THE LISTENER MAGAZINE 7th APRIL 1988
PROGRAMME PROFILE - DOOMWATCH (from 1988, so obviously a few things are out of date...)
In 1970, a parson in southern England began behaving oddly. He was admitted to hospital, but there was no effective treatment for his condition. An old car enthusiast, he had been stripping down the 1920 Bullnose Morris and other cars in his garage, and de-greasing the parts by soaking them in bowls of petrol. Belatedly, it was realised that he exhibited the classic symptoms—personality disturbances—of organo-lead poisoning.
The story came to the attention of Derek Bryce-Smith who, for most of the 23 years he has been Professor of Organic Chemistry at Reading University, has been trying to persuade the authorities to take seriously the dangers of leaded petrol.
He took it to Terence Dudley, producer of the BBC series, Doomwatch.
Dudley was interested. As part of his own research, he took up the issue with the Department of the Environment.
The Under-Secretary of State, Sir Eldon Grifﬁths (as he now is), personally informed him that lead in petrol presented no danger whatsoever to public health. Nevertheless, Dudley was persuaded by independent scientific opinion. He went ahead with the dramatisation of this unfortunate parson’s tale; and Doomwatch brought another major health hazard to public attention.
One of the most fondly remembered of all drama series, it was created by Dr Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, who had worked together on Dr Who. They invented the Cybermen. (Today, Davis is regularly asked to attend US Dr Who conventions, where they affectionately call him Cyberdad.)
Davis was a script-editor who had begun his career with the National Film Board of Canada; Pedler worked at the Institute of Ophthalmology at London University, where he set up his own unit to research ways of overcoming blindness.
Davis enticed Pedler out of the laboratory and into the media. ‘He had an encyclopaedic mind,’ recalled Davis. ‘He was also a born communicator, who wanted to communicate the dangers inherent in science and technology.’ The Director of Friends of the Earth, Jonathon Porritt, considered Pedler ‘a wonderful man; I always admired his ability to link a profound understanding of global issues with an appreciation of the personal responsibility of each individual.
He lived out his ecological principles in practice, even to the extent, if I remember rightly, of making his own disgusting soap.’Over lunches at The Contented Sole in South Kensington, Davis and Pedler evolved the Doomwatch idea The central premise was the existence of an unofﬁcial govemment department (a kind of MI5) which grappled with marunade threats to the human race. Most of the environmental issues so familiar today—the chemical hazards, the dumping of toxic waste, the transport of nuclear fuel, the pollution of the oceans—reached a mass audience for the ﬁrst time through Doomwatch.
The nucleus of the Doomwatch team was Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates) and Toby Wren (Robert Powell). At the end of the ﬁrst series, Wren was killed trying to defuse a
bomb lodged in the structure of a South Coast pier. This was done partly for practical reasons—Powell, fearing typecasting, insisted on doing only one series—but it also had genuine importance in the context of the series, giving it an extra edge of realism. ‘It was a very pertinent comment,’ said
Dudley, ‘that these were dangerous matters, and people did get killed.’
Nevertheless, the BBC was ill-prepared for the response. Throughout that summer, sackfuls of mail, letters pleading for Toby’s resurrection, arrived at TV Centre. Simon Oates reﬂected that, ‘People all over the country still remember Doomwatch, and they still blame me for Toby’s death.’ Like
the death of Grace Archer, the moment has become enshrined in broadcasting history.
For Powell, of course, it was immortality at a stroke: was it entirely accidental that the next time he came to public attention he was Jesus of Nazareth?
All this was indicative of success. Audiences topped 12 million, and Doomwatch was the most talked-about programme of its time. The issues it raised seemed to have an uncanny knack of becoming headline stories shortly afterwards. This may have been partly attributable to the fact that journalists’ minds had been concentrated, but was also testimony to Pedler’s assiduous research and grasp
of scientific problems; ideas were frequently gleaned from the Lancet, or New Scientist, or conferences he had attended.
‘Doomwatch was hitting the populist button, and became a particularly powerful catalyst in the early Seventies,’ explained Porritt, ‘even if it was true to the rather apocalyptic vision that prevailed then.’ Davis’s ‘Doomwatch’—a title which the BBC originally resisted as being ‘too downbeat’—passed
into the Oxford English Dictionary; in the years since, the -watch suffix has become dertgueur with BBC producers (Crimewatch, Hospital Watch, etc.) and even seems to have penetrated the columns of THE LISTENER.
Davis and Pedler disagreed with Dudley about the content of the second series, and left the progamme. Thereafter, it became a more conventional TV drama series; the idealism, the crusading spirit, that had originally informed it was blunted. Davis now recognises that the production quality of some early episodes could have been improved, but insists that Doomwatch’s primary virtue was its uniqueness in being a drama about ideas.
As a rule, the ideas involved were compelling, and so frequently at odds with the platitudinous reassurances of the government (whether Labour or Conservative) that the programme remained controversial throughout. One episode, by Stuart Douglass, was banned altogether. Called ‘Sex and
Violence’, it focused on the efforts of an extreme right-wing politician to achieve power by using as a cloak for his ambitions a women’s clean-up campaign group called Housewife. They attacked the media for its alleged sex and violence and artiﬁcially fostered an atmosphere of outrage and intolerance conducive to the election of right-wing politicians. Quist and his team were called in to investigate a suspected conspiracy of corruption. They concluded that the situation was quite the reverse: and that- for the sake of humanity. all forms of censorship must be avoided.
This became a hot potato inside the BBC. Finally, the then-Controller of BBC1, Paul Fox, decided that it was too politically sensitive to be transmitted. An anodyne press release was put out to explain its
non-appearance, and the BBC avoided another War Game controversy over censoring its own programmes.
After three series, ratings were still high but, suggested Martin Worth, the second script editor ‘there was a feeling inside the BBC that we'd done ecology’. Doomwatch came to an end. Davis and Pedler worked on a disappointing Doomwatch ﬁlm, and wrote three novels together. Pedler had almost completed a documentary series for Thames, called Mind Over Matter, when he died suddenly in May 1981.
Today, BBC2 transmits a tame magazine programme on the environment, Nature; but Doomwatch mattered because it used the art of story-telling to popularise ecological issues. ‘The man who impressed me most at the BBC,’ said Davis, ‘was Huw Wheldon. He used to give us pep-talks, and
ram home the message that the way to get information across was by telling a story.’
One of the Davis-Pedler prognostications was miles wide of the mark. ‘We had always anticipated that an actual Doomwatch team would be established. In 1970 we were invited to give briefings to both Peter Walker, Environment Secretary, and the shadow minister, J olm Silkin, to outline the
composition of a Doomwatch unit, and what kind of scientific disciplines-chemistry, physics, psychology—would need to be represented.’ Yet, in 1988, a govermnent which has just balked a European Community plan to control acid rain, causing its own commissioner to describe
its attitude as ‘extraordinary’, seems as heedless as its predecessors of ecological concerns.
The Wildest nightmares of Davis and Pedler didn’t come up with Aids, but both Bhopal and Chernobyl were quintessential Doomwatch scenarios. The issues explored in the programme are, in the main, only
more relevant today. Professor Bryce-Smith averred that, ‘Doomwatch helped direct public opinion to the facts that we were poisoning ourselves and causing brain damage to our children; television today isn’t making these points as powerfully as it should be’.
With thanks to Ian Beard for finding this one!