“What Happens When There is no Society”

Graham Kibble-White interviews Adrian Hodges

First published November 2008

On 12 September 2008, OTT met Adrian Hodges, the co-creator of Primeval, to talk about his upcoming remake of Terry Nation’s 1975 series, Survivors (which airs on BBC1, Sunday 23 November, the next episode following on Tuesday 25th)…

OTT: The obvious question, first – what are your memories of the original show?

ADRIAN HODGES: I can very, very clearly recall watching the first episode. And I can remember the impact it had, and the shock that was felt by everybody who saw it. Subsequently, when I became a writer, that was the kind of thing I was always looking to create. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. That’s the way it goes.

OTT: So what was the appeal about remaking it?

ADRIAN HODGES: The thing I love about Survivors, which was true then and is true now (although when you see it, you’ll realise ours is a very different beast to the original) is it gives you a chance to write about every possible kind of human drama in an extraordinary situation. Most of the things we generally write about detail what happens within society, and people’s relationship with society. What’s so great about Survivors, I think, is it’s all about what happens when there is no society, when everything is gone. What people are like when they’re stripped down to their most basic selves.

I knew I wanted to make a show that was a modern as I was capable of producing. Obviously, conceptually the decision was made from the very beginning to update to the present day – and that’s an essential part of what we’re doing. We’re basing it on Terry Nation’s original notion – he didn’t stay involved with the original series for the whole run. And what we’re using as our source material is actually the novel that he subsequently wrote based on that first series.

OTT: Where did the project come from? Was it you?

ADRIAN HODGES: No, the BBC came to me. At that point Primeval had competed its second series. It had been a wonderful experience, I love ‘genre’ and I wanted to do another one, but I wanted to do one that was 9pm, rather than in the family slot. So I told the BBC that was what I wanted, because they’d said to me, “Do you want to do a posh Dickens, or a Jane Austen…?”. Actually, they didn’t quite say that, but they said something like that.

OTT: “Do you want to come and do something for us?”

ADRIAN HODGES: Yes. And I said, “Well, I want to stay in this area. I love doing series and I think that’s where the action is these days.” I wanted to stay in genre as it were. Primeval is one kind of show, but I wanted to do another. They said, “Well, funny you should mention that because we’ve been talking about Survivors with the Terry Nation estate for quite a while, what do you think?”. And I replied, “Where do I sign?”. It wasn’t difficult.

OTT: When they said Survivors, did you immediately know what you’d do with it?

ADRIAN HODGES: No, it was a long process. Although, it was an accelerated process, because it’s still less than a year since we had that first conversation. I always made it clear I didn’t want to do a straight adaptation of the original and just update it, because I didn’t think it would work any more in that form – having just a straight story of the week and losing that serial element didn’t seem right to me in a post-Lost universe. And also, Russell [T Davies] had shown in Doctor Who how deeply you can go into a reinvention of something. So I said, “As long as I can do anything I want to do with it – within reason – and just see where the story takes me, then I’m happy”. They were fine with that. They’re not silly, they didn’t want to do it the same way as the original either, because what would be the point?

OTT: The original series was very bleak about human nature. Is yours more optimistic?

ADRIAN HODGES: Yes, in a word. If you’re dealing with a situation where people are reduced to dealing with the basics of human nature – where they’re going to find food, where they’re going to find water that’s safe to drink, where everyone who they meet is potentially dangerous, where society could become extremely tribal and threatening – yes, you’re going to encounter the bleak side of human nature. But if I believe that’s all there was, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t actually share that view of human nature, but on the other hand I’m not that na├»ve. I know there are bad people out there who would get worse in that situation. And sod’s law dictates that in any mass cull of humanity, an unfair number of that lot would survive. It’s just the way it is. I couldn’t do this unless it had a lot of hope in it. All my work tends to be, I hope, fairly generously spirited, and that’s how I tend to see the group of people in this. But it is about people taken to their extremes, and you will find situations that are horrible and scary.

OTT: What particularly modern day themes have you brought in?

ADRIAN HODGES: The risk of any kind of “issue” is that you’re always just talking about that instead of the drama. To state the obvious, the first thing you’ve got to do is make sure the story works. But, one big difference for example is technology – although theoretically dead, because there’s no power – does play a much bigger role in this series than it does in the original. I’m not going to say how, but there are themes in the serial story. There are ways of making technology work that affects the story telling. So it isn’t a question of going back to the Stone Age over night. Well, it is in some, but not in others. But it’s not a computer-free zone, this series. I think issues of culture, race and sexuality are in their by definition. We live in a society where they’re much more discussed and much more openly debated all the time. It would be ridiculous if a show like this didn’t have those elements in them.

OTT: How did you come up with the mix of characters you’ve chosen?

ADRIAN HODGES: It’s a really difficult question to answer, because they just kind of spring up in your head. Basically, I’ve done three different things. I’ve kept some characters from the original and kept them broadly similar to start with – although they all go in different directions eventually. The second category are people who have the same name, but are in no way similar to the originals – it just seemed handy to keep the name. And the third are completely new. As far as I can recall, and I don’t wish to denigrate the original at all, but there weren’t any black or Asian characters in it. I was very keen to present a different vision of different kinds of people. For example, I get a bit weary of the fact that every time there’s a Muslim on TV, he’s always a terrorist. I just wanted to say, “These guys are Muslims, one of them is actually quite religious, but that’s just what he his. It doesn’t mean he’s not other things too, and it doesn’t mean he’s going to run around blowing himself up.” The rest of it is just something that happens when I was storylining it. I did a very long bible to start with, to show to the BBC the way I was thinking – at the point where they’d commissioned the bible but nothing else, to see if we all thought there was enough in it. We were pretty sure there was, it was just a question of if I could pull it off, really. And although that bible has changed a lot since in the writing, the basic ideas are the same. So it was sort of commissioned on the strength of that 80-page bible.

OTT: Has a lot of research gone into this? Do you have to talk to experts to find out, for example, what happens to untended nuclear reactors?

ADRIAN HODGES: Yeah… we’re sort of sitting on the nuclear thing for the time being! Yes, you do. The weird thing is, some stuff is quite clear cut. And other things, even experts can’t agree on. What appears to be true is water would be finished almost instantly – running water. And, as we saw in the floods last year, water treatment plants would start flooding as they broke. There would therefore be very, very little safe drinking water incredibly quickly. And that much seems definite. I kind of lazily thought, “Oh, it’s okay because you can go and find a fresh spring and get water from that”, but, A) I don’t know where there is any, and B) Actually, even they’re not really safe – if a body falls in somewhere up stream you can get cholera. Suddenly it’s a nightmare, so you stick to the bottled stuff and hope you can find plenty of it.

So some things are clear. Other things are less clear. There was a difference of opinion about communication satellites. The general feeling was they’d carry on quite cheerfully for quite a while, until they needed computer adjustments and lost their orbit, or whatever. I haven’t actually done it in the drama – although I might at some point – but everyone’s dead, you’re having a terrible time, but your GPS is still working, that’s the good news! You can still find your way to Macclesfield! So satellites would still work, and actually that does play a role in the story. If you have the power – the localised power – to generate a certain amount of your own communications technology, it’s still there up in space to use.

OTT: So you can communicate with the rest of the world… assuming they’re listening.

ADRIAN HODGES: That’s the trick. You can send out, but you don’t know if anyone’s receiving. I have to say, that does play a part in the drama.

OTT: The nature of the global disaster is never really explained in the original series, beyond the title sequence. Do you take the same approach?

ADRIAN HODGES: Do you mean the nature of why the virus happened?

OTT: Yeah.

ADRIAN HODGES: I don’t want to say too much about it, because it is part of the story I’m telling – and that’s your answer, really. I think I’m comfortable in saying the back story of the virus does play a part in this.

OTT: So we find out why is happened?

ADRIAN HODGES: Not in this series – I want to keep that going, to be honest. But there is an interaction between what happened and what will happen to the characters in the future.

OTT: How far ahead have you plotted?

ADRIAN HODGES: In the first series we’re no more than a few months down the line. But I’ve got storylines that go to the end of the second series – not in detail, but in ambition. Certainly the fate of two or three of the principle characters; I have a definite thing that I want to happen to them. And then, third series… well that’s a pleasant dream. One thing at a time.

OTT: So what have you thought about sustaining the show? Because in the original, series two and three turned into a bit of a soap opera about farming.

ADRIAN HODGES: I worry about that all the time, to be honest. If we’re lucky and we can take this on to subsequent series, I’ve been thinking about that since the very beginning. I mean, right from the first moment of conceiving how I was going to approach the early material, I was also considering how we can sustain it. One of the big things that is different to the original – there’s one serial element retained from the original: Abby’s search for her son – but in addition to that there are other serial elements that I intend to keep going as long as I can with very strong hooks. I completely understand why the original went the way it did. I’m working very hard not to get caught in that cul-de-sac. Self sufficiency was very prevalent at the time. Survivors was like the dark side of The Good Life. What we’re trying to do in this series is work in those notions of how you survive day-to-day into the general thread of a very exciting story. So rather than make it about how you grow your own crops, you kind of try to work those details into the general thread of the story. But it’s a big challenge. I hope there’s enough material to keep us busy before we have to start worrying about crop rotation.

OTT: Have you given any thought to what the situation would actually be a year on? Two years on?

ADRIAN HODGES: Yeah. I mean, it’s a balance. There are certain things we can do, there’s certain things we can’t. If you take that C4 documentary, Life After Man, there certain things they show us in that which are very hard for us to do. I can’t show a whole city that’s gone back to nature – we just haven’t got the money. Although we can do bits of that. And in any case, that becomes a spectacle, it’s not about the human drama inside it. Our show is more about mapping a convincing progress of how humanity would go into a nosedive, stabilise and then hopefully begin to recover. And to be honest the subsequent series – if we get that far – are very much concerned with what kind of society we would then build and how well we’d do.

OTT: Are you hoping the show is going to do well overseas?

ADRIAN HODGES: Yes. BBC Worldwide are heavily invested in it. One of our objectives is – while never in anyway pretending it’s not British (we haven’t bussed in an American leading man or anything like that) – we want it to have an international look and the feel of an international show. And there’s nothing in that I think it specific to the British experience. We will get those iconic shots of a deserted London, but a lot of those are front-loaded. After the beginning the show we tend to get much more specific about the situation. Because at the end of the day the drama is in the domestic situation. Once you’ve seen an iconic shot of an empty London, you’ve kind of done it. Of course, it would be nice if I could kind of do an I am Legend one day. If we do really well, I’ll do that.

OTT: One of the things people will remember about the original was the title sequence – iconic of the form.

ADRIAN HODGES: It is. It’s a bloody nuisance, actually!

OTT: What route are you taking this time around?

ADRIAN HODGES: The truth is we’re trying to create another iconic title sequence. We’re not using that. The temptation was there, because it’s incredibly brilliant. And I do have to say the first episode of the original Survivors – including the title sequence – is as good a piece of television as you’re likely to see anywhere. It still holds up. And I greatly admire that. I don’t know if Terry Nation was involved in the creation of those titles, but they’re pretty damned brilliant. I was looking at the ones we’ve created yesterday and I’ll carry on looking at them for a while yet. But I hope they create the same effect.