Last year I was given a copy of the BFI’s Out of the Unknown – a collection of TV plays broadcast by the BBC from 1965 to 1971. The set includes 20 plays and special features, with some episodes also available with audio commentary. Although many episodes were wiped, the BFI has made efforts to restore those of which some aspects remain, through creative use of stills, audio and script samples, which are in themselves interesting.
While the plays were initially science fiction stories, there was from series three a shift to horror and fantasy, partly for reasons of cost. There are many enjoyable and interesting episodes in this varied collection but two were particularly notable: Stranger in the Family and The Machine Stops. Also notable is the male dominance of these productions.
Stranger in the Family
Pick up that knife
Stranger in the Family was an original screenplay by David Campton in a collection otherwise comprising mostly dramatisations of prose work. Broadcast on 18 October 1965, Stranger in the Family has that distinct Wyndhamesque feel I love in SF. Indeed, the theme is particularly reminiscent of Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids.
Boy (Richard O’Callaghan) is “a mutant”, with the ability to influence others to act in whatever way he desires simply by telling them what to do, while those he influences remain largely ignorant of, or unwilling to accept, the fact that they are not acting under their own volition. Boy’s difference from the accepted norm is additionally manifest in his lack of fingernails – a visual giveaway that comes in handy – although the image quality means the specific nature of this mutation is not really clear on first reference.
With those possessing such mutations hunted down, Boy’s family has had to move home several times in the past, and fear they may have to do so again as he finds himself attracting unwanted attention. The potential power of Boy’s ability is demonstrated in two wonderfully sinister scenes. I won’t give too many details here, but in the first he pulls back from the brink having effectively made his point, while the second time the act is carried through in a scene I imagine would have been quite shocking to a 1965 British TV audience. That the incident itself occurs off-screen adds to the tension – something modern drama producers might want to consider.
O’Callaghan’s portrayal of Boy was notable, and he went on to have a long, varied and apparently on-going career in TV drama – most recently appearing in Casualty in 2014.
The Machine Stops
The mending apparatus is itself in need of mending
The Machine Stops was dramatised by Kenneth Cavander and Clive Donner from a story by E M Forster. Starring Yvonne Mitchell as Vashti, the machine – a device we never actually see other than in the form of a robotic doctor – provides everything required to live in what is apparently a post-apocalyptic or environmental catastrophe scenario, which has forced the population underground. Again, the Wyndham influence is notable.
The population’s existence is controlled and supported by the machine to the extent that they become reliant upon it, uncertain how to function when it ceases to operate, and are thus separated from its security and comfort. Vashti seems to fear the machine yet also worship it, and as the machine deteriorates so does society. Constant internet connectivity, anyone?
Like O’Callaghan’s Boy in Stranger in the Family, Gothard’s performance in The Machine Stops – his first in TV – was also interesting, so I investigated what became of this young actor too. Following a long career in TV and film, including an appearance in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, I discovered that Gothard took his own life in 1992.
No children, you said
I’m going to wash up, then I’m going to bake a cake
I can only assume the portrayal of women in Out of the Unknown is a result of the fact that the scripts were adapted by men from stories written by men, with the plays also being produced and directed largely by men. Generally the female characters are weak, subservient, prone to frightened shrieks, manipulation or running away to throw themselves on to a bed in tears.
In Deathday, Lydia, the wife of the protagonist, is having a relationship with someone called David that is “only physical”. When not engaged in this purely physical relationship – in which David “certainly knows what he is doing” – she is either washing up or baking. This is unfortunate in what is an otherwise interesting episode. In To Lay a Ghost a 15-year old girl is raped while walking home from school. Years later, when moving in to a ramshackle old house with the man of her dreams, it transpires that she can only be aroused sexually by the ghost of yet another rapist who haunts the place. The strongest female character is Angie (Geraldine Moffatt) in the incomplete but nonetheless fine episode The Little Black Bag, dramatised by Juilan Bond from a story by C M Kornbluth. Yet while Angie is instrumental in developing a business relationship with Dr Full (Emrys James), she still has to submit to Full’s greater wisdom.
Although Irene Shubik was the producer and story editor for series one and two, not a single script appears to have been written by a woman. Female production roles in Out of the Unknown were mainly in make-up, costume or design – and it’s notable that these are some of the most successful aspects of these productions. In the single episode directed by a woman – Sucker Bait dir. Naomi Capon – it’s ironic that no other female appears in either cast or crew. As for ethnicity, there is one young black actor in Stranger in the Family.
A future from the past
Out of the Unknown is television from a different age. As well as the aforementioned shortcomings in terms of gender and ethnic representation, the pace was slower – much slower – than we would see today. While I like a slower pace there are episodes in which dialogue sometimes seems to ramble on as padding without moving the story along. There are, however, many interesting visual effects and sets, at a time when inexpensive green screen use in TV was still decades away, particularly in the first two science fiction-based series.
While I wish brave and to some extent experimental TV drama like this could be broadcast today, something with the quality and diversity of the BBC radio drama productions I’ve written about previously, perhaps in a late-night slot on one of the mainstream channels, such scheduling is surely consigned to history in the face of reality TV and promotional chat shows. Also gone is the off-screen violence of Stranger in the Family, denying the modern viewer the opportunity to use their imagination – a factor at the heart of good radio drama.
The Out of the Unknown box set is not cheap – I’m glad mine was a gift – and while these plays in many ways feel dated, there are some gems that make the package worthwhile, not only in terms of the stories themselves, but to appreciate the level and variety of ways in which television drama has changed since their production.