‘Play for Today: Z for Zachariah’ revisited

 Chris Orton looks back on the BBC dramatisation of the post-apocalyptic novel, broadcast 34 years ago today.

“Z for Zachariah is an interesting piece to view: tonally it is rather different from anything contemporary on television and feels rather at odds with other, more prosaic, productions in the Play for Today series… Fear of nuclear annihilation was a very real threat for the public in the early 1980s and the play struck a chord with viewers.”

By 1984 the BBC’s long-established Play for Today strand of drama was just about at an end. The series had covered a vast array of subjects and told stories in many different styles over the years, with the fourth episode of the fourteenth run being Z for Zachariah. Based on the popular novel by Robert C. O’ Brien, the story was adapted by writer-director Anthony Garner and tells the tale of a remote Welsh valley in which only two families are known to survive following a catastrophic nuclear war.

The action transposed to the United Kingdom, after the original novel was set in the USA. O’ Brien took the title from the Old Testament Book of Zechariah in which passages spell out the effects of a plague on humanity: “Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongues shall consume away in their mouths”. The novel relates events through the form of diary entries, but this method of storytelling is dispensed with for the TV version, instead using a more conventional drama narrative method.

Partly due to the Cold War, the post-apocalyptic line of storytelling was a popular one during the 1970’s and 1980s, with other productions such as the terrifying Threads appearing on British screens at around the same time. Peter Dickinson’s The Changes, which detailed the breakdown of society after people began destroying anything technological, had been shown as a children’s programme in 1973. The documentary series Q.E.D. demonstrated the chilling instalment A Guide to Armageddon in 1982, a piece that quickly inspired Threads which was directed by the same person in the form of Mick Jackson.

Shortly after Z for Zachariah, the BBC went on to produce a TV version of John Christopher’s superb Tripods books, which showed humanity as having regressed to a pastoral age. These themes and ideas were very prevalent for ten years or so and it was perhaps inevitable that a mainstream strand would tackle something similar.

Quite why Z for Zachariah was ever considered as a Play for Today is a little baffling though: The story is an adaptation of a novel rather than being an original script and it isn’t really set “Today”, rather it utilises a ‘What If…” premise. It would perhaps have been better suited as part of the parallel Play for Tomorrow strand, which specifically set out to deal with visions of life in the very near future (had that series made it past a single run).

We don’t see the nuclear war that triggers the play’s events itself, with the tale being set one year after the cataclysm. The viewer is witness to only some of its devastating consequences: there are dead people everywhere, society is fractured and there are repeated radio broadcasts informing people that there is “no need for panic”. Power cuts are frequent, while sheep and fish are found dead in rivers. We even learn that nerve gas was subsequently released by one of the sides involved in the conflict following the nuclear strike itself. This terrifying aftermath is shown to be in stark contrast to the beauty of the landscape in which this story is set.

Ann Burden is a teenager who previously lived a bucolic existence with her family on their farm in a remote valley community. She is the main protagonist and becomes the heroine of the piece when she finds herself alone and in the company of the sinister John Loomis. Her family disappeared after the nuclear strike, seemingly attempting to find a better life. We don’t know why Ann has been left behind, or whether her family plan to return. Loomis turns up in a special anti-radiation suit which he claims to have invented. At first, there is a great deal of distrust from Ann towards the visitor and it takes quite some time before the two come to an understanding. We know nothing about this man or his background, and there is a sense of unease in seeing this stranger interacting with a defenceless teenage girl. The rules of society have changed though, and they are all that each other now has.

Despite the devastation all around her, Ann still attempts to maintain some sort of semblance of normality and regularly goes to church on her own even though there are no longer any services. Loomis initially appears to be friendly towards her and all seems well. It doesn’t take too long though before Loomis becomes sick after coming into contact with radioactive water (and the make-up designer does a really good job here of presenting the symptoms of the illness – Loomis looks truly rotten as the radiation poisoning begins to worsen). Ann helps to nurse him back to health, but as her new acquaintance starts to recover things quickly begin to take a more sinister turn.

At the outset Loomis helps her to get the family tractor running by finding some petrol from a local garage. Rather like some of the characters from the similarly-themed Survivors, Loomis has a big plan to get agriculture going again, but he ultimately becomes more demanding and eventually takes over the farmhouse. He wasn’t all what he initially appeared after all. We are left with the suggestion that he rapes her and Ann is forced to leave here home. Loomis attempts to starve her and even takes aim at her with his shotgun at one point, shooting her in the foot so that she can never leave the farm.

One theme of the play seems to indicate that the valley itself plays a part in Loomis’s recovery, with the area somehow being protected from the worst of the nuclear poisoning. We are told that the valley has “its own weather”, and it seems that it exists in a protective bubble from the rest of the world, something that the production team also apparently found of the location when they were making the play. Man caused the illnesses, but couldn’t help Loomis get better, but nature somehow did: this is an idea that is also echoed in 1985’s Edge of Darkness, in which nature is seen to triumph over nuclear devastation.

Z for Zachariah is an interesting piece to view: tonally it is rather different from anything contemporary on television and feels rather at odds with other, more prosaic, productions in the Play for Today series. For example, virtually no words are spoken in the first half hour of the play, with all of the drama unfolding against a silent background – the viewer is left to make up their own mind about events at first. Pippa Hinchley is very good as the vulnerable, yet strong Ann, a role that must have been very tricky for a young actress to play, while Anthony Andrews ­– a huge star on British television at this time – impresses in a role a world away from the usual upper-class staid types that he was more used to playing. Present in the tiny role of Dad is David Daker, a solid, reliable character actor who would soon go on to national familiarity in Boon.

Fear of nuclear annihilation was a very real threat for the public in the early 1980s and the play struck a chord with viewers. Correspondents to the Radio Times praised the performances and script, and appeared very concerned that the story presented a stark warning for the future of humanity, although some readers found themselves unable to take seriously the idea of a small valley having a protective micro-climate.

In 2015, Hollywood inevitably came a-calling and a film version of the tale was produced for the big screen. Starring British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine, this time the story was set back in the USA (but filmed in New Zealand). Despite garnering decent reviews, the film didn’t seem to register very highly in the public consciousness and it was hardly seen as a financial success and differed tonally as a third character was introduced which, perhaps inevitably, resulted in a love triangle being introduced rather than the focus being maintained on just Ann and Loomis.

Unfortunately, Z for Zachariah is not available on DVD, but you can watch it on DailyMotion:

Chris Orton occasionally writes odds and sods, including co-authoring books on Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who for Miwk Publishing. He can be found on Twitter at @chrisorton2011

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