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Terry Nation’s Survivors rediscovered – Season 1, episodes 7 to 13

An extended retrospective of the seminal 1970s’ BBC drama series which imagined how the modern world would adapt, and survive, following a devastating plague.

Title caption for Survivors Credit BBC Worldwide
Title caption for Survivors Credit BBC Worldwide

Greg Jameson and Samuel Payne are back on the trail of Terry Nation’s seminal drama Survivors — a series which imagined how the modern world would adapt, and survive, following a devastating plague.

As they journey through the final episodes of the first season from 1975, Greg and Sam encounter a range of new characters, a surprising shift in production style, and a harrowing study of crime and punishment in a brave new world.

 

Greg: So here we are again. How have you been? I’m still binge-watching Survivors — and now have a friend at work hooked!

Sam: How so? Did you loan them your VHS cassette recordings? Did they find copies on laserdisc at the Virgin Megastore? I like to think their interest has been piqued by our earlier appraisal of episodes 1 to 6.

Greg: It’s all on YouTubes. I mentioned it in a team meeting, and sent a link to episode one to show how prophetic the title sequence is, as I don’t think anyone believed me that a show from 1975 could predict 2020 quite so accurately.

Anyway, clearly she watched beyond the title sequence. It must be Talfryn Thomas. Star quality, see. Anyway, have you had the sickness?

Sam: Ah, Talf “The Teeth” Thomas, who plays hobo come-post-apocalyptic-poacher Tom Price. We spoke about him at length last time. I’m glad that there’s plenty more to say about him in these next few episodes.

So, we left things with Abby Grant deciding not to continue hunting for her lost son, didn’t we? Now the group of wandering survivors is made up of her, Greg Preston, Jenny Richards and two kids they’ve picked up called Lizzie and John — the latter showcasing a brave but spectacular lack of acting ability.

Up to now, there’s lots of driving around in a van. It feels a bit like a muddy version of Scooby Doo. They even have a dog…

Greg: Yes! Ben the dog! He pops in and out infrequently, doesn’t he? I’m sure there’s a whole heap of continuity issues caused by that wandering mutt.

The very next episode, Starvation, sees the mutt joining a pack of wild dogs for larks. Only the dogs decide they want to eat Greg, Jenny and the kids, who are consequently stuck in a van outside the gorgeous Hampton Court Castle (no, not that one — one in Herefordshire!) that will play a major part in the rest of series one.

Sam: Those hounds are supposed to be potentially rabid. Our cast are terrified of them. But they all look like shampooed poodles and docile show dogs. I’ve seen more threatening rabbits.

1975 finalists for Best in Show in Starvation. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Down Shep! Rabid dogs look more like 1975 Best in Show finalists in ‘Starvation’. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg: It’s more like an episode of Crufts than anything else. You almost expect Peter Purves to pop up and give them marks for grooming.

Meanwhile, we’re getting to see a glimpse of the real Tom Price, aren’t we?

Sam: Yes, Welsh Icon Tom Price has broken away from the group — again — after joining Wormley’s corrupt socialist mob. Deciding that particular strand of communism isn’t for him, he’s gone independent with a cache of artillery in a van and is being a bit, well, shady with a starving woman…

Greg: Tom Price is offering food to women in return for “favours”. He doesn’t specify what these may be, but he doesn’t need to. The young woman Wendy is clearly scared of him, and creeped out.

Price is such a randy old goat he’d probably also go for the elderly Jewess, Emma Cohen, played by Hana-Maria Pravda. Not the most memorable character, is she? But at least there’s another aspect of a representative cross-section of society. Abby to the rescue, though. She pours cold water on Tom Price’s ideas.

Sam: Did you know Hana-Maria Pravda had a rather remarkable life? Survived Auschwitz and wrote a few books about her experience in her 90s. She only passed away relatively recently. But yes, her clucking Mother Goose character is a bit of a chore.

Greg: Amazing to hear that about Hana-Maria Pravda, I had no idea, but she is of course of the right age to have been affected, as a European Jew. I just wish they’d found more to do with her character.

Sam: She’s just there to nanny the kids, but does at least demonstrate the real support grandparents provide in a working tribe, i.e. looking after babies whilst others hunt and gather.

Aside from introducing a few more figures to the regular cast, does this episode do much to explore the real problem of starvation post-civilization?

Greg: No, not really. It is a slight dip in quality. But it does establish Hampton Court Castle as the gang’s new permanent home, and introduce the lovely Wendy and Emma. It also sets up something for later, which is a hint at the scale of the repulsiveness of Tom Price.

In this episode, Abby shoves him in the back of a van and locks him in, keeping him there overnight. Then Greg, having rid himself of canine problems, threatens Tom with a shotgun. It’s a sign of things to come. But the first run-of-the-mill episode.

We’ve also completely lost film footage by now. 16mm out, it’s all on tape…

Sam: The move to videotape is really interesting and something of technical note, as it immediately changes the aesthetic of the series. We’re no longer jumping from grainy location footage to studio videotape, so there’s a more consistent feel to the photography.

Also, it’s a big hint that we’re going to be established at the Hampton Court location for some time, from a production standpoint. I believe they called it ‘The Grange’ in the series? Basically, I think the BBC camped an Outside Broadcast unit at Hampton Court and created an entire studio environment on location, inside and out.

Did you spot the rather dodgy shot inside the jeep?

Greg: Oooh, no I didn’t. What’s that? Is it poor quality? Or do you see somebody’s knickers?

Sam: Standby for geek fact: Generally, a 16mm film camera is a pretty compact and self–contained unit. You can take it anywhere, because the footage is captured within the camera itself. That’s why most location drama up to the early 1980s was shot on film cameras.

Greg: I’m bracing myself, like Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights…

Sam: With Outside Broadcast videotape, in those days, the cameras were linked by a huge umbilical to the vision mixing unit, where the signal would be laid down to videotape.

In order to film that shot of Greg driving, some poor cameraman is in the backseat, holding on to a camera that’s tethered to a coil of cable unwinding out the back of the moving car! That explains why the wide shot shows Greg’s car tearing along, yet the interior shot is more like 3 mph. One of the caveats of videotape on location.

Greg: Ah! I’m learning new technical things, which my brain will instantly jettison in favour of remembering facts like Talfryn Thomas and Brezhnev died within a week of one another.

Anywho, after Starvation comes Spoil of War, which I bloody love. It introduces one of my favourite secondary characters — Paul Pitman — a useful hippy played by Chris Tranchell who would go on to marry Leela in Dr. Who. As well as Arthur and Charmain. But Greg goes on his own mini-mission doesn’t he? And why does he trust Tom Price to go on ahead?

Chris Tranchell as hip and helpful Paul Pitman in ‘Spoil of War’. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Sam: Ah yes, Price is sent off to reconnoitre the store of food and tractor back in the quarry – the one which Anne and Vic had, remember? Presumably, it’s now abandoned.

Price also takes a new character, Barney, with him: a robust young chap who appears to have the mental age of a three or four-year-old? I like the actor playing him. It’s a very sensitive portrayal, where there’s often an impulse overplay such parts.

Greg: John Hallett – yes, he very sensitively plays a young man with learning difficulties. It’s a shame his career never took off, because he’s terrific.

And he’s struck up a friendship with Tom Price, who condescendingly treats him like a pet. Price likes that there’s somebody weaker than him that he can show off to. But the pair are trapped in the quarry. Vic Thatcher’s hut has guns pointing out of it, and Tom and Barney have to be rescued by Greg and new action man Paul.

Sam: Paul is an interesting character. He’s part ecologist, part fop. Quite close to your modern-day hipster organic farmer type, don’t you think? Only difference is he’s not a pretentious arsehole.

Greg: Yes! And he’s working class, going back to that old chestnut from the last discussion. He’s noble and selfless too. Tom Price mistakes him for a girl at first.

But it turns out Vic Thatcher, left for dead in episode two, is still alive. He’s not been living his best life, though, has he?

Sam: It’s a real shocker! All that time since we last saw him in episode 2, and Vic’s been living alone in the portacabin on beans and whisky – for months! It’s no surprise he’s somewhat vengeful when Greg comes along, but he’s gradually talked down.

Desperate Vic Thatcher (Terry Scully) is still alive in the quarry. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

It’s a harrowing reveal, and you can’t help but wonder if Vic is surely mentally damaged, yet he seems ok, and eventually decides to join the community back at The Grange.

Which reminds me, the introduction of Arthur and his personal assistant, Charmain, is an absolute masterstroke. He’s a Tory plutocrat who arrives in his own caravan, in a silk housecoat! But for some reason, he quickly grows on you. He’s brighter than most around him.

Greg: I really like all the new characters this episode! Vic is, of course, disabled now, after Greg’s botched job setting his broken legs. So there’s another aspect of caring for the less well-abled in the post-apocalypse world. He’s mentally and physically wrecked. Terry Scully does a superb job bringing his anguish to the screen.

We’re all of a sudden into what I would describe as the defining episode of the entire series. Would you agree?

Sam: Law and Order? Oh dear…  and it all seemed to be going so well, didn’t it? We have the beginnings of a small yet productive community in the perfect fortress. It’s taken so much work to get to this point, and now they’re harvesting their own potatoes, carrots and wheat, and they even have goats’ milk, pigs, mutton on the go.

Meanwhile, Vic has become school teacher to the kids, and even Tom Price is showing his worth as a poacher. So Abby and Greg decide the community deserve a May Day party, and it’s great! There’s a lovely big fire in the main hall, a banquet of food and loads of reclaimed booze. What could go possibly wrong?

Greg: Wendy, the lovely young woman we met only two episodes earlier, is raped and murdered. Up until now, all of the threats have come from outside. This is a cruel blow. Their new community houses a rapist and murderer. How the hell to deal with that, with no police, no law courts, no forensic evidence.

These articles are full of spoilers, so there’s no way of avoiding this. But suffice it to say, my jaw hit the floor the first time I saw this episode. It is doubly, profoundly cruel. I kept thinking that surely they wouldn’t go through and end it like that… and then they do!

It haunted me for weeks afterwards. The episode is powerful, brutal, savage, brave TV drama. You never forget seeing it. What an amazing performance from Talf. It’s surely a series high? Even if watching it is like a punch in the guts.

A peerless performance from Talfryn Thomas in Law and Order. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

A peerless performance from Talfryn Thomas as Tom Price in ‘Law and Order’. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Sam: It’s just one of those reminders that a bad situation can always get much worse. Law and Order is, without doubt, the most shocking and distressing episode so far. It’s far more harrowing than the virus itself, as the victims needlessly fall foul to something with a conscience. You survive a plague, only to be murdered by a fellow survivor.

As you say, one of the community is now a threat to their future, and how to deal with this person, ethically? How to safeguard and protect the little they have built?

It plays out like a courtroom drama, yet references on the most primitive, biblical and ethical questions; a dilemma which up until a few months earlier would have been managed by a higher authority. Suddenly, government comprises of just eight people in a room.

Greg: It’s the beginning of Greg the Cynic. He has to make choices and carry out collective decisions for the good of the community.

Sam: Even knowing the outcome, I still found this episode deeply troubling and it put me in mind of To Kill a Mockingbird in its struggle for justice, or at best searching for the least worst option.

Talfryn gives the performance of the series, but where can Tom Price possibly go from here? Even Abby says: “I don’t want him in my sight.” That’s the voice of the viewer right there.

Greg: And Greg’s shot dead an innocent man, and allowed the real killer to live, and warns Abby to keep the secret. The next episode is, inevitably, not quite so dramatic. But there’s a nice villainous role for Glyn Owen.

Sam: After that, we need something a bit more pedestrian, and The Future Hour is positively doddery. Basically, a runaway pregnant couple flees a black market trader. It plays out like a filler episode of The Sweeney, but in a field.

Anyway, Price is still on the scene. He’s being given the cool treatment by Greg and Abby, yet he’s still a much-needed pair of hands. How did you feel about that?

Greg: I felt it was interesting. Did the rest of the community have an inkling about Tom? He’s lazy and ineffectual, so why don’t they throw him out? There is a resolution, of sorts, when Tom Price goes some way to make amends, by uncharacteristically sacrificing himself.

But I feel this whole episode is a muddle, and is poorly directed. The exit of Tom Price is a wasted opportunity. Did you like it, or do you agree that it’s a low point in an otherwise solid season?

Sam: It’s not in the top set. I felt the yarn about the couple wasn’t nearly as interesting as the conflict between Price, Greg and Abby. That really needed to be the focus of this episode, but so little is left unsaid, and it’s as if the writers don’t know what to do with Price from here.

I think Price’s ongoing presence was potentially very interesting, as Greg and Abby, for once, have some power over him: he has to pay. But in the justice system of 1970s’ BBC television, he had to be extinguished, and quickly.

Greg: The whole thing is a mess, and badly handled. And despite what Tom Price did, I really miss the character, because I really love Talfryn Thomas’ standout performance. He leaves a gap.

Sam: Today, we’re used to sprawling character arcs. Less so back then. It’s a shame, as Talf deserved much better than being shot like a dog off-screen. It needed to be more heroic, if he was to be redeemed somehow.

Greg: And to compound matters, the next episode is meant to round out Vic Thatcher’s story, only for poor old Terry Scully to be too ill to film it. There’s a nice bit of creative licence…

Sam: Ah yes, Revenge. It’s the big payoff for what’s established in the second episode, isn’t it?

Anne arrives at The Grange and doesn’t realise that Vic is there, alive and well. Quite rightly, she feels incredibly uncomfortable and wants to leave the next morning. Only, Vic has other plans for her…

Greg: Greg tries desperately hard to keep Vic and Anne apart, which is helped by spiriting Anne upstairs because Vic is in a wheelchair. They meet, though, and there’s the most awkward dinner scene as Vic explains to the others what she did to him in such a way that everybody’s gravy curdles.

Only, damn it, Terry Scully is not playing the scene of his life, is he?

Hugh Walters replaces Terry Scully in 'Revenge'. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Hugh Walters replaces Terry Scully in ‘Revenge’. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Sam: This is a tough situation, as Scully has been replaced by Hugh Walters. He’s come in, very late notice, to pick up a part which he hasn’t even had the luxury of understudying.

His style is rather different to Terry Scully’s — he’s sharper, colder and a touch camper. Though that could be put down to his increasingly manic depression?

Greg: Yes, it’s Hugh Walters who has stepped in to play Vic because Terry Scully was unwell. The writers give Vic an attempted suicide, where he shoots himself in the face, to try to disguise that it’s a new actor.

Hugh Walters is fine, if a lot camper than Scully (he was splendid as Eleanor Bron’s fawning assistant in Doctor Who and the Revelation of the Daleks). But an episode centring around a character being played by a new actor is a let-down. The scene of high melodrama between Vic and Anne on the staircase doesn’t quite work. It’s nearly great stuff, but doesn’t quite live up to the promise.

Sam: It’s creepy as hell though, isn’t it? Almost Hitchcockian as he’s dragging himself up each step in the dark to strangle her. At one point, you think Anne is going to kick him back down the stairs, but then it reverses into an awkward embrace, and then more violence. Lots of twists. The writing’s great, but sadly the performances aren’t as poignant as they could be.

Do we know any more about what happened to Scully after this?

Greg: I’m really not sure. He lived until 2001, when he died following a stroke, but there’s very little about him on the Google. He was a terrific actor and it’s great that his legacy lives on. He was of course in the Doctor Who story Seeds of Death, with Patrick Troughton.

But back to Survivors. We’re now onto Something of Value. Cards on the table: I love it. Do you agree?

Sam: If Law and Order was Survivors’ answer to a courtroom drama, this is their version of proper action-adventure stagecoach western. It’s like a movie!

In a nice touch, the plot device is established in the previous episode with the arrival of Anne in a big red petrol tanker. Now, that tanker takes centre stage, doesn’t it? It’s the most valuable commodity on the planet, and the community broker an exchange for some of the fuel for food after their basement of stock is destroyed in a flash flood.

Greg: Yes, that’s a coincidence, but it does raise the stakes. If Greg can’t sell the thousands of gallons of petrol they suddenly find in their possession, then the community collapses and they all risk starvation.

A debonair but clearly untrustworthy scoundrel turns up, finds the tanker, and then plots with his chums to make off with it. I criticised director Terence Williams for making a hash of The Future Hour, but he’s on form here. In fact, the tanker sequences later inspired the climax to the James Bond flick Licence to Kill (possibly)…

A Western action adventure in 'Something of Value'. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

A Western action-adventure in ‘Something of Value’. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Sam: It’s a very Greg-centric episode, isn’t it? All action. Abby, who has so far been very strong, seems to be in a funk after all the food is spoilt — a low mood which carries over into the final episode.

But for now, she doesn’t really do much. It’s up to Jenny to help Greg drive the van as part of a convoy. On that note, we haven’t touched on the little romance at play here, have we?

Greg: No, I think it’s rather sweet. Jenny is adorable, and she feels safe with an alpha male like Greg. I love their romance!

But at the climax, Greg has taken another decision from which there’s no going back. A bit like in Breaking Bad where Walt White becomes steadily more and more compromised and corrupted by the actions he takes, Greg too is weighed down by responsibility, and his moralising at the end of this episode is pretty gut-wrenching.

Sam: And like all good storytellers, Terry Nation has brought you to the same conclusion: you’re willing Greg on to shoot the man who’s haemorrhaging precious fuel onto the ground. What was it he later said? “Is that all that life amounts to now? 10 gallons for fuel? God help us all…”

Greg: Getting way ahead of ourselves, but there’s a bit in season two where Charles (Denis Lill) asks Greg how many men he’s killed, and Greg doesn’t answer, but tells him it gets easier. Like a Survivors-own James Bond! It’s a great action script from Terry Nation (who else?), but he understands the impact on character. For now though, it becomes about Abby again, doesn’t it?

Sam: Yes, we’re back to Abby. And it seems she’s grumpy because she needs, ahem, a good man. It’s ok for our Jenny, she’s had a go on Greg Preston’s shotgun. But Abby, she’s on heat. And boy is she making it known.

Greg: She’s in a right old strop in the final episode, A Beginning. I wonder if a decision had already been taken that would influence the rest of the series’ run? This is more of a tying-up-loose-ends than a season climax, isn’t it? But another new character arrives, this time with some good news for Abby.

Sam: Ah yes, smooth operator Jimmy Garland returns and takes Abby off for a bit of fun. Meanwhile, a band of travelling folk have a sick girl in tow and drop her off at The Grange. When she comes to, she has word of seeing a boy called Peter Grant!

This is all rather convenient, isn’t it? Almost as if plans were afoot to pull focus from Abby and send her off on her own journey. In reality, this episode should have climaxed with Peter’s arrival and a reunification. Or better, that fantastic closure we get in Terry Nation’s novel, which I won’t reveal.

Garland woos Abby in the final episode of season one. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Garland woos Abby in the final episode of season one. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg: You’ve told me about that, but I haven’t read the novel! Jimmy Garland in a silk dressing down isn’t quite the high drama a series finale needed, alas. I find it a bit of a disappointment. Considering how brave they were only a few episodes earlier with Law and Order, this is playing it very safe, a sign of things to come?

Sam: I think the diminishing role of Abby, from Law and Order onwards, was a practical decision rather than a creative intention.

Carolyn Seymour, who is never less than excellent, herself confessed that she was increasingly relying upon the old wine glass at this point in her career. She was also a forceful personality who wasn’t afraid confronting the producer, Terence Dudley. There was only going to be one winner there, seeing as old Dudley was the man signing the contracts.

Greg: It’s a shame. I agree with all of that. But despite side-lining Abby and making her whiny in her (what would turn out to be) final episodes, she’s my favourite character in season one. Tom Price and Paul Pitman my favourite supporting characters. How about you?

Sam: Oh, Tom Price steals almost every scene, boyo. His absence is palpable in the final episodes, both as comedy relief and a bit of colour in dialect.

But Abby is our protagonist for the majority of the show, and she’s the most conflicted and transformative for the first half of the season. I suspect there’s a lot of Carolyn Seymour in her character, even down to how she smokes like a chimney in some scenes, and pushes back against the alpha types.

The focus gradually shifts, and it feels like this is really Greg Preston’s show by the end. By that token, it’s hard not to be attached to him. Are you not a Gregophile?

Greg: Of course I am! But Greg grows on me throughout the season. Whereas I immediately like Abby and I find her character development, up to a point, more interesting.

It’s a strong cast, and they work well as an ensemble. Now then. I have a question for you.

Sam: I’m nervous. But go on.

Greg: I think we can take the first three episodes as read for being 10/10. But my question is, out of the remaining ten episodes in season one, which are your top two and bottom two?

I would nominate:  Top two: Law and Order 10/10 and Something of Value 9/10. Bottom two: Garland’s War 7/10 and The Future Hour 6/10.

Sam: It’s not bad going when the least impressive episode is only a 6/10, is it?

I don’t disagree with your rankings here at all, but in terms of my top two episodes, I’d have to say The Fourth Horseman is an especially strong opening episode, deserving of a 10+/10 for its sheer accuracy in predicting 2020. Whilst the big finale of A Beginning is surprisingly underwhelming, and by that measure gets a very critical 6/10.

The must-see of the season is certainly Law and Order, but like everything in this remarkable show, it has full effect when viewed in context of the whole season’s narrative. There’s no episodes worth skipping.

So Greg, I have a question for you. If you were to be any character from Survivors, in their predicament, who would you be?

Greg: I’d love to say I’d be my namesake Greg. Handsome, sharp, adventurous, a touch irritable and brittle.

Sam: And cuts a lovely ensemble of denim flares, white roll-neck sweater, snorkel parka and black cap…

Greg: But I’m not a leader. I never have been. Then again, I’ve never been a follower either! I’m a lone wolf, and I find company difficult, unless I know the other people well, and like them (a small pool), and then I find I can tolerate it in short bursts.

So I suspect I would have been more like Arthur (Michael Gover). Decent enough sort, capable, but not a team player, wishing he had the option to return to his caravan and read The Spectator in peace. But contributing a pithy put-down every now and again. Yes, I’m definitely Arthur… You?

Administrator Arthur is a noble figure in a savage world. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Administrator Arthur (Michael Gover) is a noble figure in a savage world. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Sam: Well, I adore Arthur too. One of the few who talks sense and he has a dry wit. Also, his Greenwoods spring wardrobe remains intact throughout the series.

Me? I’d like to think I’m Greg Preston as well, but not a chance. I’m not confident enough to rock double denim.

I’m probably more like that New Earther fop, Paul. I have a basic understanding of the land and growing things, and I’m slightly unconventional I suppose. Happy to take orders from the alphas in the community, at the same time as raising my voice when I think it’s of value. Also, he wears a wide-brimmed hat made from a pair of old Levi’s. That’s bloody cool.

Then again, there’s somebody else I think I’d like to be, and we get to find out more about him in the next season…

Greg: Aha! So Survivors goes on! Jolly good. We should do this again, you know. It’s fun! So topical too. Are you enjoying yourself? Any signs of the sickness?

Sam: I’m learning loads about how fields need to be drained into streams at right angles. Oh and making candles from mutton fat, and boiling sea water for salt. Still observing the two-metre rule.

Quite frankly, I can’t wait for more as we move into the summer of 1976. What will happen at The Grange? Will Abby find Peter? Will Vic find peace of mind? Will Greg get even angrier? All these questions and more…

Greg: When we embark on season two of the adventure of a lifetime, and a series that gave The Walking Dead all its best ideas.

Sam: Get your parka and your shotgun, Greg. We’re off into Season 2.

  

 

 

Read the review of the next seven episodes of Survivors, season two.

Read the review of the first six episodes of Survivors, season one.

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