Tuesday, 25 October 2016
Plot-wise, we are in totally familiar territory with Undermind. Well, I say totally familiar, it is in the sense that technology, some kind of signal, is being used to get inside people and undermine society. The use of technology is very apparent from the very beginning of the series, and of course that is a characteristic subject of the 1960s television I write about here. The only different from the short of shows I watch normally is that the enemy here is an alien force, which I suppose places us with one foot in the sort of horror films of the 1950s when an all-American town is taken over by an alien force, only in this case of course it is set in Britain.
In the case of Undermind the fear is placed in a very specific period of time. It is not for nothing that Heriot's profession is given as a personnel selection manager, and he has just come back from working abroad. Rather than the earlier welfare officer and manager dealing with pay disputes and bonuses, the 1960s was the time when personnel took off as a profession, and so Heriot is part of an up and coming profession. They also pioneered the use of psychological tests for selection and I feel it is important when watching Undermind to remember that Heriot would have been seen at the time very much as the Business Efficiency Bureau in The Avengers episode The Fear Merchants. To many members of the contemporary audience, Heriot would have seemed almost a magician; he would have known the questions to ask to find out very specific psychological answers. It is therefore very pointed that a member of his profession is up against the forces of psychological invasion.
There would also have been an ambivalence about Heriot and his profession among the contemporary audience of Undermind, since one of the things in the zeitgeist of the time was the way in which advertising was actually being used to get inside people; exactly the way the signal is being used to make people behave in very uncharacteristic ways. In fact there is hardly a popular fear of the time which is not exploited at some point in Undermind. Think of most plot arcs of the last three series of The Avengers, cross them with Doomwatch, The Champions and Adam Adamant Lives, and you have pretty much a plot summary of Undermind.
Otherwise there is a sense in which the plot of Undermind is a very conventional example of the little people against a great force, with no resources and in this case no real knowledge of what they are up against. Undermind very successfully paints the scenario of paranoia by placing the invasion in all levels of society, from the high to the low. That is the basic premise, and the show also draws on virtually every premise used in science fiction and the culture of the time. One of the things I notice about the reviews of this show on the internet are the frequency with which it is compared to other shows. I've already done it myself.
But there is something wrong with Undermind. There is a conflict at the heart of the show, and which I am feeling even as I write that there is something wrong with it. I actually don't want to, because I have a sensation of being in the presence of Great Television. For a start many of the reviews deal with the episodes as individual story arcs, as indeed they are with different writers, and the episodes are often not seen in a very good light. I think this is the start of Undermind going awry for me: I have read that there is a very clear single story ard through the entire series. I'm sure there is, but if I pause to think about it during any particular episode I find I can't, which I think is a result of patchy writing rather than a lack of concentration on my part. It is a personal opinion but while I see that other reviewers are appreciative that the sense of the opponent is deliberately left nebulous, that drives me nuts, and contributes to the sense of the series not really having a single clear plotline, because there isn't a clear enemy. This is my one largest criticism of this show, and this is a criticism which has compromised my enjoyment of watching this show.
I think Undermind also suffers because it doesn't stand up well to some of our modern sensibilities - such things as how Irish people are portrayed and the insensitivity of this depiction in the run up to the Troubles in Northern Ireland are of course unacceptable to modern eyes but I think are apt to detract from the actual show. My personal opinion is that Undermind is best watched as a compendium of all sorts of ideas present in the cult TV and thus psyche of the 1960s, a snapshot of a particular time's treatment of these ideas, and a vehicle for the various Big Name guest stars.
A particular way in which Undermind is open to criticism is that even for the time - it was broadcast in 1965 - it seems quite old-fashioned. This was Emma Peel-era Avengers time, and that show looks much more modern than Undermind, and a criticism I have read repeatedly is that it is almost completely studio-bound. Personally that isn't a problem for me, since I quite like the reflection that television at the time was much closer to the theatre than to the film industry. Interestingly, the sets use much of the visual language that I like so much in the Avengers. I particularly like the way modern office settings (such as the picture which illustrates this post) are used to indicate modernity and futurism. More domestic settings are used to indicate solid middle England, although of course in this case it is infiltrated by a mysterious power rather than populated by ruthless megalomaniacs. Production values are very much of the time. The pacing is, as you would expect, slow by modern standards. To my mind there is a drawback with the DVD release that I wouldn't like to guess at how much work has gone into restoration. I can't believe it is none, but there rae points at which the picture is quite grainy or unstable. I personallt don't have any difficulty with hearing the soundtrack, but I have read that some people do.
There are some familiar faces in this show, chief amongst them being Jeremy Wilkin playing Drew Heriot. It took me ages to work out where he was familiar from (see, these reappearing actors, do distract you from the actual show itself) and realise that he is more familiar to me personally wearing a string vest uniform in the Gerry Anderson show UFO. Since I'm not actually planning on posting about UFO here I will just weigh in on the debate raging on the internet over what the female cast of UFO wear under their string uniforms. A sort of skin coloured bra-thing. Easy. The only thing that's wrong there is that Sylvia Anderson should have done something to hide the men's chest hair and nipples, to create a futuristic look and a mystery that will rage for decades to come. But back to Undermind. The fact that it took me a long time to work out where I had seen Wilkin before indicates his acting ability, and his role in this show is quite different from his more senior role in UFO. Of course Rosemary Nichols is instantly recognisable to someone of my televisual interests as the IT expert in Department S, although once again her role is very different here, and it is the sound of her voice which makes her familiar. I'm torn at this point, frankly: there is an irony that so many of the shows I like are ITC ones when so many of the actors in those shows were recycled round all the other shows, and that drives me crazy! That said, in this case the fact that I had to spend some minutes thinking who the key actors were didn't seem too distracting from the actual show. I am indebted to the ladydontfallbackwards.wordpress.com blog for the insight that this technique of using familiar facse is actually used to advantage here by casting the actor Jeremy Kemp, who would have been known to audiences at the time from Z Cars, in a completely uncharacteristic role, to reinforce the feeling that there is something very wrong.
Yet despite its weaknesses, my opinion is that Undermind manages to have an extraordinary effect on the viewer, no doubt intentional, and done with remarkably little razzamataz. It has been some time since I first watched it but I have been watching episodes several times over the past few days to write this blog post, and I find that they are different to what I remember. I don't just mean that I had forgotten them, but the music (which is used very sparingly indeed) manages to get inside your head. I remembered it being used much more than it actually is. I have found the music going through my head while I have been out and about, and yet if you asked me to hum it to you I would be unable to. The show has actually managed to invade me in a very real sense, which is surely an achievement for any TV show, especially one which has rather been forgotten about for sixty years.
I suspect that the audience for this show is very much the same as the audience for this blog, namely hard core classic and cult TV fans. There will no doubt be some people who remember the show from when it was first broadcast, and others like myself who prefer old TV to modern TV. I would very much recommend this show to the dedicated cult TV fan, just simply as a showcase for many of the great names (both writers and actors) of the time, and also as a vehicle for so many of the common plot arcs which were prominent at the time. If you watch this with a mindset of setting out to be reminded of other shows and plots of the time, you will find it a great success. Its studio-bound setting does not really provide much in the way of reminiscence of the time, if that is what you are looking for. If you are a sci-fi fan, you will also like it as a lengthier and slower example of ge dating from the 1960s.
I would not like to suggest that this show's weaknesses are such as would prevent people watching it. In fact I think people should watch it. But then I've seen it, and you don't know whether I'm an undermind as a result...
Image credit: http://cult-tv-lounge.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/undermind.html?m=1