John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was born in 1903 and began his writing career in the 1930’s under a variety of names. Following the Second Word War he started writing again and produced his first novel as John Wyndham. That was The Day of the Triffids which was published in 1951.
The Day of the Triffids was an instant success and it established Wyndham’s reputation as one of Britain’s top science fiction writers. It was faithfully adapted for the radio in 1957 (and the same script was re-recorded in 1968). There was also a film version in 1962 which deviated substantially from the original book (as did the 2009 BBC adaptation).
In-between those two was this 1981 BBC adaptation by Douglas Livingstone. It was directed by Ken Hannam and comprised six 26 minute episodes which were re-edited into three 52 minute episodes for overseas sales. Livingstone did a remarkable job of faithfully transferring Wyndham’s novel to the small screen. There are some changes (the action is moved from the 1950’s to the 1980’s and some minor characters are different) but overall there’s a great deal of fidelity to Wyndham’s original book.
In Livingstone’s teleplay, as in the novel, the thrust of the story is concerned with how the survivors of a global catastrophe will be able to survive after the technological infrastructure they’ve taken for granted has been destroyed. The later BBC adaptation was much more of a straightforward adventure yarn, pitting the survivors against the Triffids. But here, like in the book, the Triffids only pop up from time to time and they aren’t the most pressing problem.
The story opens with Bill Masen (John Duttine) recovering in hospital after an operation on his eyes. He works at a Triffid farm and was stung by one of them – hence the operation. Hopefully, once the bandages are removed he’ll be able to see again, but nothing is certain.
One annoying side-effect of his temporary blindness is that he was unable to witness the remarkable light-show the previous evening. The precise origin of this natural display which lit up the night sky for hours (visible all over the world) was a mystery, but the morning after things feel different. Where there should be noise and bustle (as befits a busy hospital) there is only an ominous silence …..
Both the novel and Livingstone’s adaptation open with Bill in hospital and work back from there to explain the history of the Triffids. In Wyndham’s novel, Bill is writing the whole story to explain to those who were born after the catastrophe exactly what happened. In the television version, Bill narrates how the Triffids came to exist onto cassette for his colleague Walter, who’s planning to write a book about them.
This is a decent framing device as it allows Bill to narrate over various scenes which explain where the Triffids came from and precisely the danger they pose. Walter (Edmund Pegge) works with Bill at the Triffid farm and in one of the flashbacks he discusses with him some of his theories.
Look at when they attack. They almost always go for the head. Now a great number of people who have been stung but not killed have been blinded. That’s significant of the fact they know the shortest way of putting a man out of action. If it were a choice of survival between a blind man and a Triffid, I know which I’d put my money on.
One interesting change by Livingstone is that to begin with, Bill still believes it’s the middle of the night – but we can clearly see the daylight streaming through the window and the time on the clock (the novel opens with him instantly aware that things aren’t right). This means that the viewers know more than Bill and so are aware, before he is, that something is seriously awry.
John Duttine spends the majority of the episode alone in his hospital room with his eyes bandaged. It needed a good actor to make the character come alive, with so little to work with, and Duttine certainly delivers. As time goes on, and still nobody comes, his self control begins to crack – until he decides to take off the bandages himself.
The irony that he’s now able to see whilst the majority of the world have gone blind isn’t something that’s overtly stated, but it’s obvious nonetheless. As the episode ends, he meets the blind Dr Soames (Jonathan Newth) whilst the Triffids start to prowl …..