Monday, 28 March 2016

JOHN CHRISTOPHER Republished

The Tripod at the village pond in episode one. The real setting is Friday Street in Dorking, Surrey, UK.
The banner of the blog shows me in the same location in 2010.


"The Tripods are coming! The Tripods are coming!" declared the BBC continuity announcer. As villagers dressed in period costume looked on, a giant metal foot plunged into the pond, followed by a second and a third. Then a tentacle swept down from the mushroom shaped hemisphere and plucked a teenage boy from the jetty and placed him in the belly of the machine. When he emerged, he had the most serene expression on his face, his eyes glazed with contentment. Then he removed his trilby to reveal the wire mesh of the Cap woven into the scalp of his head. As the grand fusion of electronic-orchestral music made its crescendo, the announcer said, "The Tripods are coming to BBC One!"

This was in the autumn of 1984. I was 14 years old and already hooked.

The programme was the brainchild of producer Richard Bates, son of Darling Buds of May author H.E. Bates, ever a dab hand at spotting potential in classic novels and turning them into television serials. He enjoyed huge success with Darling Buds, with John Wyndham's Chocky (made into a television serial for adolescents by Children's ITV) and R.D. Wingfield's A Touch of Frost.

The Tripods was based on a trilogy of novels by John Christopher, who had won notoriety in the early 1950s with dystopian future novel The Death of Grass, and later in the 1970s with The Guardians.

The first book of the Tripods trilogy (published in 1967) is The White Mountains. Written in the first person, this tells the tale of 13 year old Will Parker who lives in an idyllic village in the south of England. It has the trappings of a quaint peaceful place in pre-industrial times, but is actually a hundred or so years in our future. Technology is all but eradicated and people live simple pastoral lives without a care. Every summer the Tripod comes to perform the Capping ceremony. To the populace this symbolises one's crossing the threshold into adulthoodin reality the Cap is designed to inhibit independent thinking, creativity and rebellion. The peace that humans now enjoy comes at a costthe freedom to think.

Will Parker only begins to question the status quo when his cousin Jack expresses doubts about his own Capping and the control that the Tripods hold over humanity. When Will catches up with him after his Capping, Jack dismisses his worries as 'nonsense'. Will can't get over the difference in him. Will's destiny is sealed when shortly afterwards he comes in contact with Ozymandias, a crazy vagrant for whom the Capping has been unsuccessful, leaving him brain damaged. Only he isn't. It's all an act, as Ozymandias rambles the countryside looking for youngsters to send to the Alps, where other un-Capped people are plotting to destroy the enemy.

Will and his cousin Henry set off for the White Mountains. They cross the sea to France where they are joined by the gangly Jean-Paul, nicknamed Beanpole by the boys. At a French chateau, Will falls in love with Eloise and is seduced by the material wealth of her parents, the Count and Countess. The spell is broken when she willing offers herself as a slave to the Tripods to serve them in their mysterious city.

Suspicious of Will, a Tripod implants a tracking device to see where he is going. When the boys discover it, they dig it out, and with the mountains in sight, are hindered by the weakened protagonist. In a frantic moment, the boys succeed in destroying their pursuer, and make it to the camp of the Free Men.

Now, I'm sure you can see that this would make a splendid Saturday teatime show for kids. Richard Bates certainly thought so. The trouble was, having acquired the rights from John Christopher, he now had to sell the idea to the BBC. The Corporation would want it to fit the format most appealing to broadcasters in the United States, so they could sell it to them. American seasons were broadcast in blocks of 13, so Bates pitched The Tripods to the BBC as three series of 13.

At 120 pages, though, there was no way The White Mountains would stretch to 13 half hour episodes without a bit of padding. It was script writer Alick Rowe's job to turn it into a television serial. All the before-and-after-Capping discussion with Jack was abandoned in favour of showing the Tripod arriving in the village in the opening shot. Personally, had I been adapting the book, I would have made Episode One all about Jack's doubts (as the first chapter does). Will's discussions with Ozymandias, which take up the whole of Chapter Two, are condensed into one scene in the first episode. So it wasn't simply the lack of material that made it necessary to pad out the series, but Rowe's and Bates' decision to leave out crucial character developing scenes.

The trek to the sea thus drags on a bit too much, as does the Captain Curis sequence. The boys meeting Beanpole takes up Episode Four. All this with hardly any shots of the Tripods themselves. Then the boys spend four episodes at the chateau (two would have served that segment far better) with no Tripod action until Eloise is taken to serve in the City of Gold. The sequence where Will is snatched from his horse by a Tripod is brilliantly handled, as is the discussion about what the Tripods might actually be. But then the series gets stuck again, this time at Vichot's vineyard, where there is a lot of grape crushing and falling in love. To Alick Rowe's credit, though, there is a very good additional storyline involving Madam Vichot's failed Capping. The enemy know it failed, but they don't care because she isn't rebellious.

The plot of the book returns when the boys blow up a Tripod and make it to the camp of the Free Men.

The serial was a long winded affair and very dull in places. A lot of my schoolmates grew weary of it and stopped watching. But I was hooked by the core idea, that of a controlled society where everyone was the enemy. The Tripods themselves may have been seldom seen, but their influence was all encompassing. Also, production values were high when compared to other UK shows from the 1980s. It looked lavish, the Tripods themselves were magnificent, and the music score sounded classy. I was thrilled to hear the continuity announcer say that the series would return the following autumn, and that Ken Freeman's theme music, a hybrid of synthesiser effects and orchestral sounding sweeps, was available on a single record.

Listening to Ken Freeman's Tripods soundtrack in
'The White Mountains' of Austria, 2008.
I could not wait until the following autumn to find out what happened to Will, Henry and Beanpole, so I bought John Christopher's book. Penguin had reissued the three novels with BBC covers, each carrying the series logo, a photograph of the young stars, and the legend 'Now a Thrilling BBC-TV Series!' I plumped for the three-in-one release The Tripods Trilogy. I loved re-reading the events of the series so far, and was very pleased to find that it was faster paced and that the vineyard stuff wasn't present.

After completing The White Mountains, I went straight into Book Two, The City of Gold and Lead. In this, Henry stays in the mountain camp, and Beanpole fails to make it into the Tripods' alien city. But Will and his new companion Fritz do get in--and my, what a truly alien environment it is, as we find that the Tripods are merely machines and the true enemy are the alien Masters. They came to put a stop to our warlike ways through the imposition of the Cap, but were now determined to colonise the Earth. I wondered how all this would be represented on television.

Series Two was adapted by Christopher Penfold. For the most part it was faithful to the book. Will, Henry and Beanpole train with other 'free men' to pose as Capped athletes and be chosen to serve in the City of Gold. Henry is held back to work with the mountain community in reconnaissance missions, while Beanpole, Will, and a German character called Fritz Eger travel to the venue of the Games tournament. In the book, the boys get trapped on an island with an un-Capped hermit who refuses to let them leave. In the series, this is dropped in favour of an episode where the boys attend a wedding and are helped to the Games venue by two girls. Beanpole fails to qualify for selection, but Will and Fritz are taken into the City.

In The City of Gold and Lead, the alien atmosphere is dense and hot, and the gravity is much stronger than normal, wearing down the slaves like a leaden weight. This causes premature aging. The elderly and infirm there are actually only in their twenties. However, while the size and scale of the City is impressive in the television series, the poisonous atmosphere doesn't really come across. Will is chosen to serve master West 468, a botanist, while Fritz ends up with the slave gangs hewing out a massive cavern to house some machinery on its way from the Master's home world.

In a diversion from the book's plot, Fritz wangles himself into an elite of highly trained humans and learns that the Masters themselves are subservient to a higher collective intelligence. Learning that the Masters are set on converting Earth's atmosphere to suit their needs (a side effect of which will be the annihilation of the human race), Will escapes the City. Beanpole finds him and accompanies him back to the mountains, but not before Penfold's script leaves the book once more and the boys join a travelling circus as a means of disguising their journey.

The start of Book Three, The Pool of Fire, has the boys returning to the mountain camp only to find it has been relocated. This was made use of at the climax to Series Two, where the boys arrive at the camp to find that the Tripods have beaten them to it and destroyed the hideout. A literal cliff-hanger, as Will surveys the burning embers and tearfully asks, 'Has it all been for nothing?'

As Ken Freeman's triumphant theme music thumped along, I was bemused to find that no announcement was made about the third series. A few months later, the head of English at school informed me that the third series had been dropped due to poor viewing figures. The long drawn out nature of the serial (particularly in the first series) had put people off. Richard Bates so upset to find that the final third of the trilogy would not be filmed, he moved the line 'Has it all been for nothing?' forward in the script so that it would be the last line spoken.

The only way I could find out how the adventure ends was to read The Pool of Fire. In this, Will, Henry and Beanpole are reunited with Fritz, who had to escape the City for fear he would be connected to Will's disappearance. The rebels manage to immobilise a Tripod and take its alien occupant prisoner. By a pure fluke, they discover that the Masters cannot handle even small amounts of alcohol. The race is then on to infiltrate the City again and pollute the Master's water supply with alcohol. Meanwhile, other rebels fly hot air balloons over the dome and drop explosives on it in the hope of shattering it. When every attempt fails, Henry lands his balloon on the dome and ensures that the bomb breaks it, killing himself in the process. He was what we would today term a suicide bomber.

The rule of the Masters and the Tripods is over, humankind can now think and speak freely again. But before long, there are major disagreements and factions splinter off, leaving the human race as divided and conflicted as it was before the Cappings.

I would go on to re-watch The Tripods TV series and revisit John Christopher's books many times over the next thirty years, I loved them so much. In 1994 I was delighted when Series One was released on DVD, and Ken Freeman issued a full album of incidental music suites to complement the two theme tunes he'd done for the series. About ten years later, I found the online fan community The League of Freemen, and befriended a number of fellow enthusiasts and, amazingly, some of the cast too.

Jim Baker, who had played Henry in the series was now an HGV driver, and Robin Hayter, who had played Fritz, was a jobbing actor taking work in restaurants and the like between roles. The League met up a number of times with these two in particular. Other meetings involved Ceri Seel, who played Beanpole, and producer Richard Bates. League member Dylan Dawes, a BBC employee, was able to persuade BBC Four's producer of the strand Sci-Fi Britannia to commission a half hour documentary called The Cult of The Tripods. In this, Bates, Rowe, Jim Baker and director Bob Blagden were interviewed. The programme became an extra feature on the updated The Tripods-The Complete First & Second Series box set.

Both the TV series and the books that inspired it have had a massive impact on me. During my late teens and twenties I would pause the video as I watched the opening titles. I would gaze at the legend 'Based on the Tripods trilogy by John Christopher' and wonder about the mind that had devised this story I loved so much. Or I would be reading the books one afternoon and just stop and smile at the paperback in my hand and think, 'I wish I could meet him.'

It was in 2003 when I was working on my autobiography The Feeling's Unmutual for Jessica Kingsley Publishers that I was asked to contact some of my heroes mentioned in the book. I was thrilled when Doctor Who actor Colin Baker got in touch. Then one day someone put me onto a website, stating that, 'A guy called Sam Youd is answering questions about the Tripods books. It seems he is John Christopher.' So I went and took a look, and sure enough, Sam Youd was answering questions about the Tripods and other John Christopher books!

I dropped him a line and asked if he would consider endorsing The Feeling's Unmutual. What followed was a series of exchanges and an invitation to drop in for a cup of tea and a chat 'if ever you are in Rye, East Sussex'. Needless to say, I made sure I was in Rye, East Sussex!

The day I met Sam Youd (John Christopher). November 2004.
The meeting was utterly surreal. It took me a while to get going as I was so star struck. My wife kept the conversation fluid until I could get my head together. We discussed some of the themes in the Tripods trilogy, but he was keen for me to look at some of his other works. His own favourite was The Prince in Waiting trilogy (also known as The Sword of the Spirits trilogy). He invited me into his study where he signed copies of The Guardians and The Lotus Caves for me.


BBC Four's Sci-Fi Britannia strand led to a resurgence of interest in John Christopher's dystopian future fiction when author Brian Aldiss praised Christopher's The Death of Grass for its gritty realism. This has since been republished as a Penguin Modern Classic, meaning that Penguin will never let it go out of print again. Both the Tripods and the Prince/Sword trilogies have been re-issued by mainstream publishers.

At the height of his powers, Sam Youd was writing four novels a year to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. He wrote a number of non-science fiction books under the name Hilary Ford, as well as lesser known John Christopher titles.

Sadly, Sam Youd passed away in 2012, aged 89. Of course, I was deeply saddened when his daughter Rose got in touch with the news, and now I treasure the memory of drinking tea with him in his living room.

The Caves of Night
SYLE Press
While the mainstream publishers focus on republishing John Christopher's best loved works, his family have launched The SYLE Press (Sam Youd Literary Estate) to bring back to life his other novels, including those written under the name Hilary Ford. This month, The SYLE Press have published John Christopher's The Caves of Night. I shall certainly be buying it and adding it to my library.

I feel I owe it to him for firing up my imagination and making me want to be a writer.







To see Sam talking about The Death of Grass, click on this link and watch from 9.44 minutes (right near the end!)


Then continued from the beginning of this link





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