'You say if we go back our lives will be shortened. What if we stay here? Isn't it the same? The air you breath here...the food you eat...all the chemicals...I don't know much but aren't there poisons here too? Don't you die younger because of them?
The 200 inhabitants of the tiny Pacific Island of St Simon are to be evacuated.
The British Government believes that this mini protectorate is in grave danger following recent earth tremors.
A Royal Navy frigate is now steaming towards the island to bring people home to the country their forefathers left two centuries ago.
Ridge is taking fingerprints in what looks like a hut with a group of nervous and reluctant looking men. Suddenly, entering the room in a state of anger comes Thomas Prentice, an older man wearing a cloth cap. He is furious and wants to know why they are being treating like criminals? Without giving Ridge a chance to reply, Thomas tells the men that if they are criminals, perhaps they should act like them. He rips up the fingerprint papers and the group start to smash up the room. Ridge is held back by two of them.
Isaac Prentice is walking down alongside a row of huts, some with washing hanging out to dry when he sees the disturbance. He runs to a phone box and asks to be put through to Doctor Quist...
By the time Quist has turned up, the police are already there. The Inspector tells him that it has quietened down now, they usually look in once a day to see if there are any problems. Quist asks if this was necessary. The Inspector explains that his instructions is to help the villagers any way they can. Isaac comes over to Quist and apologises for bothering him, but he said if they ever had any problems... A crowd approaches headed by Thomas... 'There you see, brethren, the man of science and the guardian of the law. They go well together.' Quist asks what all this is about? 'I thought you were our friend, the only man who understood our problems.' 'I try my best.' 'Then why did you give orders to have our fingerprints taken as if we were thieves and murderers?' Quietly, Quist tells the Inspector that there has been a misunderstanding. Reluctantly the Inspector agrees and Quist with Thomas and Isaac go to talk to the people inside one of the buildings.
Quist finds Ridge, smoking a cigar, in the room full of up turned desks, papers and equipment scattered about the place. 'All this because of a few fingerprints?' 'We seem to have hit them on a sensitive spot.' Ridge did try to explain, sniffing. He's got a bug which he can't seem to shake off. They go to address the meeting. He begins by assuring them that their fingerprints have nothing to do with the police. It is a purely scientific matter and he explains about genetics and how the remarkable community of St Simons whose settlers came from England 150 years ago, and living in isolation, a thousand miles away from civilisation. By studying them they can then study themselves to see how we have changed during the years of progress. Quist apologises for any offence this has caused. Thomas is mollified, and apologises for himself and his people which he leads, but he asks Doctor Quist to see it from their point of view – they have been uprooted from their homes, 'We were a happy people. Every man and woman had a job to do and did it with a good heart. Our lives had some purpose. Then came the earth tremor. We would still have stayed. But your government told us it was not safe to stay and so we were brought here.' The problem is what are they supposed to do here? They fear for the future of their community, they are confused by this new world, there is no work that they can do, they thought they could trust Quist but he needs them for their experiments, and he singles out his son, Isaac as an example... 'They see new things, they are influenced by new ideas, bad ideas, so little by little we are being broken up...' Isaac walks out, followed by Alice, a young woman. He angrily kicks a tin.
In his own hut, Alice she asks him why he left the meeting, but how could he speak against his father in public? She tells him he has a duty to put his own ideas forwards. But Isaac doesn't want to make himself more unpopular than he is already. She feels they need to stay together, perhaps she's afraid... 'So, you're going to take that job in London then.'
Quist promises Thomas that he will go to see the Ministry but doesn't hold out any hope that they will help. 'This is England, Thomas, and like it or not you're going to have to face up to changes.' He'll see what they can do. After they leave, Thomas's wife, Joan, calls Quist a good man, at least he tries to understand. 'They're all good men. But they'd be a lot happier if we disappeared.'
Quist goes to see Mullery who warns him that a memo is on its way to his department asking why the islanders were not consulted about the finger printing? Quist gives him his assurance that it won't happen again but is not happy about being asked to discontinue the experiments for a few weeks. Quist wants to know what plans they have for the people. Mullery says it's up to them to decide what they want, they're not prisoners in the camp. They're British citizens and have exactly the same rights as the rest of them. 'Except we live in a highly technological society and they come from a place where there's no cars, no telephones, no televisions,' Mullery thinks they'll sort themselves out in time.
Isaac arrives in London, bemused by voices coming from tannoys, pushed about by commuters in a hurry, and goes to catch a bus.
Craxton's bakeries: Busby is on the phone firing a worker for taking another Monday off. Isaac walks in to be interviewed where Busby complains about absenteeism, 'Last week alone we lost a hundred and twenty working days. That means are production of home baked tea cakes is down to 17, 000! I don't suppose you have that sort of problem where you come from.' 'No, we bake our own cakes.' Busby sometimes wishes he could get away from it all. He warns Isaac that the pace here is pretty killing... Hard paced, fast tempo. 'If you do well, you should have a good future here. Start on Monday.' He is bustled out. Busby calls in Miss Marshall, the secretary thinking they could make some good publicity out of this. And Isaac didn't ask about wages! Busby supposes they don't need money back in St Simons... 'Union minimum, Miss Marshall. We don't know if he's any good, do we?'
Isaac returns to the camp in time to see his father being taken on a stretcher into an ambulance... His mother is being comforted by Alice. Later he talks to them. Mother says Thomas hasn't been alright since he came here. He's also got a fever. 'All his strength drained away...'
Dr Somerville talks to Quist at the camp about the number of influenza infections Thomas could have. He has had him hospitalised in case anything unusual comes to light. Isaac joins them, Somerville tries to reassure Isaac that there is nothing to worry about. Quist didn't see Thomas in order not to worry him some more, he's come to tell them the plans or lack of them, that the Ministry have for the islanders. Isaac is not surprised. They should make their own way like the English people do. Isaac wants to work with machines, he is quite impressed by what he saw at the factory and thinks this is new and exciting compared to working on the land. Quist wishes him luck.
Isaac's mother is anxious and depressed, she sees the illness as a reaction to Thomas's lack of a role here in England. Back home he had meaning. He was a leader, people looked to him. Isaac dismisses it as half a life. Thomas also felt guilty about their coming here. 'What if the whole thing was just a trick?' At the time he thought it for the best but now he's not too sure. Alice comes in and tells them that her mother is ill... 'I think it's the same illness.'
Bradley is getting rather excited over a set of results from a perception test Ridge had put some of the islanders through. A way of measuring the pollution of the mind. Ridge has been off ill for a few days, with 'flu he thinks – Quist reacts to this. He also tells them that the Ministry has forbidden any more tests on the islanders. 'Perhaps we should turn the computer over to working out the mental patterns of our top civil servants. I don't understand them' He gets a phone call from Dr Summerville. There are more islanders falling ill. Quist looks at ridge. 'You've been down to that camp quite a lot in the past few weeks... You sure it was 'flu you just had?' Now Ridge reacts. What else could it be?
Isaac is settling into his packaging job at the factory when Miss Marshall tells him Busby wants to see him. Busby is pleased with his progress and offers him a chance to take a training scheme. A phone call interrupts Busby's appreciation of the hard worker, and grudgingly allows a personal call – it's for Isaac. His father is dying. He turns to leave, despite Busby's protests.
Thomas's last words to his son are: 'Go back. Go back home. Home.'
Thomas is buried in a crowd cemetery, and a few mourners present. A plane roars overheard. Quist is there too, keeping a discreet distance. Isaac wants to speak to him, what exactly did father die of? He doesn't believe the flu story because of the post mortem. Quist thinks they ought to talk back at the camp. Once there, Quist explains that Thomas did die from the 'flu and the other cases have 'flu too. Some of them might die. They have no resistance to something they have never experienced before. Meanwhile, Joan Prentice angrily tells her son off for showing no respect to his father. 'We don't need scientists to tell us what we know already. That if we stay in this country we shall all die. That we should never have left our homes. It is a punishment.'
Quist goes to see Mullery the civil servant again. Quist demands an answer: why can't they go back? Mullery gives him a lecture. St Simon's is in the South Pacific, some fifteen hundred miles south east of the Fiji Group. The idea that they are self supporting is a romantic notion the islanders themselves like to promote but it is not entirely true. Their main food stuff, the fish is on the decline, the soil is nearly exhausted. A doctor visits them every six months and once a year they get supplies from Fiji. Government policy is cutting its commitments in the far east especially now Fiji is independent. 'Do you mean to say you would have abandoned them?' There's more to it than that, says Mullery. 'Now that communist China has joined the nuclear big boys, that whole area has become strategically important.' St Simon's would be ideally suited as an early warning station or even a missile base, perhaps to the Australians. The island is not uninhabitable to the military, just to cranks who want to get away from it all... It's only a matter of time before an approach is made. Quist tells him that they have a clear cut moral issue on their hands and sooner or later they are going to have to face it.
Isaac Prentice becomes more and more disillusioned with his work. The noise gets louder in the factory. Once more he is in Busby's office. The noise has got to him. This time the manager is worried about the news reports of the illness in his community. He is thinking of health and safety issues. Isaac gets aggressive, he doesn't care what it says in the paper. 'Don't you worry, Mr Busby. I won't contaminate your precious cakes for you.' And walks out. Outside he starts to see London for what it is, noisy and crowded.
Quist is surprised to see Isaac at the Doomwatch offices and welcomes him. Isaac tells him that his employers don't want him any more, because of the reports about the sickness. 'You're a clever man. What are we going to do?' Ridge asks to see Quist, it's important. Doctor Somerville has results of a post mortem. Hepatic failure. The liver. The peripheral nerves were also damaged on Thomas Prentice, that's what killed him. 'It's a miracle he lived as long as he did. It just needed a mild dose of the 'flu to finish him off.' The mystery is why? Mullery tells Quist that the subject of the islanders came up at this morning's cabinet meeting. They are going to send a small survey team there and that is the most opportune moment. Quist wants to go with them. He wants to look for something, and invites Isaac with him. He needs someone who knows exactly how they lived, how they fished and cooked...
The survey team of six with Quist and Isaac arrive by boat in a sandy bay. The island is rugged and beautiful. He shows Quist his home, walls propped up by planks of wood. 'Our feeble efforts to get the better of nature.' The survey begins. Isaac gets some fish for Quist to analyse, much to his surprise. What can fish tell him about an earth tremor...? Quist soon finds something... A little later, Quist finds Thomas in the churchyard. His father would have liked to have been buried here. 'When you're here, it's as if the rest of the world doesn't exist.' Quist agrees. It's a comforting illusion. 'But unfortunately, remote as it is, it isn't quite remote enough.'
'The Arizona Star? But that went down in 1915.' Quist is talking to Ridge. The cargo was stored in solid iron castes and that takes nearly forty years to break up. The wreck has never been located but it is in the area of St Simon's. 'Meanwhile it's lying at the bottom of the ocean slowly seeping out its poison.' Isaac comes in to see Quist. He is happy about the government decision for the islanders to vote as to whether they stay or go back to St Simons. Quist tells him the bad news. He cannot recommend their return. Their systems have been slowly absorbing a poison over many years – organic mercury. It builds up in the bodies, flu speeded up the process. The Arizona Star was sunk by a German boat. The fish absorb it; the sea gulls eat the fish and land on their fields... There is pollution in the soil. Isaac is shaken. 'Why did this have to happen to us? Never had any wars, never had any quarrel with anyone. Just wanted to live our own lives.' 'The world's too small for that, Isaac,' says Quist. As Isaac leaves the offices, Quist speaks to Mullery. 'It's absurd. How can you let them vote on an issue like this?' Mullery is surprised: he though Quist would approve of the decision. 'Not in these circumstances.' Quist does not want them to go back to a slow, lingering death. Mullery is relying on Quist's powers of persuasion – and puts the phone down.
'It's too late for us old ones,' says Joan. 'For us the damage has been done.' It's up to the young ones. Isaac and Alice, who are engaged talk the matter over. Alice knows that here in England, Isaac has more women to choose from, she is not holding him to the commitment. 'Each of us must vote as we feel.'
Quist tells the assembled islanders that if they vote to stay, the government will help them settle into our way of life. He warns them of the dangers of going back. 'But it's your decision.' He invites questions, and they are about whether there have been any more tremors, and any government help? Joan Prentice asks, if they go back, they say their lives will be shortened – but if they stay here, won't it be the same? Aren't there poisons here too? No one leaves England because of this. St Simons is their home. The vote is held. Isaac watches as the islanders quickly make their vote before coming to a decision, watched by Alice.
'They judged us and found us wanting,' remarks Quist to Ridge. They sail on Thursday. Ridge is not surprised; they saw the worst side of them. Isaac gave Quist a present – their family Bible. They had fine ideals all those years ago. 'We leave behind us an England of low wages and high prices, one law for the rich, another for the poor. A land of smoking factories, prisons, workhouses, and mines where children slaved ten hours a day. We set sail to live and work as one man, where there will be no rich or poor, no idlers, and all can exist by the sweat of their brow.' Ridge isn't impressed, those ideals have been pretty polluted in the last hundred years. 'Everywhere except St. Simons.' Ridge shows Quist the newspaper headline. CHINA LAUNCHES ICBM INTO SOUTH PACIFIC. NUCLEAR TEST ALARMS AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT. NEW DEFENCE SYSTEM URGED.
The Islanders is often written about by magazines as the one based on the Tristan de Cunha incident. Not so much based on, but almost a dramatisation, with a spot of mercury poisoning thrown in. It is the start of a growing trend in Doomwatch to leave out the science, and indeed the science fiction and replace it with social commentary, talking about pollution in general terms, with a bit more finger wagging. Gerry Davis may be listed as script editor, but you can bet Terence Dudley shaped its final draft.
The island was not actually settled on until 1810, some three hundred and four years after it was first discovered by the man who gives it his name. In 1814, the British took possession of it to prevent it from being used as a staging post for any rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was not a great success as a colony and by 1857, nearly two thirds of the population wanted to leave. During the second world war, it became a secret naval station, monitoring U boat activity as well as the weather. For the first time, the island which used the potato as currency, was introduced to modern concepts like money to buy things at a store called The Canteen. More relevant to our story were the volcanic tremors in August 1961 and the formation of an active fissure emitting sulphur into the air. Fishermen reported floating rocks in the sea. The island was evacuated in stages to England, having vetoed settling in South Africa due to its apartheid laws. They ended up at Calshot Camp near Southampton, during one of the most severe winters ever. Some of the older islanders died from the weather and diseases that they were not accustomed to. Added to that, they felt that they were being continually pestered by journalists and medical research teams.
Which is where The Islanders begins, with a rather unsympathetic Ridge getting turned over by a very angry mob of islanders, lead by the impressive George A. Cooper playing Thomas Prentice. They were insulted by having their fingerprints taken for genetic research, feeling they were being treated like criminals. Quist, Bradley and Ridge were rather excited at the prospect of studying the islanders from St. Simons, and Quist is not happy at being told to stop by the latest civil servant to cross his path, Mullery, played by a stalwart civil servant actor, Geoffrey Chater. The real life islanders have been the study for genetic tests over the years. 'The uniqueness of the Tristan genealogy covering a period of almost 200 years presented us with an ideal opportunity of testing the accuracy of written records with information stored in DNA.' European Journal of Human Genetics (2003). Bradley and Ridge reckoned they could trace the pollution of the mind through their work.
The story deals with two different attitudes as expressed through the father and son Prentices. Isaac wants to embrace the new world and all its challenges, being initially very impressed with a machine making home baked tea cakes... His father has no purpose any more, he feels, and does not want to be a cog in a soulless machine. Idyllically he saw the life they lead as a place where everyone had something to contribute. Here, they're insignificant. He likes to be a big fish in a small pond, but as the story unfolds, it is a small pond in a small world. Their community was set up to escape the horrors of industrialised Britain but cannot avoid the cold war, nor the affects of the sinking of a ship during the first world war.
An expedition from the Royal Society returned to the real island in 1962 and found minimal damage to the village, evidence of looters, and their lucrative crayfish cannery had been destroyed by lava. Their sheep population was destroyed by dogs that had reverted to the wild. The Colonial Office advised against a hasty return but the islanders did it anyway without permission in two groups and were back home by 1963. The Colonial Office reversed its decision on 28th November 1962. 14 islanders remained in England, five had died, eight babies were born, ten couples had married and four Tristan women married English men. In 1966, 35 islanders wanted to return to England. In our story, the islanders seem to return en masse. Isaac has a chance to be the leader of a dying community.
Mullery describes the islanders dismissively as wanting to get away from it all, missing the point that this is how they were brought up anyway. Unlike the real life islanders, the ones from St Simon are described as not being as self sufficient as they believe, having exhausted their soil and their fish supply dwindling. Tristan, each year, have a visit from an optician and a dentist and trade their crayfish with the continent.
The islanders are portrayed as rather simple people. The old word to describe them is 'dull,' and not in a derogatory or boring fashion, but simple. They all have weather beaten, tanned faces, and must be quite strong. We are supposed to be looking at early Victorian villagers. Busby's character is a marvellous contrast, complaining about production down on home baked tea cakes – home baked in a production line, fantastic! The culture shock must have been enormous in real life and in fiction. He could almost be what they were getting away from in the first place; very Dickensian.
From an island, if not paradise, to the throbbing heart of London. We see the noise of the factory starting to get to Isaac, but what with the death of his father, it is hardly surprising he starts to react, and becomes aggressive with his new, frankly meaningless life. The contrast of the two lives are shown by our visit to the island with its beautiful scenery (suspiciously Dorset) and gentle lilting stock music in contrast to the harsh sounds of traffic in London.
Was the evacuation of St. Simon's a pretext for allowing the Australians to build their base defending themselves from the Chinese? That would have been an interesting twist. It has happened to other island communities for their homes to be turned into nuclear test islands. Isaac Prentice may well be the last of his line to act as leader of St Simons.
Stock music fans will be delighted to recognise the rioting music from the beginning as the Black Beard pirate stuff from Monty Python's Flying Circus Series 2 episode 12.
LOCATION WORKThe Islanders was filmed on the Scilly Isles and John Paul and the crew got a helicopter ride!
Project Number 02240/0659 was commissioned on 11th of August 1970 by Gerry Davis as 'DESERT ISLAND' (2nd Series) Ep. 25. Whether this meant the episode was originally intended for the penultimate recording slot is unclear. It was to be delivered by the 31st of August. Gerry Davis certainly signed the commissioning slip. On the 7th of October, having written two episodes for the series, Louis Marks would write to the Head of Scripts offering to contribute to other BBC series, which indeed he will quite prolifically and successfully.
Project 02240/4418 saw the island scenes filmed in St Mary's island in the Scilly isles. John Paul was needed on the 29th September and then the 1st and 2nd of October, some of which was spent on the island. The cast and crew returned to the mainland via helicopter and back to London from Penzance via the train. Paul was also needed to film the camp scenes. Other filming took place in the streets around Liverpool Street Station.
Although the regulars required were booked for the recording on for October 27th 1970 on the 25th September 1970. Alterations to the script meant that Vivien Sherrard was no longer required, substituted by Joby Blanshard who only had one scene.
Dr. Spencer Quist
Dr. John Ridge
GEORGE A. COOPER
Dr. Spencer Quist
Dr. John Ridge
GEORGE A. COOPER
Assistant to Producer
4TH JANUARY 1971
9.20PM - 10.10PM
With thanks to John Archbold for the Radio Times listing and cover.