Sunday 24 September 2017

Z for Zachariah

Hands up who loves a bit of alone time! That's right, everyone on this busy, congested celestial body comprised of land, water and incessant "HAVE YOU BEEN IN AN ACCIDENT?!" phone calls has to get away from it all every now and then. However, if humans had always been purely solitary souls then we wouldn't even have the option to now pick up a call from Accidents4UDirect. Our ability to socialise and build bonds with one another has allowed us to pool resources like no other organism on Earth and deliver remarkable achievements.

And one of these 'achievements' is the development of nuclear weapons. Much more harrowing than any cold call from an industrial estate in Grimsby - where they seem genuinely thrilled if you've so much as received a papercut at work - nuclear weapons have the power to, amongst all manner of horrors, break down every single social bond ever developed by man. It's not implausible that, were a nuclear attack to unfold, many of the 'lucky' survivors would find themselves relegated to the position of social refugees.

Alone time, for those solitary survivors, would soon become an inescapable hell set in a futile landscape. Jean-Paul Sartre, however, in his play 'No Exit' wrote that "Hell is other people" and, when you take a look at Z for Zachariah, you'll be left thinking that maybe the French polymath had a point.

Genre: Drama
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 28/02/1984

16 year old Ann Burden (Pippa Hinchley) lives in a remote, idyllic Welsh valley which, due to a meteorological quirk, has a weather system all of its own. And, by a stroke of luck, it's this geological oddity which has protected the valley from the after-effects - namely fallout - of a nuclear attack on the UK. Ann's father (David Daker), finding nothing but dead residents and wildlife in neighbouring villages, mounts an expedition further afield with their surviving neighbours and advises Ann to stay put and keep an eye on their farm.

However, Ann's father (and the rest of her family) never return, leaving Ann as the sole survivor (aside from her dog, Faro) in the valley. Tending to the farm as best she can, Ann carves out a solitary existence against the rolling hillsides and makes sure she avoids the one stream which has been irradiated, a conclusion she comes to due to the presence of dead fish (and a sheep) littering its flow. After some time, Ann spies a mysterious tent set up at the edge of the valley. Fearing the stranger within, Ann beats a hasty retreat up to a cave on the hillside to keep a distant watch.

Emerging from the tent is a figure clad in a radiation suit and pulling a trolley of scientific instruments behind him. After heading to the farm and carrying out a number of atmospheric checks, the figure decides that all is safe and removes the helmet of his radiation suit to reveal that he is John Loomis (Anthony Andrews). Overjoyed that he has found safe, inhabitable surroundings, Loomis fails to complete his environmental checks thoroughly and dives into the radioactive stream for a quick scrub.

Ann remains holed up in the cave in amongst her charcoal drawings and supplies, but Loomis soon becomes aware that he's not alone when Faro runs back to the farm for a quick spot of chicken before retreating back towards Ann's cave. Before Loomis has time to thoroughly explore the landscape, the radioactive effects of bathing in the stream begin to kick in and he's soon vomiting violently. Heading back to his tent in order to seek some form of protection from this mysterious source of radiation, Loomis is soon a shivering wreck; it's at this point that Ann finally decides to approach and offer help.

Upon learning that the stream he bathed in is radioactive, Loomis is distraught at his mistake but estimates that there's a small chance he may pull through due to a relatively short exposure time. During moments of relative clarity, Loomis reveals more of his background to Ann and the events following the war.

Nerve gas was deployed after the nuclear bombs to finish off any survivors, but Loomis' inexplicable survival is down to the radiation suit he possesses. A plastics researcher in Cambridge, Loomis was working on a special government financed project to develop polymers which could repel radiation. With the addition of sophisticated filters, the team was able to develop this into a radiation suit. Before the suit could go into production, however, war broke out with only a single prototype available. And it's this prototype which helped protect Loomis and keep him protected from contamination.

Loomis' health gradually deteriorates as anaemia kicks in and his mental health rapidly disintegrates with wild flashblacks to his time in Cambridge. Brought back to the farmhouse for Ann to look after him, Loomis seems wildly haunted by memories of his research colleague, Edward - at one point Loomis becomes convinced Edward is in the house and starts firing shots at the building. Keen to advise Ann on the best way to run the farm and produce crops, Loomis begins issuing orders which become increasingly aggressive.

Loomis slowly begins to recover, but his determination to take charge of the farm and Ann intensifies. Fearing for her safety after Loomis bursts into her bedroom one night and grabs wildly at her, Ann leaves the farmhouse and retreats to the cave on the hillside. Returning to the farmhouse to advise Loomis she has no choice but to form an uneasy alliance with him, Ann agrees to work alongside him, but live separately. Loomis dismisses her as immature and gradually shuts off her supplies which leads to a final, climatic showdown between the pair where Ann reveals that she knows the truth about Edward and what their future holds.

Dropping the Bomb

An adaptation of Robert C. O'Brien's posthumous 1974 novel of the same name (albeit with the US swapped for Wales), Z for Zachariah aired under the Play for Today banner during the long running anthology's final year. The screenplay was adapted by Anthony Garner who was most commonly found in the director's chair and would later go on to direct episodes of Auf Wiedersehein, Pet and Soldier, Soldier. And, just for good measure, Garner directed his own script with Neil Zeiger acting as producer - Zeiger, of course, also acted as producer on several episodes of spin off anthology series Play for Tomorrow.

Z for Zachariah received just one airing in February 1984 on a Tuesday evening at 9.35pm with the play running to just under two hours. Although no repeats were forthcoming, the play received constant exposure to a generation of British schoolchildren as O'Brien's novel formed part of the curriculum at the time, so teachers were keen to plonk pupils down in front of this for two hours of additional learning - most of the pupils who watched the play at school recall feeling depressed by the narrative, but tickled pink by the sudden bursts of nudity.

On a Hillside Desolate

The early to mid 1980s experienced somewhat of a boom in post-apocalyptic nuclear fiction what with Threads terrifying a nation, When the Wind Blows breaking everyone's hearts and Testament providing an American take on such unimaginable atrocities. And nestled away in there lies the BBC's adaptation of Z for Zachariah, a play which, to be honest, I hadn't even heard of despite my love of depressingly bleak nuclear tales and Hollywood's recent attempt at translating Robert C. O'Brien's prose into a visual affair.

As with all retro television, though, Z for Zachariah eventually came into the crosshairs of my curious target. Although a rip of the original 1984 broadcast has managed to survive the years and make it online, it's a below average rip and lacks any real sharpness. It's watchable enough on a computer screen, but I hope to dear God that a better version turns up one day - BBC, please take note that a complete Play for Today box set is somewhat of an essential despite the commercial suicide of it for yourselves, ta!

Anyway, the murkyness of the picture actually complements the feel of the play, so I guess it's not entirely negative. And what a murky, uncomfortable atmosphere Z for Zachariah produces. Sure, it's not as starkly harrowing as Threads (but what is?) and the tear jerking, tragic Britishness of When the Wind Blows is a million miles away, but the displacement of humanity from any sense of social or moral structure is laid bare.

Shielded from the disturbing realities of what's been happening outside of the valley, Ann doesn't quite bear the mental scars of death and destruction, but she still has to suffer the complete loss of her family. Her eventual acceptance that they aren't returning manifests itself nicely in one scene where Ann heads to the bathroom to collect up her family's toothbrushes and bins them with, crucially, a bunch of flowers which have withered and died. Thanks to the ecosystem of the valley, life goes on as normal as it can with Ann having to help deliver calves and tend to crops.

Loomis' appearance suddenly shatters the fragile take on normality that Ann is clinging on to and the radiation suit clad figure that treks down to the farm is a terrifying sight. A sanitised, faceless harbinger of goodness knows what, Loomis is, at first, a disturbing indicator of the new world. Removing his helmet, though, adds some humanity and his naked, joyous form splashing about in the stream hints at the hardships he's endured to celebrate such a basic act. This celebration at his apparent sanctity, however, is soon soured and sends Z for Zachariah into an even more disturbing place.

Again, unlike Threads or the graphic realities of QED: A Guide to Armageddon, the effects of radiation sickness shown in Z for Zachariah aren't quite as disturbing as those seen in other on-screen depictions of nuclear war, but Loomis suffers a relatively small dose and the need for bleeding orifices isn't necessarily essential here. Nonetheless, at the time, Anthony Andrews commented in the Radio Times that it took up to four hours in makeup to become a convincing victim and he certainly doesn't look too chipper with the accompanying hairloss and sore filled face.

Loomis' mental decline also drives Z for Zachariah and marks it out as much more of a psychological thriller than its peers. On his arrival at the farm, Loomis is a softly spoken, charming chap who is grateful to receive Ann's care and seems genuinely moved by the simple pleasure of hearing Ann play the piano. However, given the hell he describes of unfolding in Cambridge as nuclear weapons and nerve gas were deployed, it's no surprise that he appears to be suffering some form of post traumatic stress. And his mental state is eroded further by the effects of radiation sickness.

As a result, Loomis is set up as being, on the surface, a megalomaniac hellbent on controlling the valley and Ann. However, it's a mindset shaped by his surroundings and, instead, I believe Loomis is meant to represent the disturbing side effects of science's advances. And this plays in nicely with the striking dichotomny of Ann's simpler, more natural outlook on life, a purity which, ultimately, helps her to prevail without the need for tinkering with the elements of her environment too much.

Ann's 'victory' however has that feeling of being very short term though. Loomis initial musings about a colony represent the best choice of survival and his determination to rotate crops effectively represents the future. Hell isn't necessarily other people in the Z for Zachariah universe and, instead, co-existence appears to be the way forwards, but it's an existence which needs to be carefully measured. Loomis, perhaps, wants to get the country back to a level where science can once more be harnessed and this could be highly reductive given the situation it has led to.

It's all hypothetical, of course, but there are so many themes writhing around in Z for Zachariah that its purely down to the viewer to interpret.

What can't be argued about, though, is the ability of the two leads. Pippa Hinchley has a precocious talent and embodies the naive purity of Ann with a talented ease whilst Anthony Andrews shows his obvious talents with a multilayered performance which visits almost every aspect of the human psyche. And, although the play is long, Z for Zachariah never really feels as though it's outstaying its welcome despite comprising just two actors who often embark on long, dialogue free solo scenes.

Although not as iconic as other post-apocalyptic slices of fiction, Z for Zachariah provides plenty of debate and represents an intriguing branch of the genre.


  1. Thanks for this great review. I have just read the novel for the first time, and bits of it jogged my memory that I had seen it on TV many years ago. I searched YouTube and elsewhere for the programme, and Dailymotion has the first hour of it, but seemingly not the second half - ?! I see that a film version was made in 2015, and they added a new character in which must surely defeat the object of the original novel. Thanks again for a thought-provoking review.

  2. Fabulous review thank you!