Doomwatch – Sex and Violence

sex

There’s a clear irony in the fact that Sex & Violence, a story which concerned itself with the question of censorship, was pulled from the schedules and was never transmitted.  Given the very depleted nature of season three Doomwatch episodes it’s odd, but welcome nonetheless, that an episode which didn’t even make it to the screen somehow managed to survive the archive purges (logic would have suggested it would have been the first to go).

One suggestion for the reason why the BBC got cold feet concerns the use of real-life Nigerian executions.  It’s certainly shocking – but this footage had already been transmitted on several occasions prior to this, so it’s reasonable to assume that for viewers at the time the shock value wouldn’t have been too great.  And had this really been a cause of concern it would have been easy to excise the section without damaging the narrative flow too greatly (we could have cut away from the clip before the shooting and simply shown the reaction of the watching committee).

It seems much more likely that the episode was pulled since several characters were thinly disguised caricatures of real people.  Both Mrs Catchpole (June Brown) and Mrs Cressy (Noel Dyson) have more than a touch of Mary Whitehouse about them.  This is made very obvious in the pre-credits sequence, which sees Mrs Catchpole holding forth at a public meeting – held in a church – and railing about the filth thrown at people like her (her audience is comprised of middle-aged, middle-class women) by the intellectual media elite.

Unlike Mrs Whitehouse, Mrs Catchpole isn’t a national figure, therefore she tends to exist around the fringes of the plot.  So Mrs Cressy also acts as a Whitehouse substitute – she’s less of a rabble-rouser, but is equally vehement about stamping out sex and violence.  Mrs Cressy is a member of the Purvis sub-committee, who have been charged with investigating all aspects of pornography and violence in the media.  Quist is also asked to look into the same question, which he’s less than keen about.

Pollution in the air or the sea he can understand, but moral pollution?  It’s not his thing at all.  But as we’ve seen several times before, Quist starts off doubtful but eventually gets more interested as the story progresses.  It’s just a pity that yet again he’s operating on the periphery of the plot. Dr Tarrant is seconded to the sub-committee, which means she’s as an active participant, leaving Quist as a fairly passive onlooker.

The other members are Professor Fairbairn (Brian Wilde) and Steven Grainger (Bernard Horsfall) who tend to lean towards the permissive end of the spectrum.  Mrs Cressy and the Rev Charles Garrison (Llewellyn Reees) take the opposing view, which means that Dick Burns (Christopher Chittell) is a valuable floating voter, since he holds no firm opinions either way.  Burns, a pop star, is another clear analogue to a real public figure (at the time Cliff Richard had been asked to sit on a very similar committee).  Although Burns is a much less straight-laced figure than Richard, the parallel seems clear.

Sex & Violence is a dense, talky episode – a great deal of it revolves around the committee’s debates – which really comes alive thanks to the first-rate guest cast.  Brian Wilde and Bernard Horsfall are always a pleasure to watch, whilst June Brown (a decade or more away from achieving national fame in EastEnders) has some sharply written comic scenes.  It’s fair to say that Mrs Catchpole isn’t a subtle character though, and it’s no doubt this less than veiled attack on Mrs Whitehouse which sealed the story’s fate.  The Doctor Who fan in me was quietly delighted to see Llewellyn Rees and Bernard Horsfall in the same scene (a few years later they’d both appear in The Deadly Assassin).

There’s no stunning revelations here.  For example, Anne is attacked by Mrs Hastings (Angela Crow) as she attempts to buy a ticket for an Oh Calcutta type play.  Although Anne’s hurt and bruised, she’s much more interested why a law-abiding person like Mrs Hastings would be incited to violence.  The answer seems to be that she’s always been fairly repressed about sex (since her parents didn’t talk about it at all) which it probably didn’t take a psychiatrist to work out!  It’s also worth mentioning the décor of Mrs Hastings’ flat, which has the most garish early seventies wallpaper you could possibly imagine.

When Quist later wonders exactly why Doomwatch is involved, it’s easy to agree with him.  It’s an interesting enough story, but it’s also yet another example of how far the series changed from the early Pedler/Davis ecological tub-thumping.

Possibly the most interesting part of the plot revolves around the character of  Arthur Ballantyne (Nicholas Selby).  He’s a political figure who’s made considerable capital out of the sex and violence debate (he’s revealed to have financed a number of pressure groups, including Mrs Catchpole’s).  It’s easy enough to look around today and find politicians who have risen to prominence on the coat-tails of controversial debates – which is a final demonstration that Doomwatch, even forty years later, can continue to hold a mirror up to our society.

Advertisements

Doomwatch – Hair Trigger

hair trigger

Anne is at Weatheroak Hall Maximum Security Medical Research Unit.  She’s there to meet Doctor McEwan (Barry Jackson) and Professor Alec Hetherington (Morris Perry) who have developed a revolutionary process to deal with hardened and psychopathic criminals.

Behind a glass panel she observes Michael Beavis (Michael Hawkins) receiving treatment.  Anne is horrified to learn that he’s essentially little more than a radio-controlled puppet – electrical impulses, controlled via a computer, damp down any negative or violent feelings he may have and McEwan is convinced this will enable him to be reintegrated into society (otherwise Beavis would remain a prisoner in Broadmoor and therefore a severe drain on the nation’s finances).

But for Anne, Beavis isn’t cured – his psychopathic tendencies are simply being suppressed.  Apart from the ethical issues this raises for her, she’s also far from convinced that the treatment is foolproof.  McEwan is happy for her to speak to Beavis on a one-to-one basis in order that her fears may be allayed, but by doing so she re-opens his long-buried trauma and after attacking her, he escapes ….

Hair Trigger was tapping into something of a zeitgeist about how technology could deal with violent criminals.  This was a theme of A Clockwork Orange (both the original book and the later film) whilst the 1971 Doctor Who story The Mind of Evil  also had its own method of removing evil impulses from the minds of criminals (an alien parasite).  Although the Doctor Who story was much more fantastical than Hair Trigger,  there are some similarities – not least Anne’s statement that by suppressing all the violent tendencies from any given subject they’ve basically been neutered and aren’t really human beings any more.

Director Quentin Lawrence creates a decent visual joke as the episode title and writer credit is displayed following the opening credits. They’ve overlaid over what appears to be a pastoral scene, but a few seconds later it’s revealed to be an album cover of classical music, which Anne puts onto the turntable as she attempts to convince Quist that McEwan’s process is fundamentally immoral.

Quist is slow to agree (although there’s the suggestion later that he was playing devil’s advocate). That Anne is the one who’s concerned whilst Quist remains a passive onlooker is another example of the way his role was downplayed during series three. He acts as a decent sounding board for Anne to develop her arguments, but apart from that Quist has little involvement in the main narrative.

The rest of the Doomwatch team are also pretty much surplus to requirements in this one. Bradley is absent, whilst Stafford and Barbara only have a couple of scenes. Although even in the limited screen time they both have, Barbara’s obvious dislike of Stafford is made quite clear.

Morris Perry and Barry Jackson both give characteristically solid performances, but the acting honours must go to Michael Hawkins as Beavis. When we first meet him, Beavis is desperately keen and eager to please, although when McEwan gently tells him that Anne will want to talk about his past life there’s a strong sense that his former crimes (he murdered his wife and children) still trouble him.

This is therefore something of a story weakness. We’re told that McEwan’s work has a zero failure rate – yet as soon as Anne starts to probe Beavis about his history he goes berserk. And the computer control isn’t able to stabilise him afterwards, as he escapes from the compound and takes a family hostage.

If the Doomwatch team aren’t terribly well used here (remember that Anne isn’t actually a member of Doomwatch) then Brian Hayle’s script is still a tautly written and well-acted affair. As I’ve said, acting kudos must go to Hawkins, especially in the final ten minutes as the hostage situation plays out to an inevitable but nonetheless powerful conclusion.

Doomwatch – Waiting for a Knighthood

waiting

Although Waiting for a Knighthood was only the fourth episode of series three, there had already been a number of key developments during the first three (all now sadly wiped) episodes.

The series opener, Fire and Brimstone, had seen John Ridge steal a number of anthrax phials in order to hold the government to ransom.  This plotline had been developed to lessen Simon Oates’ involvement in the show, as he’d disliked the way the second series had developed and didn’t wish to remain a regular for the third run.  Waiting for a Knighthood, which sees Ridge ensconced in a secure nursing home following his breakdown, is the last existing episode which features him.

Ridge’s removal from Doomwatch meant that a replacement had to be found – hence the introduction of Commander Neil Stafford (John Bown).  Stafford isn’t a scientist, he’s a security man, which meant he could take over the security and clandestine aspects of Ridge’s role whilst remaining a distinct character.  He’s certainly no womanizer and the fact that he reports to the Minster means that it’s not always easy to know where his loyalties lie.  Given the small number of series three episodes existing, he looked to be an interesting character and it’s a pity that we don’t have the opportunity to see more of him in action.

Perhaps the most jarring aspect of this episode is that we see Quist relaxing at home (or as it turns out, Anne Tarrant’s home) – the picture of perfect domestic contentment.  Up until the end of series two, Quist had been an emotionally isolated figure – living only for his work – so it’s something of  surprise to find that he’s now deep into a relationship (and also that Anne calls him “Spence”! which is something nobody else has done).

Given that when Dr Fay Chantry was introduced in series two Ridge mentioned casually in passing that she might be a decent match for Quist, it’s intriguing to wonder whether any thought had been given to matching them up.  It’s just as likely a coupling as the one-off character of Dr Tarrant (who had appeared in You Killed Toby Wren) linking up with him I guess.

Waiting for a Knighthood opens with Anne attending a church service.  Along with the other parishioners, she’s perturbed to see the vicar suffer a breakdown and it’s later revealed that he’s suffering from lead poisoning (he’s a keen mechanic and had ingested a dangerous level of fumes).  A similar thing seems to have happened to Ridge, which provides an explanation for his behaviour in Fire and Brimstone.

These incidents, and increasing concerns about the levels of lead in petrol, indicate that there should be tighter controls – but Richard Massingham (Frederick Jaeger), after enjoying a decent dinner with the Minister, Sir George Holroyd (John Barron), tells him he’s not convinced.  Massingham is an oil man and doesn’t see why a few high profile cases should mean swingeing restrictions.  After all, he says, it’s not as if people are dropping down dead all over the place.

The debate about harmful levels of lead both here and at the Doomwatch office keep the story ticking along, but the main part of the plot concerns the kidnapping of Massingham’s young child (played by Stephen Dudley).  Dudley, the son of producer Terence Dudley, would be a regular a few years later in Survivors (and already had another Doomwatch credit – Tomorrow the Rat – to his name).  Dudley the younger is rather irritating in this one, so I’m thankful his screentime was fairly limited.

Coincidence is the name of the game here.  The boy was kidnapped by Mrs Sylvester (Glenm Watford) who happened to be passing Ridge’s garage at just the right moment to hear Bradley and Stafford discussing the possibility that Ridge had suffered from lead poisoning.  Her own son had died from something similar and so she decides to kidnap Massingham’s boy in revenge.  And Massingham has direct links with the Minister, which means that Doomwatch are involved straight away.

If the plot seems a little messy and rather open-ended, then there’s still some useful food for thought about the dangers of lead in petrol.  Bradley gets  decent share of the action (as does Barbara, who becomes more of a central character during series three – just a pity that we can’t see most of it).  Frederick Jaeger as Massinghm is suitably solid.  Massingham isn’t a cartoon villain – knowingly polluting the air – he’s a realist who knows that the only way for the government to take action is if they raise petrol prices substantially, which of course they won’t do.

A pity that Quist’s rather sidelined though, but that tends to be par for the course with series three.