‘Counterstrike’ – The Unluckiest BBC Science Fiction Series… Ever? (Pt. 2 of 2)

❉ Andrew Screen concludes his look back at the BBC’s ill-fated sci-fi drama starring Jon Finch…

Broadcast on Monday 26 September 1969, Counterstrike‘s fourth episode Nocturne (see previous instalment of this feature) is the fourth and final episode of the series that still exists in the BBC Archives in the form of 16mm black and white telerecordings. Next in transmission order was Monolith, also written by Anthony Skene and which went under the working titles The Conglomerate Man, The Man of the Year and Tick, Tick Tickertape. Henri Safran directed. Location work was filmed from 4 to 6 August at Swiss Cottage and Uxbridge Road in Ealing with a studio recording following on 22 August. The episode involved a plot by the Centaurans to kill the richest man in the world and take over his business empire, but needless to say King prevents this happening. The episode’s Radio Times billing was succinct: “Sir Charles Munday is the richest man in the world. Might there be a Centauran plan to murder him?”

Daily Mirror’s BBC-1 listings for Monday 13 October 1969, with the dropped episode ‘Out Of Mind’.

The following episode, Out of Mind, was written by David Cullen under the working title of Kill Martha Webley, and again directed by Henri Safran, from a story outline by Patricia Hooker (who would later write episodes of Armchair Theatre, Crown Court, Angels and The Gentle Touch) and was scheduled as the sixth instalment, but the episode was dropped from its scheduled slot to feature a documentary on the Kray Twins and was never rescheduled. It was later erased thus making it one of the rarest examples of BBC telefantasy ever with the episode possibly only ever seen by Safran, Alexander and various post production staff.

Location work for the story ran from 22 to 23 May based at West Wittering Beach, whilst 27th to 30th June embraced East Beach, Selsey and Baker’s Lane in Ealing. Studio recording took place on 20 June. The Radio Times billing for the episode offers a glimpse of what could have been an intriguing episode: “Mary, visiting a village where she stayed as a child, finds that the woman who used to look after her, Hannah Webley, is now regarded as a witch by the superstitious villagers and Mary herself is soon caught up in the ensuing witch hunt.”

The 07/04/69 Daily Mirror reports on the BBC News and Current Affairs departments’ Kray coverage that would scupper ‘Out Of Mind’s sole broadcast.

Transmitted episodes resumed with The Lemming Syndrome (commissioned under the title The Wyatt Syndrome), written by Cyril Abraham and featuring James Villiers and Sonia Graham in the cast under the direction of Vere Lorrimer. The plot involved King investigating why a hundred and forty three people have committed suicide by drowning in a seaside town and took in location work at Saunton Sands on 9 May, Seaford College, Sorrel House (featuring as King’s home) and South Street in Chichester between 12 and 19 May. Studio recording took place on 30 June. Viktors Ritelis took up the director’s seat for Backlash, a story of an important politician (Lord Falcon played by Richard Hurndall) who is under the control of the Centaurans.

The review in the trade paper The Stage (23 October 1969, page 14) provided a glimpse of the storyline: “They had manufactured a drug which dehydrated the human body to such an extent that it created an insatiable desire to drink, or better still immerse oneself in water. Thus the taker of the drug would be induced to drown him or herself… I found this thoroughly unconvincing as a method of killing off the population. For one thing it seems so inefficient, and for another it’s such an extraordinarily long-winded way to go about it.”

Paul Wheeler provided a script originally called The General that required no location filming and was recorded in studio on 11 August. The Radio Times billing for the episode, now called Backlash, filled in some detail of the synopsis: “In a period of student riots, strong calls for a return to ‘law and order’ are made by General Falcon, a blood-and-guts commander of the Korean war. Suddenly he starts to emerge as an important political figure capable of swaying public and government opinion during an international crisis. Such a man, Simon King decides, is dangerous.”

Radio TImes listing for 22/9/69, scan provided by @woodg31

The penultimate episode was All That Glisters which had location pre-filming between 25 and 27 August, shortly before studio recording on 12 September. This was the final episode to go before the cameras despite being broadcast second to last. Viktors Ritelis directed an Adele Rose script, originally called Beads for the Natives, and featured guest roles for Nina Baden-Semper and Lindsay Campbell. The script featured another ploy by the Centaurans to take over the Earth by devious means, this time making adults revert to childhood. The Radio Times billing again offered an intriguing take on the script: “When adults start acting childishly it is no surprise to Simon. By his standards most people are childish. But when they start acting childishly even by their own standards-when a grown man plays hopscotch and another falls off a rocking horse-then something is wrong. But can there be any connection between childish behaviour and the Centauran plan to take over the earth? It seems unlikely – but Centauran plans frequently do. Until they start to work.”

The final episode, The Mutant, was written by Dick Sharples under the title The Compound and was directed by William Sterling. This time King races against time to find an antidote for a deadly new germ that has got loose in an experimental laboratory. Location work was carried out between 19 – 21 May at Elm Park Road in London and at Terminus Road and the Royal West Sussex Hospital in Chichester. 11 July saw the episode recorded in studio. In a 2002 interview I conducted with Dick Sharples he recalled working on the series: “That was Tony Williamson again and I think he left Adam Adamant Lives! to set up the series. I set it in a research station and it was based on Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie. The scientists in the research laboratory were all being picked off one by one until they were all dead.”

The fifty-minute episodes were transmitted on Monday nights on BBC following the main evening news and were consistently rated in the top twenty programmes of the week. Despite this it appears to have found little favour with some viewers. The 13 November 1969 issue of Daily Mirror carried a barbed reader’s letter about the series which complained “For a science fiction series Counterstrike remains depressingly earthbound; the central character, Simon, does not appear particularly bright and imaginative coming as he does from a planet supposedly far more advanced than our own. If the author can’t dream up more exciting situations I suggest he puts Simon in a rocket and sends him back into space.”

Not all viewers or critics feedback was negative. Sunday Mirror reader Mrs P Sydenham from Bideford, Devon only had eyes for Jon Finch: “Counterstrike on BBC is my sort of science fiction. I am waiting to see if the gorgeous Simon becomes human enough to fall in love with Mary. But that would probably mean the end of the series.” (Be A Critic letter, The Sunday Mirror, 26 October 1969, page 27)

Mrs Sydenham’s concerns were quite prophetic as the writing was on the wall for the series. Despite investing a considerable amount of resources into the series the BBC then treated it with disdain as they focused on the advent of colour television coming to the channel which arrived only a few weeks after the series finished its transmission. With all channels now transmitting colour pictures the recording of programmes in black and white was phased out making Counterstrike the last BBC telefantasy series to be filmed in the format.

The series is a prime example of how the BBC perceived television as an ephemeral and disposable medium at the time. If the series had been commissioned earlier then it might have had more of an impact on the audience and would had been treated more favourably by the BBC, but it was unlucky with delays in production preventing it from reaching the screens any sooner. When it finally did the series fell afoul of advances in technology with the changeover to full colour programming. With only the first four episodes remaining at the BBC archives as 16mm film tele-recordings a DVD release is highly unlikely thus granting the series continued obscurity, apart from among the dwindling number of original viewers who still recall the series with affection.

❉ Counterstrike (1969) was broadcast weekly from Monday 8 September 1969 to Monday 10 Nov 1969 on BBC One London. Starring Jon Finch, Sarah Brackett. 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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1 Comment

  1. Would the Kray Twins documentary that dislodged Counterstrike from the schedules have been the inspiration for Monty Python’s ‘Ethel The Frog’ sequence about Doug & Dinsdale Piranha?

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