and Stephen Salmon (who played Kenny with what is best described as an unengaging naturalness). This awkwardness is brushed aside in the next series, when Carol and Kenny are replaced by Elizabeth Adare as Elizabeth M'dondo, handily introduced as a student teacher at Stephen's school rather than as a teenager, whose natural abilities had somehow not expressed themselves beyond a low level of telepathy.

At the start the tomorrow people recruit with what comes across as a self-assured ruthlessness. In the first episode they are initially presented as threatening Stephen as much as the bikers Ginge and Lefty, the clumsy but just about functionally brutal servants of Jedikiah who end up either providing the tomorrow people's muscle or being rescued by them for the rest of the first series. The first pre-credits sequence (and the excellent title sequence doesn't debut properly until episode two - various edits of it can be found on YouTube) shows Stephen subjected to what is near enough a telepathic mugging, as John, Carol and Kenny triangulate his location. One series later and it is time for Elizabeth to break out: not as much is made as it might have been of Stephen's decision, once he and John have decided that it's in Elizabeth's best interests that she accept that she has "special powers" (a term used monotonously throughout the series, even though the tomorrow people would take their abilities for granted and even used in front of fellow-telepaths), to address his teacher as 'Elizabeth' and not 'Miss M'dondo'. Sadly no-one involved seems to know how to carry this scene off, even though it breaks a taboo which child viewers would have relished seen being transgressed; and the physical and psychological trauma Elizabeth undergoes as John and Stephen shock her into breaking out, though made very concrete by the script and Adare's performance, is immediately displaced into a 'rescue from hyperspace' sequence which recreates ones from The Slaves of Jedikiah and The Medusa Strain the previous year, suggesting that the production team were proud of the primitive effect. Nonetheless, Elizabeth's lines and actions are repeated a series later in Secret Weapon, perhaps the best Tomorrow People story of this period, but not by new junior tomorrow person Tyso Boswell, played by Dean Lawrence. Instead, it's intelligence operative and government telepath Tricia who falls to the ground and pleads that everyone stop shouting at her; and at the close of the story, as John returns to the government research centre to rescue Tyso, he tells her that "it's not too late" to accept that she is a tomorrow person and let herself break out completely.

Tyso is remarkable in The Tomorrow People for his redundancy. He barely appears in his introductory story, spending most of the story sedated, and from then on does little except run around on location or in studio, get captured, and in A Man for Emily let the ethnic stereotyping of Secret Weapon turn into full-blown racist romanticizing. Although Dean Lawrence's face is dropped into the title sequence ahead of Peter Vaughan Clarke's, in the closing credits his name is normally placed after the guest cast and before the technical people. He is mainly there to be the kid in the series once Peter Vaughan Clarke was too old to fill that role, and in what passes for a fourth series (of which more in a later post) he is treated with even less respect.

The Tomorrow People has a sceptical relationship with the adult world. Elizabeth is introduced in The Blue and the Green as a student teacher who shouldn't be supervising Stephen's class, but who is being exploited by the headmaster to avoid the bother of calling in a supply teacher. Earlier, The Vanishing Earth sees the tomorrow people make contact with an officer of the Galactic Police, Harry Steen, played by Kevin Stoney in a manner echoing his Tobias Vaughn from Doctor Who's The Invasion. At the story's climax he's happy to leave the Earth to its fate and rescue the tomorrow people only, and not the population as a whole; they take the initiative in restoring a stolen chemical to the planet and stopping its break-up. The aformentioned Tricia is part of a branch of the British Secret Intelligence Service engaged in a psionic arms race with the Eastern Bloc, a theme returned to in The Dirtiest Business in the 1977 series. Her boss, Colonel Masters, played with unexpected authority by Trevor Bannister (Mr Lucas from Are You Being Served?) is clear that the tomorrow people have to be used as part of the "defence" effort for what he argues are patriotic motives, but this might involve them being kept in cold storage for what the state sees as their own good. Even Professor Cawston, who becomes established by his third appearance in The Revenge of Jedikiah at the end of series three as a friend of the tomorrow people, discovers Tyso because he wants a tomorrow person of his own.

The most threatening villains in the series are predatory males. This theme is particularly strong in the first series, where in two of the stories the tomorrow people fight the shape-changing robot Jedikiah, first in the guise of the fat, bearded and jowled Francis de Wolff, and then in the more saturnine form of Roger Bizley. The Bizley Jedikiah uses as his dupe a space traveller from the future named Rabowski, a rotund non-telepath from an age when homo sapiens has almost died out, who craves the company of "men!" with whom he can engage in manly combat - tomorrow people are non-aggressive and can only shoot to stun - and who collects 'beautiful things' including a silver robot played by Dave Prowse wearing body paint and little else and a young blond 'Guardian of Time' played by Richard Speight. The theme continues in later series, though toned down - Gaius, probably a traveller from an alternative future where the Roman Empire conquered the galaxy, collects boys to train as gladiators in the overextended and not all that coherent A Rift in Time in series two, and its successor The Doomsday Men satirises the Gordonstoun model of boarding school as the nest for a militarist cult aiming to use a nuclear armed space station to prevent the signing of a peace treaty, a cult bound up with a strongly patriarchal family relationship. The same story includes an ethically dubious scene where the tomorrow people place headsets on two schoolboys and load their brains with counter-propaganda; as an astronaut rescued earlier in the story protests, this looks very much like brainwashing and a denial of the right of the boys to make up their own minds. Oddly with hindsight, but in keeping with the times, the said astronaut is a representative of Mao's China.

The sexual politics of The Tomorrow People are odd. Much less is done with the parallel between 'breaking out' and puberty than might have been done had the series been made for a later timeslot and wider audience. The tomorrow people have a masculine/neuter parental figure, the increasingly precious computer Tim, who is organically integrated into their variably secret base the Lab, hidden in a disused underground station (Wood Lane on the Central Line, closed in 1947 but only demolished at surface level in the 2000s). Tim eventually reveals two humanoid (and male) kin in the Galactic Federation ambassador Timus and his explorer brother, Tikno, both played by Philip Gilbert who voiced Tim. Timus, Tikno and their unseen brother Timon are all clones, from a species which reproduce asexually. Throughout this period there is only one active female tomorrow person, and she is often placed in a nurturing rather than an adventuring role. As for A Man for Emily, this notorious story features a matriarchal micro-society living on a spaceship, whose culture is somehow entirely shaped by a culture of old westerns. Every so often planetfall is made so that a male of the family - who do all the fetching and carrying - can gather food, and possibly bring up a potential mate for the young female who is destined to become the next 'TheMomma'. The male in this case, Elmer, is played by Peter Davison in a deliberately ludicrous blond wig, and his sister, the squeaky-voiced 'almost-a-lady' Emily, by Sandra Dickinson. What the children thought as Emily seizes upon the ever-starched John (played throughout the series with a slightly ironic old-world authority by Nicholas Young) and declares that he is her 'man-boy', I can only guess. John persuades Elmer to rebel against his subservient role, and the aliens are settled on Earth - TheMomma selling fish, gunslinging-obsessed Elmer as a traffic warden (one of the authority figures regularly ridiculed by Roger Price throughout) and Emily as a barmaid. Still, had Davison and Dickinson met on this story, we would not have Georgia Moffett.

The producer of the first three series of The Tomorrow People was, though, a woman, Ruth Boswell; and it is a woman who brings to an end this phase of the series. As John and Elizabeth lie dying in the SIS's base, events having been manipulated by a resurrected Jedikiah who now has imprisoned Stephen and Tyso in the Lab, Tricia, who for most of this story has been continuing to follow the agenda of her assassinated superior Masters, rubs her temples, says she can hear voices - and disappears, to reappear in the Lab where she reactivates Tim and allows him to contact the Galactic Federation and thereby rescue the other tomorrow people. All five are removed from the Earth, and Jedikiah is transformed into a human and forced to live as a beggar. The presentation is rushed but this is meant to be a triumph; events in the third series have lent the tomorrow people the protection of the prime minster against the security services, and now one of their oppressors (presented in her conduct and make-up as an adult) has completed the transformation she began in her first story and has become a tomorrow person. We leave her sobbing on the edge of consciousness on one of the Lab's illuminated tables; while the camera in The Tomorrow People will linger on its monsters, it won't on the symptoms of psychological distress.

Francis de Wolff's appearance in the Lab is a shock because his previous appearances in The Revenge of Jedikiah were achieved through the use of stock footage, a device upon which The Tomorrow People was particularly reliant. This series fought hard to maintain its ambition in the face of an absence of cash, though this often led to perfunctory ends to storylines, especially with the serials (like Secret Weapon or The Revenge of Jedikiah) which cry out to be realised on a Saturday evening as a complement or rival to Doctor Who. Sadly for The Tomorrow People, it was made by Thames, the one ITV company which was not allowed to supply programmes to the network at weekends. As the 1970s continued The Tomorrow People's message of optimism would be expressed with more qualification as its production conditions and the content of youth culture changed.

Thoughts on series four to eight

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Danger UXB, part one

1979's Danger UXB has been a matter of curiosity to me ever since it was mentioned in (I think) one of Jeremy Bentham's Matrix Data Bank columns in an early 1980s Doctor Who Monthly, probably discussing the career of either Deborah Watling or Douglas Camfield or both. Happily, the digital age is often kind to those searching for old television. The run-down London of the late 1970s lent itself to being dressed as the blitzed city of nearly forty years earlier, and while the mixture of characters could have been twee - the sappers in the bomb squad at the centre of the series being composed of almost every regional stereotype - the cast are strong enough to animate what could with less spirited playing have seemed thin roles. The close camerawork gives many of the early scenes in the barracks an air close to documentary realism.

London and the south-east are consciously placed as bearing the brunt of the air assault. Thames Television's then head of drama, Verity Lambert, said that part of her agenda for her department and its sibling Euston Films was to present 'London and the south as a region... a very rich region because it has so many different strata in it' (Manuel Alvarado and John Stewart, Made for Television: Euston Films Limited, 1985, 85) and while mostly set among the suburban villas and terraces of south London, the series ventures into the West End, to the country and to the coast, obeying the request of the Independent Broadcasting Authority that Thames Television's output closely reflect its London and the south-east ITV franchise without being too obviously limited to the inner west London locations which dominated Thames/Euston series such as The Sweeney and (soon after Danger UXB) Minder.

The star of Danger UXB is a pre-Brideshead Anthony Andrews, portraying the straightforward, sensitive but resourceful Brian Ash. At the start of the first episode Ash is transferred from being a private in another regiment to a commission as a lieutenant in the royal engineers and has to learn how to defuse unexploded ordnance and command men in short order while also fending off the unwanted advances of his landlady's daughter Norma Baker. Norma is established early on as a sexual predator (her name surely alludes to Norma Jean Baker, Marilyn Monroe) who spends bombing raids avoiding her family's shelter, staying in their house wearing nothing but a dressing gown and demanding reassurance from a succession of billeted officers. Titillation is more than balanced by the psychological counterweights of Ash's disgust, based upon apprehension of the likelihood of his own imminent death while attempting to defuse a bomb, and the surreal and sordid aspects of the unreflective Norma's desire for sex. Deborah Watling strikes a plausible balance between intellectual unsophistication and sexual knowingness as Norma, and makes the most of her role as the principal female character in the series for the first few episodes until Judy Geeson's Susan arrives as a more appropriate (in terms of class and education) but also transgressive love interest for Brian Ash.

I'm of a generation and interest group whose first exposure to media criticism was in Doctor Who - The Unfolding Text by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado (1983) and was reminded of the chapter title 'Circulating stars and satellites' in the eclipsing of Norma by Susan Mount. Judy Geeson initially plays Susan as tough and largely unsmiling as if she hasn't seen any of the later scripts (quite possibly the case). Susan emerges as a demure, affectionate and emotionally literate member of the officer class. She causes pain to Brian by choosing duty to her husband, mentally broken by the strain of secret work at 'Bletchley' (a sign that by 1979 'Bletchley Park' had yet to become established in the popular memory of the Second World War), over their relationship. Norma is from an aspirational  working-class family, and while initially prone to behave like a nightmarish sexual fantasy, is ultimately tamed by settling for a relationship with Ash's batman Gordon Mulley, leading to a marriage into the lower ranks which mirrors how Watling has dropped down the cast list as Norma has receded from the main plot. The appearance of Susan also expresses Brian Ash's increasing confidence in his roles as bomb defuser and officer; Norma personifies the social and material chaos of the Blitz and has little development beyond the 1940 episodes until her wedding at the end of the series in 'With Love from Adolf'. Norma, and Deborah Watling, fulfil their roles in the drama well enough. Given the publicity boost Judy Geeson seems to have had in spring 1979, one suspects she and her agent were hoping for something more to arise for or from Susan. There is a sense of something still to come for both women, which we will not see.

In his previous series The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC1, 1976-1978), producer and co-creator John Hawkesworth presented his audience with an assertive female protagonist working against the grain of the system within which she pursues her career. Louisa Leyton/Trotter manages the expectations her employers have of her, as a woman and someone of non-genteel manner and background. In contrast, in Danger UXB Brian Ash has been conscripted into an exclusively male hierarchy dealing with an unprecedented crisis which demands the most of his largely calm and cautious personality. Danger UXB is about men - their relationships among themselves, their roles as defenders and providers for women, children and country, the rituals through which they comfort and suppress their incompleteness.

Throughout Danger UXB women throughout act out their positions as onlookers to the hierarchies of class and military rank, while nonetheless being bound by it. They address all the "brave boys" by their first names irrespective of rank, Lieutenant Ash and Sapper Mulley being Brian and Gordon to Norma and her mother. This relative independence enables them to be used from time to time to provide commentary on the tight-knit bonds between the soldiers. At the same time, the war effort needs them to conform to social expectations, Norma by moving from officer-chaser to private's wife, and Susan by working for her father or persevering at her unhappy marriage to a psychologically fragile (and therefore sympathetic) husband. In the male world of the army, women are exotic figures with men performing their traditional gender roles. Not only does Gordon Mulley do Ash's ironing, Sergeant James, Brian Ash's senior NCO, is often seen typing in Ash's office, much as Susan is seen typing at one desk or another while carrying out secretarial duties for her father. The sergeant is both tutor to Ash and loyal helpmeet, analogous to a traditional view of the wife's role in a marriage. By accident or design James is seen typing away as Ash's military spouse in situations where soldiers approach Ash-as-patriarch: the decision of the Quaker conscientious objector John Brinkley to enlist in the Royal Engineers despite the opposition of his parents and the conflict with his own principles, and the plea of Corporal Salt for compassionate leave in order to persuade his wife to return to the country from bomb-threatened Manchester.

Twin yearnings for a return to and a release from tradition amidst sudden upheaval and unwanted widening of horizons is part of the stock of war melodrama, but it is Charlie Salt, of all the sappers, who epitomises the way Danger UXB develops these themes. Perhaps Kenneth Cranham's theatrical background recommended him for the character with the most approachable and most developed psychology. In episode five, 'The Silver Lining', Salt is attracted to and forms an idealised view of a nightclub dancer, Micky (Geraldine Gardner), leading to a sexual encounter between them. By episode seven, 'Digging Out', Salt is haunted by his responsibilities towards his wife and family, leading to his going absent without leave and being injured in the blast which kills his wife, a brief Lancastrian cameo from Maggie Ollerenshaw. Salt's need for the emotional and physical ties of marriage and fatherhood  lead in episode ten, 'Butterfly Winter', first to the false promise of a future with Micky, and then his death attempting to defuse a bomb in a child's bedroom. Micky's background in entertainment and her relaxed sexual code help distance the viewer from Salt: firstly because her presentation as a dancer underlines that Danger UXB is a fiction performed by actors, and because her morality might be more identifiable to a late 1970s audience. In this she appears deceptively modern, which accentuates Salt's sense of betrayal when she disappears from her dance engagement to take up upmarket prostitution.

Salt's storyline is associated with some of Danger UXB's best uses of locations in storytelling. 'Digging Out' makes great play of its factory setting, realised in one of those semi-derelict works which featured regularly in 1970s and 1980s television. In particular, the hand-held camera shots of Salt linger in the memory, tracking his pursuit of a voice which may or may not be that of his wife through the ruined works in the afternoon light, his mind adrift in place and time. The sequence brings Danger UXB transgenerically close to the supernatural, so much so that the incident which follows, the rescue of office worker Jean (Cheryl Hall) from under a suspended bomb, appears with hindsight to be more than dramatic foreshadowing of Betty Salt's fate.

'Butterfly Winter', where Salt dies, is another episode which makes use of a location away from the series' usual inner suburbia. The squad are sent to a small country town which though notionally in Kent appears to be composed from parts of Stow on the Wold in Gloucestershire and Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire. It and episode twelve, 'The Pier', dramatise the war's pollution of the entire country, not only the cities of the early episodes. The butterfly bombs fall miles from anywhere of military significance and look harmless, almost like children's toys. 'The Pier' is based around a home-made threat, as Ash and his men search for mines left on a pier in Brighton (though the location is a quieter town less touched by change between 1943 and 1978) as defence against the anticipated German invasion in 1940. Euston Films worked with small crews, but the pier is captured from numerous angles and directions and at different times it is made time capsule, adventure playground, ghost town, and gallows platform.

Part two, discussing the politics of Danger UXB, the Hawkesworth inheritance, the presentation of the passage of time and the making of historical folk memory, and failure of the series to become a 'banker' for Euston Films, can now be found here.

Danger UXB is available on DVD from Network.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Johnston Press relaunches: the Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald, postscript

I've revisited the Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald this week and remain impressed. The teething troubles of the 'Tiser in week one of the relaunch have been overcome, with an improved balance between copy and image on the front page - with a story as close to readers' hearts and wallets as the potential dualling of the A1, this demanded to be the front page lead - and an excellent selection of photographs from a Berwick Operatic Society (accompanying this review, though most of the pictures haven't made it to the website) production which emphasises local faces and local creativity. The local press is both journal of record and journal of recognition, with each local face potentially adding sales.

The Herald continues with a range of stories from throughout its coverage area; a reduced letters page, thanks to the number of would-be councillors among correspondents and the incoming electoral purdah; and the Leisure section now has its own heading. Colour reproduction could be better, but this was an issue before Trinity Mirror took over printing too, and is perhaps the occupational hazard of being a small weekly fitting in amongst larger runs. Chief reporter Anna Smith's centrespread concerns the commemorations of the centenary of Emily Davison's death included in this weekend's Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering and beyond.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Johnston Press relaunches: the Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald, part two

Critics of the decision by Johnston Press to impose a limited set of templates upon their series of weekly newspapers could claim some justification from the early stages of the roll-out. Some readers complained that their paper had adopted an inappropriate design. From the limited sample I took last year, the temptation to litter pages with faddish QR codes was very noticeable.

One year on, the evidence of the Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald is that while there are still pitfalls presented by the new templates, different titles are now able to implement them with more flexibility. In the late 1980s both were designed by the Tweeddale Press staff in Berwick, with Times New Roman predominating for body text and occasional use of Univers, with a variety of headline fonts, often sans serif, giving way as the decade progressed to a more systematic use of Times New Roman bold. Both only gave up Times New Roman in recent years, the Herald switching to Nimrod or something close to it, while the Berwick Advertiser adopted a text design reminiscent of its Johnston sister The Scotsman. The Berwick Advertiser's Bodoniesque headlines in particular seemed suited to the paper's role in a small town which remains a retail, business and cultural centre for a substantial catchment area in England and Scotland, while the Morpeth Herald was folksier and more intimate.

With this in mind, it's not surprising that the Berwick Advertiser's redesign seemed the bolder of the two. It shares the same template as The Bucks Herald in Aylesbury and the Northumberland Gazette in Alnwick, complete with grey bar in the masthead for date and price and weblinks and a Bodoni-like headline face which resembles, but is not the same as, that previously used in Berwick. Editor Phil Johnson had a major news story with which to splash and chose to show how the compact format can maximise the use of a striking image, the stranded cargo ship the MV Danio which ran aground on the Farne Islands. All the items on the front page demanded the reader turn to a later page to read the full stories, in the case of the picture story pages 8 and 9 for a fuller report from Ian Smith, though the asides on Farne rangers and memories of Grace Darling deserved more tailored treatment than a News in Brief heading. Paper stock aside, only the page-wide advertisement at the foot of the page for Yummleys bistro and coffee shop in Eyemouth prevents the 'Tiser looking more news magazine than newspaper. Features familiar from other Johnston papers such as the index, contacts, weather and Photo of the week on page 2 are present.

There are some errors which are presumably production teething ones: some house ads refer to the paper as The Berwickshire News, its sister also edited by Phil Johnson from 90 Marygate in Berwick which went tabloid on the same day, and it's The Berwickshire's e-mail address to which readers are invited to write on the letters spread. The decision to have the running header read 'Berwick Advertiser and Berwickshire News' is probably one of practicality, given that many pages in the broadsheet carried this anyway reflecting the amount of shared content. Despite the very good to reasonable reproduction of colour pictures, black and white images tend towards the murky, such as the picture of the visit of the Berwick Young Farmers to the old Tweeddale Press Group printworks in June 1985, printed on page 45. This forms part of the 'Meet the Team' supplement; the update on plans for paper and profiles of the staff are welcome even if the copy:advertising ratio in the supplement makes it reminiscent of a freesheet.

News layout seems to prioritise human interest and 'good news' on the right of a spread with downbeat stories, where they exist on the left. This page four sees an account of retail woes as the Berwick branch of jeweller H. Samuel closes, and another of the rusting state of the electricity and water control cabinet at Spittal splash park. Opposite is the tale of a nine-year-old at Berwick Middle School who can recite Pi to 130 places. Court stories and council business tend to be dealt with as Nes in Brief. One-month old Lily Rose Mavin, delivered by her mother Yvonne of Tweedmouth, is an appealing hook for a serious story, the third baby in four months from the Berwick area born in an ambulance because since Berwick Maternity Unit's closure it's been difficult for expectant mothers to reach any of the alternatives. The campaign for the reopening of the unit is one seemingly covered closely by the paper, but campaigners "have done all they can for now" as they await a decision from the new clinical commissioning group. Another story appropriate for the relaunch featured on the front page is covered in full on page 6, telling of artist and printer Jonathan Lloyd's use of a nineteenth-century Improved Albion Press to print two-colour posters defending Wooler Middle School against closure.

Both the Berwick Advertiser and The Berwickshire News have simplified their titles. The 'Tiser's badge is redrawn with tints of colour, retaining the 'Established 1808' motto and a bear by a tree (until the first decade of this century there were two bears, facing in different directions) between the two words of the title, now without a definite article for the first time. The subtitle carried since 1957 (though did it appear in the years 1983-84, when the paper was published as The Berwickshire and Berwick Advertiser, I wonder?) 'Incorporating the Berwick Journal and Northumberland News, published 1855-1957' is dropped. Likewise The Berwickshire News seems to have lost and East Lothian Herald from its full title, though this was I think not an absorbed title but a pitch for a circulation area stretching up to the Forth (indeed, in an earlier form the title read and East Lothian Advertiser). Its subtitle from the 1957 consolidation, 'Incorporating the Berwickshire Advertiser, published 1885-1957' has also been lost. The Berwickshire has long since lost its Dunbar office, and its Duns and Coldstream ones too for that matter. The supplement has profiles of the communities on which the papers concentrate: Berwick, Coldstream, Duns and Chirnside, Eyemouth, Seahouses and Belford and Wooler.

In the first of my series of posts on the Ponteland Observer last year, I anticipated that the redesigned Morpeth Herald, when it came, would drop the words 'Incorporating the Ponteland Observer' from its masthead. I am happy to say that I was wrong. In contrast with its Tweeddale Press siblings, Northeast Press have chosen to retain a great deal of the look of the broadsheet Herald in the compact title. Changes to the typefaces are minimal, with the nearest matches having been found within the new package. There is subtly increased use of colour in the subheadings. Remarkably, Births, Marriages and Deaths remain on page two, where in other Johnston titles which I've seen they have been moved well inside the paper. The masthead retains the recent blacked-in version of the Gothic heading which the paper has used, with occasional additions and amputations, since former owners J. and J.S. Mackay installed their rotary press in 1907. Facebook and Twitter links are proclaimed prominently, perhaps a clue that the paper guesses it has an older, less tech-savvy readership than Johnston Press's senior management might hope for.

The Herald has statistics on its side: it's one of the minority of newspapers in the UK to be building its circulation. The subtle alterations made to its layout and typography to accommodate its new size are calculated not to alienate a loyal and growing readership. Where Phil Johnson at the 'Tiser went for a large picture story, the front page of the Herald is led by a text-only story, but also an environmental one: the battle to prevent a windfarm being built at Fenrother a few miles north-west of Morpeth. A smiling nine-year-old brandishing her letter from the Queen is a suitably forward-looking but traditional image for the first front page of a new era.

The Herald is a smaller paper than the 'Tiser, with 52 pages in its book to the 'Tiser's 96. Motor and property advertising is harder to come by in Morpeth, with the two dailies of Newcastle (both owned by Trinity Mirror) so close. With the Northumberland Gazette, the Herald makes up for this with occasional specialist advertising supplements, but display advertising in the paper appears healthy. Its page 3 leads on overwhelming support for a local campaign against the gridlock-inducing traffic lights introduced to Morpeth last year, with a flock of activists and petition signatories pictured on Morpeth's Bridge Street. Retail worries also lead page five, with a campaign for a reduction in business rates on Newgate Street. Other local campaigns covered are those for the maintenance of a bus service from coastal villages to Morpeth and for funds to keep Longhorsley Village Playgroup in operation. The Herald seems to cover more local businesses than the 'Tiser, though the latter has more stories about facilities for tourists and a dedicated farming section with contributions from local agricultural firms. There is good and frequent use of pictures of participants in World Book Day and Comic Relief, mainly in schools and shops.

There's a domestic scale to the Herald which makes some of it look superficially like something a community group has put together on DTP, but it's all highly professional and resisting overdesign. The comment and letters section segues gently into the leisure pages, put together by senior reporter Andrew Coulson; there is no barrier of adverts and headings to isolate the section as in some other titles. Stories of ongoing interest include the centenary of the death of Emily Davison, followed in more detail in the preceding and subsequent editions. The centre pages see another history supplement as a pullout, leading into an introduction to the advertising team; its only problem is that it possibly diminishes chief reporter Anna Smith's two page special feature on the regeneration of the Stobhill area of Morpeth. Relations with clubs and societies throughout the circulation area seem well-maintained, though one suspects resources are not available to help the hard-worked dedicated reporting staff of two (the remainder, including the editor and deputy editor, being shared with the Northumberland Gazette) more proactive in soliciting content from the full catchment area.

Colour registration can be patchy in the Herald, but the 21 March issue was reasonably good and avoided some of the washed out or misaligned images in some other recent editions I've seen. A slightly heavier paper stock might flatter the colour inks better, perhaps, and the Berwick Advertiser seems marginally better in both regards. Neither title is printed in-house by Johnston Press; since the closure of their Sunderland printworks late last year the Berwick Advertiser has been printed under contract by Newsquest, presumably in Glasgow, and the Morpeth Herald by Trinity Mirror in Newcastle. Both were restrained with the QR codes and the Herald avoided the trendy web-pointing but uncommunicative graphics bars many of the other Johnston titles have embraced.

Promotions for the relaunches were stronger than some of last year's sausage rolls and pub meals. Both the 'Tiser and the Herald offered a competition with DFDS Seaways to win a break or mini-cruise to Amsterdam as well as another to win a Mini, while the 'Tiser offered a chance to win a meal for four at the Lindisfarne Inn at Beal. The Morpeth Herald countered with a voucher for a cookie from the Morpeth branch of Subway.

Reviewing single issues of newspapers as individual works of craft is a dangerous exercise, risking undervaluing commercial realities and that a newspaper is a continuum of news provision, even more so in the digital age now that websites sit alongside print. Both relaunch issues were put together well, though the Herald felt closer to its readers and better-provided with copy. Its letters pages seemed also the more thriving of the two. Approval here for the Herald's daring to be different within the confines of the Cases i Associats templates, but the Advertiser knows how to present news dramatically and made very good use of the more polished if slightly impersonal stylesheet. The Herald (perhaps through familiarity and remote and long-past personal connection, as well as my regard for tradition) just has the edge as the most impressive of the two, but it is a close-run thing.

An afterword, revisiting the papers two weeks on.

The Berwick Advertiser can be found online at www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk, and the Morpeth Herald at www.morpethherald.co.uk . On Twitter they are @BAdvertiser and @Morpeth_Herald, and both the Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald are extending their Facebook presences.