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Post-apocalyptic London in the 1970s: Survivors on TV

Arianna Casali

The BBC TV series Survivors, produced by and broadcast on BBC1 from 1975 to 1977, stands as a significant example of the post-apocalyptic genre. Created by Terry Nation, a well-known TV author in the 1960s and ‘70s, Survivors is just one of his successful contributions to British television, which also include several popular science fiction drama series, such as Blake’s 7 (as creator) and Doctor Who (as contributing writer). It must be underlined, though, that in the case of television, as opposed to literature, authorship and authority itself does not generally depend exclusively on the role of the creator/writer. Although in the case of Terry Nation, his authorship is reflected in the main idea, the chosen genre and the various main plots of the first Survivors series, it is important to stress that any television production is a combination of different influences, namely, writer, producer, script writer (editor) and, last but not least, director. In this case, the TV series Survivors is no exception and is further enriched by cultural, political and sociological frameworks and subtexts originating not only in the cooperative work of various contributors, but also in the impact the TV programme itself had on its audience at that particular time. As Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day point out, “boundaries are set by generically coded formats and the script must be transferred to the screen by a production team and performers. … In case of television production, that power and authority is in fact, spread out of a number of people … the author(ity) behind television programmes is far from being a unified creator or writer figure.”[1]

It is interesting to observe that Terry Nation’s long television career saw him involved as a script writer mastering various genres of TV writing and radio production scripting, ranging from radio comedy for such well-known stars as Peter Sellers to collaborations with, among others, Spike Milligan. From spy drama to action adventures, Nation built an extraordinary professional experience as writer and contributor that led him from TV series such as The Saint (ITC, 13 episodes based on the novel by Leslie Charteris, 1962-1969, starring Roger Moore), The Avengers (ITC, writer of 6 episodes and script editor, 1961-1969, starring Patrick Macnee) and The Persuaders! (ITC, associated producer and story consultant, 1971-1972, starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis) to the science fiction adventures characterising Doctor Who. This series brought him, by the mid 1960s, longed-for fame and financial success thanks also to the creation of The Daleks, the Doctor’s opponents. From fantasy drama to science fiction, Nation’s productions soon reached the status of cult TV. As a matter of fact, after such an extensive professional apprenticeship, Nation felt ready, by the 1970s, to develop a TV series of his own and his inspiration led him right back to science fiction itself, a new idea to be found in a series pilot with the significant title Beyond Omega. According to extensive research carried out by Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day, “It is impossible to tell from existing records what this programme may have been, but the connotation of surviving the end that the title Beyond Omega possesses hints that the programme may have been an initial attempt at science fiction post-apocalyptic drama. Nation tried unsuccessfully to sell an idea for such a series to ITV … and later devised the programme for BBC under the title Survivors.”[2] The title Beyond Omega recalls the biblical expression “alpha and omega” — the beginning and the end of all things -– related to the Apocalypse of John, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, containing, in apocalyptic terms, the prophecies of destruction of a corrupt civilisation and human society to be replaced by a new world. The word apocalypse in Greek means revelation and in this specific sense it has a direct relation to the revelation of a future to come. Beyond Omega is also thematically linked to a well-known sci-fi post-apocalyptic movie, the American The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, adapted from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954) and directed by Boris Sagal in 1971. It should also be mentioned and underlined that a previous film version of Matheson’s novel, by Italian director Ubaldo Ragona, was released in 1964 under the title The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. The plot of both novel and film adaptations deals with a deserted world in ruins, inhabited by an apparently last man on earth, where the rest of mankind — except for a number of menacing vampires — has disappeared because of a deadly plague. In reference to an analogously bleak setting, it must also be noted that Survivors recalls a previous TV programme entitled Doomwatch (1970-1972) that dealt with similar concerns involving endangered mankind and the theme of science and progress. Moreover, many of the people working on the Survivors series had been involved in the earlier TV production of Doomwatch.[3]

The idea of mankind’s extermination due to a deadly worldwide pandemic, simultaneously involving a certain degree of criticism of society, politics and human nature, owes a great deal to the Romantic imagination, namely to The Last Man, an 1826 novel by Mary Shelley.[4] Initially dismissed and criticised by the literary entourage of the time, the novel was first appreciated in the late 1890s, due to the interest in the new genre of science fiction.[5] Even though The Last Man is not in itself an sf novel, as Morton D. Paley rightly observes, “the genre has made the reading public acquainted with imagining Lastness”.[6] Moreover, according to research carried out in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a French novel preceded Shelley’s The Last Man: Le Dernier Homme[7] — whose main character’s name is, significantly, Omegarus -– which was, in fact, first published in 1805 in Paris by Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville. It is not at all certain that Mary Shelley actually read this novel, published in London in a limited number of copies in 1806. Nevertheless, as Brian W. Aldiss emphasises in his 2003 book review in Science Fiction Studies, the discovery and recent English edition of this French novel is important for reconstructing the history of science fiction.[8] The fact that the Survivors series tells the story of a group of people surviving a plague, whereas the above examples mainly focus their plots on a single protagonist, does not weaken the analogies among the different texts. They all deal with an equally shared post-apocalyptic scenario as well as with the idea of lastness and ending, an ideal backdrop for stories where mankind’s inhumanity and its tendency towards self-destruction are faced on various levels of discussion: political, social and anthropological. Another source for the plot of Survivors can also be identified in a novel by Richard Jefferies, After London or Wild England, published in 1885. In Jefferies’ novel, England has been depopulated by a mysterious catastrophe of some kind, the whole country has long reverted to wilderness and the survivors to a medieval dark age. The novel is a further early example of post-apocalyptic fiction where the future setting confirms the use, in Victorian times, of the tale of the future itself as “a device for which there was a growing vogue all through the 1870s and 1880s”, as John Fowles underlines in his extensive introduction to the novel.[9] The mighty city of London, identified by Jefferies as the evil symbol of the unjust and degenerating society of the time, is described in disturbing, almost surreal images as a declaration of hate and contempt towards the social, economic and political system of the late Victorian era. As a matter of fact, the post-apocalyptic setting does not simply express and develop, as an end in itself, a taste for science fiction and terrifying situations and settings. Where once there was an urban landscape, a century after the catastrophe, there are now ruins half hidden in a huge, mephitic swamp:

a vast stagnant swamp, which no man dare enter, since death would be his inevitable fate. There exhales from the oozy mass so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it. … For all the rottenness of a thousand years and of many hundred million human beings is there festering under the stagnant water, which has sunk down into and penetrated the earth, and floated up to the surface the contents of the buried cloacae. … The vapour, where it is most dense, takes fire, like the blue flame of spirits, and these flaming clouds float to and fro, and yet do not burn the reeds. … It is true that there are not always swamps, but the sites are uninhabitable because of the emanations from the ruins.[10]

Even though Jefferies’ London is an unrecognisable city, if compared to the Survivors’ London, as we will see, several other similarities can be identified in the text. The obsession with wild dogs and rats infesting the landscape, the smell permeating the air, can only confirm a similar negative vision of the city as the image of a devastated and decaying human world. Such images are often found in the series as well as in episodes such as “Lights of London -– parts 1 and 2” (2.3 and 2.4., both written by Jack Ronder) and “Wild Dog” (3.4, written by Don Shaw). A detail at the end of Chapter II, Part I, of Jefferies’ novel is particularly striking: “In the castle yard at Longtover may still be seen the bones of an elephant which was found dying in the woods near the spot.”[11] When matched with an image in episode 2, series 3 of Survivors, this description is quite impressive. The reference here is to “A Little Learning” (3.2, written by Ian McCulloch) where, at the end of the episode, Greg Preston and a group of children spot a baby elephant in a nearby field. It is impossible not to compare both images, especially considering that Richard Jefferies’ England is described over a century after the devastating catastrophe and thus the elephant and the skeleton seem even more related to each other.

Survivors tells the story of the daily struggle to stay alive of a group of British people who survived a deadly biological pandemic destroying 98% of the human race. From modern civilisation and technological facilities, until that moment taken for granted, a small group of men and women find themselves thrown back into the Dark Ages. A reference to the Cold War setting is also evident here from the beginning: the deadly virus has been accidentally released in a laboratory by a communist Chinese scientist, as the iconic title sequences of the series introduce in striking images, thus expressing a subtextual connection with a 1970’s preoccupation related to scientific research in the field of biological warfare. Once food and fuel supplies have run out, a situation anticipating and emphasising one of the main concerns of the present time, the protagonists are forced to begin their lives anew, well aware that things are never going to be the same. London, the city, the myth, the promised land of the successful, is no longer the place to be. The plague, named “the Death”, and its immediate aftermath, have transformed London into an unsafe and dangerous place, a huge open cemetery, where the dead bodies of the innumerable victims — that could not find proper burial after the implacably deadly epidemic — are scattered mercilessly everywhere and left to putrefy amidst the remains of the once glorious city. Fleeing the ruins of urban industrial civilisation, the survivors are forced to escape into the countryside to establish a new community that can only be based on a primitive agriculture.

In Series 1, Terry Nation set the basis of the TV programme, which can also be defined in terms of speculative fiction for its characteristic reconstruction of “what if”, in this specific case dealing with the theme of civilisation’s destruction. In addition to the basic plot and setting, Nation developed a precise number of protagonists who represent the core of the story: Abby Grant (actress Carolyn Seymour), an upper middle-class housewife with a strong and determined personality, a relevant symbolic feminist figure, Greg Preston (actor Ian McCulloch), an engineer and a man both introverted and reliable and Jenny Richard (actress Lucy Fleming), a vulnerable young secretary from London. After Nation left the production at the end of Series 1 because of irremediable disagreements with Terence Dudley, the Survivors’ producer, the character of Abby Grant was eliminated from the series and actress Carolyn Seymour removed from the cast.[12] Even if Abby is occasionally named and remembered in several of the following episodes — as a matter of fact, Survivors starts with her search for and attempt to reunite with her son Peter -– her character is significantly replaced by a male figure, a former architect named Charles Vaughan (actor Denis Lill). The issue of gender and the emphasis on male/female dichotomy cannot be ignored here and it is surprising to note how a strong female role is removed from the series and replaced by another Romantic male hero as second leading character, right in the middle of the ‘70s, with all the socio-political implications linked to the emancipation of women and the feminist movement of those years. Moreover, on another level, if we exclude the characters of Amul (Nadim Sawalha), an Asian man, and Dr Adams (Clifton Jones), a black man, respectively, appearing in “Lights of London -– parts 1 & 2” (2.3 and 2.4, written by Jack Ronder) and in “The Last Laugh”(3.10, written by Ian McCulloch), the absence of a multicultural cast of characters is also surprising, especially since, at that time, the United Kingdom was already a multicultural, multiracial country. Notwithstanding the contemporary topics brought into discussion throughout the series, due to this and other factors which will soon be investigated, Survivors proves to be an indisputably reactionary TV programme, supporting and confirming an idealised world vision linked to a pre-1970s age. In this perspective, it should be mentioned that the last images of the final episode of the series describe a dinner in a mansion and the two actors dominating the scene belong to the aristocracy, thus strengthening an unchanged vision of society based on race and class distinctions. Such an image emphasises the fact that everything has changed — after the Death — but that nothing can definitively change in the monarchic United Kingdom. Thus, as Andy Sawyer’s analysis of the Survivors’ everyday life perspective underlines, “it celebrates conservatism rather than change”.[13] Even if freedom of expression is undoubtedly reflected in the many different voices and viewpoints — as the various issues introduced and discussed in the TV series show –- it is evident that, under the BBC’s protection and, considering the state network’s conservative aegis, in such a post-apocalyptic, destabilising context, the ultimate definition of society needed to be reaffirmed in terms of a tested system of law and order, psychologically reassuring the audience during the troubled 1970s. However, it is interesting to note that the aristocrats in the last scene of the series are Scottish and that the situation depicted in the episode could not be more ambiguous, considering the troubled history linking Scotland and England and the fact that the former has always suffered a condition of economic and political inferiority as compared to the latter. The final episode of Survivors depicts a region not only more populated than the south of the country, but also more powerful in political and economic terms. The power station the survivors succeed in reactivating at the end of the story is in Scotland and controlled by the Scots, thus reversing the political order of the past and the centrality of England, as well as of the city of London. Moreover, it is important to point out that all the episodes of the three series of Survivors contain many cultural and subtextual references and suggestions allowing the viewers a vast range of interpretations, also influenced by the fears and concerns dominating the individual and the collective unconscious.

Although mixing various genres from science fiction to Biblical epic,[14] from domestic drama to soap opera, Nation’s Survivors falls within the “cosy catastrophe”[15] post-apocalyptic category as it is defined by Brian Aldiss in his analysis of the novel The Day of the Triffids, published in 1951 by John Wyndham. The plot is equally focused here on the adventures and fate of a small group of people in a strikingly recognisable London, who survived a devastating event which wiped out most of mankind from the planet and whose members are involved in a struggle to rebuild a new version of civilisation. By reconnecting this kind of scenario to British science fiction television, and to science fiction in general, it is evident that the topics, images, metaphors and allegories emerging in the stories are but the representations of the social, political and cultural concerns of the time. According to Fredric Jameson’s decoding of the science fiction narrative, the future environment as represented is not a way to prepare the reader for the future social changes of a world to come. In his perspective, SF is clearly “the symptom of a mutation in our relationship to historical time”,[16] the sign of a change in our time awareness in historical terms, that is to say that the representation of a hypothetical future of our own is a way to put our own present world and civilisation under discussion. By analysing Lukács’ definition of the modern historical consciousness as expressed by the historical novel, Jameson stresses the value of historical sensibility in modern times in reference to the past: “that the past, the various pasts, are culturally original, and radically distinct from our own experience of the object-world of the present. That discovery may now be seen as part of what may in the largest sense be called the bourgeois cultural revolution”.[17] SF as a genre emerges when the functionality of the historical novel ceases, together with its need to evoke the past. The moment the sense of the past is overcome, the new emergence deals with the need to face an unknowable future. In Jameson’s words, “we are therefore entitled to complete Lukács’ account of the historical novel with the counter-panel of its opposite number, the emergence of the new genre of SF as a form which now registers some nascent sense of the future, and does so in the space on which a sense of the past had once been inscribed. … It is this present moment … that upon our return from the imaginary constructs of SF is offered to us in the form of some future world’s remote past, as if posthumous and as though collectively remembered. … SF thus enacts and enables a structurally unique “method” for apprehending the present as history, and this is so irrespective of the “pessimism” or “optimism” of the imaginary future world which is the pretext for that defamiliarization. The present is in fact no less a past. … its deepest vocation is over and over again to demonstrate and to dramatize and our incapacity to imagine the future.”[18] Unable to imagine our future, the dystopian representation of reality in Survivors in fact mirrors our present during the 1970s, the temporal setting of the series and its related cultural, socio-political and historical background. In fact, the 1970s were characterised by a condition of social and cultural crisis leading to a sense of disintegration, a kind of battlefield dominated by deep conflicts in economics, class, gender and race and, last but not least, serious preoccupations about regional conflicts and terrorism. Public concern about the threat of nuclear catastrophe, pollution, overpopulation and overexploitation of natural resources -– the fuel crisis was a particularly difficult moment at that time — resulted in a state of deep anxiety, widespread pessimism and disillusionment about the reliability of Britain’s contemporary political institutions. In reference to the cultural atmosphere of those years, Bart Moore-Gilbert’s definition is strikingly pertinent: “The novel was deeply implicated in the sense of social and cultural crisis characteristic of the 1970s, most obviously because so many novelists expressed the condition of contemporary Britain in apocalyptic terms.”[19] Among the literary works expressing the concerns and a full awareness of the 1970s, J.G. Ballard’s novels are particularly relevant and in this specific context The Drowned World (1962) has to be cited as a relevant work of fiction where the representation of London is the keystone to intercepting and understanding the feeling of the period immediately following. In fact, the chaos and disintegration of society is mirrored in an unrecognisable city transformed into a deserted tropical Triassic lagoon. In such a troubled atmosphere, the apocalyptic setting of the novels published in that decade – Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age (1977) among others -– is thus paralleled by science fiction, where the devastated post-apocalyptic backdrop, as Ballard’s works suggest, is but a disquieting representation of the present feeling in the form of a collapsed and unrecognisable future setting.

Notwithstanding the generally negative atmosphere and the precarious stability of those years, British television was the only sector which was not characterised by decadence, enjoying a long and positive period ranging from 1968 to 1982. As Gary Whannel indicates with documentary evidence, “while the 1970s was a decade of economic crisis, political conflict and cultural change, television by contrast experienced an unusual degree of stability. Indeed the 1970s is the only decade in television not to have been marked by structural innovation.”[20] Comparing British to American sf TV from the 1960s on, particularly in reference to the adventures in a space setting, but also concerning other types of futuristic backdrops, John R. Cook and Peter Wright observe that “British sf TV was different. While America was assured of its leadership role in the emerging space race and could look with confidence to the stars as an extension of the utopian frontier possibilities of the American dream, Britain was having to cope anxiously in the same period with the loss of the Empire and a general decline as a world power. … where archetypal US series like Star Trek often confronted the future with a sense of gung-ho optimism, British equivalents were more prone to view it with pessimism, anxiety or … an alternative response of absurdist humour.”[21] The description of the resulting bleak, perhaps more realistically negative future world makes British TV productions more pessimistic, often degenerating into a form of nihilism. The refusal of a utopian vision of the future, caused by political disillusionment and socio-economic crisis paralleling empire disintegration, generates a violently dystopian representation of human society and its related landscape in the form of post-apocalyptic science fiction drama. In this context, the world is globally described as a material, moral and psychological ruin, where violence, physical and psychological oppression, poverty and disease characterise miserable life conditions not only because of the material consequences brought by the plague, but as a result of a corrupt social order inherited from the past. Once immediate survival is no longer an issue, human nature again displays its worst side, and rivalries, envy and hate prevail anew. In such a perspective, British sf TV in the 1970s portrays a similar political situation informing those years as more and more troubled by issues of economic decline, increasing unemployment rates and ideological crisis. At the same time, through the Survivors’ daily struggles and adventures, a new social order is suggested and supported by a strong hope in a new society founded on solidarity, mutual aid and equality. For example, reference to the inequalities of the previous social system is frequent in the words of several characters in the series, particularly regarding the misfit Hubert (John Abineri). Frequently complaining about being marginalised and discriminated against by others, especially by former businessman Arthur (Michael Gover), who refuses to share his lodgings with him, Hubert thus denounces what he sees as a will to maintain an old social order based on class distinction (“Face of the Tiger”, 2.5, written by Don Shaw). When, later on, in “New Arrivals” (2.11, written by Roger Parkes), Arthur contracts a mysterious illness called the “broken heart syndrome” soon causing his death, a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital is significantly displayed on the table beside his deathbed, suggesting that Arthur himself, in the last period of his life, was perhaps considering a different perspective in the social order, dramatically shifting from his old blind faith in capitalism.

The Survivors’ flight from the city mirrors the exodus from England towards the southern Mediterranean areas led by Adrian in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. After the sufferings due to the plague, which devastated the world both materially and emotionally, the escape is at first characterised by a feeling of hope towards the future seen in terms of a chance to build a new and better world, an idealised rebirth from the ruins of the past civilisation.[22] Both Shelley’s and Nation’s survivors must face an analogous disillusion brought about by the realisation that human nature has not been redeemed by the plague devastation. On the contrary, since devastation itself has only enhanced the worst instincts in the survivors, people do not find solidarity in destruction because ruination itself has strengthened and induced a reaction of division, violence and a search for, and an abuse of, power. In Shelley’s The Last Man, the first emigrants reaching France report the presence of several different groups of people, emphasising the divisions between the emigrants. According to their witness,

a third was formed by a sectarian, a self-erected prophet, who, while he attributed all power and rule to God, strove to get the real command of his comrades into his own hands. … he hard formed a party …, who zealously propagated the creed of his divine mission, and believed that safety and salvation were to be afforded only to those who put their trust in him. … the Elect, as the fanatical party designated themselves.[23]

An analogous situation characterises the plot of an episode of Survivors, significantly entitled “The Chosen” (2.9, written by Roger Parkes). During their trip back home from collecting salt in a far away area, Charles (Denis Lill) and Pet (Lorna Lewis) are forced by circumstances to stop for the night in an abandoned barn where they meet two young travellers. The following day, due to the illness of one of them, they must reach the nearest settlement in search of help and are faced with an unpredictable situation. The militarily organised settlement is ruled by a despotic leader, Max Kershaw (Philip Madoc), who imposes on his community, in the form of the doctrine of “the Chosen People”, a programme based on the exaltation of selective breeding and physical perfection. Both leader and community are equally devoted to their fanatical project until, in the final scenes of the episode, a hidden fight for power is revealed to the viewers. In Survivors, the dictatorship issue is also dealt with respectively in “Genesis” (1.2, written by Terry Nation himself), “Lights of London – Part 1”, “Lights of London – Part 2” (2.3, 2.4, both written by Jack Ronder), and “Law of the Jungle” (3.3, written by Martin Worth). In “Genesis”, Abby Grant meets Arthur Wormley (George Baker), a former trade union leader, who tyrannically runs his community exercising his authority over life and death in the name of a need to reestablish law and order. In both “Lights of London” episodes, the capital’s surviving population is ruled by Manny (Sydney Tafler) a fascistic tyrant, whose cruelty and greed are contrasted by Wally (Roger Lloyd Pack), a young dissident of the régime, who has been ostracised and estranged from the community because of his criticism of its leader. “I didn’t come through all this to live in a fascist state” are Wally’s rebellious words. In “Law of the Jungle”, Brod (Brian Blessed) rules over his settlement as a lord and hunter, dominating his followers with acts of violence and humiliation. In the above-cited episodes, criticism of dictatorship and autocracy is strongly stressed in open contrast with a political vision of society based on democracy and an idea of cooperative community. As a matter of fact, in Whitecross, Greg Preston’s and Charles Vaughan’s settlement, the survivors make their contribution in terms of shared work and responsibility and are, in return, democratically guided and protected by these father figures, two sensible and honest leaders who are not tyrants but Romantic heroes devoting themselves to the common good, thus supporting the vision of an alternative and more equitable, definitely better, civilisation.

Throughout the three Survivors series, the urban landscape is mainly absent from the scene, even though only virtually. The only scenes actually shot on location in London belong to the first episode, “The Fourth Horseman” (1.1, written by Terry Nation), and the epic “Lights of London –- parts 1 and 2” (2.3, 2.4, written by Jack Ronder). It should be mentioned that, as previously observed, these are among the best of the series for the richness of their intertextual content and the complexity of the issues dealt with, as well as for the visual impact of the city’s description. In the very first episode, the total collapse of civilisation is progressively portrayed in images showing the rapidly decaying city in the words of Abby’s husband who, once back home in the countryside, describes the major power failures and massive, endless traffic jams in the streets of the capital, from which the inhabitants were desperately trying to escape: “I’ve never seen anything like it … miles long tailback … of cars, bumper to bumper”.[24] Abby herself comments on her husband’s report and gives an impressive representation of the city conveying an atmosphere of future catastrophe, progressive loss and disintegration: “I never thought what happens to a city … well, if it all breaks down, all at the same time. There’s no power. There’s no lighting or cooking. And food. Even if you get into the city, you can’t distribute it. Then there’s water, sewage. Things like that. You know, it just never occurred to me when I lived in London. The city is like a great big pampered baby with thousands of people feeding it and cleaning it and making sure it’s all right.”[25]

At that very moment, Jenny Richards also finds herself in the streets of London and we see her first weaving through the queues of noisy cars in an attempt to reach a hospital. She is then advised to leave the city to escape the danger of contagion by a doctor friend, who gives her a detailed description of what is going to happen very soon: “They’re dying, Jenny. … In a few days the dead will outnumber the living. The cities will be like open cesspits. Now, get out Jen. You could have a chance.”[26] After an initial hesitation, Jenny packs a few things and flees in the night, soon finding herself in danger of being sexually assaulted in a west London street by a group of looters. Fortunately, she makes her escape thanks to the greed of the men, too busy scavenging the abandoned shops, by now enveloped in a disquieting darkness.

In two subsequent episodes, the city of London is present in the survivors’ words and recollections of the past, pre-Death, civilisation and described in strong visual images which convey an impressive physical impact. In “Gone Away” (1.3, written by Terry Nation), Tom Pryce (Talfryn Thomas) reports of his own attempted trip to the deserted capital, where he found an inhospitable, insalubrious atmosphere described in the following terms: “I thought I’d see what was happening in London, you see, as I took the car. … Terrible! I got through to Blackheath, and there the roads were chocked with traffic. I had to drive across the grass. I was going downhill and then it hit me, the stench. It was like a brick wall, man. Like a wall. I got out of there double quick, I can tell you”.[27] A few episodes later, in “Spoil of War” (1.8, written by Clive Exton, credited as M. K. Jeeves), young hippy Paul Pitman (Christopher Tranchell) joins the survivors at their first settlement, la Grange, and depicts London as a threatening place he advises the others to avoid: “I was lucky to get out alive. There’s snipers everywhere waiting to pick off anything they see moving, for a gold filling or a packet of fags”.[28] The capital is therefore considered an off-limits area everyone is afraid of and that no one desires any longer to reach. Nevertheless, although this post-apocalyptic London is recalled and described from the beginning in negative terms and disquieting images as a threatening place to keep away from, it is still present in the survivors’ memories and daily experiences to the point that some of them, due to circumstances beyond their control, are forced to return to it. In “Lights of London –- part 1” (2.3), Doctor Ruth (Celia Gregory) is deceptively taken to the city and unwillingly experiences before her friends its tragic conditions, being at once ironically welcomed and reassured: “Don’t worry about that smell. It’s London”.[29] The night skyline of the capital is lit by ghostly wildfires and the two abductors explain to an astonished Ruth that they are started by spontaneous combustion: “Heaps of bodies. Or heaps of something. I don’t know.”[30] The image quality of the urban landscape in flames appearing on the horizon, probably shot in miniature, is very far from the special effects we are used to today. Nevertheless, it is just as disquieting and spine-chilling because the overall effect on the viewer is also increased by the actors’ excellent dramatic performances. There was criticism about the Survivors’ special effects, also in reference to the scenes involving rats attacking the survivors, apparently partly real animals partly dummies, “stuffed and sewn on” the actors’ clothes.[31] It must be remembered, though, that the series was shot and produced in the mid ‘70s, over thirty years ago, very distant in time from the technological and digital devices we take for granted and are used to now.[32]

As a means of bringing Ruth back home (“Lights of London –- part 2”), Greg and Charles risk crossing the same dark underground tunnels, reaching a derelict London dominated by rats attacking people and decaying ruins, where they learn that five hundred people have escaped the Death there. The urban landscape, as portrayed in impressive shots, is still clearly recognisable along with some city landmarks, which still maintain their strong visual and symbolic value, proving beyond doubt that we are really there. The underground tunnels at Bank and Oval, the Oval Cricket Ground at Kennington, the streets surrounded by decaying buildings and obstructed by abandoned cars and a red double-decker bus, the equally iconic Tower Bridge and the surrounding docklands area –- unrecognisable to our eyes because of the changes over recent decades – are the locations referred to in these episodes.[33]

Terry Nation’s novel is even more detailed in its dystopian portrait of London since it contains more precise location references in terms of places and street names. As a matter of fact, in addition to a clear identification of the area where Jenny used to live (Fulham, Fulham Road and nearby streets) and her way out of the city (Battersea Bridge, the steep hill up at Clapham Common, Dulwich, towards the area north of the Thames), Nation provides extensive information and descriptions of the survivors’ life in London during the winter immediately following the Death, a detailed account totally missing from the TV series. The reason why this narrative has never become part of the screenplay is probably due to the fact that it does not involve any of the aforementioned main characters as well as to production budget limits. The shooting of such sequences would have, in fact, involved demanding and complicated work in terms of production costs, stage design, long hours of shooting on location and a considerable number of extras. Moreover, it should also be pointed out that the choice to develop the domestic drama aspect in the TV version softened and mitigated the devastating psychological effect deriving from the more cynical and ruthless description of the survivors’ life, as it is depicted in the novel itself. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth quoting this extremely impressive passage of the novel, describing the inhospitable urban landscape as well as the survivors’ hunger and consequent physical and psychological strain during the first winter after the Death, which led many to unthinkable degradation and cannibalism:

Many long-held principles and ideals shrivelled in the chill of that long winter. Illusions were shed, and the simplest truth became profound. To sustain life you needed only two things: warm shelter and food. Fulfilling these two needs became the total preoccupation of the survivors. For food they competed with the other animals: dog packs, rats and…one another. … When there was nothing left, some conquered their disgust at eating human flesh and lived on. The cities were both mortuaries for the masses of dead and great treasure-houses of food and clothing. Their wealth had been protected by festering disease and the stench of corruption. The long cold checked the decay and provided a key that opened up the urban areas. … By Christmas there were more than a thousand people living in London. They housed themselves in the department stores or near shopping centres, feasting on canned and bottled food. … Fresh water was a constant problem. … They lived fatly and warmly but afraid. Every day they watched the sky, dreading the return of the sun and the thaw that would drive them out again. … The group of twenty people who had taken territorial rights to Piccadilly and the surrounding area made some preparation for evacuation. Using a bulldozer from a building site, they cleared snow from stretchers of roadway. They services and fuelled dozens of vans. (…) Ready for the retreat from the city. … with the rising temperatures the stink returned: the putrefying dead and the damp molder of the decaying cities. The survivors who had overwintered were driven out, leaving the towns to the rats and the flies. The convoy of vans moved down Piccadilly toward Hyde Park Corner, the bulldozer clearing a path through the abandoned cars. It took them two days to reach Vauxhall Bridge Road. Here the traffic spread from Victoria Station was so dense that they could make no more progress. They left the vehicles and, taking what they could carry, retreated on foot.”[34]

It is important to underline that Vauxhall Bridge Road, heading south, leads directly to the Oval Cricket Ground where Greg and Charles find the settlement of the London survivors, who have transformed it into an agricultural ground protected from the rats’ attacks by electric fence. The precise geographical details thus show an unmistakably direct link with the aforementioned episodes actually set and shot in London. Even if, at the time of the “Lights of London” writing and shooting, Nation himself was not part of the production anymore, his influence on the series scripts must have been strongly felt. This recognisable London is full of the impressive symbols and powerful icons of an irretrievable but, at the same time, unforgotten and unforgettable past, a disquieting backdrop of the total collapse of civilisation. The past and its remains are again the reading key of the Survivors series. In fact, in the final action adventure episode “Power” (3.12, written by Martin Worth), the reactivation of the power station is pivotal to the action as well as to the conclusion of the series. Restoration of the previous “state of things” is post-apocalyptic in the sense that, as Teresa Heffernan rightly implies, “the term post-apocalyptic … suggest(s) that we live in the time after the apocalypse, after the faith in a radically new world, of revelation, of unveiling”.[35] In an attempt to imagine an alternative world, different from the one in which we live, the image of the working power station is the symbol of our being unable to conceive a hypothetical future as well as a “real” ending of our civilisation, eternally dominated by its own unstoppable, eternal, chronic ruination.


[1] Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day, Terry Nation, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004, 1-2

[2] Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day, Ibid., 19

[3] As documented by Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day in the already cited book, Terry Nation, and by a fan book of very good documentary quality written by Rich Cross and Andy Priestner, The End of the World? The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Original Survivors, Tolworth, Telos Publishing, 2005

[4] Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008

[5] We will not discuss the issue linked to sf in genre criticism in this context, but what Farah Mendlesohn underlines must be considered: “sf is a discussion or a mode, and not a genre.”, in James Edward and Mendlesohn Farah (eds.), in “Introduction: reading science fiction”, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, 2

[6] Morton D. Paley, Introduction, in Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, xxiii

[7] Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville, Le Dernier Homme, Wesleyan Early Classics of Science Fiction Series, Middletown, Wesleyan UP, 2002

[8] Brian W. Aldiss, Books in Review, “The First of the Last Men”, in Science Fiction Studies n. 90, Volume 30, Part 2, July 2003

[9] John Fowles, Introduction to Richard Jefferies, After London or Wild England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980, vii

[10] Richard Jefferies, After London or Wild England, Cirencester, The Echo Library, 27-28

[11] Richard Jefferies, Ibid., 13

[12] Terry Nation, Survivors, (1976), London, Orion Books Limited, 2008. After leaving the production, Terry Nation published the Survivors novel in 1976, writing of a different development in the story, almost as an attempt to reaffirm and defend his own original ideas against Terence Dudley’s choices in the ensuing development of the series itself, which could be seen as his Survivors’ legacy.

[13] Andy Sawyer, “Everyday life in the post-catastrophe future: Terry Nation’s Survivors”, in John R. Cook and Peter Wright (eds.), British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker’s Guide, London, I.B. Tauris, 2006, 149

[14] The title of the first episode of Survivors, “The Fourth Horseman”, contains a clear reference to the Biblical Book of Revelation, better known as the Apocalypse of John, the last text of the New Testament. Among the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the fourth represents death: “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth”, in Revelation, from The Holy Bible, King James version, (accessed June 25, 2009)

[15] Aldiss considers John Wyndham as a “master of the cosy catastrophe”, in Aldiss, Brian and Wingrove, David, Trillion Year Spree: the History of Science Fiction (1986), London, Paladin Books, 1988, 314

[16] Jameson, Fredric, “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?”, in Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, (2005), London, New York, Verso, 2007, 284

[17] Jameson, Fredric, “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?”, in Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, 285-286

[18] Jameson, Fredric, “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?”, in Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, 288-289

[19] Bart Moore-Gilbert, “Apocalypse Now: The Novel in the 1970s”, in Bart Moore-Gilbert (ed.), The Arts in the 1970s: Cultural Closure?, (1994), London, Routledge, 2002, 152

[20] Gary Whannel, “Boxed in: Television in the 1970s”, in Bart Moore-Gilbert (ed.), The Arts in the 1970s: Cultural Closure?, 176

[21] John R. Cook and Peter Wright, “Futures past”: an introduction to a brief survey of British science fiction television”, in J. R. Cook and P. Wright (eds.), British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker’s Guide, London, L.B. Tauris & Co., 2006, 4

[22] In Adrian’s words: “We must seek some natural Paradise”, in Mary Shelley, The Last Man, Volume 2, Chapter 20, 312; it has to be underlined that Terry Nation himself, in his Survivors’ novel, similarly ended the story with an exodus of his main characters towards the south of the Mediterranean, thus very closely recalling part of the plot of Shelley’s Last Man.

[23] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, Ibid., Volume 3, Chapter 24, 375-376

[24] Survivors, “The Fourth Horseman” (1.1)

[25] Survivors, “The Fourth Horseman” (1.1)

[26] Survivors, “The Fourth Horseman” (1.1)

[27] Survivors, “Gone Away” (1.3)

[28] Survivors, “Spoil of War” (1.8)

[29] Survivors, “Lights of London – part 1” (2.3)

[30] Survivors, “Lights of London – part 1” (2.3)

[31] Rich Cross and Andy Priestner, The End of the World? The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Original Survivors, cit., 114

[32] My comment relates to some inconceivable criticism on the topic as it is expressed by Rich Cross in the fan book written with Andy Priestner, The End of the World? The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Original Survivors, Tolworth, Telos Publishing, 2005. This is most surprising because, even though not a scholarly work, the book is otherwise a good documentation and reliable source of information relating to the entire series.

[33] Survivors, “Lights of London – part 2” (2.4)

[34] Terry Nation, Survivors, 109

[35] Teresa Heffernan, Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Twentieth Century Novel, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008, 6

Works Cited

Aldiss, Brian and Wingrove, David Trillion Year Spree: the History of Science Fiction (1986), London, Paladin Books, 1988

Bart-Moore, Gilbert (ed.) The Arts in the 1970s: Cultural Closure?, (1984), London, Routledge, 2002

Bignell, Jonathan and O’Day, Andrew Terry Nation, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004

John R. Cook and Peter Wright (eds.) British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchiker’s Guide, London, L.B. Tauris & Co., 2006

Cross, Rich and Priestner, Andy The End of the World? The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Original Survivors, Tolworth, Telos Publishing, 2005

John Fowles, Introduction to Richard Jefferies, After London or Wild England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980

Grainville, Jean-Baptiste Fançois Xavier Cousin de, Le Dernier Homme, Wesleyan Early Classics of Science Fiction Series, Middletown, Wesleyan UP, 2002

Teresa Heffernan Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Twentieth Century Novel, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008

James, Edward and Mendlesohn Farah (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003

Jameson, Frederic “Progress versus Utopia, or, Can We Imagine the Future?, in Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, (2005), London, New York, Verso, 2007

Jefferies, Richard After London or Wild England, (1885), Cirencester, The Echo Library, 2005

Matheson, Richard I Am Legend, (1954), London, Gollancz, 2006

Nation, Terry Survivors, The Complete Series, Original Broadcast 1975, 1976 & ¬¬1977, BBC DVD, 2 Entertain, 2008

__________ Survivors, (1976), London, Orion Books Limited, 2008

Paley, Morton D. Introduction to Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008

Sawyer, Andy “Everyday life in the post-catastrophe future: Terry Nation’s Survivors”, in John R. Cook and Peter Wright (eds.), British science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker’s Guide, London, I.B. Tauris, 2006

Shelley, Mary The Last Man, (1826), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008

To Cite This Article:

Arianna Casali, ‘Post-apocalyptic London in the 1970s: Survivors on TV’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 2 (September 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]