The Day of the Triffids (BBC 1981). Episode One

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John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was born in 1903 and began his writing career in the 1930’s under a variety of names. Following the Second Word War he started writing again and produced his first novel as John Wyndham. That was The Day of the Triffids which was published in 1951.

The Day of the Triffids was an instant success and it established Wyndham’s reputation as one of Britain’s top science fiction writers.  It was faithfully adapted for the radio in 1957 (and the same script was re-recorded in 1968).  There was also a film version in 1962 which deviated substantially from the original book (as did the 2009 BBC adaptation).

In-between those two was this 1981 BBC adaptation by Douglas Livingstone.  It was directed by Ken Hannam and comprised six 26 minute episodes which were re-edited into three 52 minute episodes for overseas sales.  Livingstone did a remarkable job of faithfully transferring Wyndham’s novel to the small screen.  There are some changes (the action is moved from the 1950’s to the 1980’s and some minor characters are different) but overall there’s a great deal of fidelity to Wyndham’s original book.

In Livingstone’s teleplay, as in the novel, the thrust of the story is concerned with how the survivors of a global catastrophe will be able to survive after the technological infrastructure they’ve taken for granted has been destroyed.  The later BBC adaptation was much more of a straightforward adventure yarn, pitting the survivors against the Triffids.  But here, like in the book, the Triffids only pop up from time to time and they aren’t the most pressing problem.

The story opens with Bill Masen (John Duttine) recovering in hospital after an operation on his eyes.  He works at a Triffid farm and was stung by one of them – hence the operation.  Hopefully, once the bandages are removed he’ll be able to see again, but nothing is certain.

One annoying side-effect of his temporary blindness is that he was unable to witness the remarkable light-show the previous evening.  The precise origin of this natural display which lit up the night sky for hours (visible all over the world) was a mystery, but the morning after things feel different.  Where there should be noise and bustle (as befits a busy hospital) there is only an ominous silence …..

Both the novel and Livingstone’s adaptation open with Bill in hospital and work back from there to explain the history of the Triffids.  In Wyndham’s novel, Bill is writing the whole story to explain to those who were born after the catastrophe exactly what happened.  In the television version, Bill narrates how the Triffids came to exist onto cassette for his colleague Walter, who’s planning to write a book about them.

This is a decent framing device as it allows Bill to narrate over various scenes which explain where the Triffids came from and precisely the danger they pose. Walter (Edmund Pegge) works with Bill at the Triffid farm and in one of the flashbacks he discusses with him some of his theories.

Look at when they attack. They almost always go for the head. Now a great number of people who have been stung but not killed have been blinded. That’s significant of the fact they know the shortest way of putting a man out of action. If it were a choice of survival between a blind man and a Triffid, I know which I’d put my money on.

One interesting change by Livingstone is that to begin with, Bill still believes it’s the middle of the night – but we can clearly see the daylight streaming through the window and the time on the clock (the novel opens with him instantly aware that things aren’t right). This means that the viewers know more than Bill and so are aware, before he is, that something is seriously awry.

John Duttine spends the majority of the episode alone in his hospital room with his eyes bandaged.  It needed a good actor to make the character come alive, with so little to work with, and Duttine certainly delivers.  As time goes on, and still nobody comes, his self control begins to crack – until he decides to take off the bandages himself.

The irony that he’s now able to see whilst the majority of the world have gone blind isn’t something that’s overtly stated, but it’s obvious nonetheless.  As the episode ends, he meets the blind Dr Soames (Jonathan Newth) whilst the Triffids start to prowl …..

The Day of the Triffids (BBC 1981). Episode Two

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After leaving Dr Soames in an office, Bill tells him that he’ll go and find some help.  Soames knows there’s nothing to be done and he’s right – everyone else in the hospital is blind.  Along the way, Bill meets a patient in one of the wards who asks him to draw the curtains and when he has, the man tells him to stop playing about and draw the curtains.

This is another scene taken directly from the novel, although it might have been a good idea to omit it.  It’s impossible to believe that somebody couldn’t tell the difference between it simply being dark and being blind.  Even in the dark, it’s possible to distinguish shapes and outlines.

Elsewhere, he sees groups of people milling about anxiously and when he returns to the office he finds Dr Soames has jumped to his death.  As Bill ventures out onto the streets he finds no better news, until he spots a girl who can see.  He follows her into a house and meets her father, John (Stephen Yardley).  John and his wife are blind, but their daughter can still see.

John vacillates between believing that the problem is only local and temporary and pondering the implications if the majority of the population are now permanently blind.

Well, everybody will be like us at first. They won’t know what’s happened. They’ll be too frightened to move. Then they’ll get hungry and start looking for food. I mean this town’s nasty at the best of times. In two or three days it won’t just be hooligans, it’ll be people you thought butter wouldn’t melt killing each other for scraps of food.

There’s a great deal of truth in this, as we see pockets of the blind fighting each other for food, whilst one woman sits on the ground with a packet of washing powder in the mistaken belief that it’s edible.  Elsewhere, a group of football supporters are led by a sighted man and they grab a woman.  Their intentions are obvious and although Bill tries to intervene, it’s probable that his attempt was fruitless (we don’t see the conclusion).  As we witness other examples of people in distress, how will Bill decide which ones to help and which ones to leave?

Earlier in the episode, Josella (Emma Relph) was captured by a blind man and forced to be his eyes.  Bill discovers them and frees her.  Together they seek refuge in a pub and when she decides to find her father, Bill asks if he can come with her.  Jo agrees instantly and tells him it’s “not because I’m afraid of getting caught again.  I’ll watch out for that.  It’s just the dreadful sense of loneliness, being cut off from everybody else”.

Jo’s father is dead, killed by a Triffid and Bill and Jo only manage to escape after Bill kills another.  This the first major Triffid attack scene in the story and thanks to some tight framing and intense acting from Duttine it works well.  Whilst they’re not the most mobile of creatures, the occasional glimpse of them (as well as the eerie sound they make) is quite effective.

The episode has already discussed how the vast majority of the population could, because of their blindness, be turned into a mob – and this looks like it’s coming true at the end.  Bill and Jo’s car is surrounded by a group of blind people and whilst none of them are intrinsically evil, their desperation to hold onto any sighted person is somewhat disturbing.

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The Day of the Triffids (BBC 1981). Episode Three

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After Bill and Jo escape from the maurding pack of blind people, they find a place to hole up for the night.  After enjoying a good meal and a decent mug of wine, they both learn a little more about each other – although Jo says, “but all that, all the details of my life, they were yesterday. It’s the same with you.  I think I’d like to know you from today and you know me from today.  You might not like what I was yesterday.  I might not like what you were”.  The sense that yesterday is a closed book and that the future starts today is a theme that is picked up again later in the episode.

They then discuss what to do next.  Bill is keen to get out of London as he tells Jo that soon, “the city will begin to stink like a great sewer.  There are already corpses lying around.  Soon they’ll be more.  That may mean cholera, typhoid.  God knows what”.

But a light in the distance changes their plans and the next morning they meet a group of thirty or so survivors who all have sight.  They see another sighted man, called Coker (Maurice Colbourne), who’s leading a group of blind people.  He asks the others for help in finding food, but they refuse.  This is a debate that has cropped up before and Bill and Jo discuss it again shortly afterwards.  Bill says that Coker is right and wrong.  “We could show some of them where to find food for a few days or for a few weeks.  But what happens afterwards?”.

They then meet the leader of the sighted group, Beadley (David Swift).  He proposes moving out of London and establishing a community that will isolate itself for a year (in order to protect against disease).  One of the other members of their ad-hoc committee explains how the community will function.

The men must work.  The women must have babies.  We can afford to support a limited number of women who cannot see, because they will have babies who can see.  We cannot afford to support men who cannot see.  In our community, babies will be more important than husbands.  It follows from this that the one man/one woman relationship as we understand it will probably become an illogical luxury.

As for the Triffids, they only appear in a single scene (where they attack an old couple who we’ve never seen before).  As their appearance (although it’s very nicely shot at night) is divorced from the main narrative, it seems to have been put in simply to remind the audience that they’re still out there.  And since they don’t feature much in this episode, it helps to make their sudden reappearance in episode four even more striking

At the end of this episode, Bill and Jo (along with the rest of the potential community members) are settling down for the night when a fire alarm is raised.  Bill rushes down the stairs, trips over and awakes to find himself tied up …..

The Day of the Triffids (BBC 1981). Episode Four

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Bill and a number of other people (including Jo) have been captured by Coker – who staged the phony fire at the end of episode three.  He allocates one sighted person to a party of blind people and assigns them to a district.  They have to find a place to live and make regular trips to locate food – which will keep everybody alive until (Coker says) more organised help turns up.

Bill doesn’t believe that any help is coming but Coker’s a good enough judge of character to know that once he gets to know them, Bill won’t leave his party.  Whilst he was previously able to discuss (in abstract terms) that keeping the blind alive was ultimately fruitless, when he has to deal with actual people his humanity will ensure that he’ll do everything he can for them.

But even with his best efforts, there are numerous dangers.  Several are killed by a red-haired man (Gary Olsen) who’s leading a rival party.  His motivation for shooting them isn’t clear here, but he’s a character that will return later in the story.

The Triffids also claim some victims in another nicely directed scene.  As mentioned before, as they haven’t featured for a while their sudden reappearance in the middle of the episode comes as something of a jolt.

Disease thins Bill’s party even more and he’s powerless to prevent their deaths.  As London becomes even more of a health hazard, it’s clear that the longer he remains, the more danger he’s in.  Bill seems to be on the point of leaving when he’s visited by a young woman (Eva Griffith) who asks him to stay and offers herself to him.  It’s a heartbreaking scene and like so much of Douglas Livingstone’s adaptation, it’s taken directly from Wyndham’s novel.

Shortly afterwards, she dies and the few survivors flee in panic.  So Bill’s left alone once more. but this time he has an aim – he needs to find Jo.

Brian Aldiss once notoriously dubbed the works of John Wyndham in general and The Day of the Triffids in particular as “cosy catastrophes”.  Aldiss wrote that “the essence of the cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off”.

I have to admit, I don’t find anything particularly “cosy” about either this adaptation or Wyndham’s original novel.  True, Wyndham’s novel did tend to feature mostly middle-class characters (another point which upset Aldiss) and this is changed here by making Bill (courtesy of John Duttine) more working class – but the concepts and themes developed thus far are pretty bleak.

The Day of the Triffids (BBC 1981). Episode Five

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Episode Five concerns itself with Bill’s quest to find Jo, which leads him out of London and into the country.  Coker joins him for the trip.  One of the major plus-points of this episode is Maurice Colbourne, who was always such a watchable actor with a very strong presence.  Although he appeared briefly in a few previous episodes, he’s much more central in this one.  After he and Bill rest in an abandoned pub, it’s Coker who can clearly see the way forward.

We must be part of a community to have any hope for the future at all.  At the moment we’ve got all we need.  Food, supplies, everything.  But the food will go bad, the metal will rust, the petrol to drive the machines will run out.  Before that happens, we have to learn to plough and learn to make ploughs, and learn to smelt the iron to make the ploughshares.  We must learn to make good all that we wear out.  If not …. we say goodbye to civilisation and we slide right back into savagery.

Bill and Coker find the community at Tynsham, but Jo isn’t there.  A number of the survivors have also moved on, due to a serious disagreement.  The remaining survivors at Tynsham are led by Miss Durrant (Perlita Nelson) and they’ve rejected the notion that pro-creation is key to survival – instead they plan to exist by strictly Christian principles and they put their faith in God to save them.

Coker decides to stay with them, as he believes that he can make something of the community, and Bill travels on.  Along the way he effectively adopts an orphaned young girl, Susan (Emily Dean).  It’s interesting to see how this, like so much of The Day of the Triffids, was directly paralleled in Terry Nation’s Survivors.  Essentially Survivors is The Day of the Triffids writ-large, but without any Triffids.

Wyndham gave Susan more of a back-story (about the death of her parents and her fears and feelings) which isn’t used here, that’s a bit of a pity as without it she’s something of an underdeveloped character.

Together they eventually manage to find Jo (along with a few others) and they all decide to return to the community at Tynsham.  But disease has struck – many are dead and the others have left.  Of Coker, there’s no sign.  So they face the prospect of having to establish their own small community, whilst all around the Triffids are looming …..

There’s certainly more Triffid action in this episode.  Bill gets to shoot a few of them – with both a rile and a Triffid gun.  When Coker asks Bill if the Triffids frighten him he says yes, “and they sicken me, too.  And what sickens me the most is that inside this mess they are the only things that are going to fatten and thrive”.

Whilst there weren’t that many Triffids in London, there seems to be more of them in the countryside – whether they’re breeding or whether there were tens of thousands in captivity who’ve escaped is never made clear.  But they seem to be an ever-growing menace (even more so in the final episode).

A word about Christopher Gunning’s score.  It wouldn’t have been a surprise (because of period when this was made) for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to have provided the incidental music, but instead Gunning uses more traditional instruments (instead of the synthesizers favoured by the Radiophonic Workshop).

In episode five’s score, the piano dominates – and as Bill’s search for Jo reaches a happy conclusion, the music reaches an appealing crescendo.  Given how dark the majority of the story is, Gunning’s music helps to provide a sliver of light and hope.

The Day of the Triffids (BBC 1981). Episode Six

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Six years have passed since the events seen in episode five.  Bill and Jo now have a young son and Susan, the girl Bill effectively adopted, is growing up.  They, together with a blind couple who live with them, have managed to keep their small community ticking over.

There are problems though and these are mostly Triffid related.  Although they regularly destroy them, the Triffids always come back.  Bill has built an electric fence – but powering it constantly isn’t possible.  There’s a very effective sequence early on, when Jo opens the curtains to find a group of Triffids right outside.  Just the small glimpse that we can see of them makes them even more disturbing.

The unexpected arrival of Coker offers a way out.  He’s established a community of several hundred people on the Isle of Wight and since it’s an island, it can be defended against Triffids.  Coker asks Bill and the others to join them and work on a way to eradicate the Triffids once and for all.  He then talks a little about how the community functions.

Those of us all over there have all agreed we’re not out to reconstruct the world as it was.  We want to build something new, better.  Some people don’t agree with that, they want to keep a lot of the bad, old features.  If anybody doesn’t like us, or we don’t like them, we ask them to move somewhere else.

Shortly after Coker leaves, they are visited by a number of people in military fatigues headed by a man called Torrance (Gary Olsen).  The book makes it explicit that he’s the same red-headed man who shot at Bill and the blind people earlier in the story,  This doesn’t happen here, so you could be forgiven for thinking they’re two separate people.  Torrance wants to move another eighteen blind people into Bill’s community and whilst he admits that it’ll be hard work for them all to survive on the land for the next few years, after that he tells them they’ll be able to relax a little.

Bill comes to realise that Torrance is effectively inviting him to become a feudal lord.  Torrance, like Coker, is given a chance to outline how their community operates.

Supreme authority is vested in the council.  It will rule.  It will also control the armed forces.  Then, of course, there’s the rest of the world to consider.  Everywhere must be in the same sort of chaos.  Clearly, it’s our national duty to get on our feet as soon as possible and assume a dominant role and discourage any aggressors from organising against us.

It is the diametric opposite of Coker’s community.  Coker wants to build something new and different, whilst Torrance is seeking to rebuild the new world very much along the lines of the old.  Given that there’s been a general feeling throughout the story that any rebuilding must be an improvement on the old ways, it’s no surprise that Bill and the others reject Torrance’s offer and they leave him and his men to deal with the Triffids whilst they head for the Isle of Wight.

Earlier in the episode, Bill and Jo discuss exactly how the catastrophe happened.  Jo, like many people, believes that the comet was a natural phenomenon, but Bill isn’t so sure.

Do you know how many satellites were going round up there?  How many weapons?  Or what was in the weapons?  They never told us.  They never asked us.  I suppose one of these weapons had been specially constructed to emit a radiation that our eyes couldn’t stand.  Something that would burn out the optic nerve.  Suppose there was an accident.  This weapon would operate at low levels, only blinding people they wanted to blind.  But after the accident, it went off so far up that anyone on earth could receive direct radiation from it.

Back in 1981 this would have seemed horribly possible, so when you realise that it was part of Wyndham’s novel (published in 1951, six years before the first satellite was launched) it’s an impressive feat of prediction for him to anticapte the weaponising of space.  Torrance’s aggressive militarism seems set to repeat these same mistakes, so it’s understandable that Bill and his friends reject him.

In conclusion, this is a creepily effective serial that has only improved with age.  It naturally had a limited budget, so in earlier episodes it couldn’t show the devastation of London in any particular detail – but it did manage to efficiently imply it via sound effects (gunshots, cries, etc).  If you want to watch a faithful adaptation of the novel, then this is the only one to go for – as both the film and the 2009 TV version veer wildly from Wyndham’s original.

Something of a classic, this deserves a place in anybody’s collection.