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


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 Unborn is a further example of writer Philip Martin (Gangsters, Doctor Who) cannibalising a genre and fashioning something new, in this case a brilliant and bleak distillation of faith and rationalism shot through with black magic and a very well worn copy of Rosemary’s Baby. As narrator, Martin opens the play in a futuristic white-light space, his outfit somewhere between theatrical garb and a straitjacket. His words have a curious ambiguity too, balancing the tone of a forbidding Man in Black scene-setter with the modesty of a Shakespearian player who seeks “only to entertain”. This being a Philip Martin script, however, nothing is quite so simple.

The action unfolds in a fashion familiar to anyone who loves a supernatural tale. Colin and Diana, played by Jack Shepherd and Mary Larkin, have just settled at their new Lancaster home and are trying for a baby. Colin keeps waking in the night because of a figure at the end of the bed, but as he’s a scientific type who works at the local nuclear plant he dismisses this as a ‘hypnagogic phenomenon’, a hallucinatory moment between sleep and waking. “I can’t stand mystery,” he mutters before resting again. “It has no place, not in this bank.”

In truth, he’s terrified of contaminating his wife’s foetus by even the smallest exposure to radiation at his workplace. This upsets Diana who, when she does announce her pregnancy, feels spurned by a cold husband incapable of joy. Roma, a clairvoyant played by Judy Parfitt, offers support for the expectant mother, stealing a jade figure from the house when Diana is not looking. A palm reading ensues which shocks Roma into fearful silence. On hearing of this, Colin, who is angry at both the theft of the figurine and the upset caused to Diana, decides to pay the ‘charlatan’ a visit.

Roma’s assertion that “neither of us knows the true source of power” is the key to the play, which soon becomes a battle of ideologies with self-doubt a form of mental imbalance. Are Colin’s night visions, depicting his son in a war room, a sign of his own ability to have premonitions, or madness? Is the “power” Roma speaks of in fact his own, his seed destined to result in a son who will destroy huge swathes of the population in a nuclear war? As someone rightly obsessed by the need for security at the nuclear plant, what irony that Colin should now play a part in the creation of this deadly progeny. For Diana too there is a shift from superstition to rationalism and back again, the couple’s fluidity of reason acting as the dreadful pulse of the play.

Perhaps the peak of self-doubt comes in this next sequence, where Colin’s sleep is disturbed by his most powerful vision which forces him to consider retiring from his job. It’s also a fantastic piece of design, incorporating the bed-head and with it decisively dissolving the gap between premonition and reality.

The trick behind The Unborn is that at no point are you asked to question the existence of the supernatural. The viewer is presented with visual evidence and an assembly of genre tropes that we take in trust. Even the séance is authentic and indisputable, even though it is presaged by a giant rubber dragon emerging from an egg. (For readers embarrassed by the snake in Doctor Who‘s Kinda, take heart.)

Philip Martin’s greatest achievement in The Unborn is to put belief over simple questions of good and evil. The motives of Roma are too ambiguous for that, with hints that this may be a political targeting of Colin rather than the routine visiting of pregnant women or the overthrow of her rivals. These dark corners are what elevate it above the trashier end of supernatural anthology series, and the means by which viewers can derive their own doubts.

This piece was first published on Tachyon TV, May 2011.

Originally posted: 31 January 2014.