Say what you like about Science Fiction on British television (and goodness knows, I’ve done so often enough), but the history of the genre is littered with fascinating little sidesteps. For every triumph there’s a plethora of lesser known, almost forgotten series. Sometimes these series are forgotten for the very simple reason that – erm – they’re not very good. More often, they scrape greatness but for any number of reasons just don’t quite manage to pull it off. For every Quatermass and the Pit there’s a Quatermass Conclusion. For every A For Andromeda there’s an Adam Adamant Lives!. For every Nightmare Man, there’s a Neverwhere.
None of these series are bad, exactly – in fact, I’m really terribly fond of all of them – it’s just that they can’t quite pay off the potential in the original series concept. Every one of them has a fascinating central premise, is loaded with top notch performers and is blessed with dedicated, creative production teams. All of them are remembered with affection by those who saw them and can be enjoyed on DVD with a forgiving eye. Away from the harsh glare of the ratings battle their undoubted qualities begin to shine. It’s just… the sum sometimes doesn’t equal the whole. Falling flat on your backside is no shame if you’ve overbalanced while reaching for something special.
Which brings us to Undermind. This intriguing little science fiction thriller began airing on UK commercial television in April 1965, to no great acclaim. Shown once and never fully networked it disappeared into the hinterland of half-remembered series. Obscurity beckoned. For many years it was thought to be mostly lost. Episodes 1, 2 and 5 were floating about and coincidentally these three form an elegant little capsule of the show, illustrating all of the strengths and few of the weaknesses inherent in the format. The rest were always out of reach, presumed lost forever. Thankfully we were misinformed and Undermind emerges blinking into the commercial spotlight this month courtesy of Network DVD. It’s been a long time coming, but at long last this curious little artifact of sixties paranoia, social concerns and… well, strangeness can be enjoyed all over again.
I’ve long been fascinated by this one. Produced by ABC, it shares many of its production staff with the videotaped series of The Avengers, then just shifting over to an all film format and leaving the studio bound, heavy-on-the-close-ups, slightly paranoid fantasias behind in favour of a film-based madness unique in television. The spartan graphics of the title sequence and sparing use of music – a barely-there theme tune and a little stock music – echo Public Eye, and it shares with that series a remarkable eye for set design. Undermind never looks less than convincing even when attempting that most uniquely British of things, the exterior set shot in studio. Television at this stage was much closer to theatre than it was to film and such things have never bothered me. I’ll always find it easy to suspend my disbelief. If the goings on in front of the Proscenium Arch are involving enough then I’m more than happy to go with it.
Almost all of the writing team were either involved in Doctor Who in its earliest days or would go on to have an important influence on the shape of that show’s future.Robert Banks Stewart created Undermind and as the end credits have it, “evolved” it. In a career littered with triumphs from Callan to Shoestring to Charles Endell Esq, he would go on to contribute two rather wonderful Doctor Who stories for Tom Baker’s Doctor at his absolute height.
David Whitaker was there at the start, Who’s first story editor and the beating heart of series producer Verity Lambert’s original vision. Bill Strutton had recently provided an heroic failure all of his own for Doctor Who with the war-of-the-insects cheese fuelled nightmare of The Web Planet. Robert Holmes would get off to a very slow start on Who but would – slowly but surely – come into his own in the seventies and become one of Doctor Who’s most beloved and most missed creative contributors.
The guest casts for every episode are drawn from the best of British television. You’ll recognise at least one quality performer in almost every episode. Michael Gough, Jeremy Kemp, Derek Francis, Barries Ingham and Evans, John Barron, George Baker, Glynn Edwards, Patrick Allen, Garfield Morgan… they’re all here. The pedigree of this series is impeccable. Even in the lesser episodes (with one exception, which we’ll come to shortly) there’s something to enjoy.
So what went wrong? Why doesn’t it hang together in a way that lifts it from “fascinating failure” into “cherished and beloved classic”? Well…
Things begin promisingly. Instance One (sometimes known as Onset of Fear) establishes the central concept with style and vigour. As the episode opens we’re introduced to “Personnel Selection Manager” Drew Heriot (Jeremy Wilkin). Recently returned from a job in foreign parts he discovers that his brother Frank (Jeremy Kemp) – an honest, steadfast and true-type career policeman – has been involved in a dustup with a high ranking politician. Refusing to let the matter drop Frank drives the politician to suicide, but shows no sign of any emotional connection to his actions: in fact, no sign of any normal emotional responses at all. He’s become withdrawn, taciturn, not at all himself. Echoes of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers are surely deliberate.
Obviously concerned for his brother, Drew begins to investigate. With the help of Frank’s estranged wife Ann (Rosemary Nicols) he slowly uncovers something sinister. Conned into a test which registers brain activity, Frank not only shows none of the normal emotional responses, his brain exhibits almost no normal readings whatsoever. His hearing has become hyper-sensitive, with an intolerance to high-frequency sounds. Something is obviously deeply wrong and before the episode ends Drew and Ann have begun to uncover evidence of a far-reaching and sinister plot, involving a group of brainwashed humans they call collectively, “The Undermind”.
Influenced by a signal sent from deepest space these humans are seemingly set to pave the way for an alien invasion by disrupting society in any way they can. Their intent is to destabilise civilisation and they’re under such deep cover that they’re very difficult to detect. Often the figure at the heart of the plot is the one you’d least expect.
By the end of this first installment Drew and Ann realise that they’re really up against it. Who can you trust, what can you do, when everyone you meet could be one of them ? They’re alone, a fact emphasised by an effective closing sequence of passersby in a city street. Armed with the knowledge that any one of them could be working for “the enemy”, everyone looks suspect.
It’s a mark of the respect the series shows to its audience that Undermind pulls off an audacious casting trick in its very first episode. Regular viewers of perennial Saturday night favourite Z Cars would be familiar with guest star Jeremy Kemp as the honest and trustworthy PC Bob Steele. To have him appear here in essentially the same role but almost completely changed, is a subliminal signifier that all is not as it seems. The audience familiarity with the actor gives things just that little extra push to establish credibility and Kemp’s performance does the rest. We’re off to a flying start.
Both Wilkin and Nicols are engaging regulars. Always convincing, they provide a solid base for the series with Wilkin in particular delivering something which eventually heads off into an area which Gareth Thomas would explore to great effect in Blake’s 7 – how far will you go in pursuit of a cause before it consumes you to the point where those around you begin to get hurt? Things look promising.
Unfortunately we trip up almost immediately with Flowers of Havoc (Banks Stewart writing his second, from an idea by Jon Manchip White) In 1964 the mods and rockers invaded Britain’s seaside resorts and knocked the living daylights out of each other in a manner that rocked society to its foundations. All of a sudden youth was not only disaffected, it was dangerous.
In this episode rockers invade the coastal village of Welling On Sea and it’s more Dad’s Army than Quadrophenia. There’s a groovy vicar (Michael Gough, on great form), Barry Evans as one of the bikers (far out, man. Square, daddio) and a general church dogsbody played by Pauline Jameson in a performance so Damaris Hayman-esque that I refused to believe it wasn’t her until the credits rolled.
Hired as a nightclub singer, Ann delivers something that brings back memories of Julie Stevens singing with Dave Lee and the Boys (Boys! You should see them) in season 2 of The Avengers. Meanwhile, Drew hooks up with his old friend Val Randolph. A mathematics professor who also writes science fiction novels (not dissimilar to a certain Fred Hoyle, a resemblance smartly commented on in the dialogue before we get a chance to), Randolph is very dapper, very Scottish, and very Denis Quilley. Quilley – always reliable, always classy – proves to be a real asset to the series, providing real warmth in a show sometimes lacking in sympathetic characters. His background enables him to deliver clumps of exposition without seeming forced, and his presence takes some of the weight off Nicols and Wilkin. Quilley sticks around for the next few episodes and his presence really lifts things.
This week’s lovely little moment is provided in a church scene where Drew’s dramatic revelation – they’re amongst us – and they’re aliens! – is punctuated by what sounds like a bog-standard science fiction musical sting. In actual fact, it isn’t – it’s another character in the background cleaning the church organ who’s leant on the keyboard a bit too vigorously. A lovely, sarcastic commentary on a moment that might have seemed a little too overheated and cliched.
By episode end one of the serious weaknesses of the show is uncovered – not enough time, not enough budget to provide a satisfying denouement. Week after week things are wrapped up in an unconvincing fight scene, or an off-camera explosion. It’s a shame as what leads up to the last act is frequently undone by a shabby finale. This problem will dog the series right up to the last episode and is never really resolved. Unfortunate.
David Whitaker steps up with a look at a very British scandal in The New Dimension. Not for the first time a politician has been caught up in something unseemly involving call-girls, although Christine Keeler didn’t end up murdered in a phone box in a rather striking photo-montage, which is how this episode stylishly chooses to introduce itself. Implicated in the scandal and arrested by the Vice Squad in the imposing form of Patrick Allen and Garfield Morgan, Drew is thrust into heart of things while Ann toddles off to go undercover at a charitable institution for fallen ladies of easy virtue. As the politician at the heart of the scandal Derek Francis nervy, frantic and totally convincing, which is just as well as the episode is oddly uninvolving. Not for the last time a major plot development turns upon the Undermind writing vital information down on a bit of paper which then falls into the right hands. All of which – while not terribly interesting – is better than the farrago that follows.
Death In England is written by Hugh Leonard, a much respected, much loved giant of Irish literature. He must have wondered what went wrong here. Drew suddenly remembers he’s got a day job and is off on a junket in Ireland doing some work for his old friend Pat Neary when the locals hear that there’s a bridge building exercise in progress. In an attempt to reconcile the British Government and the IRA, Sir Geoffrey Savage (Robert James, continuing his attempt to seemingly colonise every television series I’ve ever watched) has invited ex IRA General Brian Riordan to the unveiling of a statue of his old adversary in the British Army. Nearly fifty years have passed but “The Old Guard” never forget. The Old Guard consist of a bunch of performers who resemble nothing so much as Kenny Everett’s Board of BBC Governors, and spout every Irish cliche in the book. They stop short of entering every scene with a pig under their arms, but only just.
Much given to rambling about “the good old days” of and given to pronouncements like “ach, would ye look at the length of the skirt on that one! Ye’d go te hell just fer lookin’ at it”, this bunch of throwbacks decide to pursue their “traitorous General” and head for the ceremony in London (disrupting the plane flight on the way across by wasting nearly two full minutes of running time by singing old patriotic songs).
Unfortunately for everyone, idiot assassin Kennefick (reliable standby David Blake Kelly, equipped with a two word vocabulary – “Bang! Bang!”) is headed there first. The scenes in which Kelly parades about with a full size rifle wrapped in a plastic bag clearly visible take the viewer’s goodwill so much for granted that it beggars belief.
Before episode’s end we’ve been treated to Ann being gulled into heading for an unprotected rooftop by the Undermind of the week by the stupidest ruse possible, Drew and Val reduced to ineffectual bystanders while the entire plot is resolved because nobody thought to check the state of their fifty year old arsenal, and poor old Denis Quilley reduced to end of episode “head of statue falls off and everybody laughs” acting.
The whole thing is dreadful, farcical and given what was waiting around the corner in terms of what happened between Britain and Ireland, offensive. Admittedly hindsight is a wonderful thing and Leonard – a passionate, vehement opponent of the IRA – does use Riordan to denounce those who cling on to “the old ways” while passing down a distorted view of the past to the young. It’s too little too late, though, the whole tone of it is wrong and it stands as one of the single most insultingly bad episodes of television I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through. I can’t believe that Leonard has much to do with the horrors inflicted upon the innocent viewer. The script is sound enough. Its just… chewed up by a merciless production line and spat out the other end with an unsympathetic realisation, it has become… this contemptible thing.
Anything would be an improvement after that and thankfully Banks Stewart’s Too Many Enemies sees the series returning to something of its original premise. The human swiss army knife Val Randolph provides an “in” to this story of a random stranger found knocked unconscious at the side of the road and brought to the local hospital. Before too long things develop into a terse little thriller involving a robbery of government documentation at the local scientific research establishment, a couple who aren’t what they seem and a mute who may or may not know more than he’s able to let on. The whole thing culminates in a revelation which provides a satisfying resolution to certain plot threads, but which also makes the episode feel like it’s in the wrong place in the show’s running order. Dealing as it does with a major turning point for one of the central characters before we’ve really had the chance to get to know them this one really feels like it would have benefitted from being placed much later – perhaps two or three episodes from the end of the series would have suited it better.
From this point on the series decides that things haven’t been loony enough and goes completely off the wall, using the running-man format to throw the strangest of contrivances at the viewer. John Kruse’s Intent to Destroy begins like an episode of Doomwatch with a small child collapsing after touching some apples infected with insecticide, before collapsing itself into something that in quick succession involves Peter Barkworth, a crooked astrologer and an attempt to blow up Eamonn Andrews live on air with a box of exploding cigars. Some sentences you never expect to type. That’s one of them.
The initial promise of a look at some of the concerns then being aired in public thanks to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” degenerates into lunacy which ends up with poor Jeremy Wilkin sprinting onto the set of The Eamonn Andrews Show live on air, stealing the box of cigars and throwing them off-camera for a mistimed detonation which takes out rather more of the studio set than I think any of the performers were expecting. Peter Barkworth – reliable as ever – almost saves things but the tone veers so wildly that by the end of it it’s difficult to work out why the hell any of us should care. Another misfire. Surely things can’t get any sillier? Think so, do you?
You’ve reckoned without Bill Strutton and Song of Death, an everyday story of a spate of suicides amongst well respected medical men seemingly triggered off by a subliminal message encoded into a birthday greetings record. Ann is duffed up in a car park, Drew becomes so self-obsessed that he barely notices and Ann runs straight into the arms of her old school friend John Rossleigh (Jeremy Burnham, presumably wondering what he’s got himself into and whether it’s too late to back out). Forgetting rule one, Ann trusts someone, which proves to be unfortunate for John who finds his life expectancy considerably shortened but not before Ann’s had the chance to take a crack at a singing career and be letched over by someone who almost but not quite resembles Norrie Paramor in no way whatsoever. Adam Adamant Lives! would essay a take on the same subject a year later in Sing a Song of Murder with considerably more success – this stays just on the right side of barking mad, but only just. The idea of destablising society by taking out all the doctors is an interesting one, but short of a few one sided phone conversations “I’m sorry, the surgery will remain closed tomorrow”, it really isn’t conveyed successfully. Not a misfire, but a bit of a squib.
Things stampede towards the insane again with Max Sterling’s Puppets of Evil. Directed by Patrick Dromgoole, suddenly Undermind is soaked in the mythic, off-kilter strangeness that he would make his stock in trade with his very fine work for HTV in the 70s and 80s. If you ever watched Children of the Stones, Robin of Sherwood or the like you’ll recognise the seeds germinating here in a tale of what happens when a children’s writer takes the old saw “the characters started to get away with me” too seriously. It’s a fractured tale, featuring Catherine Howe as a teenage prodigy, Derek Nimmo as a harassed book publisher and Katherine Blake as a wildly successful author who before episode end is reduced to knowing her place as a subservient slave to a thuggish man. That charming little message aside, chunks of this episode are pleasingly sinister, culminating in a strange puppet show set at Stonehenge which involves Blake’s children’s character “Zoomer Smith” being offered up as a blood sacrifice by the character “Mulligatawny” who appears to be a homicidal rotting fish-head balanced on a rock. Strange, strange times.
David Whitaker brings us back to something resembling normality with Test For The Future which starts with Barrie Ingham pushing someone under a tube train before kidnapping Ann, intimidating Drew into getting him a job with a printing firm and erm, instigating a plot which seems to involve nicking a look at some exam papers. So far as I can tell he intends to undermine society by ensuring that only the least competent of academic achievers are hired for top ranking jobs – in which case why bother with the exam papers at all – why not just infiltrate the personnel department of the businesses concerned and hire the ones you need? Confusing.
Much fun is provided by the appearance of Godfrey Quigley, done up like Dom DeLuise in the Cannonball Run with a boiler suit, beret and toothbrush mustache. If only Captain Chaos had been in this episode we’d have got things resolved much quicker. Much less fun is provided by the appearance of some more unfortunate social commentary, this time on the lips of Quigley’s sidekick Davies. Davies is an alcoholic, mercenary ex Vietnam vet who nonetheless manages to break his leg by falling a foot and a half onto a studio floor but not before revealing himself to be extraordinarily racist with dialogue that poor Maurie Taylor – to his credit – looks deeply uncomfortable delivering.
Lennard Pearce pitches up here as well, years before Granddad in Only Fools and Horses but still instantly recognisable. Ingham’s fun in this one as an old-school-tie cad with a fine line in sneering abuse but the whole thing seems rather inconsequential – a staging post on the way to the finale, which thankfully is given to a very safe pair of hands.
Waves of Sound introduces Robert Holmes to the writer’s roster and it’s frankly a relief to see him. If there’s anyone on this series who knows how to make a script go from A to B to C with a resolution that makes dramatic sense, it’s him – but even he struggles with another “here’s a bit of vital paper which I just happen to have here which will advance the plot forward in the direction it needs to go” moment. In this case, the Undermind have written down an itemised list of all of their UK operatives then lost it, just in time for it to be handed to Drew and Ann. Honestly, if brains was gunpowder, the Undermind wouldn’t have enough to blow their hats off.
With Radio Caroline having begun airing on Easter Sunday 1964, Pirate Radio was just beginning to get into full swing. This week it looks like we’re going to be headed off in the direction of “unregulated-broadcast-as-public-menace” as “The Traveller” invades the airwaves to deliver seditious messages intended to undermine confidence in big businesses. The horror of unregulated pop music is replaced by something vaguely Lord Haw-Haw-esque. Things switchback soon enough, moving off to a health spa which is being used as a cover to develop a mind-weakening virus – we’re back in Doomwatch territory this week, but not before a plot which is almost too busy with wildly differing elements including a defunct World War II radio comedy team, Ann attacking the dressing up box again as she goes uncover as – yes! – a “Dominoes Cornflake Girl”, a shady figure wandering about who may or may not be important in the series finale and a private club, the name of which – thrown away by one of the actors – is actually hugely significant. The virus is intended to weaken human resistance just in time for an establishing signal to arrive from deep space that will cement Undermind control. Unfortunately it seems to have gone a little astray as in the concluding scene it appears to call up the series’ own end title sequence onto a tv set playing in the background of a bar. I’m reliably informed that normally the credits would have been telecined onto the end of the recording after the end of the studio session – its appearance in the series itself – for just a second – had me wondering if Banks Stewart was being playful, but I suspect that it was a simple, honest to goodness mistake. Could happen to anyone, and it joins an unfortunate number of dropped boom mikes which are visible throughout the series and is presumably the legacy of a frantic production line schedule.
John Barron joins the regular cast as Sir Geoffrey Tillinger, just in time for the final series wrap up. I know what you’re thinking – Undermind revolves around the appearance of members of society who are only identifiable by their remote, brusque personas and staccato, barked dialogue. With John Barron striding about, who can tell the difference? Also in the cast is Jean Trend, so that’s two of Doomwatch’s recurring characters on board. Thankfully no episode of Doomwatch – to my knowledge – was ever resolved by an exploding heating system, which this one is. Even Robert Holmes has to make the plot creak a bit to make it get to where he wants it to go.
Holmes remains on board for End Signal, and all of a sudden things are moving. Using the aforementioned list George Baker and his squad of secret policemen are arresting all of the Undermind operatives on the list and the threat seems to be over. But is it? Not when someone’s switched the list. Meanwhile, the jamming station set up by Tillinger has been sabotaged – it looks like the Undermind establishing signal will be received on time and with full effectiveness. Soon Drew and Ann are off to Skye in pursuit of a genuine Undermind while Tillinger stays behind in a race against time to undo the sabotage.
While all concerned attempt to convince the viewer that it’s all a matter of minutes before the world goes to hell in a handcart the whole thing feels very flat. Drew and Ann’s Skye trip takes up ten minutes of valuable screen time and achieves very little, while Barron disappears from the episode for a lengthy spell and is replaced by not very much at all. The final big series reveal – who is the Chief Undermind, and what is to become of us? – works, because it’s a genuine surprise. At least it was to me, although it’s a classic “hiding in plain sight” moment. All the clues are there, I just wasn’t alert enough to pick them up. On the whole it just about pays off and rewards the dedication of those who’ve stuck with the series, but it’s a close run thing. Like many shows before and after it the episode ends in such a way that begs “please give us a second series”. That second series never arrived. Presumably the second wave of Undermind never arrived. Maybe they did. Maybe they’re still here.
On the whole, then- does it work as a tense and exciting conspiracy thriller? No. Does it work as a brave and interesting attempt to do something different, to push the boundaries and see what works and what doesn’t? Yes. Just. A second series would have been interesting, just to see if the uncertainty of tone could have been ironed out and a firmer direction established. Undermind frequently feels more like an anthology series which just happens to feature some of the same actors rather than an ongoing, self-contained plotline but it’s at least trying its damndest to do something different.
Wilkin, Nicols, Quilley, Barron and many many others are superb and old hands like Peter Potter and Bill Bain (always alliterative, apparently) direct capably, keeping things on the road – just. The design is frequently striking, the stock music well chosen and Death In England aside there aren’t any actual stinkers. A lot of the episodes are let down by poorly executed conclusions and one or two aren’t interesting enough in the first place but when Undermind is good – Instance One, Too Many Enemies and the cold, queasy strangeness of Puppets of Evil – it can be superb.
Its a brave experiment. You don’t get too many like this to the pound and if it had been allowed to run for another series it might have really started to fly. As it is, you can get a glimpse of what might have been something special and unique. I strongly recommend that you do.
Inconsistent, yes. Frustrating, undeniably. However, its heart is in the right place. Watch some of British Telefantasy’s finest plying their trade and honing their craft. Undermind may be consigned to little more than a doodle in the margins, but even a doodle can be illuminating. Believe me. You can trust me.
Undermind – The Complete Series is available now from Network DVD.