Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis had both worked on Doctor Who having co-created the Cybermen and other science-horrors (they were both scientists too) and were to become the writers on the TV series of Doomwatch which ran for 24 episodes in the early 70’s. This film was aimed at transferring that success on-screen and was based on elements of the series.
Directed by Peter Sasdy and with Clive Exton re-working the TV scripts, it featured familiar themes of pending environmental disaster and the shame of it was and is, that their sci-fi is fast becoming our reality…
Doomwatch is a British ecological watchdog group whose mission statement kind of speaks for itself: the big hand is ticking towards midnight and scientists need to provide as much early warning to a wilfully deaf establishment.
Doctor Del Shaw (the always-excellent Ian Bannen) is an investigator sent to the remote island of Balfe to investigate the effects of a recent oil tanker spill. There’s something sinister on the island, people are more than usually untrusting of strangers and are positively grumpy about questions and helping with enquiries, from PC Hartwell (Percy Herbert) to the priest (Joseph O'Conor) all give Doctor Del the bird and with desperate menace too.
The one bright spark is the attractive blonde improbably teaching at the village school, Victoria Brown (Judy Geeson) who is also staying at the only guest-house in the community. Naturally, as the only two outsiders, she and Del are drawn together without ever actually… you know… but they could. But like the others, Victoria is guarded even though she can see that Del is only a scientist trying to help.
But Balfe, stands alone and want to keep its secrets mostly because it feels it is being punished… Del starts his investigations, overlooked as he takes sample on the beach and in the midst of a fight in the pub over still unspoken tensions.
Del reports back to HQ, TV series regulars Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul) and Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) are there along with Simon Oates as Dr John Ridge, clearly the man for action sequences later in the film.
As it becomes clear that the waters surrounding an island have been contaminated by chemical dumping, so too is the impact on the people who eat fish caught in those waters. It has not only changed behaviours but also physiology and, seeing this as God’s punishment, the community try to protect their own and to drive strangers away.
As strange split evolves in the action, with Del’s remarkably quick trips back to base mixed in with often tense encounters with the desperate folk on the supposedly remote island. You can’t really have both – he could escape/call for help anytime… but it doesn’t really matter as the plot is moved along.
The team dive and find illegally dumped barrels of waste in a Royal Naval zone and following the trail from the disbelieving Admiralty establish a private company has been in charge of this… See, even in 1972, public sector responsibility, handed over to private business undermines the whole process…
Dusty verdict: Doomwatch was a good series that – actually – wasn’t even ahead of its time: it was spot on then and sadly part of a movement that failed to gather enough momentum over the next half century. Changes have been made and two-generations later, we are far more concerned with pollution and whether or not it is just too late…
The film has good performances from a strong cast – notably Geeson and Bannen. The Villagers are great too with everyone from Shelagh Fraser as Mrs. Betty Straker, Norman Bird as Brewer, the conflicted copper and even a young James Cosmo (Game of Thrones and so many more!) as Bob a local fisherman.
You also get George Sanders as an Admiral and Geoffrey Keen as irresponsible industrialist Sir Henry Leyton… as well as great location work at Polkerris, Cornwall and even Battersea Heliport in London.
It starts off like a hammer horror but there’s no mass slaughter just a tragic secret which, optimistically, the Doomwatch team tries to solve and help. Let’s hope that attitude hasn’t been lost.
Doomwatch can be purchased from Amazon and other retailers and most of the TV series is also available. The Truth is out there…