‘The Day of the Triffids’ (1981) At 40

Michael Seely revisits the BBC adaptation of the classic post-apocalyptic novel, which debuted on 10 September 1981.

“Wyndham’s book was written in the 1950s, but this adaption by Douglas Livingstone was brought up to date. The story is more than just dodge the Triffid. It is about what will happen next for mankind. Do we just scavenge and survive, or form groups and rebuild society? How would these groups work?”

1981 was an excellent year for science fiction on the TV, regardless of how young or old you were. Tom Baker made his last appearance as Doctor Who in March and there would be a repeat run of episodes from his predecessors later in the year. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was shown for the first time on both BBC1 and BBC2, Sapphire and Steel had an unusual adventure in a country house during the summer, while in the autumn, Blake’s 7 were about to fight their final adventures. During May, BBC1 screened a pre-watershed horror serial called The Nightmare Man, which is remembered arguably because its adaptor and director were two Doctor Who stalwarts – Robert Holmes and Douglas Camfield.

But while The Nightmare Man may not raise too many memories from those not interested in the genre, The Day of the Triffids most certainly does. This six-part serial went out on Thursday nights at 8.30pm after those Thursday night stalwarts Tomorrow’s World, Top of the Pops, and the fluffy celebrity game show Blankety-Blank. The BBC schedulers must have chuckled as viewers went from the repetitive Blankety-Blank theme into Triffid’s haunting choral music composed by Christopher Gunning. The eerie visuals of over-exposed faces staring up into the heavens before one is struck across the eyes by a Triffid’s sting is well remembered.

The Day of the Triffids stands up today both as an excellent adaptation of John Wyndham’s book and as a production, which managed to succeed in its presentation of the Triffids, designed by Steve Drewett. The plants themselves have a taste for drinking from decomposing corpses, but only once do we catch a glimpse of a Triffid ‘tongue’ attached to the soggy back of a corpse slumped in his car during a later episode. Elizabeth Parker, a Blake’s 7 stalwart, (as was until recently the producer, David Maloney) gave us the memorable sounds of the Triffid.

The Triffids do not dominate the proceedings and there are long stretches of time without them making an appearance. A few years later, The Tripods barely showed us the eponymous machines, and I remember rapidly losing interest in the story of the dull humans and gave up on the series. The Triffids are at their creepiest when we see just the base of the plant, sometimes communicating using their frankly phallic appendages tapping against their trunks, before shuffling into shot, and then we witness their full glory. Suspense is the name of the game. Director Ken Hannam makes their whiplash sting attacks very striking. The messy wipe of a poisonous sting across a windscreen lingers in the memory. Yet during those early episodes where we barely see them, there was something far more horrifying to keep up the interest…

Initially, the worst menace came from humans. The majority had been suddenly blinded by a strange cosmic light display witnessed the night before. It wasn’t just their eyes no longer working, it was the whole planet overnight. No electricity, no new food supplies, no help, nothing. Suffering from shock and an understandable terror of being literally left in the dark, people swiftly lost their humanity as the instinct for survival kicked in. The victims appear almost zombie like with their shuffling and stumbling walk, trying to feel their way along a street, looking for food. The more scheming would trap and keep on a leash those who could see and now forced to act as slave guides. It is horrific and you are not expected to feel sympathy. The one scene that sticks in my mind after forty years and several viewings, is the cliff-hanger to Episode Two, where our heroes Bill Masen (John Duttine) and Josella Payton (Emma Relph) are trapped inside a car, surrounded by angry and desperate mob, trying to get them out. One of those most angry and calling them bastards was former director and producer Morris Barry.

Having a population of blind people stumbling around was a gift for the Triffids who just had to wait for their chance, Suddenly, we are the animals being herded by something we cannot understand. Later in the serial, Bill and Josella have established a farm and keep sheep in a pen – who they then leave for the Triffids when they must flee from a para-military force.

Wyndham’s book was written in the 1950s, but this adaption by Douglas Livingstone was brought up to date. The story is more than just dodge the Triffid. It is about what will happen next for mankind. Do we just scavenge and survive, or form groups and rebuild society? How would these groups work? One group, headed by David Swift, decided that the best way to survive is to basically treat women like breeding stock. Blind men were considered useless since they could not work, but blind young women could breed and would be welcomed into this community. Naturally there are moral and religious objections, and we meet a break away community who can only cope with the end of society by total submission to their religion. But this does not save them from the Triffids.

These themes were explored in great depth by the BBC drama series Survivors which ended in 1977, and no doubt owed much to The Day of the Triffids. But Survivors managed without the blindness or the Triffids. To survive is to be pragmatic and trying to help the helpless and vulnerable The Day of the Triffids demonstrates to be impractical. This is quite distressing if there is a history of blindness is in your family. You would not abandon them, but how can you be expected to take on the responsibility for hundreds of desperate and frightened strangers? When the sighted were forced to help the blind survive in the cities, at the behest of an intense Maurice Colbourne playing Coker, we see it go wrong as disease ravages the city-based group, and they are preyed on by a psychopathic and gun-toting sighted human, played by Gary Olsen.

Each episode is effective and pushes the story along. The first one is basically a scene-setting narration from a temporarily blinded and bandaged Bill Masen, speaking into a tape recorder. The final episode jumps forward in time by six years, and we see the restrictive life Bill and Josella and their adopted family lead, surrounded by hundreds of hungry Triffids, kept out by an electric fence. They flee to Coker’s Isle of Wight Triffid free society following the arrival of the two para-military men, representing an attempt to restart government, and intent on breaking up their world. One of them is again played by Gary Olsen, suggesting his murderous sniper character may have been the same man. He probably did not survive the Triffids after the Masens escape, and the Triffids had the sheep to look forward to as well.

The cast is uniformly excellent, right down to the small roles played by stalwarts like Stephen Yardley and John Hollis. Other memorable roles are played by Perlita Neilson who is the leader of the doomed Christian community and Sally Lahee, a blind woman trying to open the coffee tin which Bill replaces with baked beans – but only if she gives him information. And when you see the familiar face of Pat Gorman stagger outside from his house, you just know he is a goner.

The production is worth revisiting: sinister, shocking, and disturbing, and not for the reasons you would expect. Like all good dramas, you wonder what you would do if you were placed in such a situation. I would probably make a good piquant sauce for any Triffid close by. Well, after they’ve got through my irritating neighbours first…

The Day Of The Triffids’ (1981) Blu-ray was released on September 7, 2020 via BBC Studios. Running time: 159 mins. Cert PG. RRP £12.65.

❉ A longstanding contributor to We Are Cult, writer Michael Seely’s biography of Douglas Camfield, ‘Directed by Douglas Camfield’, is available from Fantom Publishing and he has also contributed a chapter to a new edition of Barry Letts’ autobiography ‘Who and I’ also available from Fantom Publishing

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