Cheer Up. It Might Never Happen: The Unborn (1980)

IAN GREAVES

Playhouse Writer: Philip Martin; Producer: Peter Ansorge; Director: Michael Custance

There isn’t a gag within a mile of this. On the face of it, the BBC-2 schedule for the evening of 16 May 1980 is a pretty unforgiving affair. Working back, we have the late-entry Outer Limits episode ‘Counterweight’ at 11.30pm, a fifty-minute wave of paranoia as an extraterrestrial light invades the passengers one-by-one on a long-haul space flight. Newsnight doubtless explored the political hotbed of an Afghan settlement, and as an appetiser, Louis Hellman’s cartoon Boom at 10.40pm chilled the unsuspecting viewer.

The centrepiece, however, was this evening’s Playhouse, The Unborn, forming part of the single play strand’s sixth series and another entry from the rogue BBC Birmingham drama department headed by David Rose. Placed in direct competition with Starsky & Hutch on BBC-1 and The Gentle Touch on ITV, viewers were confronted with the unique choice of Huggy Bear, Jill Gascoine or nuclear annihilation.

The Old Men at the Zoo (1983)

IAN GREAVES

Five parts. Writer: Troy Kennedy Martin; Adapted from (novel): Angus Wilson; Producer: Jonathan Powell; Director: Stuart Burge

In all the myriad apocalypse dramas produced in the UK, what matters most is where the bomb drops. The drip-drip of radio bulletins in the suburban daily lives of Threads cut straight to the contemporary fear of nuclear war, and the 1984 film’s unfussy depiction of local authority admin echoes the staccato, functional, inevitable nature of Peter Watkins’ The War Game. As a narrative device the anticipation of Armageddon can create real tension, the strike clearing away characters in a single bound and providing a fundamental gear change in a long storyline. After which it’s either about the journey back or, more likely, an acceptance of the new order.

The Old Men at the Zoo, a 1983 serial for BBC2 based on the novel by Angus Wilson, leaves the flashpoint unfashionably late. Although the threat of war is ever present the focus is very much on preparation, propaganda and domestic politics. Curiously, and rather more indicative of the age in which it was adapted, the nuclear bomb that arrives four fifths of the way through was not even present in the novel.

Angels are So Few (1970)

IAN GREAVES

Play for Today Writer: Dennis Potter; Director: Gareth Davies; Producer: Graeme McDonald

‘If Jesus came today… we would want to shut the door’1

Angels Are So Few represents not only the first Dennis Potter production to appear under the Play For Today banner but the cementing of a new strand in the writer’s career. In fact, the play itself is equally rooted in beginnings and endings, dealing as it does with leaps of faith, death and rebirth.

Angels Are So Few (publicity photo)

Producer Graeme McDonald had not expected this potent exploration of sexual and religious game playing when its first draft was submitted to the BBC Drama department on 15 December 1969. A covering note apologised for Potter’s radical departure from the commissioned play, initially scheduled for the then Wednesday Play slot. Condescension, apparently absent from Potter’s surviving papers, was set to be an exploration of middle-aged attitudes to the young and old. Prostitute Reformer (detailing Gladstone’s fascination with ‘fallen women’) and The Last Nazi (a play about Rudolf Hess, commissioned by Mark Shivas for BBC2) were similar proposals which never materialised from this period.