Journal of a Plague Year

Terry Nation’s 1975 television series Survivors seems particularly appropriate as the coronavirus continues to dominate the news. The following passage is extracted from Alwyn W Turner’s book The Man Who Invented the Daleks: The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation (Aurum, 2011).

The story opens in the familiar television world of a village full of half-timbered, thatched cottages, almost a parody of an Agatha Christie community in the Home Counties. There are already signs that an epidemic is disrupting normal life as a wealthy housewife, Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour), waits for her husband David (Peter Bowles) to come home on a commuter train that doesn’t arrive.

When he does finally appear, having completed his journey from London by bus, the implication is that this is typical of the situation one expects in modern Britain. It could be ‘a bad snow fall or a rail strike’, comments Abby, though David is still furious at the lack of service: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. It’ll take them literally days to get things sorted out. Not that I saw anybody doing anything about it.’

Intercut with this portrayal of near-normal frustration is the story of Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming), a young woman living in London whose flatmate has come down with a mystery virus. It is largely through her experiences that we get a glimpse of how bad the situation really is, as she goes to a hospital seeking help for her friend, only to be shocked at the number of patients seeking admission.

‘The home secretary has ordered us to keep up the fiction,’ she’s told by a doctor. ‘With the speed this thing is travelling, we have no way of stopping it. In a few days the dead will outnumber the living, the cities will be like open cess-pits.’

By this stage the gloom is gathering. As the lights go out, it descends even into the cosy kitchen that should be Abby and David’s refuge from the world. And it’s clear that bad times are coming. We already know from the depiction of Jenny’s flatmate that the symptoms of the disease include sweating and swellings under the arms, and that the prognosis is certain death, so when Abby pads perspiration from her face and feels gingerly under her arm, we recognise – even though she doesn’t – that she has been infected. Sure enough, she soon falls into unconsciousness.

Five days later she wakes up – one of the very few to recover from the plague – to find that she is alone in what seems like a dead world. Her husband’s corpse is in the living room and when she goes out into the village, there is no one left alive, just a church with, it is suggested, the pews full of the dead. As she leaves the church, she looks up to the heavens and prays, ‘Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one.’

With her husband and neighbours gone, she drives to the boarding school where her son, Peter, was a pupil. Again she finds initially nothing but death and silence, though there is also a faint glimmering of hope; Peter’s bed is the only one in the dormitory not occupied by a corpse.

Eventually she finds a single survivor, Dr Bronson (Peter Copley), a teacher who initiates the discussion that will dominate the series: how do the few members of humanity who have come through this deadly epidemic begin to build a new world? Abby’s suggestion that there’s plenty of stuff lying around just waiting to be used is dismissed as mere ‘scavenging’, and Bronson goes on to explain how difficult it’s going to be to survive the aftermath of the epidemic, learning from scratch how to make everything. Electric lighting isn’t simply about generating power, he points out, but about extracting metal from the earth and refining it to make wires, as well as blowing glass to make a light bulb; in reality, most of us couldn’t even make a candle.

This is the argument that Abby takes with her as the focus of the story widens in the second episode, ‘Genesis’, to show others beginning to make plans for the future. She makes contact with a small group led by Arthur Wormley (George Baker), a trade union leader in the old world who’s looking now to the future. ‘There’s odd people moving around all over the country, aimless, lost. They’ll make contact with each other, start forming into groups. Somebody’s got to unite those groups, bring them under central control. They’ll want leadership, guidance, they’ll want somebody in authority.’ It’s a role he clearly relishes: ‘I think God might have spared me to help those of us that are left. That’s my skill, that’s my talent: organisation.’

The episode ends as she joins forces with the other two central figures in the first season, Jenny and an engineer named Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch), the former eager for human contact, the latter revelling in the freedom of having no responsibilities for anyone else.

artwork - survivors

They have also, separately, encountered other variations on the theme of survival. On the one hand there is a Welsh tramp, Tom Price (Talfryn Thomas), who has a naïve faith that salvation will come from America: ‘The Yanks’ll have something, don’t worry. In the war, they give us the stuff then. The Yanks’ll fix us up, don’t worry.’

On the other hand there are Anne Tranter (Myra Frances) and Vic Thatcher (Terry Scully), who have holed up in a quarry, accumulating vast quantities of stores from nearby towns to use as security. ‘I don’t think we’re going to be too badly off,’ reflects Anne. ‘You see, from now on money isn’t going to mean anything. The rich will be the ones who’ve got things.’ In her past life she had servants and she sees no reason why she can’t buy the labour of others now: the essential law of property relations will surely continue.

These conflicting ideas of how society should be rebuilt dominate the early stages of the series, generating much of the action. When Abby, Jenny and Greg go to a supermarket for supplies, they are interrupted by an armed gang of Wormley’s men. ‘There was a state of martial law declared,’ one of them explains. ‘Looters can be shot on sight.’ Our trio win this encounter, but later find that the sanctuary they have established in a church has been smashed up by Wormley’s thugs.

Abby is deeply shocked by the violence: ‘I thought that those of us who were left would come together, I mean really come together. There wouldn’t be national interests, nor political, just a total unity and a sense of purpose. And that one thing we have in common – that we are survivors – should have been enough…’

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