The Wednesday Play: Artemis 81 (1981)

The biggest load of bobbins you will - and should - see

Well, in our Wednesday Play slot, we’ve featured plays that have changed attitudes, plays that have entertained, adaptations of classic works of fiction, the gritty, the funny, the meta and more. But plays can also be experimental.

Generally, television dramas tend to aim for ‘mimesis’, to be as close to reality as they can. There’s a lot that goes into that: characters that seem like real people, dialogue that sounds like something you’d hear in conversation, logical plotting with effect following cause, and so on.

But art doesn’t have to have mimesis, as many a surrealist or Brechtian will tell you. Theatre and to a lesser extent film can try not to mimic reality, but instead to challenge conventions and impose its own.

Television finds this much harder to do, thanks to audience expectations. But sometimes it tries.

All of which is a very pretentious, convoluted and somewhat sophistic build-up to my trying to defend the almost indefensible: Artemis 81.

Originally intended as a mini-series, co-funded by Danish TV, this 1981 TV production by noted scriptwriter David Rudkin (as well as several individual plays for television, he also adapted MR James’ The Ash Tree for the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and contributed to the screenplay for François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451) saw paranormal novelist Gideon Harlax (Shelley‘s Hywel Bennett) involved in an epic battle to save the earth from the Angel of Death (Eldorado‘s Roland Curram) and Danish organist Dr Albrecht Von Drachenfels (Dan O’Herlihy), aided and abetted by his wife, Gwen (Dinah Stabb), an Oxford student (Daniel Day-Lewis, but unrecognisable) and the Angel of Love and Light Helith (Sting, in his first proper acting role).

Now if you’ve made it through that paragraph without inadvertently sniggering once, you’re a stronger and more serious person than I. And if you can make it through the first four minutes of Artemis 81, let alone the whole thing, without doing the same, your Herculian strength of will will become a thing of legend. Follow me after the jump where you can find out more about it and even watch it. All three hours of it. Is that a challenge or what?

Trying to describe Artemis 81‘s plot is somewhat like trying to nail the proverbial jelly to a tree. Possibly the closest reference point I have to it is Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man, in which Malcolm McDowell wanders from basically unlinked situation to situation, at the end of which you’ve experienced all kinds of things but not actually received a single coherent message beyond life is bleak.

Essentially, on a planet far far away (Artemis 81 or that might be the star around which it revolves) live an Angel of Light/Love and an Angel of Dark/Death. With their mum, Magog. Who is also Diana of the Ephesians. And the Greek goddess Artemis. And a rock. Because she’s asleep.

The Angel of Dark wants to cause malice on the Earth and wants to wake up his mum; the Angel of Light doesn’t want that to happen so pleads with her to stay asleep. She doesn’t, she falls to Earth and all sorts of bizarre things happen, largely thanks to Dan O’Herlihy wandering around looking like a mental in a cape.

For about an hour, there appears to be plot progression as writer Gideon Harlax investigates the wandering O’Herlihy and Magog. Then his motor home blows up on the coast of Wales for no adequately explored reason, Sting rescues him in a helicopter and then, after a quick boat trip to Denmark in which Harlax regresses to the womb and Sting acts as surrogate father, they appear to enter some mid-60s Czechoslovakian animation turned live-action nightmare.

After a few references to myth, Vertigo and an attempt by the Liverpool Docks to impersonate a totalitarian hellhole, Harlax returns to the UK – although it might always have been the UK – where he first has to discuss Jungian concepts of myth back in Wales with his now apparently Welsh wife, before having to defeat the Angel of Death and O’Herlihy using the power of music, love and falling from tall buildings.

With me so far? Spiffing.

Now, watching it, if you’re anything like me, you will be trying to stifle laughs and desperate to turn it off practically every minute. I did, many, many times. It’s unfathamable, the dialogue is probably the most unnaturalistic you will hear in your life, the acting is stilted, actions come from nowhere without cause, as do costume changes, all of which are ridiculous, and everything that the writer and director could possibly think of gets thrown in.

By the end of it, you’ll have spent three hours of your life watching something that even the writer admits wasn’t what he wanted and which won’t leave you any the wiser about practically anything, let alone what the whole thing was about. You can entirely understand why the Danes withdrew their funding, and why, if you were the scheduler at the BBC at the time, you’d have stapled all the episodes together to go out as a play in one night – 29th December – to avoid having a three- to six-week ratings black hole to deal with.

So why am I including it as Wednesday’s Play? Why am I defending it?

For a few reasons:

  1. It’s inadvertently incredibly funny in places and you might fancy a laugh
  2. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it and you’ll be able to brag to your friends about it
  3. And this is the most important one – art needs to be experimental and it needs to be able to fail, so that new and better things can be created. It needn’t work on any level beyond the emotional and Artemis 81, while it is complete bobbins, will probably open your mind to what TV is capable of, what it could be capable of – and what it definitely isn’t capable of. It tries to be different, it tries to be imaginative, it tries to be something, which is a whole lot more than most drama, locked to mimesis, does these days.

I’m not saying you’re going to love it. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re going to hate it. But as with even the worst fringe theatre, you need to watch it to support it and to learn from it.

At the very least, try the first four minutes – they’ll take your breath away.

As always, if you liked it, buy it on Amazon.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.