Forty years ago this month, BBC1 screened a new drama series penned by Dalek creator Terry Nation; but this was no journey through space and time; this was very much the here and now. Nation’s chilling portrayal of a Britain in meltdown tapped into the contemporary paranoia of the mid-1970s – fears of right-wing coups by retired colonels forming private armies; fears of left-wing coups by trade unions funded from Moscow; fears of energy shortages inspired by the global oil crisis and the Three-Day Week; and, most of all, fears that the human race was living on borrowed time.
‘Survivors’ was rooted in far more adult territory than ‘Doctor Who’, and the memorably apocalyptic opening episode, which I saw as an unsettled seven-year-old, depicted the swift and sudden obliteration of the familiar and the reassuring. A man-made plague swept across the world, although our focus was on Britain, and specifically England. We were introduced to a small cast of characters, each of whom experienced the killer disease claiming friends and family, leaving them to abandon the charnel-house urban atmosphere for a rural wilderness that seemed (on the surface, at least) a safer bet. ‘Survivors’ is like ‘The Good Life’ directed by Bergman.
Over the course of three series, ‘Survivors’ chronicled the coming together of disparate individuals into self-sufficient communities, returning the country to its agricultural origins, forced to learn ancient skills in the absence of electricity and petrol-driven machinery. But if that sounds like a dull ‘Open University’ experiment to see how people might cope when deprived of their creature comforts, it wasn’t. The abrupt disappearance of the framework of civilised society – law and order, a police force, a judiciary, a government – provoked an ‘every man for himself’ attitude in which not all were committed to the common good. Pillaging criminal gangs on one hand and pseudo-fascist vigilantes on the other roamed across this eerie vision of Britain and left the viewer in no doubt that there would be precious little signs of a resurrected ‘Blitz Spirit’ if the premise of ‘Survivors’ became our reality.
There are numerous occasions throughout the series in which it belatedly dawns on the characters just how dependent they’ve been on the technology they’ve taken for granted. But, lest we forget, this was 1975 – the pre-internet age, the pre-mobile phone age, the pre-Facebook, Twitter and texting age. Forty years ago, there were no emails or any form of online correspondence; people wrote letters and used a landline telephone (or a public call box); and yet, what to us now appear quaint household trinkets – full colour TV sets, transistor radios or stereo music-systems – were, at the time of the programme’s broadcast, domestic objects of desire that it was hard to imagine life without.
People of every age naturally see themselves as inhabitants of the most technologically advanced society the world has ever seen, which they are; but what strikes the DVD viewer coming to a series like ‘Survivors’ four decades since it aired is that the dependence those characters have on technology is nowhere near the dependence we have on technology today.
Were an actual event such as that portrayed in ‘Survivors’ to strike Britain in 2015, I doubt the genuine survivors would cope half as well as the fictitious survivors of Terry Nation’s grim masterpiece. Even the youngest adult characters in the series are in their mid-twenties, meaning they would have been born in the early 1950s, carrying memories of post-war austerity and an inherited practicality born of the make-do-and-mend mindset of ration-book Britain. Their education would have prepared them for a blue-collar trade or a white-collar workplace, even academia at a time when one had to be of above-average intelligence to qualify. Reliance on one’s hands or one’s intellect meant they brought a distinct breadth of talents to the table that would enable them to apply these talents to the task at hand. The drastic disappearance of what to us seems like basic technology hits them hard, but doesn’t leave them in despair. They are secure in the knowledge that their life before ‘the sickness’ imbued them with skills they now have need to call on.
Living one’s life in a virtual world that revolves around the narcissistic worship of the self, one facilitated by pocket technology, would be a drawback to survival; possessing knowledge that extends no further than being able to name each transitory starlet to invite a press photographer’s camera up her skirt would be a drawback to survival; devoting spare time to binging on the trivial, fuelled by mass-produced fast-food, would be a drawback to survival; receiving an education in which ‘media studies’ is regarded as a legitimate and worthwhile life lesson would be a drawback to survival; earning a living by taking a place in a chorus line of cold-callers, asking strangers if they’d ever considered installing double glazing, would be a drawback to survival; settling for the perpetual adolescence supported by a mother’s mollycoddling that ensures clothes are washed and dinner is served would be a drawback to survival. In short, so much of what it prized and praised today would be absolutely no use whatsoever.
On a personal note, I’ve had a lot of trouble with my computer lately. In the last few months, my mouse, my keyboard and my monitor have all conked out and have needed replacing; my increasingly erratic internet connection has been something of an inconvenience over the past seven days as well. This household appliance is of particular importance to me and anything that goes wrong with it prevents me from not only working, but from being in contact with 75% of the people I regard as friends. Of course, I wasn’t presented with a computer as a christening present (there wouldn’t have been enough space in the church to house the entire wall a 1960s computer would have needed, for one thing); over half of the life I’ve lived so far didn’t have a computer in it, so I know what it’s like not to have one. But the crucial point is that, having had one, I cannot now imagine what I would do if suddenly deprived of it.
Yes, you can’t miss what you’ve never had. And what made ‘Survivors’ such a compelling and ingenious series is the fact that it shows people who have had items that made their life easier taken away in an instant, and they then have to devise a life bereft of them. I’d certainly struggle in that situation, but I dread to think how those twenty or twenty-five years younger than me would. They have even less intellectual and practical tools at their disposal than me. This society will not be inherited by those prepared for what could happen should that society collapse overnight. Their encouraged detachment from it, encouraged by corporations, governments and industries that rely upon their blind, unthinking acquiescence, will reduce the population to the level of Morlocks within a generation should disaster befall it. After all, even the name of Terry Nation’s series has had its meaning turned inside out this century.
It is true; you reap what you sow – but in the case of the cast of ‘Survivors’, that cliché referred to self-sufficiency, not selfie-sufficiency.