Doomwatch: revisiting a UK ‘sci-fact’ classic

Ground-breaking, intelligent, prescient 1970s drama Doomwatch, now out on DVD, is a British television classic...

Playing on the public’s fear that ‘this could actually happen’, Doomwatch had a veneer of credibility unusual in the escapist television drama landscape of the late 60s/early 70s. This spring sees the most comprehensive haul of Doomwatch episodes released on DVD for the first time. The nickname for the “Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work”, the series first appeared on BBC1 on Monday 9th February 1970 at 9.40pm. It followed half an hour of comedy from Kenneth Williams, which must have surely heightened its dramatic impact.

The series would run in tandem with the early Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who; the first episode made its debut two days after part two of Doctor Who And The Silurians. The two shows undoubtedly shared a synergy of ideas – not to mention cast and crew. As the decade wore on two other genre staples, the dystopian thriller Survivors (1975-77) and the always intriguing space opera Blake’s 7 (1978-81) would similarly inform the Tom Baker era of Who.

Doomwatch was created by Doctor Who‘s very own scientific advisor, Dr Christopher ‘Kit’ Pedler and its former story editor, Gerry Davis (the two had already given the world the Cybermen) working in conjunction with Producer Terence Dudley, himself later to write and direct Who. Pedler described the series as being part of an emerging genre: ‘Sci-fact’. Unlike science fiction, where one is asked to suspend one’s disbelief, many stories either reflected or anticipated actual events, often playing (very effectively) on the audience’s inherent paranoia. Add to that a healthy dose of horror and hyperbole and it is perhaps easy to understand why Doomwatch was so phenomenally popular in its day.

The series regularly attracted over 12 million viewers, which given its timeslot after the main evening News, was remarkable. In those days the 8.50pm News (later Nine O’Clock News) would often signal an exodus of viewers to ITV and the following programme(s) tended to struggle. Doomwatch was very well promoted, being afforded a Radio Times cover for the launch of each of its three series. This may seem rare by today’s standards, yet in an era where Pertwee’s Doctor Who was similarly well publicised (often to the mutual benefit of the programme and the magazine) the then Radio Times editor, Geoffrey Cannon, clearly believed the series would attract equally healthy sales. Cannon actively encouraged discussion of the show on the listings magazine’s letters page. When a major storyline shook up the department, Doomwatch attracted the Radio Times‘ largest postbag about anything in the post war era.

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Doomwatch revolved around a scientific research department headed by Dr. Spencer Quist, played by sturdy character actor John Paul, a somewhat frustrated middle-aged scientist who was not without insight. He had lost his wife to radiation sickness, possibly as a desperate consequence of his contribution to the development of the atom bomb (for which he later received a Nobel Prize).

A young Robert Powell, in his first major TV role, was newcomer Toby Wren, a tenacious and compassionate researcher. Powell became the show’s heartthrob much to the initial disquiet of the actor, though his subsequent acting career was certainly boosted by this early screen appearance. Simon Oates, often in outrageous attire (even for the flamboyant 70s!) – and often worn as a bet with the crew – portrayed Dr John Ridge. Something of a Casanova, Ridge had a ready quip to combat the (very real) life and death aspect of his work.

Completing the team was the bluff researcher Colin Bradley played with Yorkshire grit by Joby Blanshard and Wendy Hall as secretary Pat Hunnisett, sadly little more than a cypher in so many episodes. To add an extra layer of conflict, the department answer to a ministry man played with a large dollop of bureaucratic relish by John Barron (CJ from The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin) Sadly, all but Powell and Hall are no longer with us. The second series brought new recruits in the form of John Nolan (well known to DoG readers for his role as Fredericks in the Batman franchise) as Geoff Hardcastle and Vivien Sherrard as new secretary, Barbara Mason.

Melting plastic, rats, rabies and death

The series hit the ground running with a tremendous opening episode, The Plastic Eaters. The team is introduced to the viewer as Toby Wren begins his first day assigned to the department. A virus, which was developed to speed up the decomposition of plastic bags in the interest of improving recycling, has somehow leaked out of a research lab. This leads to a genuinely horrifying depiction of a plane brought down after every plastic surface melts away. Co-incidentally, the Doctor Who adventure Spearhead From Space had been broadcast just a month before and also explored the potential of the manipulation of plastic. By 1970 plastic had become a major manufacturing material, gradually replacing bakelite as an alternative to wood and metal. The product’s production and long term future was very much a hot topic as the series hit the airwaves.

Arguably, the best remembered episode of the entire series is Tomorrow, The Rat, which explores the horrifying possibilities of a rat population with a taste for meat. Those familiar with the episode will now have the mental image of Robert Powell frantically beating several rats which are viciously attacking his legs. The Department tackled various intriguing scientific issues: From drug-induced advertising in The Devil’s Sweets to Foot and Mouth disease in Invasion, wherein a whole village is sealed off. A formal inquiry set up in the aftermath of a rabies outbreak is the focus of Robert Holmes’ uncharacteristically downbeat contribution The Inquest. However, it was the explosive finale to the first season that really shocked the show’s many fans. One of the department is lost whilst dismantling a bomb on a seaside pier. The recriminations reverberate throughout the following episode, in which cloning takes centre stage as a scientist has developed a crossbred chicken with a human head.


The third season episode, Sex And Violence was, somewhat ironically, withheld from transmission by the BBC, who were nervous about its content. The episode includes footage from a documentary about an execution in Lagos, and doesn’t hold back screening the moment the shooting occurs and the (very real) deaths in a hail of bullets of several men. Even today such a shocking scene probably wouldn’t be shown in the context of a drama. However, the scene was shown in a 1988 Panorama documentary on the subject of TV violence.

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The other problematic aspect of the episode is the inclusion of three potentially libellous characters: Mrs Catchpole based on Mary Whitehouse (played by Dot Cotton actress June Brown, which unfortunately lessens the impact of the character to modern eyes); Donald Eccles plays Lord Purvis (seen by many to be a take on Lord Longford), and Christopher Chittel appears as a version of clean-living pop star Cliff Richard (here renamed Dick Burn, which in itself is possibly a neat in-joke – not to mention something of an unexpected treat for Father Ted fans!) The episode also features Brian Wilde (later Mr Barraclough in Porridge and Foggy Dewhurst in Last Of The Summer Wine) and Queenie Watts, often cast in formidable cockney matriarch roles.

This episode is included as an extra together with BBC Four’s examination of the series: The Cult Of Doomwatch. Whilst researching the final season episode Waiting For A Knighthood, Terence Dudley had been told by the then Deputy Secretary of State, Eldon Griffiths, that the dangers of lead in petrol had been greatly exaggerated, stating there was in fact “no danger whatsoever”. Hence an episode featuring a Government cover-up about the dangers of lead pollution focusing on a minister, almost willing to say anything in the hope of a knighthood.

Seventies Sexism

John Ridge, played by the late Simon Oates (who in real life had trained in espionage) was the department’s louche lothario. A familiar trope from much early Seventies television, in 2016 his attitude towards women seems cringeworthy at best. Unfortunately the character’s sexism is apparent from the very first scene in the opening episode, in which he not only asks the secretary for a cup of coffee but then attempts to ask her out on a date. This mars an otherwise terrific story.

In The Devil’s Sweets it is the young secretary, Pat Hunnisett, who responds to drug-induced advertising. Ridge, wanting to investigate her brain patterns and true to form, he insults her with “… if there is a brain in there!” Aware of the need to redress the balance, the Production team introduced Dr Fay Chantry, played by Jean Trend from the start of season two. Chantry was a strong, intelligent woman who was devised to be an intellectual equal. However, Chantry was both under-written and under-used. The well-meaning intentions of the Production team, seemingly being marginalised by some of the programme’s more misogynistic attitudes.

Production values

The grammar of TV production has changed considerably over the last 45 years. These days British TV drama – in keeping with that of America – has an inherent cinematic sensibility: handheld single cameras are the industry standard way of filming; cinematography is seen as being equally as important as the tone of a scene and post production treatment of colour and mood lighting are discussed at length. Whereas in the early Seventies television drama was treated more like a theatre play. More often than not, location filming was kept to a minimum and decidedly basic studio-based sets predominated.

Consequently, to those viewing these episodes for the first time, the programmes presented here can seem decidedly slow-paced and wordy. Doomwatch was largely studio bound and videotaped using the multi-camera format, something the BBC abandoned in drama production in the mid-nineties as much of its commissioning moved to independent production houses.

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ITV’s The Bill had pioneered single camera work on British television in 1988 when it went twice weekly and the technique became a fundamental ingredient of the show as a way to put the viewer at the centre of the action and chase sequences. In 1994, the final series of the 20s fashion saga The House Of Eliott was both the last drama to be filmed at BBC TV Centre and the last significant example of multi-camera technique in drama. Nowadays, only soap opera and some situation comedies employ multi-camera format.

Also very noticeable is the much longer scenes (actually more engrossing – if well written and acted) and a distinct lack of incidental music, for the most part. Drama of this vintage placed emphasis on the text – the actors diction and enunciation took precedence over potentially intrusive incidental music. Outdoor scenes are on 16mm film, as was the standard in this era, the resultant disparity can seem uneven to viewers unaccustomed to this method of production, something noted by Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a famous sketch wherein a man in a studio based boardroom, filmed on videotape, sticks his head out of a window and is shocked to discover himself on film. He tells his oblivious colleagues “We are surrounded by film!” in the shocked tones of a horror movie.

Missing episodes

Sadly, like early Doctor Who and many programmes of similar vintage, Doomwatch has several episodes missing from the BBC archives. The DVD release includes 26 extant episodes of the 38 recorded. Only 37 episodes were actually transmitted. 39 episodes were originally planned. The Devil’s Demolition, sometimes referred to as I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, which had been penned by Wolf Rilla, was scrapped during production. One episode that does exist is The Web Of Fear, a title it shares with the recently rediscovered Doctor Who serial.

The Who link continues as Patrick Troughton appears in the following episode, In The Dark, about a man reliant on technology to survive a horrific disease. Indeed, fans of the classic series of Doctor Who will appreciate not only the acting cameo by Troughton but also those of Anthony Ainley, Olaf Pooley, Maurice Roeves and Geoffrey Palmer. Lis Sladen’s contribution to the series is unfortunately lost. Scripts by Robert Holmes, Louis Marks, Brian Hayles and Dennis Spooner and direction by Pennants Roberts and Lennie Mayne, amongst many others add to the fun.


After three successful seasons, Doomwatch ended in August 1972. Behind the scenes, the writers and producer had fallen out. The working relationship had been strained at the best of times. Pedler described Dudley’s treatment of the programme as “a total travesty”. Most of the potential subjects had been explored; there was a consensus the series had lost its way and had become dull. The regulars were often absent from the latter episodes and there was a general lack of cohesion. A feature film was produced in 1972, the TV regulars very much bit part players.

Trevor Eve was the star of a 1999 revival attempt by Channel Five. Doomwatch: Winter Angel, shared little in common with the 70s series yet was a reasonable take on the concept. Sadly, it didn’t lead to a new series. At its peak, Doomwatch was thought-provoking, often shocking but above all intriguing. It had much to say about the state of scientific research and the ecological issues affecting contemporary Britain.

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The series was to be greatly influential on later British television dramas such as The Omega Factor (BBC 1979), a vehicle for Louise Jameson and James Hazeldine. A team called Department 7 investigated the unexplained both scientific and supernatural. The Mad Death (BBC 1983) about the impact of a rabies outbreak, shares the same themes as Doomwatch episodes Invasion and The Inquest. 1997 saw a one-off BBC drama called Breakout, about a virus which had spread from a scientific research establishment. The concept was Doomwatch in all but name. More recent fare such as Spooks, Sea Of Souls and Torchwood owe something of a debt to Doomwatch.

The series was truly ground-breaking, consistently intelligent and often prescient. It has been virtually forgotten, yet it undoubtedly deserves its cult status. For fans of vintage British television drama with an edge, this is potent stuff and is thoroughly recommended.

Doomwatch is released on DVD by Simply Media on 4th April.