The New European: Apocalypse TV

Sophia Deboick on a forgotten TV classic from the 1970s, which treated its viewers like grown-ups.

On the Wednesday night of April 16 1975 at 8.10pm, immediately after the BBC 1 family film – a 1950s western starring Wildfire the Wonder Horse – Britain was hit with a vision of bleak horror from the mind of creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation.

The opening credits of Survivors told the back story with elegant economy. A masked doctor lifts a lab flask with gloved hands, but as the music rises it slips from his grasp and crashes to the floor. He walks through a busy airport, but soon after landing, he collapses. Passport stamps from destinations all around the world fill the screen, ending with London. The screen seeps blood-red. A deadly global pandemic has begun in one of the most uncompromising drama series of the decade.

The TV of the 1970s and 1980s offered countless terrible visions that indelibly etched themselves on the psyche, of which 1984’s nuclear nightmare Threads was the non plus ultra, positively nauseating in its visceral portrayal of a worst-case apocalyptic scenario.

Survivors, following a community of individuals with the fortitude and ingenuity to forge a new world out of the ashes of the old one, was certainly perkier than that, buoyed by a strong sense of the Wyndhamian ‘cosy catastrophe’ – the community lives in a gorgeous stately pile, and comfy knitwear, home brew, and bucolic scenes of small-scale farming feature heavily. But the visuals were deceiving and, as the Scarred for Life book (based on the @ScarredforLife2 Twitter account which celebrates ‘growing up in the dark side of the 70s and 80s with the scariest, most inappropriate pop culture ever’) says ‘If you’ve never seen Survivors, picture it as The Good Life, but with Surbiton in flaming ruins and the decomposing corpses of Jerry and Margot permanently visible in the next door garden.’ Indeed, the initial horror of the epidemic that only one in 5,000 people survive is nothing compared to the fates that befall the characters over the three series…

The New European, 1 November 2018, p. 27.

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