As we learnt last year in ‘The Wednesday Play’, the various play and anthology series that the BBC and other broadcasters used to make sometimes led to TV series being commissioned, based on individual plays. Usually, this wasn’t the intention behind making the play in the first place but something that emerged from the play’s popularity. But sometimes broadcasters have gone out of their way to create plays with the potential to become series.
Drama Playhouse was a BBC series launched in 1969 explicitly designed to showcase plays that had the potential to become series: indeed, each play uniquely had both a series title and an episode title when broadcast, despite ostensibly being one-offs. Between 1969 and 1972, over its three seasons each of three episodes, the series did quite well in achieving its aims: season one resulted in the 13-episode spy show Codename, starring The Champions‘ Alexandra Bastedo and Callan‘s Anthony Valentine; season two did even better giving us not only The Regiment and The Befrienders but also the mighty The Onedin Line; and had it not been for a little problem with the Munich Olympics, the final third season might have gone three for three as well. Unfortunately, although the first two plays, Sutherland’s Law and The Venturers, got picked up to series, the final installment, The Incredible Robert Baldick, never made it to a full run.
Given its pedigree, this was a little surprising. The play was written by Terry Nation, the creator of Doctor Who‘s Daleks and frequent contributor to ITC shows including The Avengers and The Persuaders!. When The Persuaders!, for which he was also script editor, didn’t get a second series, Nation returned after a six-year gap to the BBC and pitched his idea for a series: The Incredible Robert Baldick.
Despite being Nation’s work, The Incredible Robert Baldick – Never Come Night is for all intents and purposes a Nigel Kneale play, with its period setting that will turn out to contain future shocks (cf Kneale’s The Road), a brilliant scientist investigating a mysterious buried object that’s causing a haunting (Quatermass and the Pit) and the idea of a house retaining ‘memories’ of incidents and emotions that can be replayed (The Stone Tape, which amazingly wasn’t set to air for another few months). There are also elements of Doctor Who, with Robert Hardy’s polymath know-it-all zooming around the country in his specially built train, The Tsar, solving mysteries with the help of his entourage, including gamekeeper John Rhys Davies. He’s even called ‘Doctor’ by his friends. And the ending? Fascinating, but straight out of Doctor Who.
Indeed, as well as the Munich incident, it’s this ending that may have stopped a series being commissioned. Despite being an obvious attempt to lay down a series arc, its science fiction qualities were so out of keeping with the rest of the play’s more down-to-earth and supernatural tones that many of the audience felt cheated.
All the same, it’s an interesting and sometimes scary piece, and Robert Hardy is mesmerising as the eponymous Baldick – you can imagine what Doctor Who would have been like with him as the Doctor using just this as a template. Enjoy!