Professor Ensor (Olaf Pooley) has been granted time and space at Doomwatch to conduct experiments into the extra Y chromosome, much to Quist’s disdain, who doesn’t believe a word of it. “Only yesterday I was reading an article by a colleague of yours, Ensor, in The Lancet. Once again he cast grave and honest doubt on the theory that the extra Y chromosome predisposes one to criminal behaviour.”
Ensor has been conducting tests at a local school, asking the pupils to fill out questionnaires, as well as taking blood samples (hence the pun in the episode’s title). This is an early indication that Ensor’s methods are suspect in the extreme – Fay has been assigned to work with him and she’s under the impression that the samples they’re studying have been taken from criminals (totally unaware that later samples have come from the school).
If this is an example of the casual way he treats his scientific research, then worse is to come. The school’s headmaster, Botting (Colin Jeavons) has a problem – a boy was badly injured in the chemistry lab after three other pupils (MacPherson, Jenkins and Franklin) tampered with his experiment. Botting is convinced that one of them must be the ringleader, but which one? He discusses the matter with Ensor and, after learning that Stephen Franklin (Barry Stokes) is taller than normal for a boy of his age (he’s seventeen), the Professor decides he must be guilty. Carriers of the extra Y chromosome are known to be taller than average, Stephen is taller than average, QED.
It’s an astonishingly thin amount of evidence, but Botting is convinced and expels Stephen, which leaves us unsure as to who’s the most culpable – Botting or Ensor. It’s plain that Botting lacks judgement, as whilst he’s portrayed as a progressive headmaster – keen to encourage his pupils to express themselves – he’s blinded by Ensor’s apparent scientific credibility (allowing the true culprits, MacPherson and Jenkins to get off scot free). Ensor’s reasons for picking Stephen seem very vague. Apart from his height, the other major factor seems to be that he was adopted. Bad blood …..
Stephen’s father, Oscar (Bernard Hepton), is appalled by the way his son’s been treated and after he gets nowhere with Botting he heads off to speak to Quist. They know each other, but Quist can barely tolerate the man. Oscar is a freelance journalist, working in the science field, and Quist has a poor opinion of his skills as a writer. The always watchable Hepton gives a fine performance. Oscar is full of bluff and bluster, but he’s a fundamentally decent man who obviously cares for his son, which makes the way Quist treats him even harder to take. He’s curt and dismissive and it’s only after Oscar leaves, and Ridge piques Quist’s interest with information about Ensor’s school experiments, that he begins to get interested.
Stephen attempts to kill himself in a rather unexpected way (by walking onto the runway at Gatwick). He’s obviously in a confused state as before this he was heading for a plane which was flying to Jersey. Geoff Hardcastle pops up again briefly to talk the boy down and luckily he comes away unscathed.
Everything’s built up for the big confrontation between Quist and Ensor. It’s been stated on several occasions that Quist can’t stand him and also has little respect for him as a scientist. Ensor attempts to defend his knowledge, but Quist simply steamrollers on. “Your knowledge that condemns a child unheard, that drives him to risk death on an airport runway at night.” It’s possibly not as powerful a diatribe as it could have been (it’s interesting that Quist seemed more angry at Oscar than he does at Ensor) but it’s still a nicely played scene by John Paul.
After a couple of indifferent episodes, By The Pricking of My Thumbs gets Doomwatch back on track. Bernard Hepton and Olaf Pooley are both excellent, although Ensor isn’t as central to the plot as you might expect. In many ways he’s more of a catalyst for the drama that’s triggered once he makes his disastrous prognosis. Patsy Byrne, Sally Thomsett and Colin Jeavons are more familiar faces who help to enliven the story. Byrne is good value as Stephen’s mother whilst a young Thomsett is his (slightly irritating) younger sister.
This was Robin Chapman’s sole Doomwatch script. He was the creator and/or writer of a number of popular series made by ITV during the mid to late sixties (The Man in Room 17, The Fellows, Spindoe, Big Breadwinner Hog) so he would have been something of a “name” writer at the time. It’s a pity he didn’t write more for the series as this is a sharply defined character piece.