When the Tripods came to TV

First published: 2018

Chris Hallam examines an alien invasion saga with a difference…

It is now been over fifty years since the Tripods first strode boldly onto the British science fiction landscape.

Alien invasion stories were, of course, nothing new, even then. The difference was that in the Tripods’ case, the invasion was already over. Planet Earth was long defeated and seemingly totally in thrall to their new metallic masters: gigantic hemispheres supported by three gigantic legs. Creator John Christopher later admitted he’d “unconsciously stolen” the idea of the Tripods’ appearance from the Martian conquerors of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. He was being modest. There are definite similarities between the two. But there was rather more to the Tripods than that.

The first book to feature the metallic monsters, The White Mountains written by John Christopher (whose real name was Sam Youd) appeared in 1967. Two more books, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire soon followed. Then, in the mid-Eighties, the first two books were made into two BBC TV series. A final book, a prequel, When The Tripods Came appeared in 1988. Primarily aimed at a teenage audience, the Tripods had become a science fiction franchise in their own right.

The enemy within

At first it seems as if there is nothing wrong. Aside from a few ominous references to “Tripods” and people being “Capped,” the first few pages of the opening volume (The White Mountains) suggest the book is set at some point in England’s past, specifically Winchester, perhaps in or around the year 1800. Only gradually do we learn the truth. Early on, the young main characters are confused by an ancient sign: “Danger, 6,600 volts”. It means nothing to them, but to us, the meaning is only too clear. This is the future: perhaps a century or more from now. But it is a future where human development has been pushed back to pre-industrial levels. The main characters have never even heard of trains, cars or electricity. It is as if the industrial revolution never happened.

As in Orwell’s 1984, the populace has been fed a misleading portrait of the pre-invasion world. “We know it was the Black Age,” says one character. “There were too many people, and not enough food, so that people starved and fought each other and there were all kind of sicknesses…” It is not simply propaganda which is blighting the path of human development, however.

We do not have to wait long before we meet the source of the problem. The gigantic robotic Tripods stalk the Earth “Capping” humans in a special ceremony organised by the already Capped adults for their young as soon as they reach adolescence. The Caps are metal plates fused to the heads of the humans through which the conquered native population receive orders from the Tripod conquerors. The Capped are not zombies, not exactly. They still talk, eat, drink, do jobs, get married, farm and cook. But their minds are no longer truly their own.

As if this wasn’t chilling enough, we soon learn that as many as one in twenty Cappings fail: the Tripod’s messages are unable to reach the human brain properly, leaving the wearers in a state of perpetual confused delirium. The result is that a sizeable swathe of the populace is made up of the consequences of these malfunctions: sad wandering figures known as “Vagrants”.

It is from one such ‘Vagrant’ – in fact, a man pretending to be one, who goes by the name “Ozymandias”- that the book’s hero, Will Parker comes to realise the truth, only days before he is due to be Capped himself. Discouraged by the slavish Stepford Wife-like quality that befalls the personality of his friend Jack after his Capping (a process that involves being drawn into and briefly taken off by a Tripod), Will is determined to avoid such a fate. He flees and begins a perilous journey, ultimately joined by two colleagues: his cousin Henry and a tall, highly intelligent French boy known as “Beanpole”. They travel to the one region of the planet apparently free of Tripod influence: the white mountains of Switzerland.

Fifty years on, the book remains a compelling read. The Tripods themselves appear relatively infrequently, ensuring maximum impact when they do appear: sometimes as a distant but still unnerving presence lumbering across the horizon or occasionally looming up and lashing out, attacking ships or people apparently on a whim. There are even stories of the Tripods letting captured humans run free before hunting them down for sport. The book has some similarities to John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids in which another group of futuristic children escape their pre-industrial homesteads, albeit for very different reasons.

Origin of the species

But who or what exactly are the Tripods and where do they come from?

Ozymandias, the man who inspires Will’s journey, has a couple of ideas. “There are two stories about them,” he begins. “One is that they were machines made by men, which revolted against men and enslaved them…The other story is that they do not come from this world at all, but another.”

Both of these stories turn out to be partly true. The Tripods do come from outer space but the means by which they took power turns out to be through the man-made medium of television. Once in charge, they ensured humanity reverted to a pre-industrial level of technological development, perhaps to protect themselves from a sophisticated military assault or at the very least to prevent nasty rumours being spread about them on the internet.

Ozymandias also speculates that the Tripods may be just the vehicles for the alien controllers within. We learn more about this in the second novel, The City of Gold and Lead in which Will and another boy, Fritz adopt fake Caps and are able to gain access to one of the domed cities in which the Tripods’ hideous Masters live. Conditions are appalling for humans. The gravity levels are set at a much higher level than usual, to make the Masters feel at home but making it almost impossible for humans to move. Will also discovers that the Masters’ ultimate aim is to flood out the Earth’s oxygen with their own poisonous green air, rendering human survival impossible but ensuring the Masters can wander about as they please. A spaceship providing the means to do this is apparently only a few years away from reaching the Earth.

In the final book of the trilogy, The Pool of Fire, the battle to defeat the Tripods thus becomes very urgent indeed.

The trilogy ended. But with the Tripods having conquered the Earth by harnessing the power of TV, surely it made sense that in the real world, the Tripods should try and conquer the world of TV for themselves? In 1984 and 1985, this finally happened: the Tripods came to BBC1. Whether they may genuinely said to have conquered the medium remains to be seen.

A trilogy in two parts

The first series of The Tripods was broadcast in the popular BBC 1 Saturday afternoon teatime slot, across 13 weeks between September and December 1984. It had been a long struggle: producer Richard Bates had been trying to get the series on the box since the early 1970s.

It was a busy time for sci-fi and fantasy. The US extra-terrestrial series V had just been broadcast on ITV that summer and Ghostbusters was first shown in UK cinemas in December. On the British front, the Fifth Doctor Peter Davison had just regenerated into the Sixth, Colin Baker, Children’s ITV had just shown the terrifying John Wyndham adaptation, Chocky (also produced by The Tripods’ Richard Bates) and in November, the BBC launched its dark Christmas fantasy, The Box of Delights featuring the onetime Second Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton.

The series opened with a caption stating it was the year 2089AD, followed by the appearance of a 19th century style horse and cart. What followed was a generally faithful translation of the book from page to screen. It’s always easy to mock old British TV sci-fi but The Tripods was a big deal at the time and had a reasonable budget. A 12-part series based on the second book appeared in the autumn of 1985.

There was a fair amount of publicity.  The series made the cover of the Radio Times and a computer game was produced for the ZX Spectrum. The three young main cast members, John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel appeared on Blue Peter and were interviewed by presenters Simon Groom and the late Michael Sundin, while Goldie the dog slept on the floor in front of them. The following year, Groom alongside Peter Duncan and Janet Ellis presented another feature, exploring the second series’ special effects. Janet Ellis described the City of Gold and Lead as “a real triumph of design and special effects” while Peter Duncan (who had played a small part in the 1980 film Flash Gordon) dressed in Will’s costume and was superimposed so as to appear in the City itself where he explained the concept of colour separation overlay. Simon Groom, meanwhile, reassured any nervous viewers that the Masters, the alien controllers of the Tripods were made of nothing more than plastic foam filled with bubbles, enhanced by camera and lighting effects. A similar item appeared on BBC Breakfast Time introduced by Debbie Greenwood. The Daily Express described it as “the most imaginative and compelling teatime adventure in years”.

Some scenes had been filmed at Saltcombe Castle, residence of the famously roguish Tory MP and diarist, Alan Clark. Clark’s diaries record he took a liking to “little Charlotte Long” the aristocratic young actress playing French love interest, Eloise, undeterred by the fact Long was a teenager while Clark, at this point, was married and in his fifties. Tragically, Long was killed in a car accident, aged just 18, while the first series was still being broadcast. Her character appeared only briefly in the second series where she was played by future Howard’s Way actress Cindy Shelley.

Not all the criticism of the series was favourable. The acting was variable in quality and things occasionally got boring. The show frequently got nine million viewers but was still often beaten by the popular quiz show Blockbusters which was broadcast at the same time on ITV. A common complaint was that for a show called The Tripods, the Tripods themselves appeared fairly infrequently. Creator John Christopher himself, meanwhile, was less keen on the heroes’ four-episode digression to a French farm. The farm visit had no equivalent in the actual book, featured no Tripods and was largely irrelevant to the story. Christopher did, however, generally enjoy the adaptation. He had not enjoyed an earlier 1970s film version of his apocalyptic novel Death of Grass (filmed as No Blade of Grass) watching it on TV for a short while but apparently going to bed during the first commercial break.

On an episode of Did You See…? hosted by the Ludovic Kennedy, the sci-fi author Brian Aldiss labelled the series “a rather a clumsy piece of engineering” and likened it to a Hovis bread commercial. “What I don’t like about it is that it’s a certain type of British science fiction which is looking backwards instead of forwards,” he said.

Other guests were more ignorant but no less keen. One, at least, liked the theme music, which to anyone listening today is heavily reminiscent of the theme to long running medical drama, Casualty. (Both were in fact written by the same man: Ken Freeman). The guests also seemed confused as to whether the series was supposed to be set in the still quite recent 1970s or medieval times. None were correct.

As it is, The Tripods will always remain tragically incomplete. Much to the eternal annoyance of fans everywhere and to the lifelong regret of producer, Richard Bates, the show was cancelled before a third series was ever made.

The TV trilogy remains forever unfinished.

Back to the future

The story was not quite over, however. In 1988, twenty-one years after the first book, John Christopher produced a prequel, When The Tripods Came which aimed to explain how the Tripods conquered the Earth in the first place. Set in the near future, the book opens with an early attempt at a physical Tripod attack on Earth which centres on Dartmoor. A dog is killed and the Tripods are subjected to a blast of classical music before being speedily dispatched by jet fighters. The surprise alien invasion attempt appears to have been a lamentable failure. “A Close Encounter of the Absurd Kind,” jokes the teacher of one of the boys almost caught up in the attack. “What sort of goons would dream up something so clumsy and inefficient as a means of getting around?”

A new animated TV show, “The Trippy Show” soon begins mocking the would-be invaders. And here the trouble begins. It soon develops a fanatical cult following. Some people seem unaffected, but for others it seems to have a dramatic impact on them. The main character is horrified when his teenaged sister flies into a hysterical rage when he accidentally fails to video tape the latest episode for her. Fans soon start fleeing their homes to form communes. The Daily Mail reports on “A Trippy Brainwash?” while the teacher quoted earlier begins acting oddly. “I saw you burn that evil newspaper,” he says to some affected pupils, “They had one in the Common-Room and I burned it too…hail the Tripod!” Soon social breakdown, chaos and mass Cappings ensue. Yes, the Caps have appeared for the first time.

The Tripods are back.

Quite aside from the heroic role played by the Daily Mail in proceedings, not all aspects of the book convince. It is never really fully explained how The Trippy Show gets made in the first place. Author John Christopher was well into his sixties by this point and there’s a bit of a dated 1960s feel about the Trippy phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it’s a gripping read. John Christopher died in 2012, aged 89. Disney bought the rights to the franchise in 1997.

Have we really seen the last of the Tripods? Only time will tell.

Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock

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In 1989, Boris Johnson, then aged 25, reported on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s recent press conference performance in which she committed Britain to joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism. According to him, the 63-year-old premier was looking: “distinctly sexy, with a flush about her cheeks as though she were up to something naughty.” Alan Clark, Tory MP, diarist and notorious womaniser was another fan. “I never came across any other woman in politics as sexually attractive in terms of eyes, wrist and ankle,” he wrote, rather oddly. Paul Gascoigne, the footballer, also seemed keen, embracing her eagerly on meeting her in 1990. “I was right there and could see that she just loved it,” observes her private secretary, Caroline Slocock observes. “What he thought he was doing, I don’t know.”

Others, such as her longest serving chancellor, Nigel Lawson, were less keen. “I think she could turn it on if she wanted to,” says the father of the TV chef, Nigella Lawson, “but sexiness wasn’t the most obvious thing about her. She was also extremely headmistressy.” For the record, if Microsoft could detect sexism, the last sentence would have a line underneath it now on my computer.

As it is only the word ‘headmistressy’ is underlined because the spelling and grammar check has noticed ‘headmistressy’ is technically not actually a word. If it was, it would mean, “like a headmistress or someone in charge.”

In other words, Lord Lawson is saying. She acted like she was in charge. Which she was. She was the Prime Minister. But I didn’t like it because I was a man and wanted to be Prime Minister myself and anyway wasn’t used to having a woman tell me what to do.

In 1989, Caroline Slocock became the first female private secretary to any British Prime Minister. She was – and is – a bright spark and a valuable eyewitness to Margaret Thatcher’s final year in office and subsequent overthrow. Best of all, unlike Thatcher herself, she was both a socialist and a feminist. That’s right! She’s one of us.

slocock

This is an excellent, highly readable memoir which really does shed new light on the “Iron Lady.” Slocock like many people, was somewhat repelled by Thatcher’s artificial sounding voice, the product, first, of childhood elocution lessons intended to purge the Grantham out of her and later softened by the tutoring of Saatchi and Saatchi spin doctors.

As Slocock points out though, the political environment in the Commons both then and now, clearly favours male speakers. Were this not the case, would all those years of speech work have been necessary? One suspects not.

As Norman Tebbit puts it: “One of the problems of being a woman in politics is that men can shout, but if a woman increases the volume of her voice, she tends to squawk.”

Slocock actually lets Lawson off the sexism charge (even after some bizarre distasteful comments from him, which suggest she sat on her knickers, rather than her skirt) but it is a fact that while she got on with many men: Denis Thatcher himself, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Cecil Parkinson,  she certainly didn’t, others: Nigel Lawson, Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe. Her utterly contemptuous treatment of Howe, a decent man who she humiliated through her public bullying and shaming of him, ultimately brought her down. Deservedly so.

Equally unforgivable as Slocock notes, is Thatcher’s near total failure to promote other women. Thus, the big expanse in women MPs didn’t come until the age of Blair. The first woman Foreign Secretary? Under Blair. First woman Home Secretary? Under Blair, again.

I spotted only one mistake that should have been proofed out on p119:

“(Chris Smith) was appointed as the first openly gay person in the Cabinet in 1997, nine years after Margaret Thatcher had left power.”

Nine years? Really? After November 1990? Not six and a half?

But my own pedantry aside, this is an excellent read.

THATCHER-PARTY

Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock. Published by Biteback. Out: now.

Book review: Order, Order! by Ben Wright

Order Order cover

Alcohol has long been the fuel which has powered the engine of our nation’s political life. Sometimes the results seemed to be beneficial. Margaret Thatcher generally found it difficult to relax and enjoyed a whisky or two most evenings during her long stint in Number 10. Winston Churchill also seems to have been improved incredibly by the astonishing amounts of alcohol he drank during his premiership. One has to wonder if we would have won the war, as BBC Political Correspondent Ben Wright does here, had he not drank.

Sometimes the results were less positive. During the 1970s, both Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon both saw their powers dim partly as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.Much earlier, William Pitt the Younger went through the same thing.

Occasionally, the results have been funny. Wilson’s famously erratic Foreign Secretary George Brown experienced numerous embarrassments as the result of his frequently “tired and emotional” state while Tory MP Alan Clark was famously exposed by Labour’s Clare Short as being drunk in the House on one occasion, or at least did so as far as Commons protocol allowed.

Often,  of course, as in the case of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, the results have been tragic.

Ben Wright’s book offers a witty and well informed insight into one of Britain’s longest standing political traditions.

thatcher drinks

Book review: Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking by Ben Wright.

Published by: Duckworth Overlook

Book review: Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart

The Sun
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Make no mistake: 1979 was a very long time ago. Let’s not have any of this “it seems like yesterday” nonsense. If 1979 really does seem like yesterday, there is something seriously wrong with you.

Despite its name, this book actually begins in 1979. It is now 2013. The same amount of time has passed since 1979 as had passed between it and the end of the Second World War in 1945. When the same amount of time has passed again, it will be 2047. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find things have changed a fair bit. In 1979, you wouldn’t have been reading a blog on your phone, a laptop or anywhere else,

Consider:  in 1979, the Labour Prime Minister (a man born before the First World War) was still at ease sitting round the Downing Street table with leading trade union figures. This was a time when some such union leaders spoke openly of Marxist revolution in Britain and believed this was apparently a realistic prospect. Leading Labour figures like Tony Benn spoke of nationalising almost all of British industry to enthusiastic, mostly male, smoke-filled Labour conferences.

Flash forward to 1990 when this book ends and things start to seem a lot more familiar. Not the same but a lot more like now. Seventies fashions had lost their grip.  Nobody had iPods yet but they had Walkmans at least and CDs were already replacing vinyl.  Mobile phones were still rare and huge, but they did at least exist. Channel 4 was now on air and a small minority could now watch BSkyB (although a common joke of the time was that the average person was more likely to get BSE – the human form of mad cow disease- than BSkyB). EastEnders was on.

Meanwhile, strikes were a rarity. The SDP had been and gone. The Labour Party, although still firmly out of power were also a lot more recognisable. Behind the scenes, Peter Mandelson was hard at work. The smoke-filled conference halls were gone. Neil Kinnock, although never a popular figure with the public, was smartly dressed and in command, a far cry from the decent but scruffy Michael Foot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then in their late thirties were advancing fast up the Labour ranks. New Labour was on its way.

In my view, the 1980s transformed Britain more than any other peacetime decade in the last 150 years, except perhaps for the 1960s.

Much of this is doubtless due in no small measure to the personality and politics of Margaret Thatcher, who Stewart seems rather a fan of. I am rather less keen. The Lady was undeniably a fine war leader and by the Eighties, union power clearly needed curtailing.

But this was a bad decade for the British economy. Before the ‘Winter of Discontent’ wrecked Labour for more than a decade, the Callaghan Government had been doing a fine job of pulling the UK back from the oil shock, the ‘Barber Boom’ and the errors of Wilson’s final two years. But Callaghan’s gains and those made by the discovery of North Sea oil were squandered by Thatcher’s Monetarist experiment. Soon more than a fifth of the nation’s industrial base had been wiped out forever and high unemployment hung over the rest of the decade like a curse.

This was also the decade where the unrestrained power of the markets took hold and Rupert Murdoch was permitted unprecedented media power by the Thatcher Government. Both of these problems should have been addressed later by Major, Blair or Brown. But the Lady (as the late Alan Clark would lovingly refer to her) is the original source of responsibility here. Crime soared, the health service suffered and homeless levels rose unforgivably under Thatcher. A simple comparison of how the UK fared under her watch and that during Tony Blair’s decade (1997-2007) is damning.

By 1990, she had grown tremendously in confidence to the point of mental instability. Having seen off the ‘Argies’, the miners and Labour (three times: under Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock), she seemed convinced of her own infallibility. She even began speaking about herself using the royal “we” (famously: “we are a grandmother”).

But when she linked her destiny to that of the hated and ultimately unfair Community Charge (or “Poll Tax”) even the Tories recognised she had to go. John Major secured one more win for the Tories in 1992. But twenty-three years on, the Tories have not recovered from her fall. No Tory leader since Major has won a General Election.

This is a slightly badly structured book with hard going chapters about monetarism rubbing shoulders with those about pop music and the singles of Madness. But it’s a story worth retelling especially if you want to terrify your left-leaning children before they go to sleep.

Just remember: don’t have nightmares.