words by Andrew Screen
“Take away our sight and our superiority will be gone…”
When I agreed to review this restored Blu Ray release of the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids, I never anticipated it may become a poisoned chalice.
The day the new disc was released a controversy erupted about the quality of the restoration carried out on the programme. The general gist of the problem was that whilst the parts of production shot on film looked OK the parts on video had been “filmised”. What this means in simple terms involves the rate that the image is refreshed. Video has a new image every twenty milliseconds whilst film refreshes every forty milliseconds and so when a film effect is applied to video this loses some of the refreshes. The result can mean that the image is less smooth and can become jerky and diagonal lines can appear jagged.
Other issues flagged by the controversy included the grading of materials, especially on the title sequence which has lost some of the wider palette of hues. Also troubling to some viewers was the use of different fonts for the credits and titles in the rebuilt and restored titles. And to add insult to injury the only extra on the discs was a featurette on the restoration of the programme. Surely there was some suitable material in the BBC archives? How about the 1960 interview with John Wyndham that was disseminated via social media by the BBC the same week as the disc was issued or the Alexie Sayle and Angus Deayton Triffid sketch for starters?
The issue continues to rumble on as I’m typing this with many cancelling their orders or demanding a refund… So, where to begin?
On balance around half of the series is shot on film, which despite the fault-finding about grading, has been substantially restored. It looks better than when it was first broadcast with scratches, blotches and other issues digitally smoothed away. For many, less televisually literate, viewers they won’t notice the differing fonts or the issues with video (and yes there are some problems with the footage) as they have simply purchased a copy to enjoy the drama. For those who hold the series dear to their hearts, it will be an issue and I can appreciate both their disagreements and the fact it will fly unnoticed by more casual viewers. Perhaps the amazingly high standards set the by the restoration of Doctor Who on DVD and Blu-ray has raised expectations too much? Let’s put these issues aside for a while and look at the other aspects of the release.
First of all – that cover image! Who on Earth signed off this monstrosity? Apart from being a day-glow nightmare, the illustration reduces the rather attractive Emma Relph, who plays Jo, to looking like Julie Walters playing Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques. The cover image is also used as the background for the DVD menu screen and it has been embellished with cringe-worthy “animation” that makes it look like something from the early days of DVD releases. A static menu would have been sufficient.
Writer Douglas Livingstone follows the source text and does an effective job of compacting the material for this six-episode production. The opening part focusses on John Duttine’s Bill who is in hospital waiting for the bandages to be removed from his eyes following a triffid sting. As he records his thoughts, flashbacks help fill in the background detail of where the plants came from and how they are farmed for their oil. We also learn of their mobility, carnivorous diet and ability to lash out with a lethal sting. It’s neat, well-structured and builds the world of the drama economically. In fact, despite being an expensive co-production with Australia, the series avoids grand scale demonstrations and economy was evidentially kept in mind during the production. Instead, the series concentrates on the human aspects of the situation showing the moral maze survivors are faced with.
And it’s all the better for it…
Eventually, Bill realises that something is wrong, removes the bandages himself and mercifully discovers he can still see. As he starts to investigate the eerily deserted hospital he encounters his consultant and it is revealed he is blind. We then cut to the Triffid farm where Bill worked and the first shots of the plants in all their bobbling and wobbling glory as they make their way to freedom.
The second episode sees Bill meet up with a young woman, Jo, who also missed the sight-stealing celestial display the night before. As this is a very British apocalypse they briefly end up in a pub discussing what has happened and decide to go to Jo’s home. They find everyone dead and the house surrounded by Triffids. As they make their getaway in a car they get stuck in a London street and the vehicle becomes surrounded by a mob of desperate blind people. Look closely and you will spot the grey-haired veteran TV producer and director Morris Barry as part of the crowd.
After escaping Bill and Jo hole up in a high rise flat for the night where Jo changes into what looks like a cast-off from Servalan’s wardrobe (Blake’s 7 and Triffids share the same producer David Maloney). It is these sequences that reveal the problems with the remastering with some motion issues and jagged diagonals on a square light in the foreground of one shot. They are irritating when you look for them, but the less savvy may just put them down the artefacts from the ancient video technology used in making the show. Episode two also sees the first sighting of the character Coker, played by Maurice Colbourne, who will become more prominent as the story progresses. Our heroes join a group of survivors who plan to leave London before the disease takes hold and set up a community to rebuild society, but before they leave a fire breaks out resulting in Bill being knocked unconscious.
Bill has been captured by Coker who pressgangs him into leading a group of the blind as they forage the city for supplies and live in a lodging house. Jo has also been captured and been assigned to be the eyes for another group elsewhere. Eventually, the disease starts to ravage Bill’s group and they encounter a gun-wielding punk rocker (Gary Olsen) who shoots dead several of the blind. It will not be the last time we see this character… As the disease spreads through his group Bill decides to leave despite being conflicted about his decision. He tools up with weapons and goes looking for Jo, but encounters only the dead and the dying. After rejoining Coker Bill leaves London and the series takes on tones of the earlier BBC post-apocalypse drama Survivors as the pair scour the countryside for Jo. This is very evident in the scene where Coker speaks of the need to learn new skills for the future and working as part of a community. The Triffids are a constant menace and they kill a pub landlord (played by the ubiquitous Doctor Who extra Pat Gorman) before Bill blows the head of the damned thing. Bill and Coker separate, and Bill saves a young sighted girl menaced by a Triffid, before he and Jo are reunited.
The sixth episode is set six years later and starts with some nice images of a London starting to crumble and be reclaimed by nature. Bill and Jo’s home is surrounded by an electric fence to keep out the Triffids and the couple are hairier and have a child. They are barely surviving and the power for the fence is intermittent. One morning they awake to find the house surrounded by Triffids. Cut to a pile of smoking plant carcasses and the group brandishing some handy flamethrowers -an economical way of avoiding expensive spectacle and concentrating on the human aspects of the storyline which this series is so good at. A hell of a lot happens in the last episode as we race to the conclusion of the story. Coker returns and offers sanctuary with an island community. Gary Olsen turns up again as the leader of a paramilitary squad of men who want to take over the property and split up the group. Bill, Jo and the others escape and leave the squad of men at the mercy of the Triffids. And then the episode, and the series, stops suddenly on a brief, but hopeful note.
Without a doubt, this is the best adaptation of a Wyndham novel with a grim depiction of a blinded world and excellent acting from all involved. The Triffids themselves are a fantastic design and are kept very much in the background as a growing menace in the run-up to the final episode. Shots of them in action are presented well and keep the shortcomings of the effects out of sight for most of the running time. You can see why this version of The Day of the Triffids is so highly cherished by those who saw this intelligent slice of fantasy on first transmission and can appreciate they had high expectations for the remastering of the series. Personally, I think the series looks better than when first transmitted and I can forgive the occasional issue with the video footage and marvel at how great the many sequences on film look.