What chance would you give the world if everyone in it was blinded by an unexpected sunstorm, save for a small band of Britpack B-listers, a cross-dressing comedian and Brandon off Beverly Hills 90210?
Not much, I'd wager, and my hopes weren't high for the BBC's new two-part adaptation of The Day of the Triffids, in which said disaster occurred. In fact, it was gently entertaining, in a post-Boxing Day, too-hungover-to-leave-the-sofa sort of way.
I wasn't forced to read John Wyndham's sci-fi classic for my Eng Lit GCSE, and I was still in rompers the last time there was a TV version, so I'm new to this tale of how, following that crippling and apparently random solar event, a race of genetically modified killer plants takes over the world. In Wyndham's 1951 novel (or so CliffsNotes assures me) Triffid plants had been developed to provide cooking oil to the hungry human masses, whereas in Patrick Harbinson's modern adaptation, the oil was a miracle replacement for fossil fuels. Triffids, as Dougray Scott explained in the first of many portentous voiceovers, saved the planet from climate change.
In return, the sentient shrubs had been enslaved by humanity. But after the sunstorm threw Britain into chaos, a beardy tree-hugger (Ewen Bremner) loosed their chains. This may have been the only BBC drama you'll ever see in which the foolish baddie who brings about the end of the world as we know it is an environmental activist. Only in a very roundabout fashion did the story get back to being green, eventually describing the Triffids as nature's overdue revenge on the complacent human race.
In this case, the human race was represented by Scott, whose Triffid expert Dr Bill Masen could brood with the best of them; Joely Richardson as the radio broadcaster Jo Playton, a sort of post-apocalyptic Jo Whiley; Eddie Izzard as the sinister Torrence, who stole a suit from Savile Row before trying on 10 Downing Street for size; and an almost unrecognisably craggy Jason Priestley (we're not in Beverly Hills any more, Brandon ...) as Major Coker – who seemed to have walked straight off the set of Memphis Belle, bringing his vintage bomber jacket with him. In part two, the cast list was beefed up by cameos from Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave.
I expect The Day of the Triffids is supposed to be horrifying; that's certainly the reputation of the BBC's 1981 version. But this was more like Little Shop of Horrors writ large. Still, Scott's ominous narration wove in and out of the action, forever reminding us how straight-faced the schlock was supposed to be. Despite Izzard's presence, there were none of the humorous overtones that help smooth the rough edges of Doctor Who's dodgy special effects. Let's face it, this is a story about giant foxgloves that stroll around poking people in the eye then eating them. If they couldn't make it scarier, they could at least have made it a bit funnier.
There were no laughs, and rather too much horror, to be found in Tsunami: Caught on Camera, Channel 4's collection of hellish home videos from the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Though it included contributions from local people in Banda Aceh, the area of Indonesia worst hit by the wave, the documentary was inevitably skewed towards the tourists in Thailand and Sri Lanka whose holiday tapes became a record of the tragedy. Listening to the heart-wrenching tales told by the survivors, I found myself engaged in a morbid guessing game as to which of the happy holidaymakers in each video was going to survive.
There's precious little a viewer could learn from this disaster, and reliving their final minutes over and over again makes for a strange sort of tribute to the dead. This was rubbernecking – compelling rubbernecking, maybe, but rubbernecking all the same. It's an oft-noted feature of modern life that at moments of great panic or catastrophe – and, indeed, at moments of great elation – many people's first instinct is to whip out their cameraphone and start filming. What I couldn't help but ask myself all the way through this grim 90 minutes was: why did anyone keep recording when they should have been running?
Tips for 2010
By Hugh Montgomery
Glee: A hit in the US, Ryan Murphy's witty drama about a high-school singing club is the High School Musical it's OK to like. (11 Jan, E4)
Mo: Julie Walters plays the late Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam in a docudrama charting her rise to fame in the Blair government. (Late Jan/Early Feb, Channel 4).
Tower Block of Commons: We've had The Duchess on the Estate, and now it's the MPs, as Iain Duncan Smith and others spend a week living in high-rise council flats across the UK. (Late Jan/early Feb, Channel 4).
Money: Eighties obsession manifests itself on the small screen with this two-part adaptation of Martin Amis's yuppie satire. (Spring, BBC2).
Face to Watch: Lenora Crichlow.
From playing a teen temptress (Sugar Rush) to a twentysomething ghost (Being Human), the 24-year-old is among the sharpest of TV starlets. Expect her stock to rise further with a new series of Being Human and the lead in BBC1's fashion drama Material Girl.
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