The Cult of… Adam Adamant Lives!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006 by

I’ve been trying to dig up the past. For some reason, Gerald Harper, the star of BBC1′s Adam Adamant Lives! was referred to in my family as “Old Lemonade-Bottle Shoulders”; after a few years nobody could remember why. Nobody can today. And it bothers me..

Especially because that “why” recurred watching the first in a highly-promising BBC4 series of half-hour histories of cult fantasy TV that kicked off with a tribute to the titular hero. And kept on recurring, because just what was it about such an obvious dogs’ dinner of a programme that could inspire memorious devotion? At a recent BFI preview screening of a new Adamant DVD, Juliet Harmer, the series’ jiggle factor and one of the great lost ’60s starlets, was asked how much fan mail she’d received way back when. “Oh, masses – mostly from 14 year old boys,” she admitted. “All of whom are here tonight,” quipped her husband.

No disrespect to the astonishingly well preserved Ms Harmer but if any of those grown-up boy fans went away from the screening of a rather awful old programme with their juices flowing as freely as 40 years ago, they were en route to a secure ward.

This hardworking tribute’s commendable balance of seriousness and dry humour transcended most other retro-clipjoints insofar as it allowed those involved to make a case for their work, and a reasonably good fist they made of it. But, crucially, not quite good enough. Because Harper’s Adam Adamant came across resoundingly as the dud history has always held him to be, and for once we didn’t need the ambassadors of the bleeding obvious (Theakston, Maconie) to tell us why.

For the tinies, a brief recap; in 1902 Edwardian gent, detective and adventurer Adam Adamant is double-crossed by his fiancée, frozen in a block of ice and then dug up in swinging London by cloth-capped labourers, whereupon his travails on adapting to modern mores and morals go hand in hand with his resumption of doing the Right Thing, offing cads and thwarting dastards (as scriptwriter Brian Clemens wryly pointed out, “Just a simple enough storyline”).

There is a suggestion that the absence of almost all sexual chemistry from the programme (Harmer’s character “Georgina Jones” was always Adamant’s platonic friend) was an attempt to gag Mary Whitehouse’s ever-rising gorge with a clean, Sexton Blake-esque hero for the times -although this doubtless didn’t mean that Kleenex didn’t do very well out of adolescent fantasies about Juliet Harmer. As per the look of the show, all the cliché boxes were ticked in short order – predictably Art Nouveau-ish titles and typefaces, given Carnaby Street’s burgeoning obsessions with hyper-stylised turn of the century chic; Harper was a proto-metrosexual, Wyngardesque fop; there’s a Mini; there are discothéques; pop art ensigns and Union Jacks; and a visual language informed by maybe one too many Nouvelle Vague nights and De Sica specials down the Arts Lab.

But the most important thing about Adam Adamant was the elephant in the room called The Avengers.

The genial and personable Harmer, Clemens, Harper and producer Verity Lambert all owned up to the clunking obviousness of the series’ hamfisted and, in retrospect, laughable attempt to trump ABC’s masterpiece. Even an otherwise impartial and unironic script compared the two shows thus: “Edwardian gent teamed with beautiful girl … and Edwardian gent teamed with beautiful girl”. The unspoken tag, of course, was that The Avengers had queered this pitch three years previously.

By this time the narrator had all but given up. The Avengers was “sexier, slicker”, better-funded … which made one wonder why on Earth we were watching a show about a show which was playing against a stacked deck from the start. But it was worth watching, a kind of TV autopsy on a patient who is still alive.

Clemens and Lambert tried to limit the damage, but when one compared the surviving Adamant footage – too few cameras, too much flare, bad stock, shoestring lighting, school-pageant swordplay – with the sleekness of Emma and Steed, one knew the game was pretty much up. To “get” even a fraction of the premise behind Adamant, suspension of disbelief had to be as entire as the leading man’s cryogenic immersion. As Harper said, “Where did Adam learn to drive that Mini?”. We never found out. One could equally have asked, “Where in the name of God did that ridiculous name come from?” No wonder the guy was so good at fighting – in 1902, he must have copped a lot of diss for a handle like that.

Clemens and the ever-enjoyable sci-fi expert and all-round good egg Kim Newman (who seems to be turning into Walter Becker out of Steely Dan) tried another tack; stressing the show’s “weirdness”, but evidence of this – aside of a premise so hair-raisingly daft that for a viewer to assimilate the absurdity of Adamant’s situation per se was to intrude on the drama of an individual episode – we saw few examples save for a flimsy generic grooviness as ultimately empty as The Mod Squad‘s.

Tellingly, the tribute did not flag up a single “classic episode”, because on the evidence here one suspects that there weren’t any. There were, apparently, no storylines of landmark mindfuckery. No “Fall Out”, no “They Keep Killing Steed”. But how else? Production values were feeble, 13 shows assembled in as many weeks, the sort of schedule that would keep Crackerjack going but not a prestige prime-time thriller. Even Harper came close to admitting the self-defeating stupidity of such a situation.

Clemens summoned the “best pop music … fashion … football … in the world” from a lucky-bag of ’60s shibboleths, as though to lend the programme reflected glory simply by the period in which it was made. Actually Adam Adamant came across as a ’60s remnant as cheap and inglorious as the Tracked Hovercraft or Ronan Point.

The jarring and unsettling undercurrent of nauseous paranoia informs all the best British postwar film and TV fantasy (Quatermass, Danger Man, The Prisoner, The Avengers) in which the very stones and mortar of civic normality (government “facilities”, army camps, deer parks, embassies, Ministries) become the loci of the irrational, surreal and downright scary. This is absent from Adam Adamant. There are no megalomaniacs on the London Underground or robotic assassins in chalk quarries on the North Downs. The very fact that a son of luxury and indulgence was reborn into a similarly luxurious and indulgent world of supposed dippiness and discontinuities – all neon and mandrax and Woodbines and kohl and indulgence (where’s the Floyd? Is that Syd there? Or is it Jeff Beck?) – somehow distances him from us, as it must have done four decades past.

Doctor Who could bring aliens to mining communities, what did Adam Adamant ever do to relate his swashbuckling to those gawping at six-inch screens in Mexborough or Abertillery?

Postwar Britons appreciated classic screen fantasy when it promiscuously impinged on their quotidian realities. One of the most chilling sequences in British cinema history opens the Wyndham-derived The Village of the Damned (1960) in which the only indication of lurking horror is a little Bedford coach skew-wiff in a ditch on a grave-silent mist-filled country lane where even birds are holding their breath – and the paralysis that noiselessly fells anyone who strays near. There is a shadow of the unknown and shocking, somewhere … as in the ETA Hoffmann story of the semi-supernatural Scarbo from the Nachtstücke (Night Tales), we are not quite sure of this terror, “how it had got in” to an otherwise ordinary existence, the monster under every child’s bed come uncannily to life.

Similarly, The War Game knew what it was about, using comparable juxtapositions of the everyday (repointed suburban brickwork, school playgrounds) and the unthinkable. Adamant‘s existence in swinging London was anything but ordinary for most Britons. Fantasy, benign or malign, works best when it has a base and earthbound antipode against which to shine.

Adam Adamant Lives! wasn’t a disaster, an abortion, a tragedy, an OTT. It was just rather sad and bad. But no matter; if we do not experience the mistakes of the past, how can we expect to learn from them? And of course, by the end of this series, Mr Harper’s creation could end up looking like a colossus. Because next up come Survivors, Doomwatch, Starcops (erm …), Blake’s 7 (oh dear) and (swallows hard) The Tripods … Gulp. Sell those and you’ll truly be a man, my son.

Angus McIntyre, who both produced and directed this splendid and affectionate attempt at rehab, is to be roundly congratulated; from the most unpromising seam he has unearthed a valuable piece of TV history, a programme of questionable value which nonetheless provokes comment and discussion. Nobody has yet been able to make a series about failed cult comedy shows, for example: Hardwick House, The Continuous Diaries of Ian Breakwell, They Came from Somewhere Else, Nightingales and Big Jim.

In other words, with this disinterment McIntyre has pulled off an intelligent coup for TV archaeology which should spawn imitators and for all those who care or think about the genre, a goldmine. Let the excavations commence.


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