When the BBC1 TV series Doomwatch began hitting the headlines in the early 1970s and shows like On the Buses started heading into cinemas, Tigon’s Tony Tenser rushed out this big-screen spin off in the hope it would become the new Quatermass. But this ‘Chilling Story from Today’s headline’ was not the success that Tigon had hoped for, and ended up sitting on the shelf following its disappointing run in UK cinemas.
An ecological nightmare gone berserk!
A year after an oil tanker sinks off the west coast of England, Doomwatch scientist Dr Del Shaw (Ian Bannen) heads to the isolated island of Balfe to investigate the effects on marine life and discovers the local population have also been affected, creating physical abnormalities and turning the men-folk aggressive. Seeking out the aid of local teacher (Judy Geeson), Shaw then finds he has a battle on his hands trying to convince the locals he wants to help the, while also trying to get the Ministry of Defence and a chemical corporation to accept responsibility for the accident.
Director Peter Sasdy (Countess Dracula), cinematographer Ken Talbot (Hands of the Ripper) and production designer Colin Grimes (Nothing But the Night) do what they can with a script by Clive Exton (10 Rillington Place), that was part thriller, part horror, part ecological drama, and was shot on location around Polkerris and Falmouth in Cornwall and at Pinewood in October 1971.
But there isn’t enough depth, action or sense of menace to make it work, which also lessens the impact of Tom Smith’s effective makeup. Even the classic Doctor Who serial The Green Death, which used the mutations vs multinationals premise, is way more effective; and we all know how brilliant The Wicker Man turned out, a film which also followed an official’s investigation of a closed island community.
It was disappointing for fans of the TV show to see regulars John Paul and Simon Oates taking a back seat in the film, and their replacements are not that much cop either. Ian Bannen comes off as overly shouty and unempathic, while Judy Geeson seems like a fish out of water as the mainland school teacher who has no connection with the locals. At least she doesn’t eat their fish!
Future Bond star Geoffrey Keen and veteran actor George Sanders put in safe, but dull cameos, but its Shelagh Fraser who brings some unlikely comic relief as the nosey local who possesses the only phone on the island. And keen-eyed viewers will catch future EastEnders‘ star Pam St Clement playing one of the villagers.
Doomwatch has been digitally restored for a Blu-ray and DVD region free release by Screenbound Pictures, available from 20 June 2016
• Read all about the original Doomwatch TV series UK DVD release HERE
In the early 1970s, the BBC1 sci-fi drama series Doomwatch made for compulsive viewing with its persuasive and frighteningly prescient storylines about science and technology gone awry. The series followed a group of dedicated scientists at the semi-secret The Department of Measurement of Scientific Work and their efforts to keep check on unprincipled scientific research which was creating hyper intelligent rats, plastic eating bacteria and genetic mutations, while also facing off volatile corporations, smug civil servants and government bureaucrats.
Heading up Doomwatch was the abrasive but dedicated Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), and he was supported by former intelligence agent and ladies man Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates); young researcher Toby Wren (Robert Powell), who meets tragic end in the season one finale; computer specialist Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard); and secretary Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall).
Doomwatch was the brainchild of Doctor Who screenwriters Kid Pedler and Gerry Davis, who tapped directly into the era’s zeitgeist by taking real scientific concepts to their terrifying extreme – which led Pedler to describe the show as ‘sci-fact’. This made for great drama, but also provoked headlines and debates on issues including growth hormones, subliminal advertising, sonic booms and dangers of lead petrol. Questions were even raised in Parliament when the fourth episode about killer rats was aired.
The show was certainly controversial, and not just for environmental reasons. Being a product of its times, it had an unenlightened portrayal of women – something that the producers attempted to redress by introducing female scientists like Barbara Mason (Vivien Sherrard) later in the run. Also dating the show are the 1970s stylings and location shots (which makes all of the UK look grey and grubby), and you’ll get a laugh from the scenes in which the actors flub their lines and bump into furniture (the show was shot as live). But these slight annoyances shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of this prophetic, dark-edged and hugely influential sci-fi series. The BBC certainly don’t make them like this anymore.
Never before available on DVD, all of Doomwatch’s existing episodes (the show met with the same fate as many other BBC shows that got wiped or destroyed after their initial transmission) have now been released from Simply Media in one box set which includes the unseen episode, Sex and Violence (deemed too much for British audiences of the day owing to the use of stock footage of a public execution) and the BBC documentary The Cult of Doomwatch.
The episodes presented here include eight from the first series (unfortunately Robert Powell’s dramatic exit from the show in the episode Survival Code is one those missing, believed wiped), all 13 episodes from series two, and three episodes from the final series (which many believe was not as good owing to the departure of Pedler and Davis at the end of the second series).
Doomwatch is out on DVD from Simply Media
• For more about the series, check out this fantastic fansite: Doomwatch Blogger