Like most of the best in British television, The Tripods was a labour of love by many hands, but it was also the long-cherished ambition of one man: Richard Bates, the eventual producer, who bought up the rights to the trilogy as early as 1969. In British television, producers are responsible for casting, budgets, artistic style, commissioning directors and writers and even final video editing. The partnership of producer with script editor, a sort of managing screen-writer, is the nearest thing a programme has to an "author".
Richard Bates is now most famous in the television world for having produced The Darling Buds of May (1991-3), a hit adaptation of his father H. E. Bates's 1958 novel, a gentle comedy of country living. But he landed his first major job in television as the story editor of The Avengers (1961-1969), midway through its second season in 1962. He took over from John Bryce, who stepped up to become its producer, and they effectively created what we now think of as the show, bringing in writers like Brian Clemens, Roger Marshall, Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke. (Only one episode of the first season now survives in the archives and it tends to be forgotten that the original, far less quirky concept ever existed.) Bates remained associated with the show throughout the establishing partnership of Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman: the Cold War as performance art, The Avengers is a suave mixture of spy thriller, 60s glamour-parade, surreal romp and quirky science fiction. Like The Tripods, it's hard to file under any one category.
In 1965, Bates launched Public Eye (ABC and Thames). Written by Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriott, this grim private-detective saga featured a private eye on the margins of crime and anarchy, himself at one point convicted and jailed: it was a hit, and ran for seven seasons until 1975. In 1968, Bates was also responsible for A Man of Our Times, a vehicle for George Cole by the distinguished playwright Julian Bond.
When the Tripods books were published, at the end of the 60s, Bates immediately fell in love with them:
I think what appealed to me about them out of all the science fiction that was being written... was the intriguing notion of a futuristic world, devoid of the technological sophistication of our twentieth-century Westernised society, against which background [John] Christopher relates a gripping adventure story with a very necessary, but quite small science fiction element being provided by the dominant Tripods.
He was to remain clear throughout the production that he wanted to make a science-fiction story that wasn't really science fiction at all. This was exactly John Christopher's own view:
It's an adventure story. For me, it goes right back to my mother reading me to sleep at night with Swiss Family Robinson, and things like Coral Island which I read later.
And Christopher was to approve of the TV production, asking for minor changes to be made in a few places (which he recalls as being politely ignored) but broadly happy with the treatment of The White Mountains, at least.
It was fifteen years before the Tripods project was finally sold, after tortuous renegotiations of the screen rights, during which time two other groups also tried their luck. Bates secured the books' fourth option while working at the BBC. At the time he was working on the creation of Tenko (1981-85), a drama about women imprisoned by the Japanese during World War Two, memorable as having featured one of the strongest casts of British women character-actors ever assembled; and One By One (1984-87), the wry adventures of a zoo vet, which never quite supplanted the enduringly popular All Creatures Great And Small (1978-80 and then revived 1988-90).
Bates had consolidated his credentials as a producer of serious, straight drama at the ITV companies in the 70s with the acclaimed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1978), adapted by Alick Rowe from Muriel Spark's classic novel (1961) of the life of an Edinburgh schoolmistress in the 1930s. Bates and Rowe had already worked together as producer and screen-writer on Intimate Strangers (1974), and their partnership was to continue with The Tripods, too, with Bates initially commissioning a (much shorter) script of the first book, The White Mountains, initially for the Southern region of ITV. Southern lost its license and the project lapsed again.
Years before, Bates had interested a director, David Reid, in the books; and in 1982 Reid was Head of Series and Serials at the BBC. The producer had finally found a definite home for the production.
Formal pre-production, and the spending of serious money, began in 1982. The project was now a series and the BBC stipulated that it had be a long-running serial, with 13-part annual series, and that it had to be shot on videotape rather than film. This was a considerable challenge, pushing it to what Bates called "the frontiers of known video technology". The story has to convincingly show, among other things, hundred-foot-high machines which have to be agile enough to pluck human figures from the ground, and Paris as it might be if it were abandoned to ruin for a century. Without some kind of image manipulation, it would be absolutely impossible.
It was a very complicated production to do because although the techniques were tried and tested in the film industry, it was all new on video. In 1982 there were only three Paintboxes in the country.
Looking back from the 1990s, he commented that
At the time, someone even said to me that I should wait ten years for computer special effects technology to advance... The BBC even treated it as a sort of training exercise, getting their people valuable experience in using Paintbox and ASO.
The Quantel Paintbox allowed video images to be glued or merged together using a frame store: before this major advance, colour separation overlay or "Chromakey" would have been essential. (For some idea of how this might have wrecked a show like The Tripods, see the 1975 Doctor Who serial "The Invasion of the Dinosaurs".)
Difficult special effects were planned as much as two years ahead: it was to take eighteen months even to build the model of the City for series 2. A budget of roughly 1 million pounds per series was allocated, which made it one of the most expensive programmes ever mounted by the BBC. Christopher Barry, one of the directors:
...we were able to do things -- expensive home and Swiss locations, prolonged FX studio time, etc. -- that were not usual on Doctor Who, for instance. The freedom to let us schedule realistically in order to get it right was a joy that I, as a director, was extremely grateful for and which contributed greatly to the final look of the programmes.
Money was drawn in from international partners (the Seven Network Australia and Freemantle International, a New York distributor) but creative control retained by the BBC: Bates was determined not to be pressured into increasing the science-fiction element of the show. He assembled a team which quickly came to share his dedication to the project:
Indeed many people worked on each series for a whole year -- more than six months of planning followed by three months shooting and three months post-production. It was the most dedicated production team I have ever had the pleasure of working with and their enthusiasm without exception ensured that we completed the programmes on schedule. But not on budget.
Bates himself says that "It damn near killed me," and the other main players were as caught up as himself. Ken Freeman, for instance, recalls an obsessive period in which he "ate, slept and dreamt Tripods".
Episodes were to be 25 minutes long and to run on Saturday afternoons, a traditional format going back to the rise of adventure series on commercial TV, which Doctor Who had originally been commissioned in 1963 to fight off. The Tripods was to use these episodes rather unusually, typically with many short scenes and a clear division at the half-way mark (perhaps to facilitate commercial breaks when the show was sold abroad). But as with Doctor Who the episodes could be grouped in twos and threes for production purposes, each group with its own cast and locations.
The first series, of 13 episodes, was planned in two blocks: roughly speaking, Alick Rowe adapted the initial 8 episodes from the already-written script. These would follow the book of The White Mountains closely and were intended to grab an audience as a fast-moving action serial. (Viewers of the resulting episode 2 may be slightly surprised by this description.) The remaining 5 episodes, of new material not in the book, would make a gentler exploration of the characters. Since the length of the series, as compared with the books, is so often talked about, it's worth reiterating that it was the BBC serials department which insisted on a 13-episode run.
The two production blocks used two different crews, from the director and designer down; and with different suites of music, the division point (near the end of episode 8) is quite visible. Inevitably there was little direct contact between the two crews, but visual continuity is maintained, with post-production editing being especially careful. (For instance, careful glimpses in episodes 4 to 13 establish for the record that the hand grenades are still being carried, despite a history including confiscation, exhibition in court as evidence, being used in a game of throw-and-catch by madmen and even being washed clean of mud by unsuspecting farmers' daughters.)
The scope of the original Southern Television script survives, in a sense, in the US laser-disc release of series 1, which compiles down the first production block but edits out almost all of the second.
Some notes on the writers and their scripts are on another page, to avoid giving away too much plot here.
As with most series featuring young actors, the lead roles were cast by a marathon trawl through hopeful 17 and 18-year olds. (The novels call for younger children, but anyone under 16 would have been unable to work through the filming schedule for legal reasons.) About 400 candidate Wills, and 300 candidate Henries, were considered throughout three eliminating rounds of auditions. It was a difficult process and the production team were nervous about the outcome. They were in the tricky position of making a drama not entirely for children in which the hardest of the acting would fall on the least experienced actors. The character of Will, for instance, appears in almost every scene. There were bound to be gauche moments and awkward deliveries here and there. Whoever they did choose would become a lot more experienced in a hurry, but how natural would they become? Richard Bates was never quite sure that the ideal casting had been reached, but like the rest of the crew, he felt that it worked out well in the end.
[John Shackley, Jim Baker, Ceri Seel as we first see them]
The Tripods was careful to cast nobody without solid television experience. The survivors were John Shackley (of Liverpool), who had previously appeared in the five-part Channel 4/Yorkshire drama One Summer (1983), who was to play Will; and Jim Baker (a Londoner), with several television credits in children's programmes and a small part in The Barchester Chronicles (1982; an acclaimed adaptation of Trollope). Both actors had a drama-school background, though John Shackley had made his himself, by forming a young actor's co-operative at the Liverpool Youth Theatre. Shackley saw a notice in The Stage that juvenile leads were being sought, and sent photographs of the co-operative members to Richard Bates, who was interested in one of the members, Vic McGuire (who later starred in Carla Lane's sitcom Bread). Bates, together with the directors Graham Theakston and Christopher Barry, then auditioned Shackley himself, twice, finally awarding him the part in spite of his lack of an Equity card [i.e., membership of the professional actor's union].
I was given a great thick pile of scripts to read, which was a bit daunting as I was used to getting the text of a play in a little Penguin book.
His reading of the part (interviewed 1984):
someone who doesn't look before he leaps. He is also very phlegmatic, very cynical and he lets his heart rule his head. Most heroes are perfect... if anything he is a failure, but he is doing right.
Ceri Seel (from the Welsh border country) was invited to audition for the part of Beanpole on the strength of his role as William in The Bagthorpe Saga, a production for BBC Children's TV. Though he had always enjoyed school drama, he hadn't intended to be an actor, and would have preferred music as a career. Christopher Barry recalls "thinking at once that he was a brilliant find, absolutely filling my impression of what Beanpole should be like". Seel's views on the main characters:
I really like the character [of Beanpole] -- though I think in the book he's more sensible than he's written in the series. Henry is a bit selfish. Will is a bit throw-away, a bit brash. Beanpole is like a father-figure; he stops them getting at each other; he keeps cool and detached, has all the ideas, gets them out of scrapes. And he's an inventor -- he prefers machines to people. The only problem with Beanpole is that because he's French they wanted me to do it with a slight accent. I didn't like it and some of the things I had to say and do I didn't think fitted Beanpole. But I got used to it: that's the thing about acting, you have to do what they want.
(Seel's French accent is a sort of compromise: not too annoyingly French, not too English, but whatever it is, it's quite endearing and doesn't grate.) John Christopher several times visited the set and approved of the casting:
Richard [Bates] has been quite brilliant in choosing these boys. I don't mean that they look exactly as I imagined them. Indeed, I originally visualised Will as slight, wiry and excitable, whereas the actor is bigger and more phlegmatic.
(These differences reflect differences in the script from the book's treatment of the same characters.)
[In good company: Pamela Salem, Jeremy Young and Charlotte Long as the Ricordeau family]
Other castings included Pamela Salem, an experienced genre-TV actress who had appeared in, for instance, The Onedin Line (1971), Blake's Seven (1978), Dr Who (several times) and All Creatures Great and Small (1978), and a few films (she was Miss Moneypenny in Sean Connery's reprise of James Bond, Never Say Never Again). She was to play the Countess, alongside Jeremy Young as the Count: Young has a similar television background. Both had widely travelled through European stage productions.
Their screen daughter, Eloise, was to be played by Charlotte Long, an actress who should have had a promising career ahead of her: she had already played the lead role in two BBC Children's TV productions (adaptations of Enid Blyton schoolgirl books: Schoolgirl Chums and St Ursula's in Danger) and had appeared in three films. She was a keen horse-rider, to Gold Cup standard, a talent made use of in the programme, and was in real life the younger daughter of a Viscount.
Only weeks after her filming for The Tripods was completed, Charlotte Long was killed in a road accident, when a lorry crashed into her car on the M4. The tragic irony was lost on nobody involved with the production. The politician Alan Clark, whose home (Saltwood Castle) was presented as the Chateau, puts it rather movingly in his Diaries (Friday 12 October 1984), written after watching the broadcast of her final scene, a year later:
But that evening an unsettling experience. The last episode of Tripods. Little Charlotte wandered around Saltwood, everything so beautiful and timeless. Then she was "claimed" by the Tripods -- remote, sinister, not of this world. She ascended, higher and higher (on that great lamp-engineers' lift, which made such a mess of the moat when they were shooting). Sadly she waved, and called her farewells. On its own the scene was curiously, unexpectedly moving. Now, with the knowledge that she had, at that time, been less than three weeks away from death... it was unbearable.
She had also just played the lead role in Ted Willis's radio play Death May Surprise Us. It remains only to note that the silent cameo appearance of Eloise in series 2 is made by another actress (Cindy Shelley).
[Second series: Robin Hayter stars as Fritz, Cindy Shelley doubles as Eloise]