Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
On 18th March 1967, super-tanker 'Torrey Canyon' rammed the Seven Stones reef between the
Scilly Isles and Land's End, spilling 31,000,000 tons of crude oil into the sea, and this
devastated wildlife and beaches. The war to limit the ensuing eco-disaster dominated TV news,
becoming the first high-profile celebrity environmental disaster. Prior to that, 'green' issues
were strictly the preserve of weirdo hippies, suspect underground magazines, and beardy-eccentrics,
forming no great part of national awareness.
On 1st June 1974, the Flixborough 'Nypro' chemical plant in North Lincolnshire leaked a toxic cloud of cyclohexane, which ignited in an explosion that killed 28 people, with tremors that could be felt 25 miles away. By then, occupying the time-space between the two incidents, we'd been warned. By then we'd seen Doomwatch. Three TV series built around a crack squad of watchdog boffins assigned "to combat worldwide pollution problems" by dealing with sinister environmental threats posed by the scientific community. The eco-warriors confront The Plastic Eaters when a plane dissolves in midair, they encounter human embryo research, deal with an experimentally mutant-breed of intelligent killer-rat, and then "we could be on the verge of an epidemic, with absolutely no effective drugs to fight it" in the episode No Room For Error.
Yet "beneath the display of social conscience" critic John Brosnan detects "the hoariest of SF clichés." If it was science fiction, it was tapping into growing stirrings of unease at the unrelenting advance of out-of-control technology, and seemed creepily close to science fact. Devised by former Doctor Who apparatchiks Gerry Davis with scientist Kit Pedler, the implication - that unrestrained research produces a ratio of more evil than good, carries the same moralising charge as the mad-scientist movies of the 1930s. Yet it snagged with the mood of the time and achieved a record 12-million viewers rating for its debut series. At the time, movies spun-off from TV were doing great box office - everything from The Sweeney to On The Buses, so following its final acrimonious TV series (Kit and Gerry were 'absolutely horrified' by the direction Terence Dudley had taken it), there was the widescreen variant, with a familiar plot dressed up with a green-friendly denouement.
The regular TV-cast were not considered big enough star-draws - although they do put in occasional 'meanwhile, back-in-the-lab' appearances, so the focus shifts to newcomer Dr Dell Shaw (Ian Bannen) in his trendy Breton white corduroy cap. He's investigating the after effects of a 'Torrey Canyon'-style tanker-spill, and the detergents used to clear it, on gastropods, bivalves, plankton and seashore life on the island of Balfe off the coast of Cornwall - with stock newsreel footage of a heaving oil-slick sea, and limp bedraggled seabirds caught up in it. Like Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man he runs into hostility from islanders in the isolated fishing village. "They're a strange close lot," warns the ferryman, with even the vicar and policeman being deliberately obstructive. Then fighting dogs lead him to the body of a dead girl buried in Bothy woods, a body that - naturally, disappears.
Determined to solve the mystery he's attacked by a monster-man in a barn, and meets mutant Brian who's "gone ugly." It soon becomes apparent the villagers are "bound together in suffering" by trying to conceal malformed people in dark shuttered rooms and outhouses. Shaw teams up with another 'foreigner', reluctant schoolteacher Victoria Brown (Judy Geeson), to discover that their disfigurements are not the result of inbreeding, supernatural dabblings, or divine judgment, but chemical poisoning from eating giant turbot caught in the prohibited area around the nearby Castle Rock. They're suffering from acromegaly, or gigantism, resulting from a toxic concoction of Ministry of Defence radioactive-waste and pituitary-growth hormones outsourced and dumped in the sea by 'Keston Disposals'.
As a movie, this all makes for a fun extended TV episode, with little in the way of bonus horror content or great dramatics, although Sasdy directs effectively and the fine Max Harris score is by turn dramatic and poignant. And in his penultimate film role, George Sanders features as a suave naval deskman. As early as 1937 he'd announced "I will have had enough of this world by the time I am 65. After that I shall be having my bottom wiped by nurses and in a wheelchair. So I shall commit suicide." True to his prediction, he killed himself, aged 65, the same year as this movie. The movie in which, after the final monstrous confrontation, Shaw persuades those who fear he wants to "kill the island," to end their proud isolation and allow help from the mainland. The closing sequence shows the results. The islanders are right - in their own way, for their lifestyle has been destroyed. But then, it had already been wiped out by the intrusion of modern world's pollution. Nowhere, it says, is safe. And - as the term 'doomwatch' became tabloid shorthand for all manner of weird occurrences, things would only get worse. Chernobyl was still some way into the future, as was the Bhopal disaster...