From the first fears at the onset of winter, and nature seeming to die before the eyes, we must have worried about ‘the end of the world as we know it’.
Keeping warm, dry and getting food on the table – and the achievement of that – filled lifetimes. It kept people close to nature, its kindnesses and its cruelties. The elderly generation might make us wonder at how little they expect from life, but they experienced wartime and rationing. There was no such thing as our present day lifestyle options. It was surviving, or it was not surviving.
As a culture we’re becoming more and more de-skilled as the years pass and we’re divorcing ourselves from not just the experience but even the awareness of the tools of survival. (I’d better say here that it goes as read that it is still the daily experience for too many.)
From 1975 to 1977 the BBC broadcast the now cult-status series Survivors, set in the aftermath of a virus which wipes out most of the population.
The hippy movement was fading with its particular type of reconnection with nature; it was also the time of John Seymour and self-sufficiency (and a thread that goes back to William Morris trying to extricate us from the worst of the industrial revolution and Richard Jefferies ploughing a similar furrow).
Alongside the popular image of the seventies is another in which scrubbed pine and oil lamps reappeared after decades of modernism. There was rough Denby stoneware on the table, an almost medieval aesthetic – not ethereal Pre-Raphaelite-isms but a sense of being practical enough to survive beyond power-cuts and oil shortages.
(I never lived in a house like this. It was G-plan and plastic salad drainers.)
Unlike the post-apocalyptic themes in contemporary film which opt for cattle-prod attempts to stir the senses, Survivors was a bleak, detailed exploration of what might happen if the power and technology we rely on disintegrated.
The people that remain return to the countryside, away from the disease and desolation of cities, and the scripts explore the immediate domestic realities – growing food, creating energy, living in small communities and establishing ethics.
The focus of the first series is Abby Grant, played by Carolyn Seymour with all the gravitas and spirit of Glenda Jackson. Abby turns out to be a leader, usually the preserve of the male hero in these situations. I imagine this pushed some boundaries at the time and was a bit too challenging for some – indeed, her character lasted for one series only.
In this scene sourced from Youtube, Abby is just realising she has survived the virus and that things are very different. I think it’s a great piece of TV and the setting of a picture-postcard English village only heightens the sense of desolation (echoing as it does films such as Went the Day Well?). With the vocalisation of her realisation at the end, it’s pitch-perfect.