A rare treat from the archives of 1960s British TV makes its way to DVD for the first time in the form of the rarely seen drama “Undermind” – an eleven-part series which blends crime drama and science fiction in an original way and was originally broadcast in 1965 by Associated British Corporation (otherwise known as ABC, or ABC Weekend Television), the original home of “The Avengers”. Once thought to be all but lost bar three episodes, the whole thing has recently been re-discovered in the Studio Canal vaults and made available on this 3-disc set, released by the fabulous Network Releasing. Created by Robert Banks Stewart, who later devised family detective shows “Shoestring” and “Bergerac”, produced “The Darling Buds of May” and wrote for many of Britain’s best loved series during the course of his lengthy career, including scripts for “Callan”, “The Avengers”, “The Sweeney” and most notably two classic serials from Tom Baker’s tenure on DOCTOR WHO – “Terror of the Zygons” and “The Seeds of Doom” -- during key years when the show was produced and script edited by Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, “Undermind” will be of particular interest to fans of the latter TV institution in particular, since many of its scripts turn out to have been provided by top WHO alumni: among them, the programme’s first ever story editor and writer of 1960s DOCTOR WHO serials such as “The Crusade” and “The Wheel in Space”, David Whitaker, contributes several key episodes here; and Bill Strutton (“The Web Planet”) and Robert Holmes himself also contribute -- Holmes even wrapping up the whole story in a two-part end-of-series ‘finale’.
Produced by Michael Chapman (“The Bill”) and directed by a cache of directors whose names will be familiar from the credits of pre-film series episodes of “The Avengers” (Bill Bain, Raymond Menmuir, Laurence Bourne), “Undermind” belongs to an era of TV production when almost everything apart from brief pre-filmed inserts was shot ‘as live’ in the studio like a play, with no stoppages unless absolutely necessary, except for commercial breaks. Thus TV from this era, as fans of 1960s DOCTOR WHO and the first three series of “The Avengers” are all too aware thanks to their current availability on DVD, is rife with cameras accidently banging into bits of set or casting unwanted shadows, boom mikes dropping into view or not being correctly positioned (thus rendering whole chunks of the dialogue inaudible) and frequent stumbles and fluffed lines or even drying from the cast!
Despite suffering from all these once-accepted norms of 1960s TV production, “Undermind” comes across as a well-put-together, classy venture with a unique downbeat tone which tries at once to encompass serious, contemporary conspiracy-tinged sci-fi that’s been influenced by Nigel Kneal’s three 1950s “Quatermass” series and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style” social paranoia, and the more playful satirical stylisation indicative of Cathy Gale-era episodes of “The Avengers”. This recipe is not always entirely successful or convincing when the cast are required to treat some pretty absurd situations with absolute seriousness because the downbeat prosaic tone has gone slightly awry and the show doesn’t have the benefit of Avengers-style irony to rescue it, yet this is certainly an entertaining slice of mid-sixties drama with a high concept which renders it essential historical viewing for those of us who like to examine how the television of the past attempted to process the burning issues of its day. “Undermind” is nothing if not a fascinating social barometer, indicating in broad brush strokes the kinds of concerns that were at the time vexing the public consciousness outside of the care-free and colourful swinging pop culture which was then at the height of its visibility, fostering a self-image enthusiastically being sold both at home and abroad bur which doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Post-imperial fears about Britain’s hastening decline in power, prestige and its waning foreign influence on the world stage after the Second World War, combined with the feeling that the country was rapidly falling behind its competitors abroad as the economy began to buckle, are the despondent themes which run all the way through this series about aliens attempting to destabilise the country by attacking its political, economic and social institutions from within in order to make it easier for them to gain a foothold on power -- with the ultimate aim of making Britain a bridgehead in a plan of eventual domination of the entire planet. The precise nature and true appearance of these disembodied aliens is never made explicitly clear; they operate by remotely brainwashing a small number of key individuals who are naturally predisposed to being affecting by high frequency sounds inaudible to the rest of the population. The aliens are wielding this power from across the Universe by beaming out a special high frequency signal, originating light years across inter-stellar space, the rhythm of which interferes with the natural brainwaves of those few who are susceptible, and which places them under the influence of these unseen extra-terrestrial beings. When tested on an electro-encephalogram the brainwashed subject gives away his/her true nature by displaying no apparent active brainwave activity, but the alien influence is otherwise almost undetectable in normal life, making it hugely difficult to flush them out.
Each of these ‘underminds’ has been sent out to influence British society in a variety of often subtle but always malign ways with intent to strike incremental blow after blow against British morale -- helping to disturb the public’s belief in the reliability, efficiency and trustworthiness of its Establishment, and thus fomenting increasing levels of societal unrest. There’s an inherently conservative agenda behind the series, then: at once suspicious of new trends in popular culture, fearful of Cold War infiltration penetrating its most cherished institutions like the police force or the judiciary and confused by the attendant retreat of deference for one’s ‘betters’ in the life of post-war British society at large after the recent satire boom had capitalised on a number of public scandals; also the rise of Cold War politics and numerous spy scandals had resulted in conditions which saw the country starting to seem like an irrelevant handmaiden to American power play in the eyes of the many who still yearned for the dwindling days of a vanishing Empire.
Eschewing the more usual glamorous or dynamic heroic type of central character, Robert Banks Stewart’s first episode, “Instance One” (broadcast May 8th 1965 and directed by Bill Bain) makes an unlikely main protagonist out of a be-suited personnel selection officer with a brisk, efficient manner. Andrew Heriot (Jeremy Wilkin from “UFO”) works at the plush central offices of a swanky business recruitment firm which uses the latest in psychological evaluation techniques and state-of-the-art gadgets such as an Electronic Personnel Selector (a wardrobe-sized ‘60s computer with flashing lights and spinning reels of tape) ‘for evaluating different “types” of people’ as a means of placing the most suitable employees with its business clients; this technology is operated from a spacious lab on the office premises under the supervision of ‘a trained psychologist’ colleague of Heriot’s called Dr Polson (Paul Maxwell) -- all of which sounds just as fishy as anything the aliens might’ve cooked up! Heriot returns from six months in Australia, where he’s been working for an oil company, selecting suitable personnel to work on an oil rig, only to find that his CID brother, craggy-faced and raincoat-ensconced Detective Inspector Frank Heriot (Jeremy Kemp of “Z Cars”), has become involved in a very public scandal at home after bringing charges of assault against a well-known, tweed-suit-clad MP on the Government Front Bench, the right honourable Hugh Bishop (Tony Steedman). Bishop pleads his innocence, claiming Heriot attacked him first while he was out and about in a public park walking the family dog, and that he merely defended himself, but is found guilty (and fined £3 pounds!), then later commits suicide from the shame of having his proud honour besmirched. However, Frank’s behaviour is so odd, uninvolved and detached that his brother begins to think something is wrong with him; he’s already broken up with his adoring wife Anne over his lack of emotion, and shows little remorse or concern about the death of Bishop. Drew decides to use Polson’s arsenal of psychological evaluation gadgets on his brother to try and get to the bottom of his strange behaviour, and discovers that Frank appears to be almost like a zombie that’s merely going through the motions of human behaviour, according to his brainwave readings, which display bewilderingly abnormal responses to the questions asked during a verbal test. Polson recalls a similar case involving an air traffic controller who deliberately crashed a plane a few months earlier. A series of clues leads to the discovery that pet dogs have been reported as going out of control contemporaneously with all the anomalous incidents of subversion or sabotage (including Bishop’s own) and the trio come to realise that someone is manipulating the minds of well-placed people in high places or in respected institutions, in order to undermine the foundations of society – managing to somehow reprogram them using high-pitched rhythmic signals!
A likeable, but ordinary civil servant-type in a drab suit and tie, Drew Heriot teams up with Frank’s concerned wife Anne for the rest of the series while Anne and Frank’s children are packed off to some unseen nanny and never mentioned again. Occasionally they are to be joined in their investigations by an upbeat science fiction writer-friend of Drew’s called Val Randolph (played by Denis Quilley) who is on hand to supply out-of-this-world reasoning as to the alien intelligence’s ultimate aims. Anne is played by Rosemary Nicols and looks positively middle-aged in a still-pretty sort of way here, in her ‘’60s housewife’ persona, in comparison to the glamorous computer expert Annabelle Hurst which she played in the camp 1970s ITC action film series “Department S” a few years later opposite Peter Wyngarde’s Jason King. The duo make for a believable male-female team-up that nevertheless often seems a bit too quick to trust people in a world in which the alien menace quickly proves itself rather more subtle in its methods of influence than is at first apparent.
After the brainwashed Frank attempts to hire an underworld contact to kill his own brother, but ends up falling foul of the same hitman himself, Heriot and Anne team up to investigate different aspects of the insidious, subversive menace they’ve accidently learned now threatens the country after the dying Frank divulges that there are ‘more like us’ out there, waiting to sow discontent and unrest throughout the country. The first episode plays it more-or-less straight, despite the science fiction concept underpinning events -- setting aside the usual trappings of the genre for a shadowy paranoid detective vibe, with the protagonists following apparently mundane clues throughout the episode only to arrive at a rather outlandish, aliens-are-coming conclusion. For the second instalment, “Flowers of Havoc”, Robert Banks Stewart attempts to foster an atmosphere more in keeping with tongue-in-cheek charm of “The Avengers” after a coded postcard addressed to Frank and sent from one of his undermind associates, leads Drew and Anne to the picturesque seaside resort of Welling-on-sea, which is in the grip of a spate of teenage vandalism and coastal rioting courtesy of that contemporary 1960s youth scourge, gangs of rampaging mods and rockers!
The contemporary relevance of this subject is well-known, but the episode is illustrative of the series’ clever use of its central science fiction concept as a means of staging drama around the various related stands of the topic in hand. In the course of trying to figure out who is the undermind behind the church vandalism plaguing the town, Drew and Anne come into contact with the various competing players who could each be involved: in this case they’re headed by a small town tycoon called Ogilvie (Glynn Edwards) who owns the local ‘boathouse’ cafe ‘Beat joint’ where the troublesome teens congregate, and which the locals suspect might be the flashpoint for the trouble; and the liberal C of E vicar of St Winifred’s Church, the reverend Austin Anderson, who tries to build bridges with the local kids by donning leathers and going out biking with all the delinquent rockers in the area (played by a camp-as-you-like-it Michael Gough who makes his entrance clambering from a motorbike surrounded by young teenage toughs, with the feyly delivered line ‘you’ve caught me in one of my racier moments … keeping the lads company!’). There’s a prim church organist called Mrs Strickland (‘a lot of us have the feeling that one of these days, the whole place will be torn apart by teenagers – it only needs a spark’) who could be vandalising the church herself, and a freelance newspaper photographer who might also be behind the plot to incite rioting and disorder by publicising the troubles and making it a focal point for wider discontent. The way in which the new youth culture might be seen as being ‘exploited’ as a means of making money by ‘entrepreneurs’ such as Ogilvie, undermining old certainties in the process, becomes a running theme across much of the series, but the aliens are much cannier than expected -- often using the most unlikely participant as their agent in the unfolding drama.
The series tackles a different subject each week with Drew and Anne often becoming involved by accident. David Whitaker’s “The New Dimensions” references the political scandal of the 1963 Profumo Affair when the Secretary of State’s affair with Christine Keeler rocked Harold McMillan’s Conservative Government. The episode starts in seedy fashion with a grim photomontage of the murder of a call girl in a public phone box. Heriot is summoned to a secret division of the vice squad presided over in an Op Art-decorated office (zebra crossing stripes extend across the floor and up the walls and the ceiling is painted in black & white chess patterns!) by lantern-jawed Patrick Allen as a mysterious operative called Fenway, whose department is investigating the discovery of the murdered girl’s diary which contains the names of a raft Britain’s finest beside a detailed description of all of their supposed peccadillos! Unfortunately, Heriot’s name is also on the list and his voice is identified by a ‘colleague’ of the murdered girl from his supposed phone calls to her workplace when booking his appointments! Suspecting an undermind plot to discredit him while also seeking to undermine a lengthy list of prominent MPs and executive company heads by provoking another public scandal, Heriot and Anne get drawn into a world of seedy backstreet Soho strip joints (Anne even has to force herself to work undercover at the workplace of the murdered girl while maintaining her prostitute alias – a bistro-styled establishment which conceals its true nature behind incongruous life-modelling sessions for budding artists!) and the offices of a social care unit which seeks to help street walkers, headed by Judy Parfitt as social worker Marion Gordon. One of the MPs on the list, Beymer (Derek Francis), is being leaned on by fleet street hack Tim Ellerway (John Collin), who’s on the trail of ‘vice in high places’, prompting Beymer to seek out the dead girl’s associate with intent to blackmail her into keeping quite.
Hugh Leonard’s “Death in England” tackles Anglo-Irish relations in a manner which now seems embarrassingly out of date considering what was to happen in Northern Ireland not long after this episode was broadcast. Sir Geoffrey Savage (Robert James), MP and son of Field Marshall Sir Edwin Savage, commander of British forces in Ireland during the Irish rebellion, is about to unveil a memorial statue to his father in England and has agreed to have his former enemy, IRA leader General Riordan (Paul Curran), come over for the ceremony as a gesture of peace. This rekindles old passions in his former guerrilla comrades who see this as a turncoat act of betrayal to their cause. Heriot is drawn into the case when his Dublin-based landlord pal Pat Neary (Patrick Bedford) arranges a meeting with Riordan at which the IRA man reveals he never actually sent the letter which prompted his official invite! Heriot and Anne suspect undermind forces have arranged the whole thing in order to have General Riordan assassinated on English soil during the unveiling, thus once more stirring up political turmoil between England and Ireland. Heriot suspects Sir Savage himself after he appears to suffer from hearing problems during a live TV interview, but matters are complicated by the arrival of a former IRA hit man-turned local eccentric known as Kendrick (David Kelly) (‘he’s a dead shot and a dab hand with the old gelignite!’) who makes his way to the mainland with his forty-year-old rifle, apparently looking to take up his old profession once again. The portrayal of the IRA loyalists as crusty old octogenarian so-and-sos, so out of date and out of time in their obsession with a dead cause they might as well be encrusted with cobwebs as they rail against ‘English jazz bands, filthy books and dirty films’ is a caricature which was soon to come back to haunt British politics; and the episode’s cheerful, upbeat tone (scored with perky Irish jig music) certainly strikes a hollow note in retrospect.
Robert Banks Stewart pulls things back to paranoid alien conspiracy thriller territory in the fifth episode “Too Many Enemies” when Drew and Anne’s associate Dr Val Randolph is called in again to help when an amnesiac victim turns up in hospital displaying all the flat-lining brainwave signals which have proved indicative of being under alien mind-control. The science fiction background of the series comes to dominate the story more forcefully here when information pertaining to British spying satellites goes missing and Randolph suspects that the aliens are trying to discredit the country by leaking details of its secret monitoring activates. Although each of the episodes have been fashioned as separate stories, here Stewart makes use of past relationships and former plotlines to conclude things with a most unexpected twist in a story which efficiently maximises the paranoia content by making it plain just how ruthless and cunning the undermind menace is in its manipulations, often willing to play the long game. The episode “Intent to Destroy” meanwhile, is perhaps the most tonally scattershot of the entire series, starting out with the death of a schoolboy who’s poisoned while scrumping for apples in an orchard after undermind forces deliberately replace a crop spraying aircraft’s load with a lethal chemical. The environmental catastrophe angle, no doubt inspired by the popularity of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, gives way to a plot about the London stock exchange, and the markets being influenced by a city newspaper editor who secretly makes his predictions on the advice of an astrologer he regularly meets at an insalubrious railway travel lodgings! Even weirder, Drew and Anne end up having to avert the death of real-life TV celebrity Eamonn Andrews, after the undermind whose been using the popularity of horoscopes and astrology in order to cause such widespread calamity across the nation, attempts to demonstrate the efficacy of his disciple to one of his clients by predicting the chat show host’s death live on air, and then seeks to cause it by planting a bomb in a box of chocolates given to the travel lodge’s infatuated landlady for her to hand to him at a meet-and-greet before the live show (which is to feature Sid James as a guest and music by the Rolling Stones)!
The aliens’ control of society starts to express itself in increasingly more complex ways across the next batch of episodes; not only are some being directly controlled by the alien signal, but this small group of affected people also use their own bizarre methods of suggestion in order to indirectly influence even more people, increasing their ability to disrupt society in exponential fashion. “Songs of Death” by Bill Strutton, features subliminal audio messages concealed in popular birthday jingles which have been designed to programme GPs who suffer from a certain type of mild personality disorder to have complete nervous breakdowns and then commit suicide after hearing them! With its emphasis on manipulative psychological techniques and subliminal advertising, the episode references the claims of journalist Vance Packard's 1957 book “The Hidden Persuaders”, which contended that the post-war American advertising industry had developed special means of tapping the unconscious desires of its consumers in order to better manipulate them into buying its products. It’s notable around this stage in the series that the two protagonists are themselves becoming increasingly spooked by the extent of the aliens’ powers of influence: could they even be susceptible, too? While Drew maintains an unreasonable air of confidence, Anne actually has a mini mental breakdown herself in this episode and has to seek psychological counsel from an old friend; later she becomes half hysterical after being attacked in an underground car park and returning home with hair dishevelled and bra exposed!
Drew himself is flustered in Max Sterling’s “Puppets of Evil” after a psychologically disturbed child threatens to accuse him of molestation at one point, if he doesn’t drop a case in which the chains of influence and manipulation go further still after the popularity of Enid Blyton-like spinster children’s author Kate Orkney’s (Katharine Blake) Zoomer Smith series of books starts to elicit worries in some quarters -- not least from her own publisher (played by Derek Nimmo) -- that her stories have a corrupting influence on young children thorough their Harry Potter levels of youngster appeal, especially when they begin to incorporate certain kinds of profoundly disturbing macabre elements that freak out adults. The popularity of the series even extends into the toy market which is being exploited by Kate’s lover, in the form of mass-produced dolls marketed as tie-ins with the publication of each new book. As Drew and Anne pursue their investigation it becomes apparent that not only is Kate herself being clandestinely influenced by another in the devising of her increasingly perverse stories and puppet shows (one of them features a baby being killed and schoolboy central character Zoomer being ritually murdered with a dagger!) but the person doing the influencing is also being hypnotised by the true undermind menace behind it all, which turns out once again to be the most unlikely character. Philip Latham makes an appearance in this episode (Dracula’s human servant Klove in Hammer’s “Dracula Prince of Darkness”) as a bow-tie-wearing educational psychologist.
“Test For The Future”, another episode penned by David Whitaker, is comparatively straightforward by comparison, in that the undermind makes himself known in stark fashion right from the start after murdering an accountant for a London printing firm in the opening minutes, pushing him in front of a train as he bends to pick up some change from the platform! The killer and his associates then insinuate themselves into Anne’s home and threaten to throw acid in her face if Drew doesn’t recommend the suave, carnation-wearing Colonel Matherson (Charles Carson) as the dead accountant’s replacement, in his capacity as big shot personnel officer. It turns out that the undermind aliens’ latest ruse involves altering the test papers used to rank the country’s up-and-coming research scientists, thus harming the country’s future standing on the world stage. A much more direct suspense thriller than usual which eschews the series’ mystery element while playing for a good deal of its running time on the horror implied by Rosemary Nicols being bound and threatened with the prospect of facial mutilation, the episode feels implausible (why attempt to blackmail the one personnel officer in the country who knows what’s going on?) and Matherson a cartoon villain who uses rather conventional bullying methods to keep his ex-army-turned-career-criminal cohorts in line rather than the usual subtle methods of influence deployed by the alien invasion force elsewhere in the series. Anne ends the episode by wondering, after she and Drew manage to thwart this particular plot at the very last moment, how many more undermined schemes have succeeded undetected? In the final two episodes of the series, both scripted by Robert Holmes, we finally come to understand how the aliens intend to convert the whole country to their cause: in “Waves of Sound” someone calling themselves The Traveller is jamming TV signals and broadcasting propaganda messages levelling accusations of corruption and vice in the corridors of power and industry. Drew and Anne use sophisticated computer voice analysis to finger one half of a 1940s radio comedy double act as the culprit, and manage to track him down to a converted hotel now being run as cold research clinic, where they discover the aliens have been plotting to develop a new virulent strain of flu which causes an inflammation of the inner ear that makes those infected susceptible to the high frequency alien mind control signal!
The final instalment, “End Signal”, is a clever and still-extremely timely examination of the limits of democracy and freedom in the face of terrorism, which follows on directly from the events of the previous episode and features many of the same supporting characters. Having managed to get their hands on a list of all those infected by the original alien signal while exposing the activities of the cold clinic, Drew and Anne have finally made progress in persuading the Government to act on the alien menace. Under the auspice of Sir Geoffrey Tillinger (John Barron) another secret Government division has been authorised with the power to round-up all those on the list without appeal, trial or any human rights whatsoever, and submit them to an operation on the ear which will remove their susceptibility to the malign alien influence. Aware that a second, modifying alien signal is due to be broadcast in order to activate those who were infected with the flu virus back at the clinic, Drew and Anne are relived that at last things appear to be going their way; they even get admitted to 10 Downing Street for an audience with the Prime Minister (we don’t get to see it, though) so that he can personally thank them for their patriotic efforts! However, it soon becomes apparent that the aliens have subverted the round-up operation itself, and now appear to be seeking to destabilise the country by encouraging gestapo-style tactics among the security services as they set about strong-arming and imprisoning all those affected by the signal; someone has replaced the original list with another one containing names of innocent people, but Tillinger’s chief security man Thallon (George Baker) appears intent on carrying forth his draconian programme of incarceration without appeal. As the deadline for the new alien broadcast draws nearer and Drew and Anne realise that they have no idea about the whereabouts of the real underminds, the duo find themselves forced to work alone again, but then find help from an unexpected quarter as the battle draws to a climax.
The investigative element is well-handled throughout most of these eleven episodes, enabling a wide range of seemingly unconnected but socially relevant subjects to be covered during the course of each hour-long story. The series is particularly inventive and the concept still feels like it has enough potential for a modern re-boot shorn of the limitations imposed by studio-bound settings and multi-camera, as-live recording conditions. The series works rather better when it’s playing to the darker conspiracy thriller end of the science fiction scale it inhabits rather than the campier tone adopted for some segments in an attempt to replicate that mode of whimsical British drama displayed by “The Avengers” but on the whole it stands up well and will make a pleasing addition to the collections of fans of archive TV. Network’s 3-disc set isn’t re-mastered but the picture quality is adequate and the sound, although slightly muffled, is mostly okay – except for when the boom mike operator doesn’t get to the correct part of the set in time to catch the beginning of the dialogue in some scenes, but that would have blighted proceedings at the time of original broadcast anyway!
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