UNDERMIND - The Complete Series / DVD Review

Making its debut in May 1965, you would be forgiven for failing to recall Robert Banks Stewart's Undermind, a science fiction thriller that ran for 11 episodes and was produced for ABC by Michael Chapman. Undermind wasn't fully networked and for many years only three episodes were believed to exist. However, its archive/cult television status is not insignificant. It's an early script credit for Banks Stewart, who created the series, and who would go on to write for The Avengers, Adam Adamant Lives!, Public Eye, Callan, Doctor Who and create/produce and write Charles Endell Esq, Shoestring, Lovejoy, Bergerac and The Darling Buds of May, and its telefantasy credentials are further embellished with scripts by Doctor Who writers Bill Strutton, Robert Holmes and David Whitaker.

The series was produced by Michael Chapman, a highly regarded television industry veteran, who would eventually take over the production duties on ABC's Public Eye, influencing the series during a very creative five year period under the Thames banner. Chapman was a prolific producer and writer and was also responsible for producing Haunted, Van Der Valk, Enemy at the Door, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster and The Bill. He also contributed scripts to Paul Temple, Crown Court, Special Branch and Secret Army.

Undermind followed on the tail end of the final studio based, video taped series of The Avengers and there's more than a passing resemblance to that series, as an 'as live' studio production and the way they share some of the themes and concerns about British society in the mid-1960s. The series opens with 'Instance One' (which was also known as 'Onset of Fear' as TV World's listings indicate) and it firmly establishes the premise of the series rather than the overall style, which then develops in rather amusing fashion throughout later episodes. A personnel manager, Drew Heriot (Jeremy Wilkin - an actor who you'll recognise from a CV that alternated between 'heavy of the week' in Doctor Who and Blake's 7 and vocal duties for Anderson's Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and appearing as string vested Gordon Maxwell of the Skydiver crew in UFO) returns from his work for International Business Associates in Australia to discover that his brother Frank (another wonderfully intense performance from Jeremy Kemp) has been involved in a fracas with a cabinet minister who 'had a few too many, unwinding in his local'.
'totally lacking in normal emotional reflexes'
The affair escalates into a scandal when Frank determines to charge the minister with assault and Drew and Frank's wife, Anne (a pre-Department S Rosemary Nicols) grow increasingly concerned about Frank's aberrant and 'emotionless' state and his transformation into 'the kind of policeman' he ordinarily despises. He seems affected by some outside influence and there's a sinister little moment when he meets Drew in the pub. Frank is shown to be under great strain, complaining about the loudness of music when it can hardly be heard at all and then casually announcing, with cold disregard, that he and Anne have already split up.

Banks Stewart manages to develop these personal moments through the story as, at the same time, it takes on fantastical aspects. The development of Nicols character, Anne, is particularly effective in this regard as she explains to Drew the dramatic changes that have occurred in Frank. Her description of his emotional withdrawal reflects the script's nod to Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (adapted as a classic film in 1955) and its themes of dehumanisation as well as a suggestion that he has gained an intolerance to high frequency sounds beyond the range of human hearing. Another significant reference here would be the scare of Communist brainwashing as seen in the film The Manchurian Candidate which was released in 1962.

The latter taps into a popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s that 'was obsessed with the power of suggestion techniques, psychoanalysis and hypnosis, all of which threatened to undermine traditional ideas of the self determined, rational and fully responsible individual.'(1) There was also a certain anxiety in Britain about how American market research techniques had been imported into the business industry, caused in part by the publication of Vance Packard's 'The Hidden Persuaders' and how individuals were now being subjected to this hidden persuasion within subliminal advertising strategies. In the 1960s, many of these fears had to be countered and addressed by think-tanks such as the Bow Group, the Institute of Directors and Institute for Economic Affairs.

Drew's office also looks like a cross between such an institute and a Madison Avenue ad agency and when Drew and Anne turn to the company's resident psychiatrist Dr. Ben Poulson (Paul Maxwell) for help even Poulson's office resembles the WOTAN control room of 'The War Machines' (the Doctor Who serial that followed a year later and was equally fixated on brainwashing and possession). He seems to spend his time using a 'new technique for evaluating types of people' with an EPS (Electronic Personnel Selector) machine. Again, it taps into some fears that the use of personality testing and other vetting techniques in business was going too far in the 1960s. In America, congressional hearings and a bill had been mounted to bring the corporate psychologists to book and explain why they were delving so deeply into prospective employees' backgrounds.

Frank's action forces the resignation of the minister and his eventual suicide and, in a very atmospheric scene, he breaks into Anne's workplace to recover an old newspaper article that discusses a similar case and the effect of high frequency sound on animals in the area. Drew and Anne start to put the pieces together even though Drew despairs that, even as a personnel manger, his own expertise is insufficient to understand what motivates his brother's actions. It's here that Poulson determines to find out what has happened to Frank using his machines and 'a special set of headphones'. However, when Poulson arranges for Frank to use the machines he uncovers a strange pattern, suggesting Frank is 'totally lacking in normal emotional reflexes', and then discovering a similar case, is killed for his troubles.
... think Brains of Thunderbirds crossed with Fred Hoyle
Banks Stewart constructs an intriguing thriller in which Drew and Anne follow a series of clues to reveal that, by the end of the episode, Frank is actually the host for some conquering force, directed by ultra-high frequency signals as an anarchic fifth column set out to 'damage this country' and disrupt the major processes of democracy. The series format is fully outlined by the time Frank reveals to the two lead characters that there are more of these brainwashed infiltrators stealthily attacking the fabric of British society. As Drew looks down from a window at the end of the episode, he tells Anne that 'it could be anyone of them' as he watches the crowds in the streets below.

Not only is the format of the show concerned with revealing these anarchists (and they are usually the least likely suspects) but Drew and Anne also represent a response to the decade's 'concern about the alleged damage done to British cultural institutions by the infiltration of counter-cultural values and personnel into the BBC, the education system, even the Church of England' (2) and the series reflects the end of deference and shifts in the social order between the 1950s and 1960s, including the corruption of government and authorities such as the police, through a number of recognisable cultural and historical markers.

In episode two 'The Flowers of Havoc', the sober tone of the scene-setting of the first instalment is swapped for something more outlandish and is certainly very Avengers-esque in feel. Drew and Anne follow a trail, initiated by a post card of a brass rubbing, to the seaside resort of Welling-On-Sea, where Frank was following up a report on teenage violence. This allows Banks Stewart to introduce a recurring character Val Randolph, a mathematics professor with a sideline in writing science fiction novels (think Brains of Thunderbirds crossed with Fred Hoyle), played by the wonderful Denis Quilley in a startling set of thick-rimmed 'boffin' glasses. Fortunately, he also happens to be an expert on brass rubbings and as a science fiction writer he's willing to countenance Drew and Anne's tale of alien invasion.

The seaside resort or village setting is a staple of The Avengers episodes as far back as John Kruse's 1961 episode 'Tunnel of Fear' and one that would be increasingly used when the series returned in October 1965 and was shot on film. The nefarious machinations of the local vicar Reverend Anderson (played with great aplomb by Michael Gough), whipping the local gangs into wanton acts of vandalism and violence, also captures some of the flavour of 'The Little Wonders', 'Mandrake' and 'Build a Better Mousetrap' from the final Honor Blackman series. This is not to Undermind's detriment as the episode is an enjoyable enough watch and as well as including Quilley and Gough in the cast, there are early appearances from Barry Evans, Bill Treacher and Glynn Edwards. There's also a great central role for 'organist, cub mistress and I don't know what else' Wilma Strickland, a dotty eccentric played by Pauline Jameson firmly in the mould of Damaris Hayman.

However, Anderson, and the episode itself, is busy 'dealing with youth' and the 'mods and rockers' riots of May 1964. The episode parallels the clashes in Margate, Broadstairs and Brighton and that month's Birmingham Post editorial warning that mods and rockers were 'internal enemies' in the UK who would 'bring about disintegration of a nation's character'. However, there was no mention of the outside influence of alien signals and fifth columnists in what was then a moral panic manipulated by the media. To illustrate the connections, the episode even chucks in some newsreel of motorbike gangs at the seaside, a 'mod' cafe interior where Anne sings (badly) 'The Party's Over' and bravely depicts a photo journalist as an amoral opportunist.

'The New Dimension' continues in this vein but with less of Banks Stewart's eccentricities as this story from David Whitaker attempts to push the series back towards the corruption of politicians and again reflects a contemporary scandal, this time 1963's Profumo affair. It pulls no punches from the outset as a photo-montage depicts the strangulation of a woman in a phone box during the titles and Drew, Anne and Val become embroiled in a sleazy story of blackmail. Drew finds his name included on a list of establishment customers in the murdered call-girl Beryl Peters's little black book and he is suspected of her murder.

Anne goes undercover as, presumably, the vice squad, in the forms of Patrick Allen and Garfield Morgan (sporting a fetching pair of sunglasses) interrogate Drew about Beryl in a rather eye catching pop-art office with a black and white design scheme of which director Bill Bain takes full advantage. Beryl and her acquaintance Dorothy are obviously the Christine Keeler and Mandy-Rice Davies of the episode, both connected to a scandal involving John Profumo stand-in Russell Beymer, played by the reliable Derek Francis. Again, the series forges connections to a period in British post-war society where 'the moral order' of 'Conservative identity and authority was broken open' and to Profumo's links to the Cold War intelligence battles with the Soviets which were often conducted with sex traps and blackmail. (3)

This scandal is being manipulated by the infiltrators and the episode adheres to the formula that the least likely person will be revealed to be such. Still it offers us Rosemary Nicols gamely attempting to convince social worker Marion Gordon (an early outing for Judy Parfitt) that Anne's a street walker in need of saving from herself and has her rather hilariously having to undertake a little cabaret work which entails posing nude in a nightclub while several strange men attempt to draw her (this mirrors a place called Flanagan's where you could do the same in London's Soho of the 1960s). Gordon's having none of it judging by the cat fight at the end of the episode when she reveals that the infiltrators are not a disease but 'a new dimension' and attempts to kill Anne but then tumbles down a lift shaft much like Reverend Anderson plummets from his bell tower in 'Flowers of Havoc'.
Irish people as befuddled antediluvians 
It's after the initial trio of episodes that the problems with such a format - a series that shifts between the tongue-in-cheek attitudes of The Avengers and an attempt to tackle social issues on its own more serious terms - really come into focus with 'Death in England'. Where do you begin with an episode, pitched as part-farce, part-thriller, that depicts an attempt at reconciliation between the British and the IRA at a time when tensions were already mounting in Northern Ireland between the Unionists and the Stormont government?

While Prime Minister Terence O'Neill undertook a programme of modernisation in Northern Ireland, as Dominic Sandbrook notes, 'those within the Unionist community... feared and despised O'Neill's conciliatory initiatives'(4) when he secretly invited Republic of Ireland leader Sean Lemass to Belfast in 1965 and attempted to bridge build between the North and the South. This bridge building is reflected in the episode when former IRA General Riordan travels to London and uses the unveiling of a commemorative statue to his British enemy as an opportunity to denounce 'his old comrades'.

 'The era of the petrol bomb and the water cannon was at hand'(5) by the time Hugh Leonard's script was transmitted - the Falls Road riots had occurred only the year before and the paramilitary UVF was formed in late 1965. While Leonard's message is an honorable one and he uses Riordan as his mouthpiece, a former IRA man who believes 'more in the future than the past. It was a glorious past but it's been wasted. It might as well never have happened', the episode's depiction of Irish people as befuddled antediluvians and 'the Troubles' as something of that past look very naive, if not irrelevant, in the light of the violence and death that followed from 1966 onwards. 

The 'old comrades' are depicted as wing-collared conservatives who rail against 'English jazz bands, filthy books, dirty films, all our young people corrupted by motor cars, and too much money... low necks and short skirts, misbehaving themselves at all night dances... that's what the English have done for us!' At the very end of this list of IRA complaints is 'and not to mention the atrocities and 700 years of a tyranny'. Leonard is of course mocking the IRA that he hated and is having a go at their ineffectual campaign of the early 1960s but he didn't see that history would take on a very different complexion from 1966 onwards where atrocities on both sides would soon be at the very top of that list.

The IRA's own hit man Kennefick, played by that ubiquitous Irish actor David Kelly, is shown as an inept, pork pie hatted mute who can somehow get weapons onto a plane wrapped in bin bags. In the middle of this easy stereotyping of the Irish, it turns out the 'Undermind' (as these aliens are now referred to) have possessed yet another hapless, unsuspected character to assassinate the General. This toe-curling episode, which can't decide if it's a comedy or spooky thriller with its use of an Irish jig over the ad caps, ends with Kennefick managing to blow the head off the statue to much merriment from Drew, Anne and Val (Denis Quilley returning in his third appearance). It's imagery now evokes all the wrong connotations.

With a formula established - guess who's the 'Undermind' in charge this week and how they'll come to a sticky end - the next episode 'Too Many Enemies' settles back into SF thriller mode. One of the brainwashed, William Gill (Aubrey Richards) is admitted to hospital and Drew persuades his surgeon Hepworth (Tenniel Evans), who has detected anomalies in his patient's EEG, that the man's brainwave activity is abnormal because he's being controlled by signals from space. There's some nice continuity when Hepworth and Drew refer back to Poulson's recordings from the first episode and Drew persuades him to monitor Gill's conversations.

Further, with Val Randolph's explanation of the break-in at Kimberley Vale, the radio-telescope installation he works at, we get the 1960s obsession with satellites, signals from space and the search for extraterrestrial life referencing Jodrell Bank's opening in Cheshire in 1957 and, in 1962, the discovery of quasars by radio-astronomers. Val even proposes new forms of communication that many scientists were discussing in the mid-1960s. Eventually, the finger of suspicion points at Gill and his wife but the episode concludes with a rather startling revelation that's very effective indeed.

John Kruse, mentioned earlier in connection with the early episodes of The Avengers, contributes 'Intent to Destroy'. This time the story concerns the poisoning of an orchard and the death of a young boy after eating the affected fruit. By now you'll be convinced that creator Banks Stewart and his writers, rather like the Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis team that devised Doomwatch, were seizing on all manner of fears, concerns and phobias about the modernisation of Britain and the effects of technology and putting the blame on the 'Undermind'. The series often feels like a mix of The Avengers, A for Andromeda and an early Doomwatch and once again, there are tonal shifts in this episode that suggest that its creator and writers were still trying to work out what the series should be.

'Intent to Destroy' initially explores the environmental disaster (shades of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring published in 1962) of a crop spraying caused by a pilot, Banbridge, who crashed his plane and is now paralysed and in a wheelchair. When Anne talks to his wife, we discover he wasn't flying the plane the day the orchards were poisoned because he took poor astrological advice.

With this revelation, we're immediately back in Avengers territory when Drew visits astrologer Ursula Smythe (a waspish performance from Jan Holden) and she warns him he is 'in opposition to some powerful force.' From there we shift to big business and share forecasting and a clever reveal that compresses time and shows that Anne is already undercover as the secretary to city-editor Victor Liberton (Peter Barkworth), Smythe's tip-off to Drew.

Drew's investigations take him to a strange hotel in Paddington where the connection between the pilot Banbridge, Libetson, financial astrology and the poisoned crops are linked to a mysterious astrologer who is 'putting the knife into British business'. Financial astrology was something of a cause celebre in the 1960s due to the work undertaken by French psychologist and statistician Michel Gauquelin who had claimed a correlation between the positions of the planets at the moment of an individual’s birth, the psychological character and the effect of this upon their careers. The episode takes a very surreal turn when the mysterious astrologer gains an opportunity to blow up Eamonn Andrews with a bomb in a cigarette box. Yes, that's right... world domination achieved not by rigging the financial markets but by sabotaging The Eamonn Andrews Show.

And that's pretty much the standard for the rest of the series which hurtles on a downward spiral after the promise shown in many earlier episodes. The 'Undermind' devise a bizarre scheme to disrupt society (that reflects an aspect of 1960s concerns or culture), it is uncovered and there's not a member of Her Majesty's police force in sight to pick up the pieces and ask Drew and Anne some pertinent questions. In 'Song of Death' (Bill Strutton's episode) the 'Undermind' attempt to smash the NHS, creating a wave of GP suicides by sending them novelty records on their birthday. What that says about the state of the health service or the quality of popular music of the era is any body's guess. Likewise, children's fiction and fictional characters and their adverse affects on youngsters and the effects of the brain drain are the subjects of 'Puppets of Evil' and 'Test for the Future'.
... fried to a crisp in a glorified post office
The final two episodes were written by Robert Holmes including the series' final episode. Judging from these, Holmes had the unenviable task of wrapping everything up and the problem with final episode 'End Signal' is that it features many, rather tedious scenes of characters in rooms trying to guess who of them is part of the 'Undermind' before thwarting their latest scheme in the third act. If one scene sums up the longueurs of this, it is where Drew and Anne try and trace the remaining group of the 'Undermind' using a list and telephone directories. It doesn't make for exciting television. However, the penultimate episode 'Waves of Sound' is a much jollier, Holmesian affair.

John Barron joins the cast as communications minister Sir Geoffrey Tillinger and, while drinking in his club, he is affronted to hear pirate radio broadcasts by 'The Traveller' interrupting the ITN News (you can hear the classic theme tune in the background). 'The Traveller' has been dishing the dirt on ministers, company CEOs and financiers -  a bit like the Wikileaks of the 1960s - and Tillinger and his detector vans just can't keep up with him. Again this reflects another 1960s phenomenon when pirate radio, in the form of Radio Caroline took to the air off the Essex coast in 1964. Drew is convinced that 'The Traveller' is working for 'Undermind' and that his attacks are causing 'bankruptcy, suicides, broken careers'. Following the series' formula, nothing is as it seems and he and Anne discover that 'The Traveller' is one half of a defunct wartime BBC radio comedy double-act, Jarvis and James.

Holmes's touch can be detected when they finally meet Jarvis (George Betton) en route to tracking down his partner. When offered a drink, Jarvis makes a crack at the higher echelons of the BBC, 'Ah, ha. I thought there might be a bottle tucked away. The old office routine, eh? Our producer used to keep one hidden inside a bust of the DG.' The double-act will become a regular motif throughout Holmes's tenure on Doctor Who as would the pot shots at petty bureaucracy and there are little suggestions of this throughout the episode. Jarvis also provides them with a link to 'The Traveller', aka Ensign James (George Moon) who is a Domino, promoting Domino cornflakes across the UK in a van which Anne discovers contains the radio transmitters for his pirate broadcasts. Holmes would return to this idea of subversion through product advertising in 'Terror of the Autons' with its plastic daffodils promotion and charabanc full of gaudily dressed Autons.

However, when James realises that Drew, Anne and Tillinger are on to him he abandons his job and is traced to a hotel after they find a room key in a murdered journalist's belongings. The hotel is a health cure hydro where the patrons will be given a flu virus to make them susceptible to a second signal imminent from the 'Undermind'.

Holmes returns the series to its original theme of using high frequency sound to brainwash and possess. However, the whole plan is foiled by a dodgy hot water system (yes, you read that correctly) and Drew manages to acquire a list of all the 'Undermind' subversives in the UK in an amusing episode much closer to the spirt of those earlier in the series.

'End Signal' sees Tillinger helping Drew and Anne round up all the people on the list in order to prevent a second wave of brainwashing. They also use Tillinger's jamming station, 'a special branch of the Post Office' - hidden a la James Bond behind his office door and again sounding something like WOTAN in the Post Office Tower in 'The War Machines' - to block the signal from 'Undermind'. However, Drew and Anne soon realise that the people being rounded up are not the people on the list and 'Undermind' operatives have infiltrated their mission. Holmes lapses into 'Chekov's Gun' syndrome here as Tillinger points out the 'power arc' with a 'grid designed to take half a million volts' during his tour of the the installation and you immediately expect that this is how the villian will meet his demise, fried to a crisp in a glorified post office.

There's a lot of too-ing and fro-ing with lists, tape recorders, lots of people under suspicion including Thallon (George Baker), Tillinger's head of security, but none of it really comes alive. After a brief sojourn to Skye on the trail of the real group of 'Undermind' operatives, the return of Caper, who had briefly been seen in Tillinger's club in 'Waves of Sound', leads to the reveal of the 'Undermind' at the heart of it all and who promises that 'eventually we shall build a reception centre... and our physical occupation of this planet will begin'. All of which might have been exciting if ABC had considered a second series as this episode doesn't get beyond the excitement of looking for names in a telephone directory or glaring at a blob of light on an oscilloscope.

The leads, Wilkin and Nicols, are reasonably engaging but they are often eclipsed by the guest actors that appear in many of the episodes. Denis Quilley's earlier recurring character is also sorely missed by the end of the series. Although the series starts with some thoughtful and well composed direction this also seems to peter out and the later episodes often lack the stylishness of the earlier instalments. Finally, it's a series that can't quite make up its mind what it wants to be. There are some fairly graphic moments - where characters are murdered - sitting alongside instances of whimsy so the tone often doesn't quite feel right.

Undermind? Underwhelmed best sums up the frustrated promise of this series.
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Notes:
1. Thomas Lindenberger,  Cold War Cultures: Perspectives on Eastern and Western Societies
2. Bart Moore-Gilbert & John Seed, Cultural Revolution? The Challenge of the Arts in the 1960s
3. John Seed, Hegemony Postponed - the unravelling of the culture of consensus in 1960s Britain
4. Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat

Undermind
ABC
8 May 1965 -  17 July 1965
Network DVD / Released 23 July 2012 / Black and White / 1.33:1 / Mono - English / Region 2 PAL / Catalogue number 7953711 / Cert: PG

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