Tuesday, 26 December 2017
Noah's Castle features an actor who appears in many of the TV series of the era I write about - Simon Gipps-Kent. There are a couple of reasons he hasn't appeared here yet: the first is that he was type-cast in the role of upper class youth in the sort of time-travelling period drama which has never really appealed to me. The other is that up until recently I had only come across him in The Tomorrow People. I haven't yet managed to sum up what I would want to say about that show in a blog post, because I'm rather ambivalent about it, both about the show itself and I'm not really sure what I think about it.
Then recently I say Gipps-Kent in the much-maligned Dr Who adventures The Horns of Nimon, which I will definitely be posting about here at some point because I think it's a good thing despite the strong criticism it gets on the internet. That caused me to google Gipps-Kent and read some of the more bizarre things written about him on the internet. The actualy provable facts of his death in the 1980s seem to be that he died of an overdose of the morphine he was prescribed for back pain and also was having difficulty finding work because by this time he was a grown man and had rather become typecast as a young actor. The coroner ruled that his death was caused by the overdose rather than suicide - this would be usual here as coroners don't usually rule suicide unless somebody leaves a note. None of this explains some of the more fantastic things about Gipps-Kent on the internet. Such as that he had been groomed for abuse by the large number of paedophiles working in TV in the 1970s. This could of course happened. There are even rumours that he was murdered and these things have all been 'investigated' including psychically. The more fanciful notions aside, Gipps-Kent's quality as an actor is apparent from early in his career and it is such a pity he died as young as he did.
Gipps-Kent's quality as an actor is shown by the fact that despite being typecast he could still appear in wildly different shows and give a convincing performance. Noah's Castle is the sort of difficult, complex TV set in a difficult setting and with complex moral issues which is the exact opposite of the sort of comforting escapist TV I tend to go for.
In fact Noah's Castle is so far from comforting escapist TV that I feel at the time the original book was released, 1975 (the show broadcasted in 1980) it would probably have been seen as yet another stark warning of what was on the horizon. I have written here over and again about the fear of society's imminent collapse which was so prevalent in the 1970s. My own mother (admittedly an extreme example) hoarded tinned food and had an escape plan actually written out. This may be seen as an over-reaction but the scenario embodied in Noah's Castle was the natural outcome of the 1960s optimistic dream turning sour. In Noah's Castle people respond in the ways you would expect them to. My own wonder is at the level of altruism shown. Some people want everyone to be fed and for food to be shared out fairly. Some other people just want to look after number one. My own opinion is that the more common human reaction would be to look after oneself.
And Gipps-Kent's character Barry (the elder son of the family at the heart of the show) is at the heart of the moral dilemna in Noah's Castle. The problem is that his father is what can only be described as an odious character. Odious. Awful. Horrible. At a time of national emergency he looks out solely for number one, including illegally hoarding food when people are starving, and Gipps-Kent's character is firmly on the opposite side from his father. In fact much of the point of this show is the fact that the family at the centre of the show is at war with itself. The conflict within the family mirrors the greater societal conflict and the ethical issues involved, and allows the issues to be depicted in as it were a microcosm. Do we side with the father's duty-driven tunnel vision of looking after his own family regardless or the son's more compassion-driven understanding that we need to consider the whole picture? Ironic that the son has the more nuanced vision here and the father's own position is what ultimately gets him into trouble.
This show has also revived the discussion I had with myself recently on here about the two sorts of literature meant for children. Noah's Castle was intended as a young adult novel but to my mind is so incredibly worthy that I certainly wouldn't have wanted to read it myself. I have also commented on here before that in my opinion I don't understand the more harrowing TV shows, which can hardly be described as entertaining. Documentaries are one thing but the more harrowing drama as a rule is something I don't understand.
Yet perhaps I do, as a result of watching Noah's Castle. I have realised that I have been considering these shows anachronistically, without considering the eyes of the time. Surely reading Noah's Castle in the 1970s would have resulted in further activism and - surely - a relief that even though the world was in a mess it still wasn't as bad as it is shown in Noah's Castle. I suppose Noah's Castle therefore really comes out of the same stable as the 1970s series Survivors - they are both chronicles of what could happen, both alerting current fears and also providing a reassurance that we are not there yet.
I'm a bit sorry actually that I've thought to complare Noah's Castle with Survivors because frankly it doesn't look that good in comparison. I feel in Survivors the likely consequences of a disaster have been accurately thought through to their natural conclusions. When you watch Survivors it has the painfulness of so much TV at the time but there is also a real feeling of adventure and hope about it. Survivors is harrowing because there is no escape from the situation, but there is a message of the triumph of the human spirit.
The comparison with Survivors has made me put my finger on what I think is wrong with Noah's Castle. The show is supposed to be set at a time of national emergency. But I'm frankly not seeing anyone starving. I know that sounds terrible, but there is a sense of unreality about what I'm seeing in Noah's Castle. We all know that through necessity often, many people live very close to the edge of their resources, and so people can end up literally homeless after just missing a couple of paydays. In reality the sort of inflation and conflict seen in Noah's Castle would result very quickly in riots (we see them), homelessness, poverty. These things are almost referred to rather than depicted. I don't see anyone looking hungry. I don't see the kind of desperation you see in people who really have no resources. Why do people still have petrol to run cars? Why are people wearing the latest 1980s fashions? In my humble opinion the show just looks way too prosperous for the situation it is depicting. Once you see it like that Noah's Castle loses all credibility.
On the other hand the show is wonderful atmospheric viewing for people of a certain age. The cars are of their age. There is a scene in which the police turn up at a riot in a Rover 3500. The joke would have been that that car alone was responsible for many a failed arrest because the police unwisely invested in a car which was notoriously unreliable. Right at the start of the first episode we see a mark 3 Ford Cortina and my dad had one of them.
In the manner of the time Noah's Castle alternates between location and rather-obviously location-bound filming. Pacing is of the time. Some actors are familiar faces from other shows - I know that nobody else seems to share my dislike of this and of course I'm being my usual contradictory self by starting this blog post about a familiar face. The show is well known for its haunting theme tune and incidental music.
On balance, perhaps Noah's Castle is best not seen as the record of a national emergency. In fact watching it in the wake of brexit in the UK is frankly rather frightening because it could well be that that is what happens next, as those of us who voted remain suspected would happen. The context for the show's telling of the story is one boy's adolescent conflict of identity and idealogy with his father. Perhaps this show is best seen as that so that the cracks in its surface don't show up so much.
Posted by John Berry