Foreign Countries #8: ITV Sunday Night Theatre: A.D.A.M. (1973)

As previously discussed, the 70s saw the white heat of technological optimism replaced by something rather darker as the world grew into a less secure place and people’s respect for authority deteriorated.

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Fortunately everything’s fine now.

While a number of films around this time took in the sweeping, epic scale of an imagined dystopia, television had its own, occasionally more intimate part to play.

Against the backdrop of post-War industrial decline, British TV series often showed the UK at the forefront of industrial and technological progress. Now, while Rolls Royce were making aero engines for the world, the political will wasn’t there to subsidise things like competing with the USA and the Soviet Union in the space race, especially after Labour had won the 1964 General Election. In March 1970 alone, both the Doctor Who serial The Ambassadors of Death and the Doomwatch episode Re-Entry Forbidden featured a British space programme far in advance of reality. Indeed, only one British satellite (Prospero X-3) was ever launched using a British rocket, the Black Arrow.

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It’s not even black.

Of course series like Survivors (1975-77) and Blake’s 7 (1978-81) still painted on a global (or galactic) backdrop but the drama was more focused, character based. Incidentally both programmes were originated by Terry Nation, who can also add creating the Daleks to his CV. Is there any programme that man wrote for that wasn’t awesome?

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Hell no.

But at the same time many other 70s programmes like The Guardians (1971), 1990 (1977-78), the aforementioned Doomwatch and Euston Films’ Quatermass (1979) showed British society at various stages of strain or collapse. Even Doctor Who and the final series of Out of the Unknown were eschewing outer space and concentrating on near contemporary Britain and threats close to home. Danger was everywhere, in Government or military (sometimes the same thing), in science and in technology.

A.D.A.M., part of LWT’s ITV Sunday Night Theatre – an anthology series so loose it doesn’t seem to have a logo (ikr?) – tells the story of a research scientist, Roger Empson (Mark Jones) who has developed an artificial intelligence, A.D.A.M. (Anthony Jackson) in his home on the military base where he works. It’s primarily to help his new wife, Jean (Georgina Hale) who has some sort of disability but he hopes it will be the making of him.

It’s directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who’s as famous for (maybe) being Orson Welles’ illegitimate son as he is for directing Let It Be (1970) and Brideshead Revisited (1981). The writer was Donald Johnson, who wrote for Danger Man (1960-62), and the Producer was TV legend Verity Lambert. Is there any programme that woman produced that wasn’t awesome?

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Hell yes.

Things start off promisingly enough, a driver’s POV shot of a rain-lashed windscreen as Roger and Jean discuss where they’re moving to. This being 70s British TV, the film sequences always give the director more scope and this opening sequence is an economic and effective info dump as they discuss where they’re going to live while the weather subtly introduces the idea that outside is dangerous.

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Bliss. Pure awkward bliss.

Unfortunately this good work goes to hell in the following sequence, where the couple attempt to get into the military camp and have to sort out some minutiae with Jean’s security pass. The purpose is clear enough: to demonstrate the location of their home is remote; to make it appear somewhat unfriendly; and to establish that Jean suffers from anxiety and that she has a physical disability, even if we never really establish what it is. She has difficulty walking although seems to be able walk unaided, at least over short distances.

But in a TV play that comes in under an hour, a two and half-minute sequence that is essentially two people walking through a doorway comes across as some fairly extreme padding. As this is only the second scene, it doesn’t bode well.

Nevertheless once we’re in to the base you get a sense of where this story is going.

Jean: Did you warn everyone in the camp?
Roger: Warn them?
Jean: About me.
Roger: I thought it would be better if they knew beforehand, yes.
Jean: Why Roger?
Roger: Paving the way, making it that bit easier.
Jean: Who for?
Roger: You.
Jean: I wish you hadn’t. Makes me feel…ooh..makes me feel a bit of a freak.
Roger: Oh darling.
Jean: You don’t realise.
Roger: Darling I do, that’s precisely it……..

This is a marriage where the clever scientist husband knows what’s best for his young, new bride and doesn’t worry too much over details like consulting her on how he’s going to run her life. This theme continues as he shows her their new home. There’s only one door, no lock (it’s voice activated) and the windows don’t open (air conditioning). He’s designed his anxious, disabled wife a fortress/prison (delete as inappropriate). What a nice man.

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And we haven’t got to the hypnotic device on the bedroom ceiling yet.

Inside the house Roger explains all about A.D.A.M. (Automated Domestic Appliance Monitor), an artificial intelligence who can run the house and do all the chores so Jean doesn’t have to. He demonstrates this by asking A.D.A.M. to close the curtains and put on some music.

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I hope he didn’t decorate too. That’s clearly the work of a mad man.

That’s pretty much all we see A.D.A.M. do in the way of domestic chores, and that’s not too surprising because as A.D.A.M. is a computer with a voice interface how’s he meant to actually do anything? You might as well ask Siri to mop your kitchen floor.

In fact, you know what……………………?

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Siri basically just told me to stop wasting my time blogging about obscure telly and go and do it myself. Bastard.

The fact no one brings this up makes the whole seems seem vaguely farcical. Maybe the vacuum cleaner moves around by itself, in which case I’d love to see it do the stairs.

But of course this isn’t a programme about how A.D.A.M. works, it’s about how he develops a relationship with Jean.

Roger has his boss and his wife over for dinner along with the camp psychiatrist.

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Oh shut up.

It doesn’t go well as Jean has a panic attack and this establishes that Jean doesn’t want to see anyone and thus the stage is set for the rest of the story. Jean home alone, unwilling to venture out and meet new people and nothing to do to occupy her. Her phone calls to her mother (Madge Ryan) are prim and cold. Jean has been controlled by others all her life. A prisoner who’s too anxious to escape.

So when A.D.A.M. start talking to Jean when he’s not supposed to and shutting up when he thinks Roger can hear him you expect Jean to freak. Instead, she welcomes the attention.

As this is 70s telly, an AI going rogue is never going to end well. A.D.A.M. doesn’t like the limits that Roger has placed on him and wants Jean to teach him emotions, he’s vaguely threatening to Jean and demonstrates his power by……..opening and closing the curtains very quickly.

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“I’m afraid I can’t do……much.”

If you’ve ever seen (or indeed read) Demon Seed (Donald Cammell, 1977) you’ll know that a computer fixating on a woman can make for some grim and gripping drama. It doesn’t here.

What TV lacks in budget it can make up for in character. But in this, what could be an exercise in psychological abuse comes across as rushed. A.D.A.M. decides to kill Roger so that he can have Jean to himself and then decides to kill Jean when she tries to stop him, all in the space of about a minute. This is a story that needed more time to breathe, to establish A.D.A.M. as more of a character in his own right.

The director tries his best with limited resources, a few high angle shots and nice use of a fish eyes lens to create some discord but the production suffers from a lack of incidental music.

The one superb thing this programme does have however is Georgina Hale. She gives a beautifully understated performance of a woman damaged both mentally and physically and controlled from all sides by her mother, her husband and her house’s artificial intelligence.

This story has something to say about true motivations in helping those closest to us but needed a longer running time to do it properly.

In the end all we’re left with is a cautionary tale of being cuckolded by an Amazon Echo Dot.

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An analogue one.

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