Bracing the chill of the third and final season, it’s now all about fighting and federating, as the series takes a noticeably darker, murkier, and uncertain direction.
Sam: On 16th March, 1977, Japanese voice actor Hiroki Yasumoto was born. The Bill’s Graham Cole celebrated his 25th birthday. Oh and President Jimmy Carter made a plea for a Palestinian homeland…
Greg: Yeah, the peanut guy. Thankfully he was a one-term wonder and soon made way for Ronald Reagan, who ended the Cold War. Did I ever tell you I’ve been to his grave? But anyway, back to the dark days of 1977.
Sam: Dark days indeed, but on that same day, Survivors returned to BBC One — in living colour — for its third and final season…
Greg: Oh yes I liked that. They were all in it. Lucy Fleming, Ian McCulloch, and of course, Denis Lill!
Sam: There’s plenty of Lill-talk coming up. For now, our favourite post-apocalyptic series is back, opening with the 27th episode, Manhunt. Again, the show seems to have given itself a minor reboot, at least tonally, as we open with Jack the carpenter being savaged by some dogs. This time, they look jolly aggressive.
Greg: It’s very true. We’re back with a bang and in some style. It’s clear from the outset. At the end of the last season, the balloon went up. By that I mean a glut of rather tiresome scripts by Martin Worth left us wondering if there were any legs left in this once awesome show. Not just that Greg Preston buggered off in one with that fit Norwegian bird.
You can tell immediately that producer Terry Dudley wanted a return to a bleaker, more dangerous world. The long hot summer of ’76 at Whitecross is now a distant memory. It’s all driving sleet and nomads wandering the bleak heaths. We laughed at the pampered pooches in season one — but these are real dogs. Alsatians! And they’re hungry. Nice to see Jack doing something, isn’t it? Even if it is sitting up a tree.
Sam: Yes, Gordon Salkilld was grossly underused in the last season, but was a regular and amiable figure in the background. As the carpenter, he should have had a few more useful character moments.
Remember that episode when both he and Arthur get a new sickness, killing off dear Arthur whilst Jack survives? That should have closed with Jack fashioning Arthur’s coffin. But no, nothing. A missed opportunity for drama, development and pathos. Do you feel that this new season kicks in with everything season two lacked?
Greg: How could I ever forget them killing off Arthur? Yes, I’d say season three gets off to a cracking start and resolves the issue of cosiness and complacency that had set in during season two. The community becomes splintered. Word gets around that Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch) is back in England, and Charles (Denis Lill), Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and Hubert (John Abineri) set off to find him, leaving everyone else behind.
I grow to really love this trio. Charles hasn’t been lazy during the filming break, though, has he?
Sam: He’s been setting up operational telephones and generally taking charge. Charles is very active in this season, and clearly now the leading man. It’s interesting that the constant through all of Survivors, though, ends up being gentle Jenny — especially as she’s a touch sidelined in the previous year.
But yes, we certainly kick off with drama and action, and everything looks bleak as hell, and so very grubby. It’s as if the production team decided to cake the cast’s hair with chip fat.
Greg: And do you like the change in the weather conditions?
Sam: It has a cold, clammy feeling to it. Last year’s felt warm and dry. It was shot earlier in the year, presumably very early ’77. There’s snow. You can literally see their breath.
Greg: The cold weather conditions add a layer of atmosphere and menace. There are no leaves on the trees. It’s harder on the actors, but they turn in some lovely performances.
The first episode, Manhunt, ends up feeling like a retread of The Chosen, for me, though. Except Philip Madoc is replaced by that bloke out of the Dr.Who story Frontier in Space. What did you make of it?
Sam: Ah yes, Michael Hawkins. He’s pretty good actually and almost playing the exact same role here as he did in Dr. Who. The whole thing is a mess, though. I can’t say I really bought into much of the story, because despite the horseback action on location, the interiors are shot with flat and murky direction. It feels lifeless.
Greg: And does Jenny shoot dead a guard in the closing scenes? It’s a bit of a muddled resolution?
Sam: There’s lots of dithering about with Hubert’s toothache, and June Brown rocks up with some soup. But other than that, it just seems to telegraph that not all elderly German Doctors are evil Nazis.
Greg: The German doctor is pure Monty Python, isn’t he? But it turns out everything is a big misunderstanding, and Lill agrees to trade with them, because they’re not fascists but pharmacists. An easy mistake. Charles bartering becomes a hallmark of the season. Jenny seems to kill an innocent guard and suffer no guilt pangs though. It’s almost like they didn’t know how to end the episode despite a promising premise.
Sam: Glad to press on into the next episode, quite frankly. And it’s something of a rationalised return from our favourite angry alpha?
Greg: Where’s Greg Preston? Have you seen him?
Sam: In order to use Ian McCulloch in the Radio Times listings, Greg rocks up in A Little Learning, written by… Ian McCulloch, no less.
It’s a sort of Lord of the Flies set in a stately home. The idea’s a fine one, demonstrating how a savage youth culture could arise from this mess and turn away from the support (and sagacity) of adults. But it all seems rather miscast with urchin actors.
I expect McCulloch wrote the parts for slightly older kids who would seem physically threatening and independent, but this all feels a touch too Grange Hill for me. I just don’t buy the idea of older teenagers following orders from a jumped up little Scottish kid like wee Jimmy Krankie.
Greg: Yes, that annoying brat from north of the border with his pudding bowl haircut and scowling Glaswegian features is a bit of a turn-off. I’d say this is the weakest of McCulloch’s three script offerings. It’s not terrible, but neither is it especially original or compelling.
Some great guest actors (I’ll say that a lot this season). Prentis Hancock and Sean “Edge of Darkness” Caffrey as ne’er do well traders, plus the wonderful Sylvia Coleridge as a batty old racist. Still, it’s nice to see Greg out and about in tight jeans and cowboy boots. But it’s all a bit disjointed. What are Charles, Jenny and Hubert up to?
Sam: Naff all, and we get the first (of many) “You’ve just missed Greg Preston…” moments. Jenny is desperate to be with Greg again, so bails on her baby son for a goose chase across the peak district.
Meanwhile, Charles is now wholly obsessed with federating what’s left of the nation, even though nobody can be arsed and they just want some peace and privacy. Self sufficency and independance; the very thing Charles was driving home in 1976. Is this a message about the free market and exchange being better than communism?
Greg: Well, we find out later how authoritarian the federation becomes, which makes you wonder how misguided and idealistic Charles is about the whole venture, but we’ve warmed up that idea now. But here’s the issue for me: Charles’s idea of being a one-man federalist – well, it’s not emotionally compelling, is it?
Sam: Hubert is along for the ride and for once looks cleaner than the rest. The whole shtick of never catching up with Greg is worn thin even at this early point, and we’re only into the second episode.
We know the reason why, and you can just imagine the conversation with between McCulloch and producer Terence Dudley: “Look, Terry, there’s just not enough drama in this. Now, we need to get back to some action or I’m off. I’ll do two episodes next season, as long as I can write them.”
Greg: “And as long as they can be all about Greg and I don’t have to include characters I don’t like.” Yes, McCulloch gives not one line of dialogue to Denis Lill in this season. We’ll come on to the story arc in more depth when we round up. There is a limited emotional appeal in Jenny looking for Greg, but you’d thought they’d have learnt from season one that Abby’s search for her son very quickly became trying.
But for now, Charles, Jenny and Hubert end up in a sticky wicket. They’re on a clapped-out old railway with TV’s Brian Blessed. And the dogs haven’t been fed. What do you make of Law of the Jungle?
Sam: You know, it’s one of the most memorable of the season for me. The idea of being held captive by a domineering Brian Blessed in a railway carriage is visually very appealing, and the whole thing is successfully directed by Peter Jefferies. Again, you can see the breath on the actors even in the interior scenes, and their lips are almost blue.
It all looks so brutal on the cast, and this episode in particular drives home the hostility of surviving a harsh British winter without double glazing and central heating. But again, the story is a bit thin and the characters are almost anaemic. Even Bri Blessed has to overegg his pudding to give Brod some depth. Looks great, feels real, but there’re too many underdeveloped people floating around and not a clear motivation for most. Or perhaps that sort of wandering, soulless tribe was what they were aiming for?
Greg: I don’t disagree with you, but I just don’t care too much about these weaknesses. The episode is so bloody savage! It’s also by Martin Worth, who wrote some stinkers in season two, so credit to him for pulling this one out of the bag. There’s a dead pig in the opening sequence…
Sam: Do you really think they killed a suckling pig on screen for this?
Greg: I have a feeling they probably did. It looks like a real animal to me. I read in Rich Cross’ excellent book on Survivors that Anna Pitt (the new Agnes) found that element of production very disturbing.
By the way, The End of the World?: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Survivors is a great book, but not easily sourced now. Fantastic research on locations with an episode-by-episode analysis. Costs a bloody fortune on Amazon. Mine’s signed by Denis Lill.
Sam: You’d never get away with seeing a live animal hounded, trapped and in distress like that now. I mean the pig in the trap, not you harassing Lill for yet more autographs.
Greg: I’ve waited at a few stage doors for Lill over the years. Later, I interviewed him a few times, too! That was so cool…
But anyway, there’s more savage alsatians who fight each other for raw meat – and we’ll soon discover more about why wild dogs are such a danger. But most of all, Brian Blessed lifts everything as Brod! He’s fresh from I, Clavdivs, in which he was outstanding, and would bag a Blake’s 7 the following year, so he’s busy at this time.
Sam: Brian also brings some much needed dark humour and tension, doesn’t he? Always delivers.
Greg: I find it so funny that he’s a thuggish football fan (though Brod wears Sheffield United colours and the only Blades fan I know is very refined, and even appreciates the work of Sir Roger Moore). Brod is more of a Beowulf-type baron from the fairytales than a hooligan. It’s heavily hinted that he’s impotent. Did you spot Dr. Who in the Timelash’s own Eric Deacon?
Sam: Did you spot cute Cheryl Hall? She was in Dr.Who and the Carnival of Monsters with Jon Pertwee in 1973.
Greg: I saw her name in the credits. Didn’t realise it was her without an outrageous colourful costume! But we’re onto a Denis Lill solo adventure next for Mad Dog. I’m going out on a limb and saying this is one of the best episodes of the entire series. Agree?
Sam: From dead pig to Mad Dog. It’s something of a jewel in a pedestrian season, isn’t it? Now, would you say that’s because it has a relatively small cast and the writing, for once, is focused on just a few well-drawn characters? It has a real flavour of season one and could almost be a Terry Nation script. And I’ll say it again, the sleet and freezing frog of the Monsal Dale location cuts through you. Literally chilling.
Greg: You’ve been there, haven’t you?
Sam: Back in the Summer of 2010, yes. Glorious. The chase scene across Monsal Head really showcases the superb locations, which are all relatively close to one another, including the river, viaduct and bridge to the little farm.
Fenton’s little house is actually some way away. It was rather exciting to re-tread Lill’s flight, though, as the locations have barely changed. But back to the story…
Greg: The premise is thin. Charles is off on one of his wild goose chases, looking for somebody called Tom that one of Brod’s lot says has a lot of information about the remaining survivors. A kind of Domesday Book if you will.
But he meets a refined man called Richard Fenton after being bitten by one of those savage Alsatians. It’s more bloody brutal stuff. The chap playing Fenton looks familiar?
Sam: Oh yes, television drama royalty, dear. Morris Perry. A very well-known face at the time, appearing in The Sweeney and other such prime-time shows. He also did a Dr. Who with Bernard Kay, who co-stars in this too.
Greg: Everything about this episode is good. It is just a cut above the rest.
Sam: Aren’t the dialogue scenes between Perry and Lill just golden? For once I was actually listening to what the characters were saying, and there was another strike back to smiting the study of arts and humanities when Charles demands to know what Fenton’s doctorate is in.
Greg: Like you say, Bernard Kay pops up in a minor supporting role, and Morris Perry is simply outstanding. These days he’d get a BAFTA nod. Once you see Richard Fenton with rabies, you never forget it. That piteous cry when he tells Lill what his sickness is. Terrifying and gut-wrenching.
Sam: It’s a frightfully accurate depiction of a rabid human. I’d not seen the like until fairly recently, when a clip turned up on YouTube of a poor soul infected in the 1950s. All that’s said in the episode about being cut on the face is true, and the manic foaming at the mouth is horrific.
Greg: This is the episode where Denis Lill grasps the opportunity to be a leading man with both hands. He’s simply flawless. But the tension as they hunt Charles to kill him, in case he has rabies, is incredible. I was truly on the edge of my seat. 10/10 stuff.
Sam: You think it’s all over when Fenton is executed by Sanders, for him only to turn the gun onto Charles: “You’re too much of a risk. I’m sorry. Turn around. It’ll be painless,” or something of that regard. You really think this could be the end of Lill.
Greg: So from Mad Dog to mad science as in the next episode, Bridgehead, they’re off chasing a homeopath, as the cattle have brucellosis. It’s Martin Worth up to his old tricks again. Bit of a come-down for me, this one. I expected to see Peter Davison covered in cow dung with his hand stuck up a cow’s orifice and Robert Hardy giving him a hard time about it.
Sam: I couldn’t remember Bridgehead at all. I’ve now re-watched it can I still can’t recall details. John Abineri goes topless, which is a bit much. And we spend a lot of time looking for Barbara Lott’s bloody son, who we’ve never met. Who cares?
Greg: But it has Lill in it. And he does a smashing bit of larking about in a boat with Lucy Fleming. I love that bit! And he gives everybody he meets the hard sell. If it was anybody else, it would be boring by now, but it’s Lill, so I’m hooked!
Sam: Yes, more earnest federating from Charles. As lovely as some of the photography is of the horses — it really does look like a western now, doesn’t it? — there’s just not enough character payoff here.
Denis Lill carries the whole thing, as usual, and we’re rewarded at the end by yet another: “Oh, Greg Preston? Angry fella with blonde hair? You just missed him.”
Greg: Yes, we often joke about this in public houses after a few rounds, don’t we? “Greg Preston? If only you were here ten minutes ago. He ordered half a pint of mild and left.”
Sam: It stinks of stretching out the thinnest arc possible, simply because Ian McCulloch has a rationed contract for two appearances.
Greg: It is utterly preposterous, yet we’re in for a lot more of this. With zero bloody pay-off. But anyway, that’s a grievance for later… I quite liked John Ronane’s guest spot as Bill in this episode. He died last year. But that’s about it. It’s very unremarkable. The next episode gives us something of a resolution for one character at least?
Sam: Reunion is another Don Shaw script, and he’s certainly one of the better writers carrying over from season two. It’s no Mad Dog, but it at least feels evenly-paced and there’s some interesting character shading in it, particularly for young John (Stephen Dudley).
Was it just me, or did you also relish seeing poor Jenny finally get a bath and a warm bed? I was equally glad to see Pet back for a short stint. I think you said she grew on you in the second series? I liked her from the off — the childless relationship between her and Charles was an interesting one.
Greg: Yes, Lorna Lewis does become warmer as the series develops. This is the one episode of “naval-gazing” that I don’t mind, because the child John’s reunion with his mother is exceptionally well-handled. He’s upset and confused, and at first rejects his mother, which she takes very badly. She’s only young herself! I found it quite moving.
There’s a beautifully played scene between Lill and little Stephen Dudley, where Lill is essentially the father figure. For once the sun is shining. It shades the later return of Greg, who is the absent father here. Reunion is tender, even if it is unremarkable. All of which means that the first half of season three is rather uneven — some hits and some misses. Some high drama and some plodding. Are you looking forward to seeing where it goes next?
Sam: Yes, kudos to wee Dudley Junior who turns in a sweet performance. Is that the production team trying to give us the payoff we never received with Abby and Peter?
So far, I must say it’s been a murky disappointment with the odd flash of brilliance. Slim pickings, like Hubert’s lunchbox. Sure, it’s high time we suffered some real grime and grit, but on the whole there’s so little levity, and not enough depth in the new ensemble.
Greg: Well, we’ll see if the closing six episodes change your mind.
Sam: More McCullough teasing? I remember waiting for Greg Preston to turn up in each and every episode, only to be crushed when he never showed his scowling mug. I can’t have been alone in this, and the unfulfilled expectations give the run an uneven, dare I say, misleading quality.
Greg: There are clearly issues with the production, not least caving into Ian McCulloch’s weird and self-defeating demands, but I still, on the whole, prefer it to season two. Just… I’ll give you my spreadsheet numbers in our final chat, you’ll be thrilled to hear.
But we’ll see if the second half holds my attention… until then, avoid wild dogs, bear traps and Brian Blessed. Not really, he’s a legend. A god!
Sam: Who wants to live forever? Dive…