Saturday, August 4, 2012

Triffids Everywhere! The Day of the Triffids Part One

I think there is a long held belief that series cannot hold suspense if it has the usual BBC mix of film exteriors and videotaped interiors. I have heard people say it before and I think they are horribly wrong with this notion. One great example of this is the 1981 BBC series The Day of the Triffids. This production is approached in a way that says that this material is special and important. From the very first scene, there is not only a question of what is going on but there is some fear in what is happening. It was clear that BBC1 Controller Bill Cotton wanted to make sure this production was handled correctly. He gave the production over to David Maloney to produce who in turn gave the directing duties over to Ken Hannam. The partnership of Maloney and Hannam would give us a visual treat as we learn not only about Triffids but the human condition confronted by the unknown and impossible tragedy.
Part One TX: 10/09/81
Copyright BBC
Now, this is my third time watching this series. I have never read the original book or seen the 1963 film. I also have no desire to see the 2009 BBC version. I guess the reason for this is that I am a true fan of the television of this era. I love how it was made and since I have so much of it, I watch it all the time. To me, visually, this is the definitive version. I also think the 1968 BBC radio adaptation is pretty good too but that is for another article. The episode starts off with Bill Masen in the hospital the morning that he is going to get the bandages off his eyes. He was stung by a Triffid. Immediately, this series becomes interesting. The Triffids are already established. In the world that exists in this story, the Triffids are an established plant life that holds some very unique qualities. These plants are not rooted in the ground; in fact they can move. Their stems rattle and at some point it is thought they are communicating to each other this way. The most horrifying thing about the Triffids is that they lash out a stinger on humans. They normally sting them in the eye or face and release a deadly poison that kills on contact. The Triffids are carnivorous and they will eat the human remains. Why on Earth would humans tolerate such  a monstrous life-form on the planet? Oil. Seeds that come from the Triffids are put into the oil and the oil companies get more usage  out of the oil. It increases the profits. I knew oil companies are always up to no good! Bill Masen fits into all of this because when he was a child, a Triffid plant grew in his parents’ back yard. One day, the young Bill was struck by the plant. He wasn’t killed because the plant was still young but Bill was the first person to be stung in the UK.

Years later, Bill started working at a Triffid farm for European Oil. He wanted to give it up but after this last Triffid sting, he had enough and decided to give it up. We get a great background to the Triffids and Bill as he is recording his recollections of everything on a tape recorder for his friend Grant who also works on the Triffid farm. It is a useful and inventive way to give us back story yet not having to go into so much boring detail. Bill is starting to get the feeling that something may be wrong. This episode does a good job of kind of scaring us because we have absolutely no idea what is going on. While Bill is trying to record more into his tape recorder, we hear glass shattering somewhere within the hospital. It startled Bill and to be honest, it startled me. We are in the hospital room with Bill and even though we can see, we are effectively blind too because we cannot see outside the room either. The nurses come in every morning at 7am sharp for Bill, he thinks he must have awoken early but, in reality, it is 10 to 8. Finally, Bill removes his bandages himself and can see again. He walks around the seemingly empty hospital until we are startled again as Bill gets grabbed by someone. It is Doctor Soames and he is blind. More importantly, the action moves back to the Triffid farm where we get a long panning shot of the Triffids no longer in their cage and the final shot of the episode is Grant dead from a Triffid sting.

Part Two TX: 17/09/81

It becomes obvious very quickly that Dr. Soames is not the only person who is blind. In fact, it looks like everyone is blind. Bill has a theory in his mind pretty quick. The night before, there was this amazing light display given off by a passing meteor.  Anyone who watched it had their retina burned out by it. They didn’t know right away but their eyesight went out overnight so when they woke up, they were blind. Immediately, we see the consequences of many people blind in the hospital: people who are stuck in stairwells, older patients who fall out bed and die. Even people with broken limbs such as a leg is stuck in bed, blind not knowing what is going on just hoping someone will help him. It is horrible. Bill goes back where Dr. Soames was only to find he fell out of a window to his death.
The whole series become depressing real fast. It’s hard not to see how everyday people who become blind react and not think to yourself what would you do in that situation? After Bill left the hospital, he almost immediately finds a young girl playing outside. She is not blind. He follows her inside to find her dad John who, like everyone else, is blind. It becomes obvious from the start how bleak the overall situation is for them and everyone else. John’s wife fell in the bathtub and cracked her head open. She is in bad shape. John assumes that Bill is from the government and sent over to start helping people. John says that they can just hear people in the building just screaming for help. We don’t hear those people screaming but John’s words are chilling enough. Even though Bill has explained to John that he was not sent to help but rather was starting to think he was the only person who could still see, John starts lying to his wife to calm her. He probably doesn’t think she will live much longer yet wants her not to worry. What becomes worrying and it is explored to a much greater degree in later episodes is John angling to keep Bill around because he needs someone who can see and who can help them. Of course they have their daughter but she is just a kid and a young girl. John wants someone who is stronger to possibly protect them as being a woman in this new world could be very dangerous.

The action switches to a young woman named Jo who is trying to find someone who could help her Dad who has become blind. Jo wasn’t blind because like Bill, she did not watch the meteor lights. She went to bed early because she was up for the most of the previous night at a party. Jo is attacked immediately by a blind man who pulls a switch blade on her. Somehow he binds her to him and makes her be basically his Seeing Eye dog. Her screams as he beats her is what alerts Bill to finding her. He takes care of her attacker and the two of them make a run for it. They take refuge in a pub where they introduce themselves to each other. They decide to go back to Jo’s father’s house so they can get him. Once again, I jumped as blind people start hitting the pub doors. The blind people are almost reduced to the roles of zombies in this series. The people who can see try to stay away from them because they don’t know what they will do out of desperation and survival. Look at what happened with Jo’s attacker. It doesn’t take long for people who are scared to become unhinged and do things they never would do. People looting just to get food and there is also rape and other horrible things that go on in this episode. It quickly becomes humanity at its worse.
Bill and Jo make their way back to her father’s house and see immediately that he and the housekeeper are dead. They have been stung by Triffids. Remember them? It’s funny because they are hardly in Part Two at all. In fact, the story is so engaging, they are not missed. As I mentioned earlier, the blind people are scarier than the Triffids. Yet, when the Triffids return on screen, they return in a big way. Jo and Bill are almost surrounded by them. Jo even works out that the stump rattling actually are the Triffids communicating with each other. Bill is able to kill one and smash it then they escape. It’s funny, seeing Bill smashing the one always reminds me of cutting into a green pepper because of the sound and consistency. Plus the insides almost looked like it had seeds like a green pepper. It is Bill’s intention to drive out to the Triffid farm to get some Triffid fighting gear. As Jo and Bill drive down a street, they confronted by a mob of blind people. They slowly try to drive around so the blind people would not be able to detect them but they are now trapped as the blind people are pounding on the car. Funny enough, this is led by legendary BBC director Morris Barry!
Click to enlarge
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was born in 1903. After leaving school he started a career as a writer and wrote his first Science Fiction genre story in 1931 with a story called Worlds to Barter under the name of John Harris. He changed his pen name to John Wyndham with his post-war work. The story was originally serialized as Revolt of the Triffids both in the United Kingdom and United States. Finally the story was turned into a novel in 1951 taking the name of The Day of the Triffids.

The story was dramatized for BBC radio in 1957 with Patrick Barr as Bill Masen and Monica Grey as Josella. People may remember her as Paula Quatermass in the 1955 BBC serial Quatermass II. In 1963 Allied Artists Pictures released the film version of The Day of the Triffids starring Howard Keel. I have not seen the film but from everything I read makes it sounds like one of the usual 1950s sci-fi films/alien invasion type films. In 1968 another BBC radio adaptation is broadcast this time with Gary Watson as Bill Masen and Hammer favourite Barbara Shelly as Josella. This is a great piece of radio. I don’t know if the 1957 version exists but this version appears to be identical to it.
Finally, as mentioned at the top of this article, Bill Cotton who was controller of BBC 1 wanted to adapt this story for television and called upon veteran Producer David Maloney to produce it. Maloney was at the end of his run on Blake’s 7. The series was coming to an end at the end of Series 3 and Maloney was ready to take on this challenge but a couple of things happened. Blake’s 7 did not end its run with Series 3 is was given the go ahead for a fourth series. Maloney was no longer interested in producing Blake’s 7 but Cotton wanted to hold off production of The Day of the Triffids because he wanted to procure more money. He was able to get financing from the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and the US cable network RCTV. RCTV intrigued me as I have never heard of it before. To be able to throw funding at this production, RCTV had to be in the same league a Showtime, HBO or even Spectrum. Anyone remember Spectrum?
Douglas Livingstone wrote the screenplay and Ken Hannam directed it. Originally, before the series was pushed back, Peter Cregeen who directed series such as Out of the Unknown, The Onedin Line, Colditz, Wings, and The Sandbaggers.

Christopher Gunning composed all the music for the series including the haunting opening theme which gives the whole series a depressing apocalyptic feel. Douglas Burd created the title sequence. Until you get into the series, it’s hard to understand the imagery of the title sequence. It’s people looking up at the sky inquisitively. There are shots of lights dispersing but until you actually get into the series, you don’t realize those are the meteor lights that eventually blind everyone. The sequence ends with a young woman looking up (possibly blind) getting a Triffid stinger right in her eyes. The whole effect is simple but extremely disturbing and effective. It only helps to set up the horror that is still to come.
Information used in this article comes from Paul Thompson who is a massive fan of all things Triffid and his website can be found at: Some other information came from the DVD Viewing Notes booklet written by Andrew Pixley from 2005.
Next week: We continue on with The Day of the Triffids as we look at Part Three and Part Four of the series. I also will look at the Triffids themselves; how they looked in other adaptations of this story and what were their motivations as a dominate species on the planet Earth.
Have a great week!
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Dave G said...

Another great series that I have never seen, but at least it is on the wishlist. Definitely sounds like an excellent production and I look forward to the next article.

And yes, I do remember Spectrum. It was only around the Twin Cities for a few years in the mid 80s, but I remember seeing it scrambled on ch23 and wondering about it. Ahh, memories of the good old days.

Greg said...

It's a little over four pounds at Amazon UK, otherwise 20 bucks on Amazon US. It is well worth the time to watch. It's atmospheric and well made. It's long overdue for you to see it. Plus it has a DVD viewing book by Andrew Pixley.


Dave G said...

The only thing better than a viewing book by Andrew Pixley is to have him sitting on your couch commenting as you watch. With a tasty pizza.

Greg said...

That would be a lovely prize in a contest. His Viewing Notes for the Blu Ray of The Prisoner are definitive. It is probably a tad unfair to call something Viewing Notes when the page count comes in at 285 pages. Viewing Book is more like it and I love it! :)