The Tomorrow People was ITV’s answer to Doctor Who. 25 minute episodes (including ad breaks), 3-5 part self-contained stories, cliffhanger endings with recaps the next week, an ability to appear and disappear in wildly differing locales, adventures in the past, present and future - the similarities speak for themselves. But whereas Doctor Who was a product of the BBC’s Drama Dept and (usually) had a lot of skilled people working on it, The Tomorrow People was treated as just another children’s show and consequently had less money, expertise and time allotted to it. Like Magpie vs Blue Peter, Thames Television tried to get away with a cheap and tacky alternative to the real thing. Despite Doctor Who stalwart Dudley Simpson providing the unforgettably eerie title music (and who can forget the hypnotic ‘zooming-in’ black and white title sequence that went with it?), the rival series always appeared shoddily written and badly acted. And there’s a good reason for this - it was. Creative force Roger Price is to be applauded for giving the initial concept such chutzpah, but the trouble was that his over-ambitious storytelling devices always fell some way short of the infinitesimal TV budgets he had to work with. Cheap actors, cheap effects, cheap sets - that seems to be the mantra of The Tomorrow People. Spaceships made of plastic cups, robots made out of cardboard - the worst excesses of television SF are to be found in this programme. But do you know what the most amazing thing of all is? I just can’t get enough of it.
The Blue and the Green is Revelation Films’ fourth TP release. It formed the opening story of the show’s second series, transmitted in 1974. Opinion has it that it’s the best adventure of the entire run, although considering the quality it has to compete against, that’s not a hard task. Certainly it’s good, with an especially strong opening episode, but like the first three stories already released on DVD, it struggles to retain credibility after the narrative’s midway point. Concerning itself with mind-altering paintings and the emergence of a new Tomorrow Person in the form of beautiful student teacher Liz (Elizabeth Adare), the story touches on issues of racism, identity and gang warfare, even making the odd socio-political comment when no-one’s looking.
This is my favourite TP release to date. Not because of the content, but because it was the first adventure I ever saw, at the tender age of seven. And seven is the best age to be watching these stories, as my young son will testify. He loves them just as much as me, and we jointly suffer withdrawal symptoms whiling away the weeks before the next DVD comes out. It’s a funny thing, but after all these years I still remember vividly the Daliesque painting that changed colour and turned schoolchildren into rampaging thugs. It’s a striking idea, powerfully realised, despite the amateurism of many of the juvenile actors (including a very young Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson). Robert (Jason Kemp) is the ‘unearthly child’ that seems to be the cause of all this unrest, and Kemp’s acting style varies from high camp to steely malevolence. The scene in the cellar when his face, and then his whole body, is diffused with multicoloured light, is particularly effective.
It’s fair to say that acting is not The Tomorrow People’s strong point. Whilst I’ve always found Nicholas Young quite acceptable - he plays John, the leader of the Tomorrow People, as the equivalent of a Head Prefect in a public school - others of the regular cast have not been of the same standard. In previous stories we’ve suffered Sammie Winmill’s overeager interpretation (her character leaves to join the Galactic Trig between seasons - as you do), and here we’ve got Peter Vaughan Clarke who, as he admits himself on the entertaining commentary track, is really not very good. Rattling out his dialogue at machine-gun speed and possessing the body language of a stick insect with a hernia, he makes Adric off of Doctor Who look like a young Laurence Olivier. But Elizabeth Adare as the newly ‘out’ teacher Liz M’Bondo shows a great deal of promise and, occasional stilted line aside, she is a far more credible performer than Winmill ever was. Chris Chittel - familiar to viewers from his role in soap opera Emmerdale gives a straightforward, brutish quality to Chris, supposed relation of ‘thug turned good guy’ Ginge from the first series. Other actors vary from the embarrassing (Simon Merrick as a cliched detective) to the unwatchable (30 year old Nigel Pegram playing a comic geriatric in the style of Peter Cushing from At the Earth’s Core).
The special effects work is pretty grisly, in line with other TP releases. When the team are floating in the space-station at the end, you can see very clearly the harnesses and wires that are supporting them! The ending is so ambitious (and preposterous) that even a budget ten times the size would have had trouble coping with the effects requirements. A car chase with an army jeep and an antiquated panda car is unexpectedly exciting, although the effect wears off with repetition.
As to the disc, if you’re familiar with previous Tomorrow People releases, you’ll know what to expect. If not, prepare for the worst. The five episodes have had no remastering and, whilst perfectly watchable, are full of tape damage, scratches and dirt on the film sequences, and general wear and tear. One filmed shot of an ambulance speeding past (presumably stock footage) is totally overexposed, something that could have been rectified by a more diligent transfer of the material. But it seems that in line with the original ethos of the series, little time or money has been spent on its DVD incarnation. That said, I was quite happy with the picture generally and it didn’t interfere with my watching of the story. There are no subtitles.
Chaptering on these Revelation discs is a minor headache. There are nine in all on the main title (1:55), and each episode, bar the first, is divided into two: ‘Episode X Preview’ (the recap between the introductory title and the episode-specific title), and ‘Episode X’ (the rest of the episode beginning with the episode-specific title). This means that virtually the whole 23 minute episode plays without a chapter stop, which is not the most convenient arrangement. Also, while it is great that they’ve incorporated the old Thames logo before each episode, the blasted thing actually comes at the end of the previous chapter! So if you simply wanted to watch, say, Episode Three with the Thames logo, you’d have to chose ‘Episode Two Preview’, and rewind back a few seconds to the end of the previous episode. (And that’s not all - if you press the ‘Play Programme’ option from the title menu, you get the first Thames logo, but if you choose ‘Episode One’ from the ‘Select Episode’ option you don’t). This is a crazy situation, when the obvious solution would have been to have the logo playing at the start of every episode, and the episode itself divided into three or four chapter stops. The new Thames logo is inserted at the end of each episode, but interestingly (or not!) the ‘pre-advert signal’ that appears at the top right-hand corner of the screen is apparent on several opening and closing title sequences.
The extras are scant, and text-led. ‘The Blue and the Green’ is an informative dossier of background information on the story, while the ‘Fact File’ covers various titbits of trivia. The Episode Guide and Character Biographies are the same as previous discs, as is a commercial for Big Finish audio dramas (1:36), featuring an announcer who sounds like he’s about to keel over and die of boredom. (Not a good advertisement for their product, it has to be said.) A Stills Gallery featuring 25 screen grabs from the story is as pointless as it sounds. By far the best extra on this, and any other TP disc, is the commentary track, once again courtesy of Peter Vaughan Clarke, Nicholas Young, and - for the last episode only - Philip Gilbert. These three are obviously having such a great time knocking each other’s performances, criticising the special effects and trotting out one off-colour anecdote after another (TIM’s balls getting yet another mention) that the episodes simply fly by. Nicholas Briggs is the host, ably bringing out the best (or worst!) in his guests, and pointing out any suspect moment that might be worthy of a derisive comment or two. To listen to them amiably chatting away like this is a real joy. (And it’s not just about the programme either - the conversation invariably drifts to ribald observations about life in general, especially the lack of a decent acting career after leaving the show!). If only all DVD commentaries were this good.
In summary, I’m a fan of The Tomorrow People and so these releases are great to see. The programme made a strong impression on me as a child, and The Blue and the Green is especially important to me because it’s the first one I remember. But for others, and there are many, all they see is the naff effects and dire acting. Well, all I can say is, “I’m sorry, but you had to be there.” Roll on the next adventure…