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THE CULT OF... DOOMWATCH


DOOMWATCH BBC4 DOCUMENTARY 
This lighthearted documentary on Doomwatch was broadcast on BBC4 in 2006. It featured new interviews with the actors and production team. The Cult of.. looks behind the scenes of Doomwatch and reveals the inspiration for their the stories and discovers the team behind the programme knew they were upsetting the government and big business and Robert Powell explains why he left the show at the height of its popularity. The documentary also demonstrates that despite the show's foresight, how they misjudged the changing gender politics of the early 70’s and also exposes a behind the scenes rift between the show's creators and its producer.

A television programme that sees its title transfer to the dictionary is clearly special. And any TV drama that can make serious claims to putting the debate about lead in petrol into the mainstream must be said to have had a lasting impact... Created by Dr. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, the men who gave the world Dr. Who's Cybermen. Doomwatch took real scientific advances and created stories around them that exaggerated their dangers to apocalyptic levels. Audiences tuned in in their millions and the press discovered that Pedler and the production team had an uncanny knack for predicting disaster.

Production

Narrated by Robert Llewellyn, Archive Ronald Grant, Camera Steve Plant, Steve Lidgerwood, Martin Bobbin, Sound Phil Clayton, Dave Barbants, Steve Hodge
Produced and Directed by Tony Followell  Series Director, Angus McIntyre
Executive Producers, Toby Stevens, Alan Tyler
Associate Producer Patricia Wink
Made by BBC Scotland
 

TX: Tuesday 21st November 2006 @ 20:30-21:00 Running Time: 30 minutes




The documentary was accompanied by the only BBC repeat of an episode of DOOMWATCH - Tomorrow, the Rat. Tuesday 21st November 2006 @ 19:10-20:00pm

The Cult of… Doomwatch
Transcribed by Scott Burditt


Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Before Doomwatch came along, terrified science fiction characters weren’t unusual, but as viewers we never got too scared, because we knew it couldn’t possibly happen to us...

Robert Powell - Toby Wren
At least half the stories that we were doing, came true.

Jean Trend - Dr. Fay Chantry
So the papers would say this is Doomwatch, Doomwatch predicted this.

Robert Powell - Toby Wren
I didn’t think anybody was aware of the effect it would have, none of us.

Steve O’ Brien (SFX)
It’s a slightly paranoid series, and a very dark edged series, but it had amazing public impact at the time.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
At the start of the 1970’s, 3 series of Doomwatch left up to 13 million BBC One viewers open mouthed, by taking genuine scientific advances and showing us what might happen, if they went horribly wrong.

Jean Trend - Dr. Fay Chantry
It was science, but it related absolutely to us to everybody, it wasn’t just to people who were scientifically minded.

Kim Newman
It has all the strengths of good scary suspenseful TV, but in between it just hit you with fact after fact after fact.

Steve O’ Brien (SFX)
There is a slightly apocalyptic quality to Doomwatch, it’s what happens when technology goes wrong.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
What made Doomwatch different was that it’s apocalyptic stories came true, scaring the press and the public witless and choosing the stories for the Doomwatch team to investigate was a real scientist with a nightmare vision of the future.

Kit Pedler – Doomwatch co-creator
I think the public now, is inaccurately and incompletely informed. Now there’s nothing wrong it seems to me with the proper presentation of data in an attractive way to the public repeatedly, providing the data is accurate.

Robert Powell  - Toby Wren
Doomwatch wouldn’t have existed without Kit, Kit was the extraordinary brain behind it.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Doctor Kit Pedler was the co-creator of Doomwatch, he was an all round scientist and one of the nation’s first high profile environmental campaigners. Kit had the knowledge to make his vision of the future convincing and from the very first episode (The Plastic Eaters), his cautionary tails opened eyes to some very real dangers.

Robert Powell –Toby Wren
The idea of a virus that can consume plastic,as a way of getting rid of the problem of landfill… what happens if the virus gets out, when everything in our lives is made of plastic.

Martin Worth - Writer
As far as I remember it took place on an airliner and all the plastic began to melt in the aeroplane you see, so everyone assumed that this was going to be real science fiction stuff, but halfway through the programme, or whenever it was you came to this lot in London called Doomwatch.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
The Doomwatch department was a small team of government crack scientists, tasked with overcoming some pretty sticky situations armed with little more than sound reasoning.
 
John Ridge
So if the bug is transferred from place to place…

Quist
It would be exposed to fresh plastic, fresh food…

Martin Worth - Writer
From then on it branched out into all areas that Kit and Gerry and other people wanted to be writing about.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Kit, Gerry and the others formed the ideas machine behind Doomwatch. Gerry Davis, Doctor Who’s script editor had met Doctor Pedler when Kit was brought in as unofficial science adviser on the timelord story, and the two of them combined to create the iconic Cybermen. Producer Terence Dudley joined them to provide the production knowhow to realize Kit and Gerry’s new idea.

Robert Powell –Toby Wren
Kit was a soothsayer, par excellance, he was a genius. His was the vision he saw the whole environmental thing coming and managed to make it dramatic.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
The general public in 60’s Britain had started to worry about man’s environmental impact. After the mood altering effect of oil spills, population explosion and nuclear proliferation. When Doomwatch came to our screens in 1970, the government had setup a department of the environment and many of todays green pressure groups were taking their first steps.

Kit Pedler – Doomwatch co-creator
The best way of doing it is to go on showing the public that we are using up our planet, in a way if you can put it this way we are living on a leasehold planet and we don’t ever pay the ground rent, to show them that their way of life is using up the resources. I believe in the end they will take action and demand changes.

Robert Powell –Toby Wren
My own thing from the 60’s was going on marches against the bomb and I think the audience was probably becoming very much aware of potential environmental issues, nothing like they are today obviously, but it was absolutely of the moment and I think the audience took to the characters.
 
Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
The Doomwacth team was headed up by Doctor Spencer Quist, a Nobel prize winning mathematician played by the late John Paul and bright young scientist Toby Wren would make the perfect prodigy. He was a very intense young man and took himself very seriously and I think that’s why the public took to him.

Jonathan Alwyn - Director
People who saw the rushes kept coming back and saying you’ve got a start there, that boys going to be an absolute star.

Jean Trend - Dr. Fay Chantry
Everyone, especially the women just went mad for Robert Powell

Robert Powell –Toby Wren
I was skinny, odd looking, you know, as one critic said I had a face like a haunted parking meter.

Jean Trend - Dr. Fay Chantry
He was so sexy and so beautiful and absolutely and that’s what set Robert Powell up.

Robert Powell –Toby Wren
To suddenly have girls jumping on you from all sides, you think why me? Then you take advantage of it, but that’s neither here nor there.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Doctor John Ridge was perhaps a more obvious hunk, actor Simon Oates was also a bit of a real life James Bond, having been trained in espionage in the army intelligence core. Producer Terence Dudley also incorporated the comic timing Oates had honed in standup into the role, not to mention the actors eye for the ladies.

Simon Oates – Dr John Ridge
I like ladies and put myself about a bit, you know and why not. So he let me play with that in the series, he would put me and the lady together and we’d get on with it! It was easy to do because I was playing me.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Ridge’s humour and womanising provided some welcome light relief in the laboratory gloom as did his unusual taste in clothes. Some will think that I never was that outrageous, but then I enjoyed it, it was fun and it didn’t detract from the character. One of the directors, he said I bet you fifty quid you wouldn’t wear a dog collar through this episode. I said alright, so I when I came on to do it I’ve got a dog collar on, so I said £50 quid please!

Kim Newman
It was a very early 1970’s TV leading man, it certainly seemed to go with open shirts and the medallion man and so the idea you can be a scientist, but also a playboy.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
The Doomwatch team could have their outside interests, but in the face of reports of carnivorous killer rats, their was serious work to be done. Kit Pedler had wondered what would happen if genetically modified hyper intelligent rats escaped their laboratories and in Doomwatch’s best remembered episode Colin Bradley played by Joby Blanshard joined Toby Wren to catch one.

Kim Newman
Nobody likes rats and it’s a good terror by vermin story and there is a whole run of those and there was Willard at the time and that James Herbert crackly paperback and there was an ITV play by Nigel Kneale about rats eating people as well, so obviously it was and early 70’s thing, but the Doomwatch version of it, partly because it goes between rather high flown talk about work in laboratories and just people living in really grotty houses being eaten by rats, but it had a real sort of social buzz to it.

Robert Powell –Toby Wren
I think they sewed rats to my trousers, I mean, play rats, duff rats, we didn’t have Velcro then, and I just danced around going wooooo, I’ve got rats on me legs!
(cue hilarious scene in which Colin and Toby attempt to fend rats of their legs with sauce pans)
And I think that was all it was, and can you imagine now if you tried to do that ohhhhh…

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
The super smart man eating rats that escape Wren’s clutches go on to run a mock against the public in what might be interpreted as the first signs of a takeover bid in the Doomwatch production office, producer Terrence Dudley deemed the best people to play the public, would be… Producer Terrence Dudley, producers son…Steven Dudley and producer’s wife.. Mrs Dudley! Meanwhile some of the rats returned to the lab to seek out their creator.

Simon Oates – Dr John Ridge
When I went in at the end of, if you remember the end, which is on the floor you see a body gnawed by the rats, I’d just, I wasn’t acting then, I just went down and I stayed there and people had to take me out back to the dressing room, I was so moved by the whole bloody, yeh... powerful stuff.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
In a few days of the broadcast there were reports of dangerous super rats on the loose in Shropshire. As the press and public were agog at Doomwatch prophetic power, politicians were stirred to ask questions in parliament.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Doomwatch’s knack for prediction and persuasive storylines made the government twitchy and when the production team started sniffing around the issue of lead in petrol there was a swift reaction.

Pennant Roberts - Director
We were putting a case that you should have some call for unleaded petrol, now this met with huge resistance from the oil companies that we were talking purely off the top of our heads and you could never have unleaded petrol because the two work together like hand in glove and of course they then got the backing of the government who in turn tried to warn us away from this issue.

Kit Pedler – Doomwatch co-creator
(on location in a busy street in London) You’ve got fumes in the air, you can see them as a haze, you’ve got lead in those fumes, you’ve got carbon monoxide, these things I think have made this whole area of London absolutely intolerable for human habitation

Pennant Roberts - Director
I think that the different relationship between the BBC and the government of the day and I think the BBC took its responsibilities quite seriously, it would therefore would not have been deflected by the fact that under secretaries of state were trying to interfere with the making of the programme, in fact it probably would have indicated they must have been on the right track

John Paul in character as Doctor Spencer Quist
A spokesman said it was prepared to anticipate government legislation by announcing a 25% reduction in the British standards maximum lead level in petrol, but that the consumer must be prepared to pay upwards of 2p more per gallon.

Pennant Roberts - Director
It’s quite good to look back and think, well maybe we did our little bit then in establishing unleaded petrol, not only in the UK but probably around the world.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
And fiction could mirror fact. On screen the Doomwatch teams investigations were also treated with suspicion by government. I didn’t get where I am today without knowing a bureaucrat when I see one.

Kim Newman
John Barron (The Minister) in Doomwatch would come in as this smarmy old school tie cover up bloke who would give the hero a hard time. Our heros spend half their time struggling against the the villains, and the other half dealing with the form filling and the beurocracy and smug civil servants and nobody liked civil servants in the 70’s.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Doomwatch took on not only the government but also big business, yet surely there was a limit to the number of provocative and prophetic storylines that the Doomwatch team could come up with.

Martin Worth - Writer
The ideas was, nobody was ever short of ideas for Doomwatch, you’d only got to open any paper really and see oh this is to something.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis weren’t the modern equivalent to Nostradamus, They scoured newspapers and magazines for scientific snippets, took them to a terrible extreme, put them on TV and provoked headline after headline. Clever, but the real trick was knowing which stories to go for and how to give them impact.

Robert Powell –Toby Wren
The one I remember quite vividly was the absorption of hormones from fish farming, so that all these guys who were involved with fish farming were all growing breasts and becoming..and having a tough time.

Kim Newman
And usually what they would do is have sort of half an hour of editorial and say here’s this problem that’s happening with noise pollution or genetic engineering or atomic energy and then it boils down to a suspense situation to people who are put into actual danger by the errors of science.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Kit and Gerry’s brand of dramatised apocalyptic crystal ball gazing chimed with over 10 million viewers, garnered countless newspaper headlines and prompted thousands of letters of praise, but others wrote to question the programmes seemingly unenlightened portrayal of women.

Simon Oates – Dr. John Ridge
Girls, they’re all air heads aren’t they? Floating around, err so? I would defend them anyway, but no, I never got that impression, they were charming girls, they did exactly what they had to do and what they were told to do and if they came over a bit fluffy then they came over as a bit fluffy. A bit of light relief as far as I was concerned (smiles).

Robert Powell
– Toby Wren
You have to bear in mind, it was the 60’s and in the 60’s whether anyone likes it or not, these departments in government were male dominated, so all we were doing was reflecting the time.

Kim Newman
The thing that really places Doomwatch in it’s time is the character that Simon Oates plays, John Ridge.

Steve O’ Brien (SFX)
I think he’s a great actor and it’s an interesting character, but the series is so right on this, right on its sleeve so much, that when he comes in with his crude sexual come ons I think it does slightly embarrass the series and dates it.

Kim Newman
It’s the attitudes and the way he talks to women, you think sorry you’re a Neanderthal, get out of here, yeh I’m not accepting you as the arbitrator of morality

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Doomwatch so alive to our changing environment it looked like it was ignoring other changes in society, could it of passed them by that women were out and about and protesting rather than making tea? Producer Terry Dudley defended Doomwatch in the Radio Times and then announced the recruitment of an attractive woman scientist to adjust the balance.

Jean Trend - Dr. Fay Chantry
I’ve always been from the very beginning, I’d been hooked with Doomwatch and then I wrote to Terry Dudley, just saying Hi, you got anything and I remember, I’m sure he did he wrote back immediately and said would you like to do Doomwatch, would you like to play this character in Doomwatch? And I came in as a biologist, Doctor Fay Chantry. So, yes incredible.

Simon Oates - Dr. John Ridge
Yes, I think it was a conscious decision to bring in a strong lady because it was good for the team, we’ve had secretaries and stuff and air heads and she cam in with a buzz of energy and stood up for herself, as far as we were concerned, it wasn’t a matter of gosh look there’s another bird coming in, because there was this person who’s come into the team and she knows what she wants, she’s got a mind of her own, she will let you know about it, so I think it was a very good decision, a very good decision.

Jean Trend - Dr. Fay Chantry
She’s got all the right qualities, she’s got the conscious and the dedication and she’s a strong woman. It was very nice in 1970 that feminism.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Terry Dudley had brought the show back in line with 1970’s Britain. Television itself had been changing and BBC1’s new colour credentials meant Doomwatch had full realistic impact and whilst Kit and Gerry’s stories ran anticipating the future, the production of the series now looks old fashioned. With lots of lengthy dialogue heavy scenes for the actors to remember…or not (cue scene of actors fluffing lines)

Kim Newman
Back then there was a sense that television was a form of theatre, rather than as now a form of film, and you have to get past that in order to appreciate it, and as I grew up with that, I still find it quite easy to click my mind back into that set and say, oh yeh maybe he stumbled over his lines a bit there, but actually people in real life talk like that.

Jonathan Alwyn - Director
People were expected to come along and do a sustained scene that might run in minutes or whatever.

Jean Trend - Dr. Fay Chantry
In those days that’s how long scenes were. You expected your audience to have that attention span (giggles)

Robert Powell - Toby Wren
And we were also working in an era when it was very expensive to go back and re-shoot it, the scene.

Jean Trend - Dr. Fay Chantry
You do not hesitate or make a mess of the scene if you can possibly help it, you treat it as though it is live….

Robert Powell - Toby Wren
Mind you I didn’t know that…(smile) and I remember on more than one occasion just saying STOP (A clip is shown of the camera man zooming in on Robert Powell and bumping into a piece of scenery) and looking straight down the barrel of the lens and hearing…(gasp, then ohhhhh)

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Out on location there was more time to get Doomwatch’s clever dramatizations and prophetic storylines absolutely right and the shows biggest ever audience was for an episode called INVASION mostly filmed out of the studio. 13.6 million people tuned in to find out what would happen to a village if a deadly germ was to leak out.

Jonathan Alwyn - Director
I did say it was a bit of a tall order actually, (laughs) we’ve got to evacuate a whole village and Terry said that’s simple, I know exactly where you can do it. Go up to Grassington in Yorkshire in the Dales.

Martin Worth - Writer
I got the idea from it because Kit and Gerry said to me maybe we could do something on the anthrax scare.
 
Jonathan Alwyn - Director
And we had to get the co-operation of the army to come in and we had to evacuate the square and by my next morning they came hurtling in on these tanks and military vehicles and practically demolished the chemist shop on the way down the hill and what nobody thought of was when they came down this marvelous cobbled square and swung round to a halt, the cobbles started to come up (laughs). So altogether it was only by being terribly nice and understanding people that we didn’t actually end up at total odds with village of Grassington.

Martin Worth - Writer
It had a very moving and very sinister ending to it (clip shown of the end) and the expression on John Pauls face (Quist), I can’t do it or act it but the implication was “No, your never going to come back, you think you are but you never are) and that was the strength of it. People, everybody watching that episode said this could happen to us.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
That could happen to us aspect of the show helped to make Doomwatch a huge success and with no shortage of what if.. stories available to the writers the Doomwatch team would go on saving the day week after week…surely? (clip shown of Toby Wren defusing a bomb in Survival Code)

Robert Powell - Toby Wren
The beeb (BBC) amazingly didn’t make me sign an option for another series, so halfway through the making of Doomwatch after about six episodes when it was going, when it was actually on air, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis came and said well now obviously it’s a hit you’ll stay, and I said no, the bigger the hit the more I want to go. I don’t have a family I don’t have a wife, why would I want to get lumbered with one show and they said are you absolutely sure and they said well how do you want to go? Irrevocably, I’ll go in bits...Blow me up…and that’s what they did. The Radio Times in fact, and I know this is a fact, got more letters about that than any other subject since the war. I mean it’s classic isn’t it, you have a hero defusing a bomb, heroes don’t blow themselves up, they survive, (re emphasising) they don’t. So, they were in shock.

Kim Newman
It was one of the first shows I can remember, that did that thing of killing off the most popular character in a shock surprise way, which is one of those things, it’s always a good idea to do, because you get a lot of buzz from it, then people worry that the shows never quite the same afterwards.

Simon Oates - Dr. John Ridge
A great loss to me, to us, to the series and as that series went on the ideas were harder to find I think and whether there were some tensions of who was really in charge of the show, the writers or the producer I don’t know but it got to a point where I thought, well I think enough’s enough.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Tensions had been building in the production office and it was very much about who was in charge. Producer Terence Dudley had been instrumental in giving Doomwatch it’s dramatic power and having written, directed and even acted on the series he had his own clear idea about where it should be heading.

Martin Worth - Writer
Dudley was a delightful character, a big burly man, a big guy, very genial, very erudite, very witty, very entertaining person, but my god he wants everything done his way. The door of Terence Dudley’s office was always just open and Terry was sitting there waiting for me to come and as soon as he saw me in the corridor he’d grab me, come in, and he made me sit down for forty five minutes, he totally rubbished Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, it was awful what these two were up to etc. etc… I had to take all this and then as I came out of his office three quarters of an hour later, Gerry’s office was bang next door and Gerry had got his door open and he’d listened to all this and pulled me in and said, What’s that b*****d been telling you about me? And it was perfectly obvious that this could not go on and because of their relationship with Terence Dudley, it wasn’t surprising that Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis resigned.

Robert Powell - Toby Wren
I think probably Terence wanted to take it into a slightly more melodramatic area and Kit wanted to keep it scientific and bless his heart, he had my backing on that.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Doomwatch came to an end in 1972 after three ground breaking series, the title of the show entered the dictionary and the government even considered setting up a real Doomwatch style unit and despite the fact the BBC wiped some of the original episodes, those that survived were repeated in the 1990’s. More recently still Channel 5 asked a writer to come up with plot ideas for a revival.

Kim Newman
He went to his new scientists and he went in with his pitches for what the story was going to be about, and he said here’s this cutting edge thing that’s going to happen, we are going to do this story and every single thing he said they’d done on the original show.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Kit Pedler, Gerry Davis and Terrence Dudley had all contributed mightily to the prophetic dark edged and deeply influential Doomwatch.

Robert Powell - Toby Wren
Doomwatch, I owe the rest of my career to, I don’t mind saying that.

Robert Llewellyn - Narrator
Kit Pedler continued to lecture on the environment until his death in 1981. By which time the issues he’d helped to bring to the publics attention were becoming mainstream social and political concerns.

Simon Oates - Dr. John Ridge
You couldn’t have done something like that and not been touched by it, and I was touched by it, yeh.

Jean Trend - Dr. Fay Chantry
Kit Pedler, you are greatly missed.

1 comment:

  1. you can see the docu here
    http://youtu.be/WrFdHqWm6gs

    ReplyDelete