The BBC’s 1981 6-part adaptation of The Day of the Triffids is easily the best visual adaptation of John Wyndham’s classic science fiction novel. Previously there had been the 1962 film version, which played down the human elements, but lacked the special effects to be a truly great monster movie; subsequently there was the 2009 TV version, which had the SFX chops to do the job, but in an effort to be taken seriously, mired the action in darkness and came across as bland and unengaging. The BBC did a couple of Radio adaptations in 1957 and 1968, but it was their 1981 TV version that, with just a few minor tweaks to bring from the 50s into the 80s, manages to perfectly capture the spirit of Wyndham’s novel that has proved so elusive to all the other versions. It has now been released on Blu-Ray for the first time and it’s never looked so good.
The problem with adapting Wyndham’s novel for TV and film has always been that its title is a touch misleading; The Day of the Triffids suggests an invasion story, or that of an uprising, but the titular carnivorous plants are not the cause of mankind’s downfall. Lesser adaptations twist the plot to make them visitors from another planet, but in this version – as in Wyndham’s book – they are plants that have been bioengineered behind the iron curtain for the extraction of high-yield vegetable oil. The fact that they are carnivorous and harbour a deadly sting is insignificant until the human race is brought to its knees by debris from a passing comet that causes 95% of the human race to go blind. The Triffids are a force of nature that sweep in and take advantage of mankind’s moment of weakness; only in that sense is it truly their day.
John Duttine plays Bill Mason, not so much a barrel-chested hero as a bearded early-80s everyman; he used to work on a Triffid farm, but a careless swipe from a Triffid’s stinger has left him in hospital with his face and eyes bandaged. Subsequently he misses the meteor shower that blinds most of the population and when he removes the bandages and leaves the hospital, he finds London eerily quiet and deserted. If it sounds like 28 Days Later, that’s because this is where they took their inspiration from – although the 2002 zombie film is not based on Day of the Triffids, despite what Wikipedia claims. Mason eventually meets up with Jo, played by Emma Relph, a ‘posh’ girl whose family have been killed by Triffids, which are starting to roam both town and country, preying on defenceless humans.
The fact that Mason is a working man and Jo is upper middle class is an important factor, which is drawn directly from Wyndham’s book; when survival is the order of the day, class goes out of the window – it’s a running theme that you’ll see in much of Wyndham’s work and this is one of very few adaptations that picks up on it. Coming across a bit like a poor man’s Joanna Lumley, Emma Relph plays Jo to perfection, clearly showing how she swiftly casts off her privileged upbringing in order to survive. The rest of the British class spectrum is provided by Coker, excellently played by the late Maurice Colbourne, whose unionist tendencies rive him towards trying to organise a much fairer future for blind and sighted alike.
Although this is clearly an End of Civilisation story, this version of Day of the Triffids wisely steers away from the hysteria that has dogged other versions. Restricting the human experience of the apocalypse to discreet vignettes in an otherwise eerily quiet Britain accentuates the violence and the cruelty and makes it all so much more believable. Late in the story, Mason talks of revisiting a decaying London and having a 4-storey building collapse right next to him and the fact that we don’t see it actually makes it a much more powerful image. It’s a lesson that a lot of modern TV should learn; just because you can show, doesn’t mean that you should show.
Of course, the one element of this story that has to be shown is the Triffids themselves and the BBC’s visual effects department rises to the fore. The design is based loosely on the Pitcher Plant – a real life carnivorous plant which draws insects into its horn-like body with the use of sweet-smelling sap – with a few additions such as the gnarled roots that they tap to communicate and, of course, the whip-like stinger. The results are iconic and put a distinct face to something that every other version of the novel has really struggled with. Some may mock their tottering gait, but how would you expect a plant to move? When plants move, they do so extremely slowly; they’re not designed for swift movement, so if they did so, this is exactly how it would look. When Bill Mason kills a Triffid with a garden fork, its ‘horn’ has a delightfully fibrous quality, exactly like genuine vegetable matter, which lends absolute realism to the scene.
As humanity’s struggle does on, it becomes a bit like Survivors, but never so much as to draw a negative comparison – besides, Survivors was heavily influenced by a combination of Wyndham’s original novel and John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. What the serial shares with Survivors is the idea of different groups trying to restart society under different ideologies – Christian, Marxist, fascist etc. The story ends with Mason and his found ‘family’ trying to escape from being co-opted into a militaristic group, whose commanding officer is played by Gary Olsen, the much-missed star of 2point4 Children. Olsen also plays an armed thug in an early episode and although it’s never made explicitly clear whether he’s the same person, the implication is that under the thin veneer of authority, every military government is basically composed of former thugs.
The Day of the Triffids is beautifully directed and has been restored to its original glory for this Blu-Ray release; it’s tightly paced and the 30-minute episodes are just the right length to never require any padding. Christopher Gunning’s sombre score adds an air of rumbling menace, especially in the distinctive title sequence and the sound effects work for the Triffids’ rattling ‘communication’ is something that will stay with you forever; if you watched this serial in 1981 and heard that sound today, I can guarantee that the hairs will stand up on the back of your neck in fear of an imminent Triffid sting (which is also a great sound effect).
On the down side of the Blu-Ray release, I’m not a fan of the cover art; I’m guessing it’s supposed to be evocative of 1950s paperback cover art, but it doesn’t really do it for me. Also, there are very few extras on the Blu-Ray, just a short restoration featurette, which is okay if you’re into that kind of thing. Andrew Pixley’s production booklet is as fact-filled and informative as ever, but I would have liked to have seen a ‘making-of’ feature or possibly something on the design and operation of the Triffids. Don’t let this dissuade you from picking up The Day of the Triffids on Blu-Ray however, the serial itself is as excellent as it ever was and looks stunning in its cleaned-up format. Here’s hoping we might get a similar job on The Nightmare Man or Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks’ 1984 The Invisible Man one day.