I ended up having an Old Rite Christmas. We were joined by an ill friend for Christmas Day, who brought along his family. The average age was about 75, which meant that once the turkey was eaten and the port drained, we all gathered around the piano. There is no greater joy than drunkenly bashing out We’ll Meet Again surrounded by liquored-up oldsters who know the words – a great, boozy chorus of good memories and rampant patriotism. Afterwards we played Cluedo and Trivial Pursuits. No telly, no Xbox, just good old fashioned clean fun. It was worth the hangover.
The New Year, by contrast, has been painfully dry and, so, TV heavy. I’ve decided to quit drinking for January – and that basically means becoming a shut in. One of the benefits is that I’ve been able to devote more time to watching YouTube. My best discovery so far is the BBC sci-fi serial Doomwatch. Running for three psychedelic series from 1970 to 1972, the show was about an eponymous government department that investigated environmental threats to the future of mankind. The subject could be as banal as it sounds (one episode dealt with the medical dangers of jet lag), but it captures nicely the apocalyptic mood of the era. This was the time of Silent Spring and The Population Bomb, when people were becoming aware that the greatest threat to humanity’s existence wasn’t natural or supernatural but man made.
A lot of its concerns have been dismissed (jet lag really hasn’t had the impact they imagined) while others still linger (genetic engineering was a running theme). Unfortunately, the show is best remembered for one brief and silly scene in an episode called Tomorrow the Rat (Clive James provides hilarious narration from 2:00 onwards). The plot is preposterous. A sexy female scientist is employed by the government to develop a clever strain of rat that will kill all other rats. For reasons of budgeting (thankyou, Ted Heath) they ask her to conduct the experiments from home. The rats get too smart too fast and plot their escape (Using levers. Yep. Levers). We catch up with the critters as they assault a family kitchen – and it’s an absolute hoot. RADA trained actors try to look terrified as they clutch plastic rats at their throats and pretend they're being attacked. A dozen are pulled along tied to a string, while a woman walks in and faints with horror (I suspect that wasn't in the script). The clip is hilarious but it distracts from what was actually a very disturbing bit of telly. The sexy female scientist is full of regret and turns to casual sex and drink. When the mother of a child that has been killed by the rats attacks her unsuccessfully with a knife, she is left alone with a vividly bleeding arm. The audience knows what will happen next because we’ve already been tipped off that the rats like blood. But nothing prepares us for the shock of the final scene. A Doomwatch scientist arrives at the house to find that this poor, broken woman has been mauled to death by her own vermin. We see glimpses of lumps of white tissue covered in bites and blood. The image lingers in the mind.
And Doomwatch certainly earned its name. Modern TV tries so hard for gravitas and emotional punch, which invariably means constant action and melodrama. By contrast, Doomwatch hails from an era in which characters intellectualised their way through disasters and the horror was more often implied than shown. The result has far greater impact. One of the main characters (played by future Jesus Christ, Robert Powell) is killed trying to defuse a bomb. An episode was pulled off air when it featured stock footage of a military execution in Laos. Bacterial warfare is accidentally unleashed on a Yorkshire village and we see soldiers shooting an infected dog. The most affecting scene of all can be found in the episode You Killed Toby Wrenn, when a Doomwatch operative breaks in to a lab experimenting on human/animal hybrids. He pulls back a curtain to find a monkey with a child’s head. The monster sits with its back to the camera, so we’re only invited to imagine the face from the mash of hair and pink skin that we can see from behind. It’s incredibly disturbing – a mood made all the worse when the woman responsible for the experiment proudly announces that she’s carrying another hybrid in her womb.
Ultimately, Doomwatch became too absurd. It exhausted the scientific story lines and developed in to a standard, if fantastical, thriller. Nevertheless, it stands as a great example of how great TV can be made on small budgets enlarged by big ideas. I don’t want to succumb to nostalgia and say that such a thing wouldn’t be made any more – because that’s just not true. The Americans make this sort of bold, imaginative show all the time. But it’s become all too rare in Britain. And I’m sorry but the soapy, silly Dr Who is no substitute.
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This website used to host my blogs when I was freelance, and here are all my old posts...