The Day of the Triffids (BBC, 1981, DVD)
The BBC's 1981 adaptation of John Wyndham's most famous novel aired during the thirtieth anniversary of its publication back in 1951. Since released on DVD, The Day of the Triffids starred John Duttine and Emma Relph as the hero and heroine dodging killer walking plants in a world where almost everyone is also now blind.
When Bill Masen wakes on a Wednesday in hospital he is excited about having the bandages over his eyes removed but cannot understand why everything is so quiet. He waits for the nurses to arrive, unaware that it is long past their usual time, and amuses himself recording a cassette message for his friend.
This introduces the viewer to the background of Bill's eyes being stung at work by a Triffid, a mobile plant with a vicious sting that will feast on rotting flesh after killing its victim. Bill has worked with them extensively, and some flashback scenes provide the context of how the seeds arrived here from Russia (a familiar source of threat in the fiction of the Fifties and a country John Wyndham was particularly wary of) and then spread around the world.
The night before the show opens, the world marveled at a meteor shower that moved across the Earth's time zones. Next morning, everyone who looked at it wakes up blind. This involves so many people, including government and the army, that law and order break down almost immediately and panic ensues. A hygiene-based disease then wreaks a terrible toll on the world's population.
Bill rescues a young woman, Jo Playton, from an assault and they team up. She can still see because a nasty hangover saw her retire to bed early last night and miss the meteor shower. However, her father has been stung and killed by a Triffid.
The mobile plants soon break loose and search for humans and animals to prey upon. Following the widespread blindness, the disease that kills most of the population drives survivors to the countryside. Bill and Jo become separated and much of the middle part of the series involves his search to find her again.
The Day of the Triffids was a big-budget offering from the BBC. Although computers would now easily take care of the presentation of the Triffids, presumably in the massive numbers described by Bill and Jo as attacking their home, back in 1981 this involved physically building 'Triffid plants' and making the models move via an actor crouching in their base. When you think of the production challenges presented by an adaptation like this without computers to provide special effects, the achievements in this series are impressive.
The sounds are what I remember most about this show. I was ten when it was broadcast, and I found the knocking of the Triffids 'speech' as their feelers bang against their base very disquieting. The music was created by Christopher Gunning, and it possessed a haunting quality that was very unsettling. Together with the opening credits, which show people being blinded by the meteor shower, they produce a real sense of dreadlike atmosphere in the viewer.
The Day of the Triffids has been an enduringly popular source of adaptation over the years. The story is vivid, with the combination of the Triffids, blindness and the water-based disease that kills many people a source of much narrative tension. The book was made into a film in 1962 starring Howard Keel and was again adapted, this time for TV, in 2009. It has also been a radio series three times.
This is my favourite adaptation of John Wyndham's novel, for the strength of its acting, faithfulness to the story and for the production challenges overcome. It so much easier with FX to produce these technical elements today, but back in 1981 they did things the hard way by physically building the items. In many ways, I prefer that.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Resident here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Our Lady of the Snow by Louise Cooper here.