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A LETTER FROM IAN CURTEIS

I have just received a letter from Ian Curteis, who wrote one excellent episode for Season 3 of DOOMWATCH, called "Flood" (Episode 9, TX: 31/7/72). Sadly, the episode is listed as missing, so all there is left is the two versions of the script and Ian's memories of his part in the production. The Season 2 episode The Web of Fear, starts with a mention of a report into London potentially flooding and in Season 3 this is followed up.

Apparantly, there was great mirth at Blacknest (the Government unit for forensic seismology at Blacknest near Aldermaston) when the late Dr. Thirlaway was portrayed as Dr. Tadley of Birdsnest in "Flood". The Blacknest unit based in the Berkshire village during the episode's production, Dr. Thirlaway definitely helped Ian with his scientific research, as on Page 19 of the rehearsal script he is referenced (even including a contact phone number) for correct pronounciation of the richter scale measurements by the character of Dr. Tadley.

It's interesting to note that in the same year as the episode, (1972) legislation was provided through the Thames Barrier and Flood Prevention Act which led to the construction of the Thames Barrier and it's associated defences. This was a direct result of the Chief Scientist Sir Herman Bondi's report of 1966 recommending that the best solution was a tidal surge barrier and raising the height of the river bank, backed up with a good system of flood warnings after the catastrophic east coast flood in 1953 provoked renewed and urgent interest in protecting London from tidal surges. I have typed up a copy of the letter for you all to enjoy. A big thank you to Mr Curteis for taking the time to answer my questions. Scott
Special thanks to Michael Seely for spotting the Dr. Thirlaway reference.

2nd August 2010


I have now re-read DOOMWATCH – FLOOD. It is 39 years since I wrote it and I haven't looked at it since. It was an odd and rather heartening experience, as I felt it was quite a respectable piece of work: a good and plausible story that moved fast about something that mattered very much. As you know, speed in a script is not a matter of the actors dashing about and speaking fast, but of construction, a reason for urgency and paring down the dialogue to the bone.

In retrospect, I would have pared it down even more. I once had the reputation of being the only television dramatist who went to rehearsals and cut dialogue, sentences or words, because they had become superfluous in that matters were clear without them, or that the actor was doing it anyhow, sometimes with an expression, glance or just an attitude. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received when I was learning my way came from Joan Littlewood, who said "Remember, being a dramatist is not a literary occupation".

When I eventually found the script, which had been filed in an unlikely place, I was disappointed that there were no papers with it. I usually kept relevant letters and memos, the original contract and research notes. Perhaps they have been wrongly filed somewhere else, but I've written rather a lot over 44 years and mistaken filing is not easy to unravel. The only thing I seem to have, in another book, is the Radio Times cutting which gives the full cast. I imagine you have that anyway. The camera script, which I have, lists the complete production team.

To my surprise, I can remember very little about the production except that I wasn't very happy with it. I do not know of a surviving recording. Accuracy of research without being pedantic about it is absolutely essential in this sort of show, and I remember visits to the London Flood Rooms where the various plans of action when there was a sudden North Sea surge, and what to do for drowning Londoners, were in place and rehearsed, with all the variations and levels of crisis taken into account. So were the scenes about or set in the secret underground NATO HQ in Northwood. Although many among the viewwers would not know if such things were real or invented, somehow there is an unmistakable ring of authenticity when you get it right, I am not sure why, which adds to the drama, The various officials and scientists who I saw were all immensely helpful; as always, I got them to read the draft script and comment before I delivered it to the BBC, and again they were meticulous in their helpful suggestions. And this applies to dialogue, not just fact; I was pleased to come across the exchange (shots 116 to 144 in the camera script, pp 28-29 in my delivered typed MS) where the suspicious Morrison is testing Cmdr Stafford to see if he is genuine by using terms a sailor actually uses rather than what a layman might think would be used (pronouncing C-in-C as SYNC for example). I must have got that from some helpful naval person, but I have long since forgotten who.

You ask if I ever met any of the cast. You bet I did. I went, as I always do, to many rehearsals and all the recording, and I hope discussed scenes with actors, changed or sometimes rewrote dialogue, gave notes to the director if he was missing the point. Television dramatists come in two sorts: those who deliver a script and run, and those who, like me, believe it is profoundly important that you stay as part of the production. No-one knows the script better than you do, and if, as it was in my case, one had previously been both an actor and director, you believe you know how it should be and how to get there. Shakespeare believed that of course but so far as I know he never wrote for DOOMWATCH.

The issue of how man is wrecking the beautiful world by torturing and manhandling it and turning it into a profoundly dangerous place by ignorant and sometimes brutal manipulation is even more important now than it was in 1972. Looking back, I am proud that such a vital subject could be dealt with in exciting drama made for the mass audience. That is television drama at its best. I wonder what the reception to FLOOD was – I cannot remember, I see a note I made on the Radio Times cutting that the only country it was subsequently sold to and shown in was Zambia. I wonder what on earth they made of it.

Yours sincerely

Ian Curteis

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