So, you can’t quite imagine yourself venturing off to see this British low budget mystery thriller called Doomwatch? Well, why not let the Wolfman take you on a spoiler-filled journey instead. It’s generally me having a giggle at the film’s expense, I’m afraid. Having said that, I will quickly add, it is actually a pretty good story. It’s just surrounded by pure crazy!
Tagline – An ecological nightmare gone berserk!
Doomwatch was the pen name for a top-secret British government research organisation that went under the grand title of Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work. Led by Jon Pertwee’s twin brother from another mother, Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), he and his team of scientists would research various ecological and technological dangers. Most would feature strange and mysterious unexplained phenomena. However, mostly the cases would be triggered by some underlying truth, ecological disasters often having a helping hand from man-made sources, i.e., pollution and the dumping of chemical waste.
Dr Spencer Quist’s Doomwatch crew consisted of Tobias Wren (Robert Powell), Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend), Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) and action man, stud-muffin, Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates). The series spawned a film version spin-off. Robert Powell was way too godly for this mere low budget movie shenanigans. Destined to be Jesus of Nazareth, he’d have his work cut-out preparing loaves and fishes. The other change to the dynamic was Dr John Ridge, the action man usually sent out into the field. He was the face, the tough guy. Poor John was about to be side-lined for this film and replaced by an imposter! A newcomer to the Doomwatch squad had been recruited in the form of Dr Del Shaw (Ian Bannen).
Truth be told, Dr John Ridge had his position downgraded as a result of an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction. John loved wearing the most flamboyant attire. Funky kipper ties were his thing. He idolised the dashing Jason King (Peter Wyngarde) over at Department S. One fateful day, John had picked out his most daring patterned flared tie and proudly strolled into work. Two hours later the whole of Doomwatch was on lockdown. It turns out John’s tie had flipped under his microscope and took him on a technicolour acid trip. Seeing John collapse to the floor, Dr Spencer rushed over to look for himself. Twitching and foaming at the mouth, Dr Spencer just manages to hit the bio-hazard containment button forcing the research facility into total lockdown. Yes, they laugh about it now, but poor Dr John was punished by having to play second fiddle to Dr Del Shaw and worse, now only being allowed to wear outlandish cravats to work. He was devastated.
Tagline – A NEW TERROR! More frightening than ever on the big screen!
With that over dramatic tagline and the news of a recent tanker oil spill off the west coast of England, Doomwatch enlist their top man for the job, the ecological scientist Dr Del Shaw, instructed to investigate the damaging effects the disaster will have on the local wildlife. Destination, the Island of Balfe. Just one night’s stay was needed. “Pack light Del” Dr Quist probably instructed. “Will do” replies our Del Shaw as he starts filling his suitcase with a variety of different knitted hats and caps. “Well, you never know” he smiles to himself. “They are such fetchingly beautiful, knitted hats.“
The Island of Balfe was actually connected to the mainland however the only easy way to reach the small village was by boat. Del Shaw arrives with the floating postman. A weathered cigar chomping old sea dog. Confused by why this mainlander would wish to visit the village? “They’re a funny old bunch be warned!” Del Shaw jumps from the small vessel and is met by a stern, sour faced lady. Del Shaw gasps as if he had seen a ghost! “I thought you were barbecue? You look just like…” he scratches his head. “Aunt Beru from Star Wars!” She looked at him bewildered, shaking her head. “Betty Straker (Shelagh Fraser) is the name. I’m the local shopkeeper and you can’t stay here, you’re not welcome.” Unbeknownst to Del Shaw was Betty’s husband, Tom Straker (Michael Brennan), who was locked up in the room above the shop. Hidden from daylight, from the world, feeling strangely ill, an unknown, unseen illness. Something didn’t feel right! A sense of unusual eeriness filled the air of the room. You could hear it in Tom’s voice and see it etched on his wife’s face.
There was nowhere for Del Shaw to stay. Every corner he took was met with glaring eyes and unfriendly words. He wasn’t welcome. Some of the locals were hostile, others just plain weird. “All I want is a place to stay and collect gulls eggs to do experiments on!” he shouts. Del Shaw might be a doctor but his bedside manner consists of forever shouting and turnstile mood swings. OK, he might have good reason. This lot aren’t the friendliest bunch. It wouldn’t be all that bad with the stares and strange oversized forehead frowns. He’d swap it for what would come! His mind flicks back to that other island of weird folk, the island of Summerisle. Hopefully he wouldn’t end up the ash of a giant made of sticks like that guy with too many woods in his name. These villagers had that same odd vibe. Somehow, they would try to break him, throw stones at him, beat him over the head with clubs, even ramming a shotgun in his face. If that wasn’t enough, he even fist fights a psychotic, rampaging canine. “There’s only one thing for it?…” He cheers himself up with a new hat change.
So, it’s no wonder our Del was grumpy. He’s soon cheered up by the lucky find of a landlady willing to line her pockets with the stink of outsider money. In turn it gives him the chance to unleash his flirting skills with another staying guest, schoolteacher Victoria Brown (Judy Geeson). Del welcomes himself into her hotel bedroom and waffles about his troubles. Victoria eventually reveals that she’s still considered an outsider. Even after living and teaching in the village for two years. Victoria can’t understand it. She is by far the cutest and most adorable girl on the island but no man seems the least bit interested in her. Little does she know why? Del tells her about his hat collection. She smiles with a vacant look.
The morning brings work. He has those gull eggs to collect and experiment on. Reporting to HQ on the only telephone in the village, the locals get twitchy. “He’s sure to be gone soon?” they whisper. His boss, Dr Spencer Quist, instructs him to investigate a top secret Military quarantined zone off the coast. Cut to Del and Victoria skimming the ocean waves with a jolly looking young mainlander fisherman. Three head towards the out of bounds area as the fisherman proceeds to bring on board a giant fish? “Bloody hell man! Look at the size of that!” Del shrieks, bringing out his inner Scot. Del’s scientific mind starts to turn. Is that in fact a mutant fish? Could that be radioactive or chemical waste down in that cordoned off zone? There was only one thing for it. No, not another hat change, though it did cross his mind. No, it was now time to let loose the Doomwatch secret weapon. The flamboyant, caged up, superman Dr John Ridge. He turns to the camera and pouts “I might look all fancy but I’m not just here for window dressing!” Squeezing into his wet suit, he dives off the back of the boat. Deep sea diving within the barrels of dumped bio waste, he records his findings.
A small interval break – Time to jump out from the movie for a little sad reflection on a Hollywood great. Whilst Dr Del visits the local Naval base on his investigation he meets Admiral, Sir Geoffrey (George Sanders). It’s always a joy to see George Sanders on the screen. Known for the countless villains, cads and posh sounding scoundrels, his voice so instantly recognisable with those purring, beautiful, dulcet tones of his. Instantly you are in the presence of that dastardly tiger, Shere Khan. A veteran of many decades of films. It’s bittersweet to see him here. Still commanding his usual posture and poise, however, deep down, you realise he is visually weaker. It was upsetting to learn this would be one of the last performances from his incredible acting career. With waning health issues mounting up against him, he decided to go out on his own terms. Taking his own life in the same year Doomwatch was released… OK, that has made this tale rather sad! I will quickly wrap up the rest of the film in its final madness to cheer things up.
You ready for it? Many of the angry locals are hidden from sight. The reason is they have a physical deformity. They had become a sort of rage potato! Spud headed with thick skins and sloping brows. Random bouts of aggression make them hulk out, smashing through doors and jumping headfirst through windows. There’s an announcement that Dr Del has cracked the case and will be giving a presentation at the village hall. The potato army gather to sort this interfering scientist out once and for all. They move in to attack. Freaked out and screaming, Del and Victoria are surrounded. It is then, with great surprise, Del lets out a release of pure wonderment and wide-eyed joy. He is taken aback with admiration as he sees their fine collection of woolly hats. Soften by Del’s knitwear excitement, the leader, Tom Straker (Aunt Beru’s husband) explains what he believes is the problem… “Years of incest!” (insert haunting loud scratch noise)
If a record player was in the building this would be the moment the needle was pulled heavily across the vinyl. Tom Straker and his fellow jacket potato headed friends have been, let’s say, keeping it in the family way! After years of local inbreeding, they believe they are, in fact, being cursed and punished by god. Now as this town hall meeting brings up the sensitive subject, there’s a picture of the Queen hanging on the wall! Was this some sort of impertinent in-joke from the writers about inbreeding within the royal family. Well, I never! So now the time had arrived for another Dr Del loud rant. “I want to make this quite clear this is not due to inbreeding!” Getting even more angry, “This is not an inherited condition passed on through families.“
To be honest, I was totally lost at this moment and I have almost certainly got this all arse about face. Dr Del Shaw figures out that inbreeding the local way had nothing do with a curse of divine interaction. No, the chromosome deficiency had come from an overactive pituitary gland which had been exaggerated by an excessive hormonal growth disorder produced by the village eating mutated contaminated fish! His findings found that a local chemical producing factory had dumped their bio-hazard by-product in the vicinity of the radioactive military waste which in turn mutated the fish! Bring on the aggressive disorder called acromegaly. Simples!
There you go, case closed!
Almost. There is one last scene with the villagers leaving on a procession of boats. Filmed from afar we see the locals looking back in shocked silence as their island of forbidden love is left behind. Knowing that they may never return. It really has a very solemn and emotional kick to it. I guess it’s that feeling of no more time heavy petting with Cousin Sheila?
Credits – Directed by Peter Sasdy who made a few Dracula movies for Hammer Films. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) with Christopher Lee and the wonderful, sexy Ingrid Pitt in Countess Dracula (1971). The story is from the Doomwatch series creators and writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis who were both also Doctor Who writers. Screenplay duties went to Clive Exton who adapted the novel to film for the excellent Richard Attenborough thriller 10 Rillington Place (1971) and oh, shhhhh, Red Sonja (1985). It was filmed at the quaint little fishing village of Coverack in Cornwall, England. The poster was created by Tom Chantrell who put his visual flare and artistic spirit into countless movie one-sheets. The Doomwatch poster is far from his best. His most famous would have to go to Star Wars – A New Hope (1977) but check them all.
Verdict – All joking aside this is actually a pretty good thriller filled with mystery and suspense. Ian Bannen is great in his gruff and moody outbursts as he deals with insular locals, stomping around the village trying to work stuff out. Judy Geeson is always lovely in a film but unfortunately, she isn’t given much to do rather than turn up at different times. The film offers lots more silly and interesting parts to the story which I didn’t hit on and, of course, I may have over-exaggerated other small parts. The Wicker Man (1973) and Village of the Damned (1960), which incidentally starred George Sanders, were better films, however Doomwatch has its own merits. The make-up department did a grand job overall and the slow burn story fits in well for what is essentially an extended TV movie version of the series.
I would go as far as giving Doomwatch a sturdy Maris Piper of 6/10 spuds. It is lots of fun if you don’t take it seriously and just go along for the ride.