IN THE KINGDOM OF THE BLIND

BBC's The Day of the Triffids

A heavy drum beat; a sickly green light floods the screen; highlighting a series of faces as they stare upwards. Eerie choral music complements the air of impending danger. Something wet and leathery flies out, striking a screaming woman. In the last view the 'tongue' slithers towards the viewer, obscuring all else. So begins the BBC's sensitive adaptions of one of the great escapist SF novels. It was a wonderfully chilling opening, so good in fact that the actual episode that followed on was almost an anti-climax.

John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids has long been regarded as a classic of British science fiction. Its publication led to some critics heralding the author as the new H G Wells. While that claim is debatable, there is no doubting the appeal of the book. Many SF readers (myself included) cut their teeth on this tale in their schooldays. David Pringle, in his excellent book 100 Best SF Novels, comments that the novel describes a very enjoyable catastrophe. Most of the world's population is rendered blind and millions die but all this happens in a secondhand manner so that the reader does not feel any grief. The heroes get lots of chances to prove their manliness; while the later proposal that all sighted men should take more than one wife means they get to exercise their virility as well. Although Bill Travers and his family have to flee the mainland eventually as the Triffid population grows; they promise that they or their children will return to reclaim their green and pleasant land; in the best World War II blitz tradition. The main theme of John Wyndham's post war books was the tenuousness of mankind's position. Most of them featured an alteration in the environment which humans cannot cope with. For example, the sea level rises or spiders start behaving in an organised manner as ants do. We may think our society has strong foundations but in fact it is a complex web of specialised skills and broad assumptions. When blindness sweeps over the population, so much that we take for granted is destroyed. One of the characters observes that though they are sophisticated twentieth century people, once civilisation has collapsed they will have to learn a lot of basic skills from scratch. Such as mining and smelting iron, growing food, just repairing machinery in the short-term. A similar idea is discussed in the BBC's other post-holocaust series Survivors, a programme that Triffids draws from a great deal in look and understated manner.

Although the book had been adapted for radio and read for Woman's Hour, it was not until 1979 that a producer called David Maloney proposed to adapt it for television. However the money could not be found to realise Douglas Livingstone's script, even though Maloney and the programme commissioners were very impressed with his work. The problem was that events in the novel moved their setting a great deal, starting in London and then moving out into the countryside which meant a lot of location setups. Then in 1981 a co-finance deal was struck between the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Commission and an American cable network called RCTV. This required the script to be rewritten with two versions in mind, six 26 minute episodes for British consumption and three 50 minute episodes for overseas. Livingstone's first idea was to take the story out its 1950's setting and set it 'next year' in order to accentuate the menace of the scenario. His other major change was the character of the heroine Josella Payton. In the novel she is the fashionable authoress of a raunchy novel called "Sex Is My Adventure". For the series she retains her wealthy background but otherwise she is an everyday career girl. The series' general faithfulness to its source is one of its main attractions. Too often, an adaption of a famous book leads to a vulgarisation of the story that talks down to the audience and replaces subtle elements with broad cliches. But here the makers treated the book as carefully as they would a Dickens novel. It is a pity that more British SF literature could not be given the same treatment. We should draw on our fantasy heritage rather than accept a wall to wall US diet.


The Triffid's appearance was kept a closely guarded secret until the transmission of the first episode. The first glimpse came on the cover the Radio Times but that only showed an edge of its head while Bill and Jo stared upwards at it in fear. They were designed by Steve Drewett, who appropriately used to work at the Natural History Museum. He produced a superb, convincing look for the monsters, based on research into real life parasitic plants. Having re-read the book he decided to make the plant look initially attractive so that its victims would be drawn nearer to look at it. The carnivorous pitcher plant was his main inspiration. The most important element of his Triffid is that it looks as though it could exist. Its colour is mainly brown, just as parasitic plants like fungi are. When it moves, it lurches from one branch to another which is a reasonable concept. The tall, slender stalk is very photogenic and there is an obsceneness about its long whip-like sting, dripping with venom. In fact the whole plant has an uncomfortable phallic appearance that adds to its threatening quality. The sound of its 'clackers' are simple but they quickly become chilling to the viewer's ears because it heralds the sudden violence of the sting which slices through the air with deadly accuracy. The scene at the Triffid farm where ranks of plants click in a random chorus is vaguely unnerving. The long tubular sting was Steve Drewett's idea. It explained how the Triffids disabled and fed off their prey, something that the novel was vague about.

A Triffid was operated by a man crouched inside, cooled by a fan installed in its neck; the 'clackers' were radio controlled. The gnarled bowl, based on the ginseng root, was made of latex with a covering of sawdust and string while the neck was fibreglass and continued down to the floor, where it joined with the operator's seat. The plant was surmounted by a flexible rubber head, coated with clear gunge.


A great deal of mystery remains about the Triffids. It is never explained whether they are a man-made hybrid or simply a rare plant that was taken out of its natural environment. Neither is it clear just how intelligent the plants really are. These grey areas only increase the characters' trepidation. Although the BBC publicised the programme as man vs triffid, with photos of John Duttine brandishing his Triffid Gun, the plants have only a limited role in the story. They are a random threat, always in the background and occasionally shuffling into the action to spread terror. The first Triffid attack in the garden of the Payton's house is genuinely frightening, a credit to director Ken Hannam.

Aside from the eponymous monsters there was surprisingly little effects work, especially compared to the BBC's other SF series of the time, Dr Who and Hitch-Hiker's Guide. The only obvious examples were Bill's Triffid Gun, a non-working prop, and the vista of London six years on, reclaimed by nature. The gun was a great visual weapon; firing razor sharp metal triangles (courtesy of a video effect) to decapitate a target; it is a pity that more could not have been done with it.

Just as disturbing as the moodily photographed predators is the depiction of post-disaster Britain; a land of pathetic, stumbling figures and lonely corpses. The scenes where Bill walks through the empty streets of London are stark and realistic, full of little examples of the aftermath. The moment where a mob of blind people attack Bill and Jo's car scared me when I first saw; their hungry voices and the relentless thumping of their fists. (Incidentally, one of these blind men is Dr Who director Morris Barry.)

John Duttine played Bill Masen as a very ordinary man, rather diffident in fact. Had the disaster not occurred it is doubtful whether he would have made much of a mark in life. But the disaster does happen and in his struggles to save himself and his companions he grows a great deal and becomes a much fuller character. His practical nature makes him a natural organiser and leader. He also has a strong sense responsibility. Once he understands the situation his impulse is to help others rather than look out for himself or take advantage of the confusion as other characters do. But he does not let his compassion over-rule his pragmatism. Early on a victim asks him to stay with his family and help them, help the whole block of flats if he wants. But Bill insists that it would be better for him to team up with other survivors because then they organise a more efficient aid operation. An interesting example of the novel's Englishness is that Bill is very aware of the class difference between himself, a farmer and Josella, an upper-class woman. As she points out, such an artificial barrier is meaningless in post-holocaust Britain but if this was set in America, it is doubtful that the issue would have even been mentioned. Josella Payton, played by Emma Relph is a less well-defined person. She is sensible, attractive and proves to be adept at self-sufficiency but somehow it is hard to think of her other than in terms of her reactions and relationship to Bill. Therefore she is a fairly traditional heroine.

Most of the sighted people band together to look after their own interests, at the expense of their sighted neighbours. At first they are presented as somewhat officious and unsympathetic. Our first view of them is that of soldiers guarding a gate behind which the blind clamour for help, before they are despatched with machine gun fire. Later on, at the briefing session where their vision of the future is laid out, there are undertones of fascism in their proposed society. Blind men are to be regarded as parasites; all women are expected to bear several children; dissenters are to be excommunicated because the colony cannot afford to support unproductive members. Yet though it is unethical, their response proves to be the best one, or at least preferable to the alternatives.

The first of those is Jack Coker's well intentioned but short- lived scheme in which a sighted person is put in charge of a group of blind people, navigating them to sources of food. Although it works for the first week or so, such an operation is little more than scavenging in the ruins and it cannot cope when those ruins continue to decay and plague sweeps through London. Jack Coker, excellently acted by Maurice Colbourne, at first seems a villain but in fact he is a more passionate, impulsive version of Bill. His mistake is to cling to the world that was, rushing around organising to stop the truth of the situation sinking in. When he does accept that "There is no place for lone wolves," he becomes a major figure in the very colony he despised.

Secondly there is the Christian commune that splits off from the colony because of its refusal to help the blind majority. Again, although their hearts are in the right place, they completely lack the practical skills needed to make their community thrive and sadly a combination of the plague and Triffids finishes them off.

Finally there is a military government that is clearly an excuse for a group of mini-dictators to inflict their ambitions on others using the remains of the British army. Although they are more ready to create a new kind of society, they still have old notions of sovereignty which seem ridiculous when people have to labour hard just to live. While blind people are part of their society it is quickly clear that they are treated as second-class citizens whose views are unimportant. The soldiers who effectively take over the family farm are loutish figures who demonstrate that hardship does not always bring out the best in people. Bill and his friends are able to outwit this small group but it is interesting to wonder how relations developed between the Isle of Wight colony and this more aggressive colony, especially since the former seems to be thriving while the latter, with its unrealistic feudal system seems headed for trouble.

Episode one of Day of the Triffids was fairly well received by the TV critics. Sean Day-Lewis of the Daily Telegraph congratulated the music and thought the Triffids were "scarily effective", though his teenage son was less impressed. Meanwhile The Guardian 's Nancy Banks-Smith felt that the opening, with Bill dictating his diary and the emphasis on the silent world was more appropriate for radio than television. She reserved judgement on the monsters, "must see the Triffids in action". But over at the Daily Mail , Herbert Kretzmer was more definite, claiming the plants, "looked no more menacing than a bunch of outsized orchids left over from The Muppet Show." Yet he felt the "show looks good for a run."


To accompany the first episode, the Radio Times not only put the programme on the front cover but ran a three page colour article in the back pages. It concentrated on the author John Wyndham and concluded that he would have probably approved of the triffids and the adaption. Apart from the Radio Times cover and a Penguin reprint of the book featuring the same cover photo; the BBC publicity office arranged for a special preview at the National Film Theatre. This event began with a screening of the lamentable 1963 film version, perhaps to make the BBC programme look even better. There followed a guest panel featuring artists and technicians from the series, writer Douglas Livingstone and a Triffid! Various BBC extracts illustrated their talk. The programme was great success with the public and was repeated the following year. A Triffid model also appeared in a Three of a Kind sketch and two of them were displayed at the Natural History Museum as part of an exhibition of carnivorous plants. The series has been rumoured as a BBC Video release for several years.

The Day of the Triffids is a quality SF series, drawing the best from both its cast and production team. Despite the merits of the two sixties Dammed films, it is the definitive John Wyndham adaption.

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