John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids was one of the first novels considered by the BBC for adaptation, when an advance into science-fiction had been decided on, for the early 1960s: it was popular, British and literarily just respectable enough. (There had been a BBC radio version, adapted by Giles Cooper, in February 1960.) The television proposal was however dropped since it seemed too similar to Nigel Kneale's ground-breaking The Quatermass Experiment, which had also postulated intelligent plants. In the event, the book became a lurid 1963 film starring Howard Keel, while the BBC working party commissioned what became Doctor Who.
[Two survivors: Lucy Fleming as Jenny, Denis Lill as Charles]
The 70s were a golden age for disaster movies and ecology movements, and against this fertile backdrop the BBC made Terry Nation's Survivors (16 April 1975 to 8 June 1977). Nation had for a long time been interested in the idea of a plague followed by a retrenchment, a running theme in his early 1970s Doctor Who scripts (in which the plague sometimes takes the form of radiation). Survivors begins with most of mankind wiped out by a never-explained plague, though there's a suggestion that it spread from a germ warfare lab: the random individuals who survive, and so make up the main characters, have enough trouble returning to the land without investigating all that.
The series ran for three seasons (38 fifty-minute episodes), the survivors gradually rebuilding a society; sometimes didactic, sometimes criticised as middle-class and never too far from a tutorial on basket-weaving, it remains very watchable. There are spooky moments and genuine drama does emerge: the survivors must decide whether to execute murderers, for instance, in a sequence by Terry Nation which owes more than a little to Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. The narrative comes to a natural and broadly optimistic end (largely the work of Terence Dudley, the producer) as a stable society is reached once more. Much of the filming is outdoors, showing wind-swept or silent landscapes, not a car in sight. It must have been immensely exasperating to shoot. Motorways are empty and the dead electricity pylons are eventually used as telephone cables joining different settlements. Dead pylons are something of a cliché in post-apocalypse television, as the most obvious symbol of the modern age on the rural landscape; they turn up in both The Changes and The Tripods.
[Nicky Gore, as Vicky, lost in a derelict London]
The Changes, based on Peter Dickinson's trilogy, was in a way a variant of Survivors for children. Dickinson's modern world ends when everyone, but particularly everyone adult, turns violently against anything electrical: there is a great, Luddite smashing of machines in episode 1. Scenes in which toasters, kettles and televisions suddenly become objects of hatred must have been frightening for children, and the broadcast was preceded by warnings.
The effect seems confined to England and many emigrate, but the heroes (who are of course children) are partly immune to the conditioning and go on a journey to find the source of the evil, which they find in the mountains. (Dickinson owes a good deal to Christopher, it must be said, although their writing styles are very different.) Commendably for the mid-70s, one of the programme's serious concerns was of a breaking-up of society into tribal hatreds, and much of the early action follows the efforts of a hated Sikh community to survive.
[Giant rhubarb occupies suburbia]
The BBC's eventual version of The Day of the Triffids (10 September 1981 to 15 October 1981; six half-hour episodes), adapted by Douglas Livingston, also opted for stark realism. The book was followed carefully, but the production moody and dark, lending it a sense of realism if not always giving the viewer much to look at. (The designer, Victor Meredith, went on to oversee most of the first series of The Tripods.) Fundamentally, when you've seen one muddy farmyard or smashed bar-room, you've seen them all, and although the Triffids are well-realised, they still look like vegetable standard lamps. Since the world is still modern in appearance, there is no medievalism to draw on for visuals, and since it is emptying of people it tends to be quiet. The outcome is entertaining and commendably faithful to Wyndham's original, but perhaps a touch bland.
The theme of "after the Bomb drops" was much in fashion in the early 1980s, during the Reagan administration; numerous plays, such as Z for Zachariah, took this theme. Barry Hines's play Threads (which was shown only a week after The Tripods started) is the definitive example: a brilliant and terrifying drama, an ordeal to watch but unforgettable if you have. Following Sheffield during and in the aftermath of nuclear war, it paints a vivid picture that you will never want to see again.
[Possibly the naffest emblem in Fascist history]
Two years after The Tripods, and heavily indebted to it, came a further post-apocalyptic series: Knights of God, by Richard Cooper. Though an ITV production, it was made by many defecting BBC staff (including the producer, Anna Home, who had also produced The Changes for the BBC). A 13-part drama in 25-minute episodes, it's once again not really science fiction but an adventure story: it resembles The Tripods in almost every respect except its budget, which was fairly shoestring. (If Richard Bates had indeed taken The Tripods to ITV in the early 1980s, this is what it would have looked like.) The look is very bleak, shot on film in concrete rooms and weather-beaten Welsh valleys, while the action is uncompromisingly violent, to an extent that it troubled the ITV schedulers in its Saturday afternoon slot. Broadcast was deferred for quite some time while they agonised over this.
Britain has come through a civil war and is now governed by a fascistic order of Knights. A Welsh boy runs off to join the resistance and though it all becomes agreeably complicated the style is very Christopher-esque. Helicopters replace the Tripods and the Prior of the Knights replaces Will's Master: in fact, the actor playing the Prior (John Woodvine) also provided his Master's voice in The Tripods. Fans of British SF will also appreciate Patrick Troughton in the role corresponding to Julius (wise old resistance leader) and Gareth Thomas more or less reprising Blake from Blake's Seven.
The surprise late-1990s contribution to the genre was this one-off drama in six episodes for ITV, in which a train of people are magically transported (in a pseudo-scientific way) into a post-apocalypse world.