Saving the world
End of the World? Who ya gonna call? Doom Watch!
IN THE EARLY 1970s, the threat of world disaster seemed very close, either from the Cold War, Man’s destruction of rain forests, the extinction of wildlife or from environmental damage caused by pollution.
The potential dangers presented by scientific developments had long interested Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler and from it they developed a drama, Doom Watch. For three years, the Doomwatch team kept tabs on emerging technology and tried to stop Science spiralling out of control. Although the original series finished in 1972, the issues it dealt with never went away and have gained new impetus with new dangers hitting the headlines. It seems only natural that Doom Watch is back...
As the drama opens, Dr Quist is trying to persuade astrophysicist Neil Tannahil (Trevor Eve) to take over the Doom Watch mantle, but Neil is reluctant because he has been offered a lucrative job in America, where he hopes to start a new life with his second wife, Meg (Amanda Ooms). It is only when world-wide catastrophe threatens that is he forced to take action. Joining him in this effort are computer specialist Hugo Cox (Dallas Campbell) and environmentalist Teri Riley (Allie Byrne). “I come as an environmental activist who gets involved,” explains Allie, on location at a mansion in Bedfordshire which is doubling as a hotel. “She hears something dodgy’s going on and that’s how she gets drawn into the action. So she’s quite fearless, an intrepid action woman and very bright, she’s got a PhD in Science. I’m climbing walls and running and climbing up the side of the hotel and slashing tires and car chases. At the same time, I’m this really strong intellectual on this passionate environmental crusade.”
Science is a subject rarely tackled by drama because most of the creative people in television come from an Arts background.
But Allie is very enthusiastic about some of the ideas behind Doom Watch. “I love all that,” she says. “When I was at school, I was very scientific and I had the choice of what I did at ‘A’ level. I love languages too and I always wanted to be an actress. My dream wasn’t to go to RADA, I wanted to go to Cambridge and even though you can’t read Drama there, you can do a lot of it, with the Footlights and all of that. So for my ‘A’ levels I did Maths because I loved it and I did French and Spanish and then went to Cambridge as a modern linguist and did lots of drama. But I do have a reasonably scientific mind, especially mathematics.
“There’s a lot of science in this and it’s very clever. I think they went to Stephen Hawking’s lab in Cambridge and got professional advice. I’m sure they simplified it in terms of appealing to a television audience, but the roots and the basis of it are quite well founded and quite intellectually rooted in, and promote, science. It is quite unusual, especially for telly. That’s why I love the script so much. What you’ve got is the Cambridge scientist who’s developed the research, so you can imagine it’s like the people who developed the nuclear bomb. There’s a similar argument going on in this story, that you’ve got people who’ve developed theories around black holes and then you’ve got a privatized government plant with people carrying out the research, and by exercising it, that’s where the danger happens. Trevor Eve, who plays a scientist, and my character have been in situations before which were testing and challenging and hard, but they’ve never been in a situation where people are being killed for this knowledge. It is intellectually quite challenging, but at the same time the drama works as an action drama that wouldn’t exclude anyone.”
Plenty of Action
As an eco-warrior, Allie’s character has been heavily involved in the action. “I had to scale up the outside of a nuclear plant, which was a really hard climb — I had to go to climbing training to learn how to do it. I had to climb up the side of that with lots of fake snow and ice being sprayed at me, which was really hairy. And I had to abseil down at the end — it was absolutely terrifying! But it was all right because once I was in character, I think that took over. A really good friend of mine has become an amateur climber and she came along and was my stunt double for the day, so that was great fun.”
And that’s not all. “I’ve done that climb, the abseil down, a car chase. I had to work with this really vicious knife yesterday, slashing tires and running away from baddies. I had to escape from this loo where this big baddie was coming to get me.” She pauses and laughs. “Big baddie’, I sound like a child! So it’s been really good fun. And tomorrow I storm the ministers meeting, which is what they’re filming at the moment, and I escape, I jump over all the tables, escape out and then scale up the side of the hotel onto the roof, where I make mad passionate love to my boyfriend because apparently you get a massive adrenaline buzz when you do a big climb. It’s jam-packed, this show.”
Allie talks with such energy, it is easy to see her as a passionate eco-warrior, but she is quite small and slim and doesn’t look like the sort of person who regularly goes climbing. “I’ve often been cast in real action parts,” she says. “In A Touch of Frost that’s already been aired and repeated, I played the baddie opposite David Jason and I was this really keen huntswoman and I landed up murdering a few people, so that was an action-packed role because I had to go hunting and be really sporty. Then I did a whole series called Call Red where I was a doctor in a helicopter which was loads of running around and performing open-heart surgery. There was a lot of action in orange jumpsuits, swimming in the English Channel in October. So I seem to keep getting cast in these parts, but in real life I’m much more likely to be drinking cappuccinos and smoking cigarettes. But that’s acting!”
This new version of Doom Watch passes on the baton from the original series through the character of Dr Quist (now played by Philip Stone), but it also has some major differences. Most obvious is the lack of an actual Doom Watch base. In the Seventies, Doomwatch was a government-funded department and the scientists worked out of a lab and office building. Now, Neil, Hugo and Teri are not working together to prevent global disaster, but get involved through different routes and through their own concerns. “We all come at it at different angles and then all meet at the end.” says Allie. “It’s quite weird that I have hardly any scenes with Trevor Eve, we don’t meet until the end of the movie.”
The End at the Start
In the topsy-turvy world of television production, that final scene was put in the can weeks before Allie came to Bedfordshire to climb up the side of a hotel. “We filmed the end on the first day. My first day’s filming was the last day of the movie — that’s filming, it’s so strange! But you’ve done your preparation so that you know what’s going to happen in the last scene. You do a lot of research and then you leave it. At the end of the day you’re dealing with the script, each scene as it comes, but if you know why you’re there and where you’ve come from and what your journey was to get you to that place, I’m sure it helps, it informs your character.
“I did research into science, I did research into what environmental activists do. I imagined her life story, which is all relevant. In fact, during the course of the story, the character Hugo, who is a computer whiz, accesses all the information about me. So my back-story is there in the script; that I went to university, that I went to lots of marches, that I’ve caused a storm here, there and everywhere with my environmental activism, going back to the fact that I was at private school. So it helped that that was given to me. Then, when you’re working with an actor like Steve Toussaint, who plays my boyfriend, between the two of you, you’ve got to work out how long you’ve been together and what sort of relationship you’ve got so that you’re both acting the same thing.”
All the cast had the chance to work through their characters’ relationships and some of the issues that arise in Doom Watch before filming started. “We had some rehearsal days first and Roy Battersby, the director, is brilliant. He’s incredibly bright, he’s passionate about all of this stuff and we sat down and talked over some of the science and our relationships. I think it really helps. It’s the luxury of sitting in the rehearsal room when it isn’t the pressure of 80 people in the crew going ‘right, standing by’. We have the luxury to talk and talk and prepare in our own time without anyone hanging around.”
Channel 5 has put a lot of resources into Doom Watch. Britain’s newest terrestrial channel has a limited amount of money to spend on new drama, so rather than churn out longer, cheaper series, it has decided to invest in feature-length quality productions. The two-hour Doom Watch television movie, subtitled Winter Angel, is one of these and is acting as a pilot for a possible future series. If it is successful with audiences, more could follow. Original article by Jane Killick from TV ZONE issue 122