Maurice ColbourneEmma RelphKeith AlexanderJonathan Newth
The Day of the Triffids (1981)
Medium: TV, series
Year: 1981
Director: Ken Hannam
Producer: David Maloney
Writer: John Wyndham, Douglas Livingstone
Keywords: The Day of the Triffids, SF
Country: UK
Actor: John Duttine, Emma Relph, Maurice Colbourne, Desmond Adams, Keith Alexander, Claire Ballard, Bonita Beach, John Benfield, Elizabeth Chambers, Lorna Charles, Desmond Cullum-Jones, Emily Dean, Denis DeMarne, Caroline Fabbri, Max Faulkner, Chris Gannon, Denis Gilmore, Eva Griffiths, Ian Halliburton, Alan Helm, John Hollis, Steven Jonas, Jenny Lipman, Andrea Miller, Perlita Neilson, Beryl Nesbitt, Jonathan Newth, Gary Olsen, Christopher Owen, Edmund Pegge, Donald Pelmear, Jean Perkins, Robert Robinson, Jon Rumney, Christina Schofield, Bernie Searle, William Morgan Sheppard, David Swift, Cleo Sylvestre, Stephen Yardley
Format: six 25-minute episodes
Website category: SF
Review date: 27 January 2010
That was a bit disappointing. It's faithful to the original novel, far more so than either the 1962 film or the 2009 TV series, but it's also dour and one-note.
To begin with the good stuff, it's refreshing to see such a faithful adaptation. There's lots here from Wyndham that I'd never expected to see on screen, such as the plague. They do the plague! There's also lots of the book's speculation and realpolitik. Bill Masen does indeed suggest that all these catastrophes might have been man-made, while we also get that speech in London from the lady who wants all the men to be in charge of harems. In an otherwise humourless production, that made me laugh. The script also isn't flinching from the moral implications of what its protagonists are having to do, with one particularly brutal choice in episode three.
Basically it's the story Wyndham wrote. They've simplified a few things and there's less discussion and philosophising than in the original, especially from Coker, but it's recognisably the same things happening in the same way. Uniquely among my three Day of the Triffids adaptations, they've even resisted the temptation to add something so stupid that your eyes will bleed! Sea water doesn't kill the triffids this time, for instance.
This has consequences that make it feel very different to the others. Firstly, the timescale hasn't been compressed. The final episode begins with a "six years later" caption, for instance. They're doing the collapse of civilisation properly, whereas the other two seemed more interested in racing for the finish line. The result is that 90% of this series is about the fall of civilisation and only 10% about killer plants. It's not trying to be a monster movie. These are the least scary triffids I've seen to date, although oddly enough they're my favourite of the three designs. They're rather beautiful, being basically an eight-foot-tall flower rising up from a tangle of roots. I watched the other two versions only a few weeks ago and already I can't remember what their triffids actually looked like, whereas there's a clarity about these ones that really works.
The results are more sober and depressing, but they also feel more plausible. You can feel the decay. Thus for instance I found this Torrence more convincing and oddly even in his own way scarier than Eddie Izzard's take in 2009, because he's not mad and evil. It's horribly easy to imagine people like him. This is also the only adaptation I've seen to have even a shadow of an approximation of Coker. He's still not what I'd like to have seen, for instance not having the original's philosophical bent and skill with accents, but fortunately he's the coolest character in the show because he's being played by Maurice Colbourne. You wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of this Coker.
I see I've got started on the acting. This is where it starts getting more negative, I'm afraid.
Firstly, I've realised that in one respect I was too hard on the 2009 adaptation. Of the three Triffids screen adaptations, it's not just the one with the best acting, but the only one that you'd watch for the acting at all. This 1981 series is on the other hand is the worst. It's so dreary. John Duttine is passive, Emma Relph is oddly charmless and it's shocking how much more watchable the show becomes when Maurice Colbourne turns up. The best actors, oddly enough, are the ones I recognised from Doctor Who. Even Colbourne isn't all that, but he's still more dynamic than any of the other regulars. Stephen Yardley (Arak in Vengeance on Varos and Sevrin in Genesis of the Daleks) gets a powerful little cameo in episode two and does a lot with it. Briefly there's also David Swift, whom I was convinced was his brother Clive until I recognised him as Henry from Drop the Dead Donkey. For a while my brain was malfunctioning and I thought they must have been twins.
The most important character in the show is actually the slow death of civilisation. That's the principal focus, with everything and everyone else subservient to it.
I'm not convinced that the script is up to much. It's faithful, yes, but it's flattening the drama rather than bringing it to life. Coker and Bill magically become friends in episode five, for instance, with no hard feelings about the small matter of Coker having had everyone assaulted, chained up and set to work in what became a plague pit. Susan's bland too. However here I'm merely talking about things being undercooked, not wrong, whereas at least the story always makes sense and you're never left scratching your head about plot holes. People don't have to go outside to enjoy the comets, for instance, but can happily burn out their retinas by opening the curtains. Afterwards you believe that the entire world would have been struck blind, whereas in the 2009 series that felt silly.
I was also surprised they used a bad visual effect rather than making a practical triffid gun, but then again it's only used once. Possibly the scariest thing about it though is the title sequence. Those helpless faces looking upwards towards their destruction... brrrr.
As for the music, though, yikes. It's mostly confined to the start of episodes and thereafter we're gifted with blessed silence, but what the hell was that? I was only annoyed briefly in episode three, but the composer's beating his audience over the head. Oh, and somehow I thought they didn't get full value out of "We'll go no more a-roving." It doesn't seem that different to ordinary incidental music. It must be embarrassing for a TV adaptation to do a song less effectively than did the original novel.
Episode one might perhaps be the best. The tone is still eerie rather than funereal, while I liked the episode's framing structure and flashbacks to Bill Masen's past, while Duttine's performance seems more interesting with bandaged eyes and a hospital bed to play against. Visually this is the least impressive Triffids adaptation, since the BBC in the early eighties obviously couldn't afford the apocalyptic vistas of either a movie or a 2009 TV budget, but if you can see past that it's actually got a lot of location filming and was expensive at the time. It's a co-production. I don't know if I could say I particularly enjoyed it, but I have respect for it. It's certainly not afraid to be nasty, in a way that's saying something about human nature rather than merely throwing cliffhangers at us. Those football hooligans! The clutching hands! The lady at the hotel! This series may look less spectacular than other adaptations, but I should think you'll remember it for longer afterwards.