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19th July 2012 14:00:00
Posted by Les Anderson

Undermind

Perhaps best known now as the creator of those cosy Sunday evening staples Shoestring and Bergerac, Robert Banks Stewart had, in 1965, already created this unjustly-neglected sci-fi thriller series. I say sci-fi thriller but this is actually one of those perennial favourites, a state-of-the-country political thriller masquerading as sci-fi. There are very few genre trappings on display - no spaceships, no xenomorphs, no little green men. What we have instead is ordinary Brits in positions of influence succumbing to signals from an unknown malevolent source 'out there' that change their personality in such a way that they actively foment civil unrest to destabilise British society. The pun in the title is not very subtle.

The dramatic structure used is familiar to any fan of modern US genre drama - a male/female will-they-won't-they couple are thrown together by circumstance and set off on a quest to investigate and overcome a Big Bad. Each episode sees them in a different location investigating a local manifestation of the antagonist that is resolved by the end of the episode but the arc story remains unresolved until the end of the series. How little TV has changed in fifty years. The couple in this case consist of recruitment consultant Drew Herriot (Jeremy Wilkin) and his about-to-be-ex sister-in-law Anne (Rosemary Nicols). They are brought together when Drew returns from an extended visit to Australia to find his policeman brother Frank (Jeremy Kemp) has been harassing a prominent politician. Anne tells Drew that Frank has been acting strangely recently and Drew uses his professional contacts to have Frank examined by a psychologist. After a bit of sci-fi wibble it becomes apparent that Frank has become possessed, for want of a better term, by a malign alien influence. At the end of the episode, after Frank has been fatally wounded he confesses on his dying breath that there are more like him.

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Resolutely studio-bound this, nevertheless, has big ambitions. The tone is akin to the Cold War paranoia of pieces like the various Quatermass serials in which the settled order of British society is disrupted by forces from without. Here, though, the forces are subtle and unseen rather than gibbering monsters. On the other hand, this could also be seen as a response to the tectonic upheavals British society was facing in the mid-60s in which the old settled order was being overtaken by the rise of youth culture, pop music and modernism, as well as hemlines. Various episodes explicitly address changes in British society of the time. For example, the second episode Flowers of Havoc sees Drew and Anne in a town very like Brighton visiting a rather fey vicar (Michael Gough) who likes hanging around with leather-clad biker boys... Anyway, the episode culminates with newsreel footage of a mods v rockers riot on the front instigated by an 'undermind'. The same episode also introduces a new regular, Professor Val Randolph (Denis Quilley doing a 'Scottish' accent) who happens to be a technical expert on signals from space.

As the series progresses, Drew and Anne travel all over the UK following up leads in an attempt to eventually block the source of the signals, without ever leaving the studios of course. Location scenes are very few and far between. Having said that there is one ingenious use of the studios themselves as a location in Intent to Destroy in which a plot to blow up a prominent TV personality live on air is foiled. The TV personality being Eamonn Andrews who had a popular chat show at the time. Of our protagonists, Anne proves particularly adept at undercover work adopting numerous personas while Drew tends to stick to being a dapper gentleman although his career as a recruitment consultant allows him access to many different corporate HQs. Despite its ambitions the series was made on an obviously limited budget and production values, on occasion, are quite shoddy. There are numerous shots with boom mikes in view, props are visibly moved out of the camera's way by crew, stone walls wobble and iron railings rattle with a dull wooden thud. The penultimate episode in particular, Waves of Sound, is riddled with technical and performance gaffes and I suspect it was transmitted live or very close to it. In some ways Undermind reminds me strongly of Hartnell-era Doctor Who set in contemporary Britain. The production values and story ideas are very similar but, of course, more adult in tone. It should come as no surprise that the final two episodes of Undermind were written by Robert Holmes and that Banks Stewart went on to write for Doctor Who in the 70s. The one area that doesn't disappoint in any way is the casting. The two leads are very strong, Rosemary Nicols is surprisingly versatile and the list of guest actors includes many top-notch talents in British television - Denis Quilley, Jeremy Kemp, Patrick Allen, Michael Gough, Judy Parfitt, Daphne Heard, Peter Barkworth, George Baker, Derek Nimmo and so on and so on. This helps to make up for the physical production deficiencies.

Despite its ambition the story remains resolutely British. Only the United Kingdom is affected by the signal and there is some sci-fi wibble near the end of the serial to explain why that is the case. The pacing is slow and talky as was almost all British drama of the time and Drew and Anne seem never to heed the mantra 'Trust No One'. Jeremy Wilkin and Rosemary Nicols play the couple with a mixture of naiveté and earnestness that was very common in genre series of the time. However the central intrigue is quite gripping and I was very keen to see how it all ended. The format, as mentioned above, is surprisingly modern and with a few tweaks the basic idea would work really well in a present-day US series and I'm surprised it hasn't already been remade. It goes to show that good ideas never go out of fashion. I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in British sci-fi and for anyone who likes 60s era Doctor Who this is a must-have.

The Discs


The eleven 50-minute episodes are spread across three discs. Being almost entirely studio-bound the series was shot on video with very occasional location scenes shot on film and video. Picture quality is much as you would expect for an unrestored series from 1965. By modern standards the black and white picture is fuzzy and although the source tapes are undamaged there is occasional optical distortion visible on some tracking shots. Perhaps some episodes were taken from a telecine transfer? However, as usual, once the eye adjusts it's perfectly watchable and anyone used to archive releases, in particular non-VidFIREd Hartnell-era Doctor Who will have no trouble with this. The soundtrack, unfortunately, is not in such good shape. I found it muffled and had to rack my TV volume up to almost 11 to make anything out. Even then, despite the cut-glass RADA diction of the time, it was occasionally difficult to hear the dialogue. Although there are no subtitles there is a pdf file on disc one containing the original promotional brochure.

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Details and Specifications
DVD Review

Region: 2

Certificate: PG

Distributor:
Network DVD
Soundtracks:
English Mono

Subtitles:
None

Creator/Directors:
Bill Bain, Patrick Dromgoole, Raymond Menmuir, Peter Potter, Laurence Bourne

Main cast:
Rosemary Nicols, Jeremy Wilkin, Jeremy Kemp, Dennis Quilley, John Barron
-- more --
Ratings
Series
7
Video
5
Audio
4
Extras
1
7