‘Counterstrike’ – The Unluckiest BBC Science Fiction Series… Ever?

❉ In this two-part feature, Andrew Screen explores a mostly-forgotten series that seems to have been cursed from the start…

“A distant star. A dying planet. A race of desperate men seeking another home, another world to take over. One man is trying to stop them. A man not of this world…”

This concise and dramatic voiceover introduced episodes of the 1969 BBC One science fiction series Counterstrike, an ill-fated attempt at making a ‘hip and gear’ science fiction series in the fashion of ITV’s The Avengers or The Prisoner, but in black and white and on a typical impoverished BBC drama budget. In other words without the gloss of sheen of the rival channels well financed, shot on colour film adventure series. However, there was a direct connection with The Avengers as Counterstrike’s creator was Tony Williamson (1932 – 1991), a Manchester born veteran writer for The Avengers and a key figure in the development of Adam Adamant Lives! The series is now all but forgotten apart from fans of archive British television and has never been granted a second life with a home media release. In fact the production seems to have been cursed from the start…

Radio Times listing for 3/11/69, scan provided by @woodg31

The programme had a lengthy gestation period with the genesis of the series dating back to March 1966 when Williamson submitted a pilot script entitled The Wheel to the BBC via the director David Sullivan Proudfoot. Proudfoot had worked with Williamson on Adam Adamant Lives! when he directed the first episode of the first season, A Vintage Year For Scoundrels, and an episode the BBC espionage series The Spies, I Don’t Even Volunteer – also written by Williamson.

The script featured a central character called Philip Stone who battled a secret alien invasion in modern day Britain. The BBC seemed keen at first and optioned the series for six months planning to make thirteen episodes, with Williamson himself writing eight of the episodes. He set about reformatting the series with the central character now more fleshed out and renamed Simon Cain, a science journalist who battles alien invaders called the Zyro. Anthony Kearney was assigned as the initial producer and submissions were invited with a host of veteran writers who Williamson had previously worked with proposing storylines. These included The Final Harvest by Malcolm Hulke, Virus Story by Dick Sharples, Infiltrator by Richard Harris, The Four Letter Word and The Lonely People by Anthony Skene, Still Life AKA The Sleepers, 1066 Or 7 and New Morning Glory by George F Kerr, Blackout by John Lucarotti, Equation To Kill AKA The Genius Factor by Jack Gershon, The Colony by Michael Winder and A Sound of Thunder and six other untitled scripts by Williamson himself.

A pilot was put into production in November 1966, but Williamson was unable to complete alterations due to his workload on the ITC series The Champions, so Patrick Alexander carried out rewrites. The pilot was entitled Mark of Cain and actor Barrie Ingham (1932 – 2015) was cast as Cain fresh from appearing as Alydon in the Amicus film Dr Who and the Daleks (1965). He was supported by Jennifer Daniel as Doctor Martha Scott and guest stars including Peter Vaughn, Julian Holloway and John Paul. The episode was recorded in BBC studio TC1 on 28th December 1966, having completed location filming during the first weeks of December. It was never transmitted and no longer remains in the archives, a shame as we will never get to hear the pilot’s theme tune written by Delia Derbyshire or see such an interesting cast in action.

By January 1967 the BBC became concerned that the format of the series was very similar to the new American show The Invaders, which had just begun screening on ATV in the UK, so they decided to mothball the idea. The pilot was shown to a test audience during the spring of 1967 and gained positive feedback. Dr. Kit Pedler, co-creator of the Cybermen and Doomwatch, also viewed the pilot and whilst finding the format scientifically sound felt the lead character was too flimsy and somewhat wet. It all went quiet until, out of the blue, in January 1968 the project was reactivated and the BBC purchased the format from Williamson. This was unfortunately his last contact with the series which would now be shaped and guided by other hands.

The format was once again rejigged and central character was now called Simon King, an alien law enforcement officer under cover on Earth who thwarts an invasion by his alien enemies the Centaurans. Cast in the lead role was the Surrey born Jon Finch (1942 – 2012), a dark and handsome young actor with an unpredictable personality. In his biographical details in the 1980 edition of Who’s Who On Television he lists his unfulfilled ambition as napalming the House of Lords! His career would be filled with missed opportunities and what ifs and Counterstrike would be no exception. He had been active in television from 1967 and Post-Counterstrike he made the jump into cinema with supporting roles in the Hammer films The Vampire Lovers (1970) and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) before undertaking the tormented central role in Roman Polanski’s gory version of Macbeth (1971). He was a suspected serial killer in Hitchcock’s queasy thriller Frenzy (1972) and took the lead role of Jerry Cornelius in the psychedelic, and frankly bonkers, The Final Programme (1973) based on the novels of Michael Moorcock. Around this time he was offered the role of James Bond replacing Sean Connery in Live And Let Die (1973). In 1974 whilst making the film Diagnosis Murder Finch was severely underweight making him pass out several times on set. He was submitted to hospital and diagnosed with diabetes. The condition would impact on Finch considerably during his lifetime.

Finch returned to television with a role in The New Avengers episode Medium Rare which led him to be offered the role of Doyle in The Professionals. He initially accepted, but eventually declined claiming rather oddly that “he could never play a policeman”. He was also cast in the film Alien (1979) playing the ill-fated character Kane. During production, Finch was struck down with bronchitis and subsequently spent three days in intensive care. As a result he was forced to withdraw from the production and John Hurt took over the role, assuring his place in cinematic history. Finch also appeared in Witching Hour, an episode of the anthology series Hammer House of Horror, and the rural horror film Darklands (1997). His final film appearance was in the Ridley Scott movie Kingdom of Heaven (2005) whilst his final small screen role was in a 2003 episode of New Tricks. He was found dead in his flat on 28 December 2012.

BBC staff member Patrick Alexander, who usually worked as a scriptwriter with credits on Armchair Theatre, Paul Temple and Doomwatch, was assigned the producers chair and, together with his script editor David Rolfe, he set about commissioning scripts in October 1968, with a production schedule start date in the summer of 1969. There are several scripts commissioned during this period that didn’t make the grade and went unmade; The Pill by Ray Bowers, Whispers Who Dares by Gerald Wilson and untitled episodes from David Livingstone and Keith London. George Kerr had a couple of submissions; Alive and Kicking and Onward Christian Soldiers (which also went under the names The General Is Right and God for Harry, England and St George).

The very first scenes committed to film were the title sequence featuring Finch, a semi-professional racing driver until his diabetes made his insurance too expensive, driving a Triumph TR6 sports car speedily across a beach. This was filmed on Friday 9 May 1969 at Saunton Sands in Devon along with some scenes for the first two episodes, King’s Gambit and The Lemming Syndrome. A few weeks later the opening titles narration, voiced by Dick Graham, was recorded on the 22 May. A new theme tune was also commissioned from the composer Anthony Isaac, who would go on to create memorable themes for Survivors and The Omega Factor, with recording taking place on 23 May.

Patrick Alexander took the writing credit for King’s Gambit, which was a rejigging of the pilot episode script The Mark of Cain. Vere Lorrimer (producer of the last season of Blake’s 7) handled directing chores with a young Clive Merrison as a notable guest actor in the cast. Locations for the opening episode included Seaford College in Petworth, South Street in Chichester and Elm Park Road in London. The exteriors for Simon King’s futuristic home were shot at Sorrel House in Bosham Hoe, West Sussex. Studio recording was carried out on 9 June, 1969.

Sarah Brackett as Tristan Brown in an episode of The Saint

The opening episode established Simon King’s accomplice, Mary, a doctor who discovers King’s alien origins after she tends to injuries he has sustained. Portraying Mary was the actress Sarah Brackett (1938 – 1996) who had previously cropped up in episodes of The Saint, Danger Man and the feature films Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Battle Beneath the Earth (1967). The only other regular character in the series was King’s Intergalactic Council taskmaster Control voiced by Katie Fitzroy who had previously had a string of small TV roles playing nurses, waitresses and receptionists in episodes of The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre, Man in A Suitcase and Mogul.

Halfway through the series, and never explained, Control’s voice became male and was provided by the actor Fraser Kerr. In the final episode, The Mutant, Control reverted to a female voice though this time it was provided by Meriel Fairburn. King’s Gambit was transmitted at 21:10 on Monday 8 September, 1969 with scant publicity and the Radio Times listing giving only a brief episode synopsis: “Two apparently respectable businessmen, running an electronics factory, are investigated by a journalist called Simon King. The businessmen turn out to be far from respectable and the journalist, they discover, is not a journalist. Who is Simon King – or rather, what is he?”

Daily Mirror TV critic Mary Malone was not impressed by the episode as she remarked that “the language of science fiction does not always lend itself to precision, and BBC 1’s news series Counterstrike marked minds bending under the strain of interplanetary intrigue… You need your wits and your sixth form physics primer by you. This is Doctor Who for grown-ups but without the standard concessions for dullards. There are no old fashioned monsters throbbing and heaving. No Daleks. No easy visual aids to instant comprehension of the idea that extra-terrestrial aliens have so successfully infiltrated our modes and manners.” Critic Ralph Slater took umbrage with the title sequence. “The BBC’s latest science fiction series and part of the autumn offensive is as slick and glossy as an ITV commercial and lifelike as one of them. The opening sequence with the Simon Dee-like hero driving his sports car along roads, over bridges, down country lanes and across sand flats even looks like a petrol advert.”

Ray Jenkins wrote the second episode, Joker One, originally under the title of The Think Tank. The episode featured Hammer horror star Barbara Shelley in a storyline which saw a Centauran plan to sabotage a plane carrying an atomic bomb and detonate it over Berlin in order to trigger another world war, which King stops in the nick of time. Location shooting started on 22 May at West Wittering Beach in West Sussex and continued the next day at Westgate Fields in Chichester. 26 May saw further shooting around the nearby area of Bosham and then on 30 May at Baker’s Lane, Ealing. A final day of pre-filming for the episode occurred at Osterley Lane, Southall on 25 June. The episode was recorded in studio on 20 July for transmission on 15 September at 21:10pm. The Radio Times billing for the episode provided a tantalizing synopsis: “Every war has a flash-point, a fuse, a detonator – something, however small, that triggers it off. In 1914 it was an assassin’s bullet at Sarajevo. What could trigger off an atomic war today? The Centaurans think they have the answer. And Simon, of all people, appears to be helping them.” As with most of the series reviews were few though the Coventry Evening Telegraph did note that “shorn of the killings it would have been just the stuff for a kiddies programme.”

Episode three, On Ice, scripted by Max Marquis and directed by Malcolm Taylor was set in a polar research station were scientists have mysteriously gone missing on a sledging party. A very young David Jason features in the episode as Taffy Sadler as does David Jackson who would go on to feature in Blake’s 7 as the character Gan. The episode was entirely studio bound and was recorded on 1 August with transmission on 22 September 1969 in its usual 21:10 pm slot. Nocturne was the fourth episode and also has the distinction of being the final surviving episode in the BBC archives alongside the previous three. The episode is a partial remake of scriptwriter Anthony Skene’s previous The Prisoner episode A, B and C and went under a variety of working titles; Dreamscape, Dreamsville, Night Ride and Nothing On Earth.

The episode, directed by Cyril Coke, saw King have his dreams manipulated by the Centaurans in order to make him assassinate a leading scientist. Locations for the episode took in BBC Television Centre itself, Goldsmith Close in East Acton and St Paul’s Walden at Hitchin between the 13 and 16 August. The episode was recorded in studio on 1 September. The Radio Times listing for the series offered an enthusiastic synopsis: “The madman lives in a No-Man’s-Land a borderline between fantasy and reality … where the real becomes unreal, the unreal real -and life itself a waking nightmare. Simon finds himself living in such a nightmare. Has he gone mad or is he merely suffering from temporary delusions? Above all, why should he want to kill a perfect stranger?”

In the second and concluding part of this feature, we will explore the production of the rest of the series – six episodes that are missing from the archives, including one which was wiped without receiving a maiden broadcast, compounding this series’ unfortunate reputation as The Unluckiest BBC Science Fiction Series… Ever!

❉ Counterstrike (1969) Starring Jon Finch, Sarah Brackett was broadcast weekly from Mon 8 September 1969 to Monday 10 Nov 1969 on BBC One London. Series created by Tony Williamson.

❉ Andrew Screen writes on things film and television by night and by day is a SEN practitioner with thirty years’ experience. He has written for Action TV and was editor of the magazine’s website for several years. His work has been published in Creeping Flesh Volume 1 and 2 (Headpress), The Sapphire and Steel Omnibus (Pencil Tip Publishing) as well as Horrified Magazine. His guide to Nigel Kneale’s Beasts is forthcoming from Headpress in 2023. Twitter: @aneercs

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