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Day of the Triffids, The (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Day of the Triffids, The (1981)
BBC, 10/9 - 15/10/1981
6 x 30 min episodes, colour
DirectorKen Hannam
Production CompanyBBC
 RCTV Inc.
 Australian Broadcasting Corporation
ProducerDavid Maloney
ScreenplayDouglas Livingstone
AuthorJohn Wyndham

Cast: John Duttine (Bill Masen); Emma Relph (Jo); Maurice Colbourne (Jack Coker); Stephen Yardley (John)

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An extraordinary astronomical display leaves most of Britain blinded. As civilisation collapses, the Triffids - mysterious, intelligent, predatory and, worst of all, mobile plants - begin to take over.

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In the early '60s the BBC's anthology series Out of the Unknown (1965-71) adapted two John Wyndham short stories, while ITV serialised his novel, Chocky, in 1984. Sandwiched between these lies The Day of the Triffids (BBC, 1981), the most effective TV realisation of Wyndham's writing.

Although scripted by Douglas Livingstone, the work was the brainchild of producer David Maloney, better known for his stints on Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-85) and Blake's 7 (BBC, 1978-81). Maloney chose to remain faithful to Wyndham's novel, unlike the melodramatic mess of a movie adaptation from 1962, although the action is updated from the 1950s to the near future, thus enhancing the story's menacing possibilities.

This version benefits from high production values - requiring the BBC to co-finance the show with The Australian Broadcasting Commission and RCTV - strong acting and an abundance of grim atmosphere. The latter is generated through Ken Hannam's taut direction, some evocative sound effects and the macabre appearance of the Triffids. These are well realised by Steve Drewett (who looked to the novel and real-life carnivorous plants for inspiration), although the narrative becomes equally concerned with the everyday problems faced by a post-apocalyptic society, a theme also explored in Survivors (BBC, 1975-77), The Changes (BBC, 1975) and the later Threads (BBC, 1984).

This distinguishes the drama from the more standard sci-fi fare of 'man v. aliens', although the focus on credibility does have one downside. In episode 1, the central character, Bill Masen, is presented as a man whose destiny is almost mystically intertwined with the Triffids. As a lad, he survives the first ever attack by the plants, his escape from the meteors' blinding effect is ironically due to a Triffid sting as opposed to biological immunity and initially, at least, he is portrayed as separate from other remaining humans. The sense of destiny is regrettably forgotten as the screenplay pursues realism in an admittedly unrealistic situation.

Nevertheless, this remains a compelling and understated thriller. As with the same year's classic The Nightmare Man (BBC), it represents serious and unsentimental science fiction with John Duttine, in particular, excelling as the battling and bewildered protagonist, struggling to survive in a blind, brutal world. Critic David Pringle termed the original novel "a very enjoyable catastrophe", and to the production team's credit the same can be said of this involving and intelligent adaptation.

Gavin Collinson

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Video Clips
1. Title sequence (0:56)
2. The first Triffid (3:08)
3. Alone (2:45)
Complete episode (25:58)
Tripods (1984-85)
TV Sci-Fi