The BBC has always had an odd attitude to the Science Fiction genre, not knowing quite what to make of it, but ready to praise it to the rafters when got right, or to quietly damn it when got wrong before abandoning it to some dusty corner. On the small screen it has in part blamed the genre itself when it was not prepared to spend the money to make it look as good as it wanted. On the radio, Science Fiction was meant only to be humorous such as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the works of Terry Pratchett, or based on a classic work that transcended the genre, for example, the novels of H.G. Wells.
Worse still was that once broadcast, efforts beyond these were forgotten by all but the diehard, and only available via a network of dedicated fans who shared video tapes, audio cassettes, and in more recent times, CDs. The rise of the internet and in particular, eBay has commercialised this network, and for a relatively small cost fans now have access to a wider range of titles than before.
Since last year though, the fans have had access to the official versions of several radio adaptations of classic science fiction tales in the BBC's Classic Radio Sci-Fi line. Like the definition of the "classic" car, the majority of these are based on stories or characters some 50 or more years old: The Day of the Triffids, The War of the Worlds, The Quatermass Memoirs, and so on. Most of the productions are likewise decades old, giving them a somewhat quaint elderly feel.
Of the titles released to date, it is the work of author John Wyndham that dominates, with adaptations of Chocky, The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos, and of course, The Day of the Triffids. First published 50 years ago, The Day of the Triffids depicts a very low key apocalypse that follows the blinding of all but a relatively few men and women on Earth. With our primary sense denied us, mankind is not only hamstrung, but also knocked off the top of the evolutionary heap. In our place comes something quite odd, an almost sentient, weirdly mobile plant called a triffid. Of uncertain origins, the tall, gangling, triffid has been farmed for its oil, but freed of our cultivation, lurches rampant across the land hunting for, even herding prey with its deadly sting and feeding off the carrion it kills.
It is into this new world that the hero of the novel awakes. Bill Masen is in hospital following an operation on his eyes, and on the very day his bandages are due to come off finds that everyone has been blinded by an intense meteor shower the night before. Although the triffid, of which Masen is fortunately an expert, features prominently in the novel, the story is about how he finds his way and a way of life in this new world. The sessile plants are not the only danger of course, as other survivors have banded together and many have radical solutions. Too radical of course, for the story's sensibilities, and Masen and the small band he assembles around himself must survive alone until hope comes.
Over 50 years old and The Day of the Triffids is an apocalypse of singular note, a disaster in which Middle England is brought low by its back garden and presages the "back-to-nature" Self Sufficiency movement of two decades later. Regarded as a genre classic, its "cosy" nature is what enables it to move beyond the confines of Science Fiction and into the mainstream, such that not only has been it been made into a Hollywood film and a BBC television series, but also read on BBC radio several times, and dramatised for the radio by the BBC in 1957, 1968, and 2001.
It is the second of these radio adaptations, the 1968, which the BBC has released as part of its Classic Radio Sci-Fi line. This is in fact, a remake of the 1957 version adapted by playwright Giles Cooper who was involved in both productions. In spite of the ten year gap between productions, the 1968 version feels as routed in the immediate post war period as the novel. It would be interesting to see a more contemporary version, the nearest we have is 2001's 28 Days Later, which uses the same device of someone waking up in hospital to strange new world.
The story is told in flashback, with Masen and his partner Josella recording for prosperity the events of the disaster a decade or more later. Serialised in six parts, it is now presented handsomely on three CDs with sleeve notes by Andrew Pixley. These detail not only the novel's recording history on radio, television, and on film, but also the original episode details as they appeared in the Radio Times, the BBC's programme listings magazine. The inclusion of these sleeve notes adds a pleasing sense of context and history to the series, although they are not quite as interesting as those in other titles in the line. Running to a length of 2 hours, 50 minutes, also included are 12 minutes of material excised from the original broadcast for the foreign market that might have been deemed offensive or made references that a foreign audience would not necessarily understand.
The adaptation is a faithful one, the cast uniformly excellent, the only voice of note being that of Peter Sallis as Coker, the proponent of a new world order. He is better known now as the voice of Wallace, the inventor from the Oscar winning Wallace & Grommitt animations, a far softer role than the one he plays here. Otherwise, this is should be an enjoyably familiar listen to older fans of the genre, whilst a younger fan may find it perhaps a little too old fashioned, a little too restrained in the face of more contemporary, flashier stories. And indeed media, because the audio format demands your attention, more so than any than any other format than the original book; but then the radio serial format gives space for a story to be told faithfully in comparison to say, a filmed version.
Classics may mean old fashioned, but this does not mean that a story cannot be well told and The Day of the Triffids is testament to that. Not just in the novel itself, but also in this more than pleasing dramatisation. The Day of the Triffids is not only the perfect introduction to BBC Classic Radio Sci-Fi, but also fine listening.