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Doomwatch (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Screenbound Pictures
Cult TV
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Peter Sasdy
Ian Bannen
Judy Geeson
John Paul
Simon Oates
Jean Trend
Bottom Line: 

By 1971 Britain’s film industry was widely believed to be heading for disaster. With cinema audiences declining as production costs continued to rise, British studios such as Shepperton and Pinewood found it harder and harder to fill their once thriving lots. Smaller production companies, such as Britain’s world famous Hammer Productions, previously the beneficiaries of American backing during an earlier economic boom period, were starting to note a distinct falling off in the market for the horror movie -- previously the bread and butter of low budget film-makers everywhere -- which had by now reached its saturation point. Nevertheless, there was one small outfit in the early 1970s that seemed to be bucking the relentless downward trend. By the end of January 1972 (according to film historian and writer John Hamilton) three out of the four films being shot in the UK at that time were being made by Tigon British -- a small, independent production and distribution company, originally set up and run by East End supremo Tony Tenser. Even so, the gloomy economic situation was making it near impossible for any decently budgeted movie to stand a chance of breaking even in the dwindling UK market alone, no matter how industrious and market savvy its producers. There was still one old, last ditch strategy left, though, first practiced by Hammer Films’ Jimmy Carreras some years before, for turning the increasing competitive dominance of the small screen to a film company’s advantage. This involved simply buying up the rights to adapt the most successful TV shows of the day and make big screen movie versions out of them. The latest wrinkle in this stratagy was to get as many of the original cast members to star in these movie versions as possible.

 It was a strategy that was to once again prove its worth in these stretched times: Hammer managed to score a massive hit with minimal outlay in the summer of 1971, with its adaptation of the popular ITV sit-com “On the Buses”, reuniting the TV cast on the big screen to take a decent £400,000 in the film’s first four weeks of business alone. The rest of the industry promptly took note, with theatrical versions of “Steptoe and Son” and “Dad’s Army” duly following suit; and, despite its apparent recent business successes, so did Tigon -- which was by now also finally beginning to feel the pinch.

Tenser jumped on the TV bandwagon and snapped up the rights to the now semi-forgotten comedy “For the Love of Ada” … along with a then-popular BBC drama series with a scientific theme which has since become something of a minor cult. Created by former “Doctor Who” alumni and Cyberman creators, script editor Gerry Davis and ‘scientific adviser’ Dr Kit Pedlar, “Doomwatch” was a fact-based ecological science fiction (or Science FACTion) drama pitting the investigators and scientists of a newly set-up troubleshooting Government department, overseen by the Quatermass-like Doctor Spencer Quist, against a range of foes that included the bureaucratic forces of  Government, the greed of corporate  industry, and the kind of scientific hubris that leads to irresponsible research being left unchecked until disaster inevitably ensues. In classic conspiracy theory mould, the Doomwatch department is set up by the Government originally as a front -- merely to deflect the concerns of ecology protest groups, while creating the illusion that these concerns are being treated seriously. However, Quist, who is still haunted by his involvement during the war in the development of the H-Bomb, manages to give the department some real clout thanks to his fortunate discovery of a bit of ministerial skulduggery that gives him some leverage with the powerbrokers at Whitehall. Across three series, broadcast between 1970 and 1972, “Doomwatch” proved often uncannily accurate in predicating the kinds of issues that would soon come to media prominence; such as pollution, genetic engineering, and disease epidemics caused by pathogens leaping from one species to another -- all of which were key themes during the series’ run.

But the show’s lasting impact lay in how it drew attention to the insidious social and political forces that often effect the day-to-day practice of science in both good and bad ways. Despite its apparent doom-mongering, the show ultimately depicts the triumph of a socially responsible, rational approach to problem solving, with many episodes belonging to the scientific investigation procedural sub-genre and depicting the careful collection, collation and interpretation of evidence. Scientific ingenuity in the end has to be called upon to come to the rescue, providing the solutions to the problems it had already created in the first place through its initial misuse. One obvious problem with this is that the show’s premise is essentially office- or more properly, laboratory-bound. In order to stand a chance of working on the big screen, it needed substantially 'opening out'. The challenge was how to go about this without losing the flavour of the original series. By the time Tigon’s big screen adaptation was ready to be rushed into principle photography in late 1972, Gerry Davis and Kit Pedlar had to all intents and purposes both left the show after publically falling out with the series’ producer Terence Dudley, due to their differing opinions with regard to the direction that the third and final TV series should have taken. Davis and Pedlar were committed to the show’s mixture of pioneering science and social commentary, while Dudley favoured a more action-orientated approach, more in line with the frothy ITC film series of the day. The film version produced by Tigon encounters something of the same problem, leading to a lack of focus in the script department.

Clive Exton was brought on-board by Tensor to try and fashion an original screenplay from the story outline already supplied by Davis and Pedlar; one that could simultaneously work for an international audience, unschooled in the format of the TV show, yet still function as a serviceable representation of the series that domestic audiences would already have known and would be coming to cinemas expecting to see. Exton’s best work is probably his screenplay for the disturbing 1971 Richard Fleischer film “10 Rillington Place” (although I’d also put in a favourable word for his script for the Frankie Howard Gothic Horror spoof “The House on Nightmare Park”, co-written by Terry Nation), while his best known work consists of the British TV drama adaptations he wrote in the 1990s, particularly “Agatha Christie's Poirot” and “Jeeves and Wooster”. It’s negligible, though, just how successful Exton’s solution to the problem of adapting “Doomwatch” really was. Since the original TV series isn’t widely remembered outside of cult fandom circles, it doesn’t necessarily come across to most current viewers just how far removed from the tone of that series this movie version strays, at least initially. Essentially Exton’s script attempts to tackle the problem of catering to two very different markets by splitting the story into two equally distinct halves. First there is the island-based horror story, which feels like a variation on a Wicker Man type folk narrative; then there is the more traditional investigative ‘exposing corruption’ half, that adopts the tone of the studio-bound stories depicted each week in the series, but on a much bigger scale. The trouble is most of the main TV cast are relegated to mere walk-on roles for the first forty-five minutes, and are in effect demoted to guest stars in their own picture. One curious by-product, then, of this attempt to make the film saleable abroad, means that it doesn’t really even work very successfully as an adaptation of the TV series that inspired it in the first place. That’s not to say, though, that the movie isn’t worthwhile as a minor league example of British rural folk horror from the 1970s; it’s no masterpiece of this sub-genre, but it has enough in it to make it an interesting failure, if nothing else.

The movie was directed by Peter Sasdy during a high point in his genre career, when the Hungarian emigre was working regularly for Hammer Productions (even bringing his own projects to them, such as 1971’s “Countess Dracula”) but was still being asked to direct interesting projects for the BBC, like his 1972’s Christmas ghost story, an adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s“The Stone Tape”, now considered a TV classic. Sasdy was a perfect choice for this big screen 35mm version of a previously primarily studio-bound show that had been gallery led, with multi-camera, and shot-on-video at Television Centre -- having himself successfully made the transition from directing the latter to overseeing production of the former! Sasdy always worked with a tried and tested coterie of collaborators, who formed a kind of repertory family: cinematographer Kenneth Talbot worked with him on the TV anthology series “Journey to the Unknown” during his BBC days, and continued to be employed by the director on much of his subsequent work in the movies. Talbot also came to “Doomwatch” having recently completed work for Sasdy on “Countess Dracula” and “Hands of the Ripper”, and he would go on afterwards to handle the independent Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing vehicle “Nothing But The Night”, helping to bring some artistry only now becoming more evident, in this age of HD restoration, to what were mostly severely under budgeted affairs. His skills are more than adequately displayed in the rendering of the location work necessitated by the first part of the film, shot in and around the picturesque, slate and cob dwellings of the Cornish fishing villages Polperro and Mevagissey.

Scottish actor Ian Bannen played Jim Prideaux in the BBC mini-series of “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy” and was cast as the latest Doomwatch recruit, Dr Del Shaw, with the aim of bringing a figure of more conventional ‘leading man’ status to the film version of the series. The first forty minutes of Sasdy’s “Doomwatch” play to a variant of a familiar trope in horror fiction: the stranger who finds himself an outcast amongst an insular, close-knit, taciturn and hostile community, in this case on a remote fictional Cornish island called Balfe. Shaw is sent there by Doomwatch to check up, in the aftermath of an oil spill, on the ecological effects of the disaster, taking samples from the local fauna; but he finds a community beset by violence and even child murder, with locals colluding in the cover-up by disposing of bodies in dense woodland by night while harbouring other islanders who’ve started metamorphosing into deformed, troglodyte killers. Another non-native outsider, recently come to live on the island to work as a local schoolteacher, is Victoria Brown (played by Judy Geeson – another piece of ‘star’ casting, meant to open out the film’s appeal to audiences outside that of the original series). Victoria is a woman caught between her commitment to the new life she has made for herself on Balfe, in what should be an idyllic escape from the demands of urban living, and her recognition that insularity and superstition are sure to be the death of this simpler way of life that the community thinks it is preserving by closing down any prospect of help from outside because it (mistakenly) thinks it is cursed with the effects of generations of inbreeding.

In the second part of the film, the action shifts to Doomwatch headquarters, and the more familiar members of the team take over the lion’s share of the legwork as they uncover the true cause of the transformations: an unsafe animal growth hormone with unwanted behavioural side-effects illegally dumped at sea, that adversely affects the pituitary gland, and which has been absorbed by local fish caught in a coastal region near the island, that's also being used as a dumping ground for radioactive materials by the British navy. Doomwatch regulars Quist (John Paul), John Ridge (Simon Oates), Bradly (Joby Blanshard) and Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) come up against buck-passing ministers, recalcitrant naval officials and corrupt business people in the form of slumming Hollywood icon George Sanders, in his final role before his suicide, playing blustering British Admiral Sir Geoffrey; Geoffrey Keen as a pompous Government official, Sir Henry Leyton; and comedy actor Norman Bird, who plays the incompetent and negligent  director of a haulage firm that decides to toss the faulty canisters of hormone into the navy’s secret dumping ground because it needs to save on costs. Exton’s screenplay is attempting to utilise and repurpose traditional horror movie tropes in a more realistic contemporary story about industry’s relationship to ecological concerns, but ends up falling back on those tropes to provide traditional scares in the form of Michael Brennan’s monstrously afflicted islander Straker, transformed into a deformed, drooling monster thanks to the makeup work of Tom Smith (later to become better known for his work on the “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”franchises). Composer John Scott brings a stirring score to the mix, and Sasdy’s budget extends to much larger laboratory sets and impressive exterior shots of, say, the team emerging from a military chopper  -- but this flawed adaptation never quite manages to convince like the series could with its darkest, strangest episodes, even when they were shot on a BBC shoestring. At their best, the original series episodes were able to mix paranoia, mistrust of Government, industry and science to much more effective and often much weirder ends than are achieved by this ultimately rather conventional potboiler. This new HD restoration does manage to enhance the viewing experience of the film enough to make it a great deal easier to appreciate than it once was, though -- bringing out the bucolic delight of some of the more beautiful Cornish locations handsomely. The Blu-ray contains no extra features.        

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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