The Omega Factor
Here is a magic trick which all collectors of old television can perform: read a history of the BBC, and watch your favourite programmes disappear. The books are about board meetings, shouting matches on the sixth floor, strikes, Parliamentary committee reports, and whether or not Aubrey Singer was mad to take on the orchestra unions in Proms season. Top management, though invariably recruited from within the ranks, no more made programmes than the head of the Coal Board went down mines. Besides, by archive television we almost always mean drama and comedy, but many other ladders also led upwards to the BBC board of management: sport, science and nature, features, radio, the regions, satellite - the BBC was obsessed by the coming of satellite TV as early as 1980 - and above all, news and current affairs. So very few people in the top three layers of the organisational chart had ever produced a serial. One should always remember that the people who decided which dramas to make, and which to cancel, were lower down; and that when the top ranks did intervene, it would always and only be because of some controversy. It would be reactive. It would be damage control.
Because about once a year, the BBC would broadcast something that meant trouble. Sometimes this would be unacceptable because truthful - the Panorama about villages in Northern Ireland amiably policed by the IRA, for instance; sometimes because the BBC was expected never to make mistakes - the Andrew Gilligan story. Because the stakes for the Corporation were so high, BBC management invariably backed down: there would be apologies, promises to review the Notes on Programmes for Producers, assurances that the material would never be shown again. For a drama to get into this salon des refusés, it generally has to involve blasphemy or, at any rate, a non-Christian route to the beyond: Dennis Potter's "Brimstone and Treacle", say, or the spoof live-event "Ghostwatch", which so rattled the BBC management after a disturbed viewer committed suicide that a total prohibition was placed on any repeat or commercial exploitation - a curious fate for a tongue-in-cheek programme fronted by Michael Parkinson. (The ban was rescinded and the BFI now have it out on DVD.) Last year's provocation was "Jerry Springer: The Opera". In 1979, it was "The Omega Factor".
The fear of things turned inside out
Censorship, which in the gentlest way this was, tells you a lot about its times. It always has unintended consequences: in the 1980s, for instance, the fear of teenagers taking up "ninja" martial arts - fear of teenagers is never far from the surface - led to a total ban on images of a weapon made of two sticks with a chain in between; and so the VHS release of that reckless incitement to riot, Doctor Who's "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", had to be cut. The trouble is that censorship is an attempt to draw up a rulebook for what is, in the end, an aesthetic judgement. The frenzied row in America over the juvenile but playful baring of Janet Jackson's nipple during the Superbowl has chiefly resulted in this year's female victims of TV drama rapists being murdered face down, not face up, which is not I think a great step towards more wholesome viewing.
The BBC always tried to have guidelines, not rulebooks, not least because rulebooks give leverage to pressure groups. In the 1970s fringe organisations on the far right had real influence: Norris McWhirter's curiously called Freedom Association, for instance, and Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers and Listeners Association - cleverly titled to make it sound like a trade union with which the BBC should negotiate on equal terms. These days, it has become fashionable to give Whitehouse her due, and to present the history of TV drama "neutrally" by making no comment on her claims to be representative. In fact, even she knew that she was out on a limb, and this obliged her to go about things indirectly. No, she would say, we are not at risk, of course: not you or I: it is the uneducated people, vulnerable people, weak-willed people, kiddies. As the prosecution of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" asked: members of the jury, is this a book you would want your wives or your servants to read? And here is Mary on "The Omega Factor":
No one is suggesting that large numbers of people are going to be adversely affected - our position is that quite simply that by involving the viewer even indirectly in the occult, harm may be done.
When television became a mass medium, in (let us say) 1963, the time of the Chatterley trial, Whitehouse did not spring from nowhere to call the BBC responsible for a "moral collapse". She was already in her fifties, and had already belonged to militant Christian campaigns for her whole adult life. These were not always attractive. In 1977 she took out a private prosecution for criminal blasphemy, an obscure offence not invoked for fifty years, and succeeded in making it a crime to print a poem about Jesus. That goes beyond social criticism, or lobbying, or activism. Mrs Whitehouse may have looked like Miss Marple and may have spoken in the brisk, common-sense tones of the nation's favourite TV dog trainer, Barbara Woodhouse, but that should not deter us from thinking her both bad and, for that matter, unchristian. I do not object so much to her views as her unwillingness to see the good intentions of others so, in fairness, let me say this: she meant well. She is no longer with us down on Earth: I trust St Peter has locked her into a small room with nothing for company but a complete run of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".
Her influence was waning by 1980, the year in which Margaret Thatcher's first government awarded her the CBE. On the Radio 4 comedy show "The Burkiss Way", whose brilliant scripts were always dipped in vitriol, she was referred to as Mrs Mary Controversial-Shows-Publiciser, and by the mid-80s her denunciation was wryly thought by producers to be worth an extra million on the ratings. We dealt with her, in fact, by making a joke of her. (She helped out with this by complaining about such dangerous programmes as "Bergerac".) "The Omega Factor" is an interesting case because it is right on the boundary between her years of real influence and her long decline into being condescended to. When she laid into another of her campaigns, BBC management simply didn't care enough about "The Omega Factor" either way. When Mrs Whitehouse called the show "thoroughly evil", executives giggled behind their hands, but they also conceded that guidelines had been breached, mistakes had been made, and so forth. They would "forcibly" remind producers about their responsibilities. So they solemnly promised. And while they patronised her - no such reminder was made - they also gave in to her, because when it came to deciding which shows to renew, this one disappeared in the night. I doubt if there was any explicit prohibition, but it was never repeated, never shown on UK Gold, never syndicated abroad, never released on video tape. In the quarter-century since broadcast, these ten 50-minute episodes acquired considerable mystique. Every now and again I would hear about somebody who had a friend who had a copy.
Omega, which is to the Greek alphabet what Revelations is to the Bible
I would like to be able to say that the suspicious death of "The Omega Factor" is a tragic loss. In fact, except for a first-rate pilot episode and interesting moments thereafter, it could not really be called a classic. BBC Scotland was never the home of prestige drama, but was used by the national network to provide out-of-season filler: "The Omega Factor" was broadcast in July and August. Had the show been made in London, the BBC might have stood by it: but then, had the show been made in London, it might have been better. The basic problem, then as now, was that the really talented Scottish show-people were all down in Shepherd's Bush, where the resources were. Throughout the show, one is reminded that this is TV being made by the B-team. The music is routine stuff, with high-anxiety strings to the fore. The designer gives us one bland cuboidal interior after another (the exterior shots, albeit on ropey video, are much more satisfactory). The microphone dips into shot so often you can almost read the brand name - admittedly this is often true with old TV because the DVD shows fringes of the image which would have wrapped round the edges of contemporary TV tubes. The technical crew were enthusiastic but inexpert, the equipment wasn't the best. Worse, the Glasgow-based supporting cast were either inexperienced youngsters or straight out of local rep. You will recognise none of them.
Producer George Gallaccio was a class act, but here I think he was making bricks with too little straw: not too little money, but too little professional talent. The bulk of the episodes are written by not very talented local scriptwriters inherited from BBC Scotland's other situation dramas, and they are out of their element. Gallaccio hadn't wanted to use these guys, nor to have his 10 episodes written by 9 different writers, but they were left over from last year's Glasgow-based drama about a local newspaper office, and time was too short. The overall story is of a secret, X-Files-like conspiracy: the conspirators, in their effort to blend in, all wear rings bearing the Greek letter omega on the little fingers of their left hands. But the writers or wardrobe people bumbled this, so one of the non-members wears the ring as well. In some episodes. And so on... I tried hard to believe in a coherent story-line, but failed. When the scripts contradict each other, it is not because the layers of deception are coating each other like varnish. It is because the writers forgot, or changed their minds, or never knew. Gallaccio describes the script editor, Maggie Allen, in the following terms: "a feisty lady... we had an interesting relationship... I don't think she was as into the subject as I was..." I don't think she was, either.
And now I am going to say kinder things, having got all that off my chest, because at the same time there is a lot to enjoy, and it could well be argued that the three successful episodes outweigh the seven failed ones. If you are any kind of fan of the period, you will want to see them.
James Hazeldine as Crane; Louise Jameson having a bad hair day as Reynolds
For instance, isn't this a great hook for a show? Tom Crane, a journalist, is writing Sunday features about the supernatural. He has obsessive, inexplicable dreams. His wife and brother are mixed up in something opaque, and are guiding him towards going to Edinburgh - whose spooky architecture, and surrounding crags, make an implacable, wintry backdrop to events. He seeks out an Aleister Crowley-like man, the genuinely sinister Drexel, who is accompanied by an eerily ghost-like woman called Morag - very much Lilith to Drexel's Satan. In a stand-out sequence, Drexel says he will give Crane a single, solitary warning not to get involved. Crane walks away into the night, and as he does so the street-lamps behind him begin to go out, one by one. The darkness approaches. It's... uncanny. People who get close to Drexel commit suicide, unpleasantly. Crane has a demonstration of this when he is accompanied by Dr Anne Reynolds, supposedly a friend of his wife, and tracks down the elements of his clairvoyant dreams to find the body of a woman who has disappeared. This becomes one of the most disruptive and horrific sequences of film in any TV drama of the 1970s, simply by being directed right out at the limits - the pilot episode is in the sure hands of Paddy Russell, up from London to give this new Scottish show a start, and whom producer Gallaccio had worked with during the gothic period of Doctor Who. And when the story resolves itself, Crane is recruited to Department 7 of the Ministry of Defence, run by Anne's friend (or lover?) Roy Martindale: they want him as an investigator into psychic phenomena. He agrees to join them, because by this point he is eager to kill Drexel. But he doesn't trust them an inch. Run closing credits - tune in next week.
Crane, Morag, Drexel in an occult bookshop. (Only, is that National Geographic on the table?)
That was Jack Gerson's pilot script, and a first-rate piece of writing it is. In subsequent episodes, we have a variety of sinister goings-on: ouija boards, electronic phenomena, brain-washing, Army experiments, hints of espionage - because every country has its own Department 7, naturally - and such like things. The best moments of drama are the high-anxiety ones when the characters go about stirring up anthills. For instance: if you found a house in which tape recorders pick up deranged voices, and somebody was murdered there last week, and it once belonged to a novelist who was a Nazi sympathiser and was then requisitioned in the war but there was an unexplained fire in which eight men burned to death, and it was then sold to someone who started a cult called the Children of the Golden Light, and one day a girl was found dead, and then it lay derelict for years until the local authority turned it into a home for disturbed youths, but then the youths became even more disturbed - I quote from the script - well, would your immediate reaction be to drive straight over and stay the night? And maybe poke about in the cellar and the locked rooms?
The episode to which Whitehouse took exception is neither the scariest nor the most horrific; it is the one which involves a woman possessed by the spirit of a witch, and who is seen doing something which involves a dead blackbird and a knife on the altar-table of a church. The Devil himself looks on, though he does not speak and exists in another dimension, and is more modestly billed in the closing credits as "Demon". It was this parody of the Eucharist which set Whitehouse off, without a doubt. As with Pope Benedict XVI's condemnation of the Harry Potter books, she was not interested in whether the overall story was about people trying to do good. I suspect that, like Benedict - he has said as much about modern music - she distrusted mass entertainment simply because it was secular and young people immoderately liked it. But the moment the secular tried to muscle in on the sacred, it went beyond folly and into evil. Of course this was not her main line of attack. Instead, once in full flow - "I am almost at a loss for words" - she followed a standard technique: complain about something further in each and every subsequent programme, and never give an inch. Someone is stabbed? Tell them that bread-knives are not to be shown because they are too domestic. That's in the 1972 rulebook, remember? And so on. Mary must have seemed a joke to the BBC switchboard operator - "scenes of hypnosis!" - but a single wasp can crash a car.
The last few episodes lack the vigour of the first few. What kept me watching was the chemistry between the two lead actors: James Hazeldine as Crane and Louise Jameson as Reynolds. They tease an affecting situation out of the blandest scripts, somehow cope with the yo-yo like oscillations imposed on them by the various writers, and are head and shoulders above the rest of the cast (though John Carlisle deserves mention as Crane's rival, Martindale, who is insufferably nice to him). When I believed in nothing else, I believed in them. After a while I began to suspect that you could cut all of the supernatural stuff and make a really good Play for Today about a man who loses his wife and comes to terms with it by falling in love with her best friend. She adroitly holds him off, tries to compensate for his mood swings, keeps him sane, listens to his Pink Floyd LPs. (Not, alas, "Animals", the one savaging Mary Whitehouse - Tom's more of a "Dark Side of the Moon" kind of guy.) It would be a play about winter and spring. It probably wouldn't involve civil servants with top secret rings brain-washing each other.
Jameson has learned about the wind: Hazeldine hasn't. But this is a backdrop we could never see in a London production
Whatever my mixed feelings, this is another welcome DVD release by DD Home Entertainment, and is both well packaged and well supported - much better put together than the BBC's own release of the exactly contemporary season of "Blake's Seven", which I reviewed here last week. There will never be a pin-sharp release of "The Omega Factor" - the Glasgow cameras produced video tape at a quality only just meeting 1979 broadcast standards - but what we have is perfectly watchable, and the sound (mono, of course) is clean. An excellent 24-page booklet by Marcus Hearn and a 25-minute documentary ably tell the story behind the scenes - what there is of it, since there were only ten episodes. Hearn mentions something I didn't know - that in the wake of the whole Whitehouse incident, Gallaccio was offered the producership of Doctor Who, and turned it down. How different things might have been if... The most controversial episode, "Powers of Darkness", has a commentary track by Eric Davidson (director), Anthony Read (writer - again we see that the show lifts up when one of the London boys comes in) and George Gallaccio (producer). The commentary is in effect an interview by Mr Hearn, who elicits some surprising admissions. "I do believe in telepathy," says Mr Read. Later, he gives a softly spoken defence which I rather wish the BBC had used: "I think we did have a moral responsibility... to make people think. It's not just horror for horror's sake." And there I do agree. At its intermittent best, "The Omega Factor" was drama that deserved to be seen, and I am glad it has emerged from limbo.
Television is a mimetic medium and that was especially so when there was little choice about what to watch each evening - Mary Whitehouse was right about that much. Nigel Kneale's "The Stone Tape" (BBC, 1972) is a more efficient cause of nightmares than any number of big-budget movies; Andrea Newman's incestuous "Bouquet of Barbed Wire" (ITV, 1975) still has a creepy eroticism which can set your teeth on edge; Mike Leigh's "Abigail's Party" (BBC, 1977) took a play which was merely funny on the stage and turned it into one which was unbearably in-your-face on the small screen. When it comes to breaking taboos there is no medium like television, because the deed is shown to you right there in the living room. The makers of "The Omega Factor" must have known they were playing with matches. I think they would like to be remembered as having set off a bonfire, but in all honesty, I can't give them that. The flame sputtered out in their fingers.