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Terry Nation’s Survivors rediscovered – Season 2: episodes 8 to 13

An extended review of the second season of the cult BBC drama series, where peril gives way to pig farming.

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

    continue their journey through

Sam: So Greg, here we are again, clinging on to an old TV series in the hope it’ll teach us something about surviving a pandemic. I’ve dug out my Wrangler denim flares with stack-heeled boots, and I’m embracing some good old-fashioned toxic masculinity. Where were you on 19th May 1976?

Greg: Well now, let me think… it wasn’t long before Chairman Mao died. We were coming up to a long, hot, glorious summer… my parents were about to get married. Oh yes! I hadn’t been invented at that point. You?

Sam: No. I didn’t exist. Not even a glint in Charles Vaughan’s eye. Which is a real shame for both of us, as that means we missed out on the eighth episode of the second season of Survivors!

We’re onto By Bread Alone. It’s all about this new chap, at least new to us in the community, who just can’t seem to get any work done. He’s a right wet flannel and a waste of time…

Greg: You probably mean Lewis, since Alan also randomly appears in this episode? Lewis potters about at Whitecross, spoiling trenches and generally getting underfoot. It turns out that he’s a parson, but he’s struggling with his faith.

Jenny finds out and goes the full Dickie Dawkins on his ass, but an Italian woman Daniella (Gigi Gatti) is determined to get mass up and running again and wants Lewis for pope.

Lewis (Roy Herrick) delivers mass in By Bread Alone. Credit: BBC Worldwide

Sam: Mamma mia! Not a fan of god-fearing Daniella, then?

Greg: I mean, where did that Italian woman even come from? Why do we never see her again? It’s laughable stereotyping. Is there anything at all good to say about this episode? For me, this is as bad as the series has been, and sadly, I fear we’re in for diminishing returns in this section.

Sam: It’s the first script from Martin Worth, who would go on to write the final two episodes of this season. It’s certainly a departure in terms of priorities for survival. Up to now it’s all been about fending off rivals, tending the land, and if you’re Denis Lill, breeding a future generation.

Greg: Ah yes, that comes up again, as it were…

Sam: But for now, we suddenly have a priest giving sermons instead of doing honest graft. I found it very hard to care about Lewis, despite Roy Herrick handing over a good enough performance. There’s some old Catholic guilt creeping in as he wrestles with his role in a brutal new world. Yet ultimately, the whole thing falls flat.There’s no narrative progression.

Greg: I don’t like any of it, and I don’t care for the final two episodes either — I’m already sharpening my knives for them. Martin Worth would, to be fair, contribute better scripts for the final season, but his stuff in this one is just turgid. And you can’t polish a turgid script. But I agree with you that Roy Herrick is terrific as Lewis. A smashing actor, and one of Pennant Roberts’ ‘company’, since he popped up in a lot of his TV drama, including Tenko and Dr. Who.

Sam: Pennant was clearly a very loyal company man, wasn’t he? Everybody speaks fondly of him as a director who would provide opportunities.

Greg: But all this faffing about is so far from the premise of the series — that surviving after the death will be tougher than dying — that it feels like I’m suddenly watching Father Brown, or The Darling Buds of May. And whiffs of All Creatures Great and Small and The Good Life are still to come. Where’s the peril?

Sam: Yet there’s one golden scene to come out of this episode, don’t you think?

Greg: What was the high point for you? I’m pleased you salvaged something.

Sam: Martin Neil rocks up with his girlfriend Julie Peasgood, and Dr. Ruth casually asks him: “What did you study at University?”

Neil shrugs and meekly says: “History of Art.” Then the legendary Arthur throws up his arms and rolls his eyes. It’s a fantastic little character moment.

Arthur has no time for hipsters with humanities degrees. Credit: BBC Worldwide

Arthur (Michael Gover) has no time for hipsters with humanities degrees. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg: Oh yes! A lovely bit of Arthur! Classic eye-roll, and no line, “Oh a humanities degree. So nothing useful then?” is needed. God, I love Michael Gover. How could I forget? Incidentally, that lad would later appear with McCulloch once more in the Dr. Who story Warriors of the Deep — Penn Roberts again!

Sam: So, By Bread Alone ends on a massive cliffhanger of Lewis giving a reading next to Greg’s smouldering compost heap. Edge of your seats stuff. Tune in next week…

Greg: Personally, I couldn’t wait to get to the next episode, which had a very, very special guest star…

Sam: Coronation Street’s Roy Cropper?

Greg: Who?

Sam: We’re into The Chosen. I actually remember this one pretty well. It’s one of the more self-contained episodes that’s away from the farm and on the road. Feels like a first series outing; much more perilous, and we have the legendary Philip Madoc — in an outrageous tracksuit!

Philip Madoc stands over a young David Neilson in The Chosen. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Philip Madoc stands over a young Roy Cropper (David Neilson) in The Chosen. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg: He’s giving Anneke Rice a run for her money. This is a mini-adventure for Charles and Pet away from the rest of the community. It’s a relief to be away from Greg’s compost heap and Jenny’s relentless whining for a bit. And goodness, what a cracking story it is! An immediate return to form — but will it last?

They try to rescue some poorly youths whilst out on the road, but the ‘sanctuary’ they find is run by Madoc, who seems to have taken all his best ideas from the Nazis in forming his community behind barbed wire. Do you think they pull this episode off?

Sam: There’s no doubt there’s higher stakes now that Charles and Pet are out on a limb and away from the Good Life at Whitecross.

The two kids with the mystery illness are nicely drawn, I think, and the contrast between how Charles treats them compared to this community is quite striking and thought-provoking. They’re thick and scavengers; they can offer nothing to Madoc’s brutal camp, so they’re tossed aside.

Greg: Undesirables, expendable. Their deaths are callous and well-handled dramatically. But do you think they pull this episode off in its entirety?

Sam: Whilst there’s some great ideas about eugenics here, it’s never really explored and what we end up with is a political struggle between two leaders in the camp.

I’d rather have had Charles asks the question: “What happens when they want more space, more land? What would they do to us then?” But it goes nowhere, really.

Greg: Yes, The Chosen isn’t quite as good as it could be, but it’s still an 8/10 for me. David Sibley, who plays the sickly lad, also played a sickly lad in the Dr. Who story The Pirate Planet a few years later. Clearly his niche. Maybe if the ideas had been expanded over a two-parter it might have been an outright classic?

Anyway, we’re soon back in the lovely, sunlit countryside. Mina — remember her? — is chatting to a familiar-looking character actor who’s pulling along a barge.

Sam: Ah yes, the return of Mina and that dratted pram of hers. This is the one and only episode written by Roger Marshall: Parasites.

You’ve probably forgotten, but we had a conversation circa 2009 — I think in the Dare Café, Leeds, where you’d just seen this episode and I was closing in on it. “Troughton’s in one, you know…”

Who's this? Patrick Troughton guest stars in Parasite. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Who’s this? Patrick Troughton guest stars in Parasite. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg: Yes! It’s Patrick Troughton! He was in The Omen and Box of Delights. Wasn’t he also famous for another role, too? Lovely face. It was his centenary this year, but sadly he died the same year as Michael Gover, bless him.

Sam: He’s alive in Survivors and playing a sort of hobo, albeit not of the cosmic variety, with a horse, not called Hercules, pulling a longboat, which for some reason Mina keeps calling a ‘waterbus’. That really annoys me. Shut up, Mina.

Greg: Mina’s an odd cove, isn’t she? But she has good taste because she fancies a bit of time onboard Second Dr. Who Patrick Troughton’s waterbus — is that a witch thing?

Concocting a rouse to see the twinkly-eyed charmer again, she “does a BoJo” and knocks out a trade deal, bagging eight pairs of gum boots for the community in return for herbs and beer. Only, it’s not all smooth-sailing, is it?

Sam: Yeah, she knows Greg’s itching for a new set of wellies so heads off back home. Only, when Charles and Greg meet the barge the next day, it’s manned by two dodgy fellas, Grice and Kane — nasty monikers, so you know they’re up to no good. They also have wispy facial hair and cockney accents. Clearly villains.

One of them’s a bloody young Kevin McNally, can’t be more than 19. And he’s brilliant! Turns out the two guys have bumped off Dr. Troughton and are now bluffing their way through getting freebies from a particularly naive Greg and Charles. Psychic weirdo Mina’s on to them, but it’s too late: As dear old dithering Father Lewis confronts the guys with some spiritual council, he gets both barrels in the face. Amen to that.

Greg: That’s the jaw-dropping moment I alluded to in our last Survivors chat. I mean — my God! Poor Lewis! He’s only just arrived, finally accepted his place, and tries to make himself useful. Then BANG! Game over, mate. A truly shocking, callous moment. Brilliant, though! Roy Herrick and Kevin McNally are on top form in that scene.

This is the second successive 8/10 episode for me. Even the greater involvement of the kids doesn’t bother me. Is it all uphill to the end of the season now? What could possibly go wrong? What did you make of Troughton’s closing voiceover?

Sam: It was a nice touch, and unexpected as he’s only really in one scene. McNally also dies grandly in the end, quite tortuously, and you relish every minute of it.

An early television role, and impressive moustache, for Kevin McNally in Parasites. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

An early television role, and impressive moustache, for Kevin McNally in Parasites. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg: Yes, top marks for the villainy of Kevin McNally. I reckon that young slip of a lad may be one to watch!

Sam: Is the next episode the one to debut Greg’s bountiful binbag of methane, which is discussed at length? There’s lots of exposition about Greg harnessing his own gas, and Ian McCulloch looks less than enthused with this new character obsession.

Greg: The decent run couldn’t last, could it? New Arrivals is the episode that might as well be a script rejected by the All Creatures Great and Small production team. The cattle are eating the wrong grass, and have trapped wind —

Sam: — someone call Greg Preston!

Greg: Meanwhile, the community is suddenly overrun with annoying teens. What’s worse, they pointlessly, ingloriously kill off Arthur in the most undramatic manner possible…

Sam: Poor Arthur. He’s coughing in the first scene and you think, “Oh no, please, not Arthur.”

Greg: How dare they? I mean — Arthur! Can you even begin to imagine how much I hated this episode?

Sam: He takes it well though, and shuffles off to his bed with some dignity. I love his little home, which retains all the comforts and middle-class luxuries of the old world.

Arthur refused to change, which is why he stood out amongst all the other characters who tried to adapt and made a noise about it. I wonder what Arthur would make of Sam Smith’s lockdown tweeting.

Greg: You’re deliberately poking the bear there, aren’t you, old bean? You’re looking for a reactionary reaction. The narcissistic warbling singer of mediocre talent who ruined a James Bond theme would get short shrift from a man of Arthur’s generation.

I’d wager Arthur may even have given one of his legendary eye rolls and chipped in to donate to Captain Tom Moore’s NHS fundraising campaign. I’m still aspiring to be Arthur, by the way, even though he’s dead now. But he’s not the only one to fall sick in this episode.

Sam: Jack also gets poorly, doesn’t he? I don’t think we’ve spoken much about this affable local carpenter with a poodle perm. I like him, he’s a West Ham fan. We even get to see a clip of the Hammers playing in this episode, whilst he hallucinates and sings ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles…’

Jack (Gordon Salkilld) gets the sickness in New Arrivals. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Jack (Gordon Salkilld) gets the sickness in New Arrivals. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg: Yes, that was a bit of a Dennis Potter touch, wasn’t it? Gordon Salkilld is a warm actor, but not especially convincing, I feel. He has a likeable, avuncular quality though.

But having got rid of the young northern firebrand who wanted to oust Greg and Charles as leader, we’re left with a load of teens running around in a barn, playing silly games and records.

Sam: They’re all under the age of 25 with zero charisma. Some don’t even have speaking parts. I’m sure I spotted a very young Linda Robson in the background.

Greg: The only bit worth watching here is a youthful and easy-on-the-eye Peter Duncan, who went on to be in Flash Gordon and Blue Peter, who wears a t-shirt far too small for him. In terms of the narrative though, after Parasites, I’m losing the will to live.

No wonder Arthur just “gave up”, as Dr. Ruth said. The audience was feeling the same, and probably rolling their eyes too. What are you salvaging from these closing episodes?

Sam: I think we’re suffering from two major issues; a lack of innovative peril and an overabundance of thinly-written new faces. I mean, all these new kids in the windmill youth club — it’s like Happy Days without the banter. Meanwhile, down on the farm, it’s The Good Life without the gags. Where’s Greg Preston? Oh he’s shovelling horse***t into a binbag. How about Jenny? She’s boiling mutton fat. Again.

I must say, I did enjoy Ian Hastings’ performance as Mark Carter, the cocksure farmer who rubbishes everything Whitecross has been working on. Look at Denis Lill in these scenes, it’s really heart-breaking. The moral of the story? The morale of your community is more important than its efficiency.

Blue Peter's Peter Duncan is one of the young generation in New Arrivals. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Blue Peter’s dishy Peter Duncan is one of the young generation in New Arrivals. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg: Yeah, I get that, but the moralizing is so bloody thickly layered on, it’s wearisome. It’s like trying to wade through an episode of woke new Dr. Who. Well, steady Greg, maybe not that bad… But this is a series with a dangerous premise becoming far too comfortable. The teens make it all a bit Grange Hill for my liking.

Sam: Another stinker for you, then. Almost as baggy as Greg’s methane balloon.

Greg: In Over The Hills, we’re reminded of Charles’ former randy ways, when one of the teenage girls falls pregnant through Alan (Stephen Tate). There is a brilliant scene around a long table in the garden, under the glorious 1976 sun, recorded in one take.

It’s outstanding acting, as always, from Denis Lill, with some lovely folk music provided by a clearly bored stiff Ian McCulloch, and some cute ad-libbing from John Abineri. Nevertheless, this is the worst episode to date, following on from a real stinker. I didn’t like it at all. What were the highlights for you?

Sam: Those were the highlights! It was like a scene from Farmhouse Kitchen. It looks all too cosy. Perhaps that’s what they were implying? Calm before a storm? It certainly lacked any sort of plot. Girl expects baby; Lill throws a party. Girl loses baby; Lill throws a strop.

What are to we make of Alan? He’s been in a few episodes now. Has a look of James Hazledine after a rough night.

Whitecross have a party in Over The Hills. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Whitecross have a party in Over The Hills. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg: Stephen Tate is a fine actor, but he’s desperately searching for a character in Survivors. He is poorly-served, and thank goodness he was given an opportunity to shine elsewhere, such as playing Thenardier in Les Miserables on the West End.

So we’re into the final episode, and I must admit, pressing play on the old Betamax recorder was not a thought I relished. Do we go out with a bang (Lewis) or a whimper (Arthur)?

Sam: Well, New World starts with some promise. Suddenly we’re on 16mm film again and what do we see in the sky? A hot air balloon, possibly powered by methane, so Greg Preston is turned on.

They find the pilot dead, but on him, he has artefacts from the old world, such as a camera, maps, postcards. Could it be there’s a thriving civilization somewhere? There’s a feeling that everything is about to shift tone. A sudden change of direction, perhaps?

Greg: Goodness, I hope so! And we’re introduced to a Norwegian lass called Agnes, played here by English actress Sally Osborne. Yet another character (following Vic and Ruth, and soon to be Lizzie as well) that would be played by more than one actor.

There’s a bit more happening in this episode. As you say, one whiff of a trip to Norway in a tiny basket with a fit Scandie bird, and Greg Preston’s off, waving goodbye to the old ball and chain Jenny and their mewling son Paul as he ascends into the clouds. He can’t take any more moping about, collecting gas and building up to thrilling cliffhanger endings of a lawnmower engine roaring into life. Finally a chance to do something!

So where on earth can the series go after this? Perhaps change is coming, my dear, and by crikey it can’t be too soon.

Farmhouse cooking with Pet in New World. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Farmhouse cooking with Pet (Lorna Lewis) in New World. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Sam: True, but if you’re after a bit of practical agriculture without technology, Survivors series two has an abundance of it. But there’s a real gear change; if this series was all about coming to grips with the practicalities of mid-term survival, the next seems to be about how communities specialise, trade and become part of a larger society once again.

The theory is sound, but there’s a huge loss of dramatic tension in the process. Having Greg and Charles bicker over a methane carrier bag isn’t quite the same as reasoning with gun-toting looters, is it? Also, we’re desperately missing Abby Grant by now. She’s not been mentioned for a long time. I remember giving up all hope that she’d return.

Greg: Abby who? Anyway, what were your top and bottom episodes of season two?

Sam: Best episode of the season? Probably Greater Love, where we say an emotional cheerio to Paul. Worst? The Witch. Felt a bit like kids’ TV. I was longing for a return to Greg’s bag of farts by that point.

Greg: My highlights were The Lights of London (both episodes), The Chosen and Parasites. Over the Hill is the worst of the bunch and if I ever watch Survivors again, I’ll be sure to skip it. I didn’t feel like that about any episode in season one!

Greg and Jack depart by balloon in New World. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

Greg and Jack depart with Agnes (Sally Osborne) by balloon in New World. Credit: BBC Worldwide.

What I want to see is more Denis Lill, preferably struggling alone against the elements, in driving sleet, looking like he hasn’t washed in months, but still persuading people to buck their ideas up. That’s where I’d like to see season three go!

Sam: I have a suspicion that’s just what you’ll get, Greg. Ditch your Timotei, rub some dog dirt into your face and saddle up. We’re hitting the track to Season 3, and it’s brimming full of mud and misery…

 

 

Move on to the review of the first six episodes of Survivors season three.

 

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