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The Tomorrow People: series four to eight

May 14th, 2008 (06:15 pm)

The Tomorrow People reached its mid-life crisis with its fourth series. Ruth Boswell was no longer producer, and creator and since series two sole writer Roger Price took over. The last story of the third series, The Revenge of Jedikiah, had been intended by Price as the series conclusion, but The Tomorrow People was too popular to end, and John, Elizabeth, Stephen and eventually Tyso jaunt back into a cobwebbed Lab, just as teenager Mike Bell is demonstrating to his deeply indebted, gambling-addicted neighbour Mr O'Reilly how he can open locks.

There's something of a reappraisal of the format here. Stephen even questions why there aren't as many tomorrow people as were once expected, given that they reveal themselves at yearly intervals. Breaking out stops being as traumatic from now on; Mike alerts the others by telepathically laughing. Having had false starts with the badly acted Kenny, the increasingly middle-class Stephen, and the ethnically stereotyped Tyso, Roger Price has now found his genuine working-class East Ender to act as the voice of liberated teendom, Mike Holoway as Mike, who will stay for the rest of the series. Holoway was discovered by Price with his band Flintlock in a Saturday music class in east London, and was called up into Price's anarchic youth comedy series.

There's been a suggestion that Ann Curthoys as Tricia, who broke out at the end of The Revenge of Jedikiah, was asked to return; Jackie Clark thinks that this must have been for a version of the story which became The Dirtiest Business in season five. It's difficult to imagine Tricia returning for more than one story without Nicholas Young or Elizabeth Adare leaving, given that Ann Curthoys was (I think) older than both the 'senior' Tomorrow People regulars; and I can't see even Price, who played fast and loose with continuity when it suited him, returning Tricia to the SIS and taking on the position Major Turner has in The Dirtiest Business. The most plausible set-up, if Ann Curthoys's memory is correct, might be that series four was to start with something like The Dirtiest Business, perhaps introducing a new young female tomorrow person (perhaps played by one of Price's comedy leads, like Linda Robson or Pauline Quirke), who would be rescued from the SIS but not without Tricia dying. Or Tricia was to appear in a different story entirely, given that series four seems to have been curtailed.

The other change to the format is that The Tomorrow People is more assuredly comedic for the first story under Price's producership. A Man for Emily was awkward because it was straining at the leash; with One Law, which introduces Mike, the leash is off. Laboured jokes are flagged up for the children watching with hackneyed sound effects. The tomorrow people's deal with the government, used to stress the fragility of their position in series three, already seems tired and is used, like so much in this storyline, to support Price's cynicism towards all forms of authority. The show is remarkably self-assured, but misconceived; this is a series aimed at children which often makes serious points about growing up and dealing with the adult world, and while there were solid examples in the 1970s of corrupt police and corrupt businessman peers, making them buffoons (particularly the police inspector) played for laughs leaves Price unintentionally pulling his punch.

There appear to have been some months between the making of the three-part One Law and its successor Into the Unknown. Mike Holoway and particularly Dean Lawrence (Tyso) seem much older than they did in One Law. There's a change of tone again, as the four-part story - the last The Tomorrow People will attempt until the very last serial, War of the Empires in 1979 - is somewhat more earnest than most Tomorrow People adventures and shows its awareness of its limitations not by a gentle self-awareness that the regular cast are participating in a television programme, but by confining the action to what looks like one set. The result is visually boring and the characters are all rather flat. This story was written by Jon Watkins, best remembered for 1980s BBC sitcom No Place Like Home, with William Gaunt and Martin Clunes. It's perhaps significant that Ruth Boswell returned to lend a hand as script editor. This was the only story which I didn't manage to sit through; it's tedious viewing and the cast on the commentary track sound as if they have been chained to their chairs.

After series four, The Tomorrow People pulls itself together and accommodates itself to its reduced circumstances. From seven episodes in series four, there are only six in series five (1977) and series six and seven (both 1978). For only the second time in the series, the cast is ruthlessly pruned. Not only Tyso (who was never really there anyway) but Stephen, the ostensible focus of the first series, are gone from the Lab, and in a break from tradition there is no explanation; the new-look series doesn't have the time for talking. The sacrilege is marked on screen: series five opens with the Lab under attack, and John, Elizabeth and Mike in agony as they undergo telepathic assault; a blonde woman in military uniform enters and surveys her conquered territory.

The blonde woman turned out to be Major Turner, icily portrayed by Vivien Heilbron; another tomorrow person gone bad, but unlike Tricia, happy in uniform and definitely not open to persuasion. It was another blonde who would be the focus of this story, The Dirtiest Business, the first (and last) one in which a new tomorrow person is lost in the process of recruiting them. Oddly, perhaps, Pavla, the schoolgirl KGB agent, was played by former Playboy centrefold Anulka Dziubinska, a full ten years older than the character she was portraying, though maintaining a suitable air of injured innocence throughout. The story extracts a little comedy from the arrival of Anulka Dubinska when John insists on accompanying Mike on one jaunt in search of her, only for him to be restrained by Elizabeth. Price's message is downbeat, though: the KGB are depicted as installing remote-controlled explosive devices in their agents, and the tomorrow people are vulnerable in the face of 'sap' militarism throughout, leaving Mike feeling like an accessory to murder.

There's a change of tone here, perhaps an expression of Price's weariness with the series, but also of the arrival of Vic Hughes as producer. From now on it's far more questionable whether young people will overcome the mistakes of previous generations, and the tomorrow people themselves seem more vulnerable when on contemporary Earth. Of course, the message of the television series was always compromised by its proximity to "the star-making machinery of the popular song". Peter Vaughan Clarke was part of it, with his fan club and a management which wanted to turn him into the British David Cassidy, and Mike Holoway was too, even wearing his Flintlock member's 'F' during The Dirtiest Business. The third and last story of series five, The Heart of Sogguth, could be seen as a dramatisation of Price's guilty conscience. "Rock and pop" (to use a 1970s conflation) music isn't bad, but the uses to which it's put and the interests of those who wield the commercial power can be. Mike Holoway appears with Flintlock here as 'The Fresh Hearts' - everyone who uses the name in the story treats it as an expression of idealism, but it sounds as if Mike and the band are laying themselves out for sacrifice, and Price knows it, because The Tomorrow People is one of many knives.

The reduced set-up for this series emphasises John and Elizabeth's seniority over Mike's youth a lot more; Stephen isn't there to bridge the age gap, and Mike often seems put upon by his elders. Yet he can go to places John can't. It's a small plot point in The Dirtiest Business that John leaves checking discos for Pavla to Mike; and this is built upon in The Hearts of Sogguth when it's clear he's never been to a club. It's no protection; John is more vulnerable to the influence of the buried demonic Sogguth than Elizabeth. There's some potential racism here, where Elizabeth is depicted as resistant to Sogguth perhaps because of her African origins - the eponymous heart of Sogguth seems to be an African drum. Still, the stalking of Elizabeth through the gantries of Teddington Studios - self-referentialism again, treating the studio as a location - is reasonably well-executed.

Ethnicity is foregrounded, one way or another, throughout series six. The child-worshipping, adolescent-murdering cult from which Hsui Tai is rescued during The Lost Gods is placed in the Far East, with Burt Kwouk on hand as the second-in-command of the religion only just finding out that his faith is based on a lie. Hsui Tai seems to have been a deliberate attempt to internationalise the tomorrow people, though little is done to hide that she originates as Elizabeth Adare's maternity leave. Misako Koba, playing Hsui Tai, returns to the Sammie Winmill precedent of older actress playing a teenager, but her lack of acting experience and her idiosyncratic pronunciation of English (but still better than my, or many other viewers', Japanese) support her status as neophyte and comrade-in-arms for Mike. The last story of the season, The Thargon Menace, bravely recreates a South Pacific island in Teddington. Plastic trees they may be, but the focus is always tight and the result at least bears comparison with Doctor Who's Kinda four years later. While officially in the South Pacific, the inhabitants of the island all seem to be black Africans, and their self-congratulatory megalomaniac leader, Papa Min, owes more than his name to Idi Amin, rarely out of the news in the 1970s. One is left with a feeling that to the producers all non-whites were interchangeable.

The most notorious story of the series was the middle one, Hitler's Last Secret. There was disquiet in the media at the time of the appropriation of Nazi symbols by the punk movement, and one can see how Roger Price, a sort of late flower child himself, would have been ill at ease with punk's celebration of primal aggression rather than primal inner calm. Hitler's Last Secret gives the tomorrow people shadows, in the form of a band of teenage SS cadets in a bunker in Germany whose ageing process has been stopped by diet for over thirty years, while their fellow-soldiers sleep in suspended animation. Meanwhile a fashion for dressing in SS uniform is sweeping the world's youth. It's revealed that in the closing year of World War Two German planes seeded combat zones with DNA hidden on e.coli bacteria, and a generation later the new generation of adults are emerging as programmed Nazis. At the end of the first episode Hitler himself is revived. Michael Sheard delivers a suitably intense performance as Hitler as he prepares to hijack western Europe's television networks; but such a story needs a get-out clause, and it turns out (perhaps half-remembering a line from The Medusa Strain back in series one) that Hitler is an alien. Deprogramming is achieved by encouraging xenophobia, as the shape-changing Hitler has a 'skin' of oozing green slime, and his eyeballs fall out during the transformation process. This is all rather uncomfortable in its ineffectualness, as if the series can't cope with humanity producing its own evils, and the final mock-equation of Hitler with John is tasteless.

The Tomorrow People wasn't winding down in 1978, and its last ten episodes, series seven and eight, successfully make use of a cast of five. John and the returned Elizabeth gain new photographs in the title sequence which emphasise their seriousness and maturity; a prank played on John in the Lab by Mike and Hsui Tai leads John to explode that the place is becoming a kindergarten. Investigating telepathic projections of ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster, the tomorrow people end up at a hotel by Loch Ness, where a research team are looking for the monster, and there's a nice bit of character-reinforcing when John and Elizabeth become excited by the idea that one of the research team might be a tomorrow person. It is of course the hotel owner's thirteen-year-old son Andrew who is behind the apparitions, and much of the second and final episode of his introductory story, Castle of Fear is taken up with a mutual confidence-building exercise, where Andrew's projections of eighteenth-century highlanders take on John's redcoats. It's probably the best introductory story, bar the note of cynicism at the end when all agree that Andrew can continue to project apparitions of ghosts in order to boost the flagging fortunes of his father's hotel.

The castle setting, with the character of Andrew's father Bruce, is carried over into the next story, Achilles Heel. This story expects some of its child viewers to be in on the jokes. The villains are two telepath-hating aliens hoping to bring down the Galactic Federation by mining Barlumin, which removes the capacity for telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation, and is found in abundance on Earth - another excuse by Price for the slow rate of break-outs, after his Kulthan pyramids in Worlds Away. One of them is seen reading the novelisation of Star Wars early in the story; and the pilot, Grip, is a cheap version of Chewbacca, with an actor wearing a large wig and lots of fake facial hair, and a nose made up in black. The actor concerned is Stanley Bates, who plays Grip using the same voice and movements he used to play Bungle in Rainbow. The humour manages to be carried off lightly in this one, perhaps due to director Gabrielle Beaumont, who has also directed episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. Oh, and one of the Beast Master TV movies, apparently... maybe that's why the villains, played by Hilary Minster (from Allo, Allo!) and Christian Rodzka, spent a good chunk of part one wearing towels around their waists and little else.

Throughout the commentaries on the last two series of The Tomorrow People, there are digs from moderator Peter Vaughan Clarke that Mike Holoway had to watch his back, as Andrew was about to replace him. However, throughout Andrew is set up as a more conservative character than Mike, and while off-screen Nigel Rhodes was in the tradition of the cheeky schoolboy, with a strong range of vocal impressions - he was not Scottish himself, and managed a decent American accent in the last story, War of the Empires - Andrew seems more likely to have been a successor to John as the 'balanced' member of the team. In The Living Skins, a second 1978 attack on incomprehensible youth fashion trends by Price, only Andrew refuses to wear the Bubbleskins, plastic garments which are really parasitic alien life forms which bond with their wearers and eventually digest them. The tale is played straight, despite the enemy taking the shape of giant balloons or cellophane wrap when not being sold as brightly-coloured jumpsuits. Everyone else has a turn at being possessed, Mike Holoway and Misako Koba being particularly good in the first episode. Nigel Rhodes later took the name of the shop in The Living Skins for his rock band.

There was only one Tomorrow People story in 1979, the unhappy War of the Empires which reversed the successful, but modest, creation of an alien environment from A Much Needed Holiday two years before, with its ludicrous one-handed sausage-like Sorsons and the now metallic-pink skinned Thargons being nothing compared to the vacillating council of the Galactic Federation, whose 'Chairbeing' is a sort of flouncy mushroom, though that look was fashionable at the end of the 1970s... The decision to go into space again might have been made to give Philip Gilbert more screen time as Timus; since series six the Lab set had been smaller, and Tim was no longer an organic presence speaking from the ceiling but integrated into the entire Lab, but a smaller, occasionally mobile table, demoting him from TARDIS to K9. It's with some overacting from Gilbert that The Tomorrow People ends.

War of the Empires was meant to have been followed by a two-parter called 'Mystery Moon'. The script is online, and reveals how much characterisation was left to the actors and, by this stage, the production team. For Price it was enough to denote Andrew's character that he wear a kilt wherever possible, and full highland dress whenever there was an excuse. At its kindest this links to Price's interest in improvisational comedy, where his proteges would be placed on a set and work material out; but at its worst it's very limiting for the character's development. Then producer, Vic Hughes, seems to have requsted a rematch with the Gremlons, the enslavers of A Much Needed Holiday, but Price makes the sole Gremlon in the story a loyal servant of the Federation, acting as Elizabeth's driver. As for the plot, the alert was raised as soon as I saw that the young couple in it were called Tadam and Yeva. The Guardians of Time, from The Medusa Strain and A Rift in Time in the first and second series, were also to make a reappearance, with Price admitting in the script that they were based upon Doctor Who's Time Lords. Tikno, another alter ego for Philip Gilbert not seen since The Revenge of Jedikiah, would also have appeared. This continuity- and cliché-fest never reached studio after Thames refused to allocate Vic Hughes more than one studio day, which didn't leave enough time for the effects to be completed. Those who wish that The Tomorrow People had ended with The Living Skins might be glad, on the basis of this script, that it ended with War of the Empires.

So The Tomorrow People fizzled out. Roger Price wrote his last scripts from Canada, where he was launching what would become one of Nickelodeon's hit series of the 1980s, You Can't Do That On Television. The Tomorrow People was relaunched and recast with no references to past continuity in the 1990s, but that is a story for another time, as is the Big Finish audio series.

To be one of the leads in The Tomorrow People seems to have been a kiss of death for a long-term acting career - though Mike Holoway has enjoyed reasonable periods of stage work - supporting actors included future television presenters such as Keith Chegwin in Worlds Away and Peter Duncan in A Rift in Time. The Blue and the Green included a classful of future leads and character actors, including Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, with Ray Burdis as the lead classroom thug. Later, in between The Prince and the Pauper and Butterflies, Nicholas Lyndhurst appeared as a preserved Nazi in series six's Hitler's Last Secret; Ray Burdis turned up again as one of the new breed.

ETA: The Tomorrow People didn't survive into the 1980s, but it's tempting to speculate on what form it might have taken. At some point John and Elizabeth would probably have been written out or had their roles further transformed into parental figures, though Roger Price himself has said (I think in an interview for Starburst in the late 1980s) that the series without Nicholas Young was inconceivable, as he practically co-produced it without being paid. The landscape of children's drama was changing in the wake of Grange Hill, although as a blend of two distinct ITV strands, the fantasy and the urban, The Tomorrow People had contributed to the shift. With Roger Price busy in Canada, it's probable that Vic Hughes or his successors would have found other writers, and Price once said that he thought discussions to that effect had taken place after the cancellation of 'Mystery Moon'. After The Tomorrow People Hughes worked on an adaptation of John Wyndham's Chocky and subsequent series derived from it, the scripts for which came from former Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read. Perhaps the early disciples of Phil Redmond at Grange Hill could have demonstrated a taste for science fantasy, but if Dramarama still launches in this scenario, its writers would no doubt have been canvassed too.


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: May 22nd, 2008 05:01 pm (UTC)
Revival ?

I can only vaguely remember the Series, though as I can recollect, the format involved, like DR WHO, Time, and Space travel.

Quite sure it was an ITV production it were to be revived , might it be the ITV answer to DR Who?.

I know they have Primeval, I thought first series was OK, "though no Match for D W), but found the second session quite flat.