Revisiting New Zealand in 1976 (the Listener) #1

Margaret Thatcher did visit New Zealand in September 1976. She even made the cover of the listener magazine. The listener was the magazine provided by the State which gave the listings for the two public TV channels, and the publicly-owned radio channels. But it was also the home of current affairs journalism in New Zealand at the time, as well as many cultural columns including Rock music, and only cost 20 cents. It was also a big magazine in terms of size, pages bigger than A4, and there were over 100 pages to read.

I was looking for a photography article by Geoff Chapple, but couldn’t find it in the archived copy (there was a photocopy provided). Instead I found a fascinating read, not just because of Margaret Thatcher on the cover, along with pictures of the five lead actors in the British TV series Angels which was due to start its run on Wednesday nights. If you might think the magazine leaned to the ‘right’, one might also notice a column named Persons, in which Geoff Chapple interviewed Willie Mae Reid, Vice Presidential candidate of the American Socialist Workers Party, quoted as saying, “capitalism produces its own grave-diggers in greater and greater numbers.” Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher’s friend, who worked for the NZ Prime Minister at the time, is quoted as saying that Mrs T was offering ‘capitalism with a conscience’. That obviously didn’t go so well.

There are many things of interest here, including the publication of the National Record Sales chart. Number 63 indicates that ‘Shannon’, by Henry Gross, was still at the top of the chart, closely followed by the Swedish group (‘Fernando’), and Elton John with Kiki Dee. The Swedish group also featured in the Albums chart, with two Rod Stewart offerings, as well as the Royal Scam, Wings at the Speed of Sound, and the Dark Side of the Moon at number 10. Gordon Campbell reviews the book by Greil Marcus, Mystery Train, for his rock column, and expresses disappointment in John McLaughlin’s new LP (Shakti).

On to Wednesday night television listings. TV1 has Angels debuting at 7pm, followed by Barney Miller at 8, and something called Survivors at 8.30pm, before current affairs at 9.30pm. Meanwhile, TV2 has Bless this House at 7.30pm, followed by The Brothers at 8, Kojak at 9, and the News at Ten. Wow, news on both channels, never happens now, but what to pick for a drama. The TV1 page has a picture of the ‘survivors’ played by Ian McCulloch (not actually in the first episode), Lucy Fleming, and Carolyn Seymour; while the TV2 page shows a very sexy photo of Brothers actress Hillary Tindall in a pool, rather than Gabrielle Drake. Despite this I know that I did watch Survivors at age 8 in 1976.

The reason I remember Survivors, despite being only 8 years old, and despite all the TV I did watch in the late 1970s, was because of the scary title sequence and accompanying theme music. This was where the Asian scientist drops a test tube, infects himself with a variant of the plague, travels to the eastern bloc country, collapses on the tarmac of the airport, and proceeds to infect the entire world due to international travel by plane. The blurb for the series tell us that 98% of the world population dies as a result. For the first episode, ‘The Fourth Horseman’, there follows a strange quote from the programme.

As we know, Survivors was created by Welshman Terry Nation, better known for creating the Daleks in Doctor Who, and for Blakes Seven, which he turned to after the first series of Survivors. The series was filmed mostly in rural England during the winter of 1974, before the actual ‘winter of discontent’, and of course is unremittingly bleak. It was also very innovative in a number of ways, without the budget and technology that the post-apocalyptic genre relies on now. But is it really the first post-apocalyptic drama series, and the only series to have two female leads, or is it of interest for other reasons?

On the face of it the story is about Abby Grant, a middle class woman with one child, living in the English countryside in relative luxury. After she survives the plague outbreak she goes off in search of her son, who was at a boarding school in the country. The first episode sets this scenario up, and includes a parallel story where a London resident, Jenny Richards, comes through the outbreak unscathed, and heads out to the countryside in search of company. Abby and Jenny don’t meet until the end of the second episode, so the first instalment acts as something of a pilot, and is the most interesting.

So Abby Grant drives off to the school and only finds corpses, until noticing a light in a technology room. There she finds a teacher, Dr Bronson, who is mostly deaf and at a loss to know what he can do. But after apprising Mrs Grant of the situation regarding her son Peter, who has left the school with a camping group, he eventually launches into his last lecture. This is when we reach the dialogue quoted in the programme listing: “we are of the generation that landed a man on the Moon, but the best we can do is talk of making tools from stone.” Bronson’s point is that once the existing infrastructure is gone, it can’t be replaced. In fact, with death on such a scale there is not the skill to actually maintain the existing technology. The character extrapolates from this that the underlying problem has been the over-specialisation, and an advanced division of labour means that no one has the skill to actually master all the processes that produce commodities.

It has to be said that this is interesting, but not the first thing that survivors of the plague would grasp. Nation seems to have used the Bronson character, and Peter Copley’s brilliant cameo, to hightlight the deference to formal education in British society. So Dr Bronson’s point is that there has to be a return to a traditional, small scale society, where all the ‘old crafts’ are re-learned and passed down by the elders. He might have also said that most of what was taught in boarding schools was of no practical use to survive with, even if it wasn’t in the formal curriculum. In particular, he is most proud of the radio ham equipment made and used by the boys to contact people around the world. All that has now gone, but those ideas of globalization turned not to be of much use in the end.

The other episodes in the first series of Survivors written by Nation have equally interesting dialogues between characters, and reflect on the underlying economic structure of British society. But he did not write the middle episodes, which took the series in the wrong direction, especially as Abby Grant’s son is never really part of the story. Carolyn Seymour’s character, at least initially, took Bronson’s lecture rather literally, and sought to create a commune based on subsistence farming and self sufficiency. Those ideas were fashionable at the time, but did not make for much drama, so various conflicts over resources had to be written into the stories, and reflect the domination of the male characters. It was too much to expect male writers to provide good dialogue for female lead characters: Carolyn Seymour was sacked by the producer, but Lucy Fleming’s Jenny character survived, and by the third series she is determined to turn the power back on. I may look at other first series episodes for more 1970s insights.

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