Television

Apocalypse, Seventies-style: BritBox's Survivors reviewed

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

Survivors

BritBox

When the apocalypse comes, I want it to be scripted by a 1970s screenwriter. That’s my conclusion after watching the first few episodes of Terry Nation’s landmark 1975 ‘cosy catastrophe’ series Survivors on BritBox. Everything was so much more innocent and charming back then, including the end of the world.

Survivors establishes its MacGuffin in the opening credits: a montage which begins with a masked, enigmatic oriental man in a laboratory where he accidentally smashes a vial; we then see clips of him in a suit travelling through various airports, with passport stamps (New York, London, etc) taunting us from the past with just how easy it was back then to be a jet-setting international traveller. This man is what we’d now call a ‘superspreader’. Within a few days, 99 per cent of the population will be dead of this leaked virus.

The actual mass death part is over very quickly. Among the numerous tragic victims is Peter Bowles who the modern viewer thinks will surely survive because why would you kill so big a player so early in the drama? But Survivors first appeared in 1975 and wasn’t to know that in four years’ time Bowles would become a household name thanks to To the Manor Born, so he was considered dispensable.


‘Cosy catastrophe’ was the term coined by Brian Aldiss for a non-violent event which wipes out most of civilisation, the ‘cosy’ part being the conceit that the few survivors are able to rebuild society in relative comfort. In The Day of the Triffids, the ur-example of this genre, almost everyone has been blinded by meteors and then finished off by evil plants; in The Walking Dead, arguably the genre’s apotheosis, there are, of course, zombies everywhere. But in Survivors, the remnants of humanity are in a pretty good place, left with enough supplies and materials to last a couple of generations and with not a killer shrub or undead horror creature to be seen.

Also, the survivors have a remarkably high quotient of posh totty — including yummy mummy Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour) and delicious Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming). You’d think that these would be powerful magnets for eligible males, such as handsome, chopper-flying Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch) with his extravagant blond quiff. Oddly, though, it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to celebrate their survival by rutting frenziedly and making babies for the future of the human race.

It’s the same with violence and bloodshed. There’s a shocking scene in episode two where a man is summarily executed by a kangaroo court. But it sticks out precisely because people are generally so instinctively law-abiding and peaceable. The baddies may wave their shotguns menacingly but they are easily disarmed by the goodies. And the goodies in turn are so well-behaved that rather than nick the shotguns for their own use, they actually hand them back before they flee.

Viewed from the present, this all seems terribly quaint and naive. But what you have to remember is that, unlike now, 1970s people hadn’t been inured to violence and gore by relentless depictions on screen. When a man’s hideously broken leg is splinted in Survivors, it takes place off camera: in any modern version you’d see every last splinter of shredded bone. I’m old enough to remember those hairstyles, flared trousers, models of motor car, even prices (‘Parka coats — £3.99’ it says in one classic, high-street gentleman’s outfitter). But we’re talking about an era nearly half a century ago, with probably more in common culturally with the era 50 years before that — the 1920s — than our own era of obscure internet memes, transgender rights and Love Island.

Things are much slower in this golden past, almost to the point where you long for a few zombies to liven things up. Characters make lengthy, thoughtful speeches while striking wooden attitudes as if they were in the theatre rather than in a pacy, post-apocalyptic action drama. The points they make are intelligent ones — e.g. how are we going to recreate our civilisation when individually none of us even has the skills to make something as basic as a candle? — but any modern scriptwriter would convey them at one tenth of the length, while they were simultaneously leaping into a speedboat killing zombies with a flamethrower.

Perhaps it will get more anarchic and unpleasant as the series develops. But from what I’ve seen so far, I’d much rather live in post-apocalyptic 1970s Britain than the much uglier and more freedom-deprived modern one. The only thing that prevents Survivors being nostalgia-inducing to the point of agony is that even though it was filmed mainly in rural Herefordshire, the English countryside looks considerably less than idyllic because it was all shot on cheap, gloomy, poor-quality video. Otherwise, given half the chance, I’d be moving to that cosy–catastrophe paradise like a shot.

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