Survivors’s Lucy Fleming on the BBC News

Lucy Fleming with a shotgun defending a petrol tanker. Not in 2021 Britain, but in a BBC drama circa 1975

It does not take much of an excuse to write about the Survivors TV series during the current pandemic. One of its key actors was Lucy Fleming (Jenny), in fact she was the mainstay, as other characters came and went. So it was good to see Lucy on the BBC again this last week, albeit in a news programme. Indeed it was rather lucky, given that the domestic newshour at 9GMT also goes out on BBC World, for some reason, before it has Live with Lucy Hockings. Anyway the British news bulletin at that time is usually presented by Annita McVeigh, but on this occasion it was Victoria Derbyshire. In a week when the main international news story seemed to be Britney Spears, the interview topic was the new Bond flick.

For those that are not aware, Lucy is the niece of Ian Fleming, who created the Bond franchise, and which has carried on long after he has gone. It seems that Lucy Fleming had even seen the script, and there was a suggestion from Derbyshire that females had a bit of a different place in the latest Bond film, the last to star Daniel Craig as Bond. Victoria even asked Lucy if she thought the next Bond should be female, but it didn’t seem appropriate, even though the most recent Dr Who has been a female actor.

Of course, Derbyshire never pointed out that Lucy Fleming had her own acting career, including becoming the effective lead actor in Survivors, certainly in the third and final series. Lucy was asked about the relevance of Bond in the current world. If it was just about entertainment, or put in the context of English nationalism or jingoism, Bond would always be relevant. But at the moment, in a global pandemic, another Bond film is just escapism. Is it really world news? Lucy Fleming might not have a particular insight into the current pandemic, but the Survivors concept is surely more relevant than Bond.

In a documentary series on cult TV programmes, including Survivors, Lucy made the point that the setting in mid 1970s Britain reflected a society in stress, both in an economic and political sense. There is also the comparison being made with the Winter of Discontent, which was later in the 1970s, when fuel and food shortages were compounded by industrial action. Lucy was suggesting that the sense of societal breakdown was similar to that caused by a global pandemic, it was just turning the screw a bit more. Certainly, the first episode of Survivors gave an indication of how quickly things could fall apart.

It wasn’t till later in the first series that the petrol tanker comes into play, and the value of the petrol is fully understood. Of course, the role of petrol as a rare commodity became the basic concept for post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max. But in Survivors it initially was simply the vehicle for the return of an early character called Anne, a rather entitled aristocratic type, who was played by the late Myra Frances. Anne and her latest man were travelling around in the petrol tanker, but it was not salubrious enough, and the smell too onerous. So Anne has had enough “…and I’m tired, and I want a bath and I want a drink.” The lines may seem rather banal, but Myra Frances delivered them with such seething conviction that it was such a shame that hers was only a cameo appearance. Like so many good female character actors of that period, Frances had some interesting one-off roles, but never got a real break.

Anyway, back to the action involving the petrol tanker. In the episode called ‘Something of Value’, written by Terry Nation, the characters Jenny and Greg are taking the tanker to another commune, in the hope of trading petrol for food. In the meantime, a trio of bandits has been casing the area looking for petrol, and are prepared to take it by force. The tanker’s brakes fail and Greg stops to fix it, while Jenny goes back to the farm to get more tools, only to get kidnapped by the bandits in the process. Jenny escapes and drives off to get help, while Greg tries to hold them off, but the bandits get the tanker and don’t realise the brakes aren’t working. Greg survives again, but the most of the fuel is lost in a crash.

The interesting thing about Survivors, once one is familiar with it, are the gender conflicts that emerge and are sometimes resolved. In ‘Something of Value’, it is because Jenny has learnt to drive after the pandemic has started that she has a role in the story of the tanker hijack. The leader of the commune, Abby, continally conflicts with Greg over who is really in charge (and she even slaps him at one point). And the Anne character comes through her encounter with a previous companion, Vic, who she abandoned after he had an accident which left him a cripple. He was determined on revenge when she appears at the commune, albeit with a petrol tanker, but, having talked her way out of it, she is seen striding away in the morning sunlight (with her fur coat on), seemingly more empowered by the experience. They don’t have female acting roles quite like that any more, and the writers were all blokes. But even if all the compelling female actors in Survivors were forgotten, the concept remains relevant.

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