John Wyndham: The Invisible Man Of Science Fiction, BBC4

by | Oct 15, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it

A worthy endeavour, looking into the deep, craggy landscape of the persona of one of Britain’s most august authors.

What to say if you didn’t like it

A documentary that proved that the socially inept should be rounded up and interred in an underground vault full of unpublished sci-fi manuscripts to prevent spreading their nerdy genes on to future generations.

What was good about it?

• Chris Langham again showed his versatility as the doleful writer John Wyndham as he frantically tapped out hundreds of futile stories about space aliens until he struck gold, at the age of 48, when he dreamt up a fantasy about huge carnivorous plants that take over the world when much of the populace are struck blind by a dazzling meteorite shower. Langham had a good weekend; he also shone as a washed-up northern teacher on Bremner, Bird & Fortune

• Wyndham saying how he was inspired to write The Day Of The Triffids when on a lonely, nocturnal country walk the trees loomed above him as though about to strike at him. The idea of man-eating plants was derived from his interest in a novel, and some said fraudulent, Soviet boffin called Lysenko who claimed to be able to concoct all manner of hybrid plants.

• And many of his subsequent works also extrapolated contemporary themes to their absolute extreme. The Kraken Wakes was about aliens who flooded the world by melting the ice caps and related to the terrible floods of the 50s; The Chrysalids dealt with a sub-species of humanity mutated by nuclear bombs and harked back to the subjugation of Japan in 1945; while The Midwitch Cuckoos told the cautionary tale of how every fertile woman in a quaint English village was impregnated by aliens and who sired a telepathic race of blond, gold-eyed psychopaths, which related to surrogate motherhood.

• Clips from the 30s TV serial of Flash Gordon which brought back memories of those long summer holidays where you didn’t need to get out of bed until 10am until Flash Gordon, King of the Rocket Men, Agaton Sax or Champion The Wonder Horse had finished. But not Silas, Silas was rubbish especially when your mates used to kick you in the shins to force you into an impression of Silas’s sidekick Goddick the Lame. And it was badly dubbed.

• Wyndham quit his job in advertising because he refused to spend his life “concocting lies”.

• The sparse dramatisations of The Midwitch Cuckoos filled with teenagers with mad-staring golden eyes, and The Trouble With Lichen.

• The tourists being taken around the village of Midhurst, presumed to be Midwitch, were so typical of a bunch of mundane sightseers it was reassuring among the fantastical fictional world of Wyndham. As they shuffled around the town, the old men had on those buttoned shirts which overhang flatteringly over their bloated bellies, while the veins on their legs looked like scaffolding.

• Despite the wealth he found as a writer, Wyndham lived in a bedsit until his later life.

What was bad about it?

• As with many documentaries about intellectual icons, many of the contributors seemed to insist on sitting with their bookcases overflowing with copious emblems of the erudition spilling from the shelves.

• The Day of the Triffids was accompanied by the hugely inferior Hollywood version, in which Howard Keel bestrode the stricken streets of Britain like a granite headstone of walking testosterone while his overtly masculine enunciation was as ineffective and inappropriate as an epitaph composed in txtspk.

• Sam Youd remarked how Wyndham said little, but was a “good listener”. While being a “good listener” is an admirable trait, it is more often than not the preserve of the interminably dull and they only listen well because they then expect you to listen to their anecdotes and opinions that no other has the mental constitution to withstand.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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