The legacy of Adam Adamant Lives!

Feature Philip Tibbetts 2 Sep 2013 - 07:00

Philip looks back at BBC series Adam Adamant Lives!, from the creators of Doctor Who, and asks what legacy it left in its stead...

“So clever... but oh, so vulnerable.” 

In 1965 the creators of Doctor Who, Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, moved on to develop the next big thing for the BBC. Adam Adamant Lives! would be developed, in part, as a response to one of the Time Lord’s greatest opponents – Mary Helen Lovejoy Whitehouse.

To address Whitehouse’s criticisms about the decline of moral standards in TV, Sydney Newman imagined a series with a Victorian or Edwardian hero whose ethics could be contrasted with those of the swinging sixties. As legend has it, Newman was staring out of his office window at building works when he imagined the workmen unearthing a long lost hero (similar but surely preferable to the racist spaceship of Quatermass and the Pit).

After looking into Victorian and Edwardian literary heroes, Newman was keen for the unearthed protagonist to be Sexton Blake; who can be described as being akin to Sherlock Holmes but a little more inclined towards direct action. However, the rights to the character would not be given to the BBC, partially due to the treatment that was being proposed that would not be compatible to the Sexton Blake adventures that were then being published. As it transpired, Blake would not have to wait long for his shot on the silver screen with an ITV production in 1967.

As a result of losing out on using the Sexton Blake character, it was decided to continue with the same treatment but rename the character. Many different names were proposed, considered and even used in pre-production until late in the day Adam Adamant arrived. The name Adamant was inspired by the mediaeval term for a diamond or hard-as-diamond substance – which comic book geeks may recognise from the metal Adamantium in the Marvel Universe. Perhaps one day, in a fictional universe far, far away we may get to see a fight between Adam Adamant and the Wolverine?

In line with Sydney Newman’s original vision, Adam Adamant was an Edwardian man revived following building works that uncovered his long lost body entombed in ice. He had been placed there in 1902 by his traitorous paramour Louise and the dastardly super-villain The Face following Adam’s thwarting of evil schemes for King and Country. Once revived, Adam re-establishes his swash-buckling work in a changed world; taking on gangsters, spies and even The Face (who has also mysteriously managed to survive the decades).

Adam Adamant launched in 1966 with Gerald Harper was cast as the titular hero, who certainly cuts a magnificent dash due in no small part to his elegant dress sense and handsome looks (indeed he has a passing resemblance to David Tennant in some scenes). Aiding him in his battle with crime are contemporary sixties tomboy Georgina Jones, played by Juliet Harmer, and dry butler Simms, played by Jack May.

The show had a run of two seasons, including some episodes directed by a young Ridley Scott, it only just missed being renewed for the third season and then disappeared from the airwaves. The show has left a reputation with critics and even its own makers as a near-miss.

A large part of this can be seen in the difficulty that the makers had in finding suitable scripts. It was intended that the conflict between the modern world and the Edwardian hero should be balanced, but finding such a balance proved to be hard. Despite the occasional zinging quote, the show ended up using this central premise as little more than a superficial level of camp rather than being something to drive the plot. By missing this opportunity the potential of the show was largely unfilled and instead the gulf between the eras looks to be shallow and of little consequence.

This inability to quite get the balance and tone of the series affects the main character too. This is most notable when Adamant’s ruthless streak was ordered to be toned down in the second series, further reducing the distinguishing features of Adam as an Edwardian adventurer beyond the purely cosmetic. This works against the show as Adam looks so very out of place but never really feels that different. Interestingly care was taken by The Avengers production team to make sure that Steed appeared as rarely as possibly with ‘normal’ people because he was too odd to be considered realistic. Over at the BBC, the production team wanted Adamant to stick out, but the hollowness of his Edwardian characterisation only heightens the problematic realisation of the series' central concept.

This skin-deep Edwardian/Victorian characterisation may actually provide us the clue as to why the concept and series itself were a near-miss. For one, Adamant’s amazing naivety around women for the most part is rather in contrast with what has come to light about the underbelly of nineteenth century morality. Instead, what we are seeing portrayed in Adam Adamant is a rather sixties caricature of what an Edwardian adventurer was the thought to be like. This failings caused by the rose-tinted view of the Edwardian hero probably makes Adam Adamant Lives! one of Mary Whitehouse’s more indirect but highest profile victims. This leaves us to only imagine how things could have been if the show had not pandered to overly-simplistic and overly-nostalgic views.

Despite the series' failure to effectively realise and utilise the central premise of the show; does Adam Adamant constitute a complete miss?

It is often pointed out that not only did Adam Adamant spectacularly fail to live up to its intention to take on the might of ITVs The Avengers but that it did so whilst clearly emulating some of the elements of its rival: the old-fashioned male lead, the achingly contemporary female lead and setting etc. This has lead Adam Adamant Lives! to largely be forgotten as simply a rip-off.

It certainly can’t be denied that there is some truth in this accusation – indeed, after initial denials by the Adam Adamant Lives! production team they have since gone on record acknowledging that the series was meant to be a sort of cross between Doctor Who and The Avengers. Furthermore, there are a number of other film and television influences that can be seen creeping into the mix, most predominantly being James Bond with the Shirley Bassey-esque theme song. In the first episode, Adam Adamant even bumps into a woman who is clearly reading a magazine about the famous secret service agent. A number of the individual storylines, the enigmatic villain The Face and even the frozen-in-ice back story also seem to indicate some pulpy roots for the show as well.

But whilst so many of the elements of Adam Adamant Lives! feel familiar, their combination here creates a highly original infusion and should be celebrated as such. Adam can maybe be seen in the light of being one of the first televised ‘lost in time’ characters and as such would include a legacy as ranging from the obscure (Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century) to the obvious (Austin Powers). The character of the Third Doctor is often described as being influence by the dashing Edwardian look of Adam Adamant and it may be no coincidence that both characters have a hospital escape sequence in their opening stories. When you consider that when Adam Adamant Lives! was developed, the First Doctor had yet to regenerate, which could make Adam a sort of hidden early Doctor – if you can imagine such a thing occurring! So whilst Adam Adamant was a victim of Mary Whitehouse he was also, and more fittingly, the final gift to Doctor Who by Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert.

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