All that labour to be (re-)born: David Rudkin’s ARTEMIS 81

Asked what he was most proud of, David [Rose] said: “Narrowing the gap between films and television. When I started, there was a big gap. Television didn’t want to get involved with the unions and felt film was a dirty word. Cinema hated television because it felt it was showing films on the cheap and would think that what we were doing was ‘only a telly film’. I resented that because it’s the talent that matters. A film is a film is a film.
Birmingham Post, 23rd September 2009 {1}

When I make notes on a play the brief scribbles can generally be turned into some kind of sense, whether right or wrong. Not so with David Rudkin’s Artemis 81 (BBC1). On emerging from the preview theatre I found my scribbles were very strange, full of gnomic remarks, and as long as a novel.
Michael Church, The Times, 30th December 1981 {2}

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IN the long history of British television broadcasting, Artemis 81 is an anomaly: a three-hour conceptual/philosophical science-fiction ‘film’, made for TV, broadcast in a mammoth chunk in a high-profile evening slot, on the nation’s most-watched channel, in the middle of the Christmas holidays. For more than a quarter of a century it then existed in limbo, ‘available’ only via samizdat videotape recordings – at the time of the transmission, United Kingdom domestic VCR ownership was in its infancy. Then in June 2007 it was commercially released on DVD – as Artemis ’81 [sic], in a 175-minute version. Even this belated release was somewhat ‘botched’: the packaging promised the suitably enigmatic running-time of ‘xx minutes’ while among the cast-list we find a ‘Devilla Deloski’ (presumably Sevilla Delofski). And as the film’s writer David Rudkin noted on his website, “it’s unfortunate that the DVD’s producers have issued it under an inaccurate title: the 81 is as in the number of a distant star, not the abbreviated number of a year.” {3}

A deliberately bewildering head-scratcher in terms of its visionary content – owing as much to Shakespeare, Wagner, Brecht, Dreyer and Hitchcock as to better-known British sci-fi serials Quatermass (1953; 1955; 1958-9) or Doctor Who (1963-89; 1996; 2005-) – Artemis 81 is a puzzle to classify in formal terms. The front of the DVD sleeve announces “The Cult BBC Science Fiction Film” but the back informs us that “David Rudkin’s supernatural storywas one of the most ambitious series of its time” {emphasis added}; Church’s Times review labels it, en passant, a “play.”

The primary source of the confusion is straightforward: Rudkin did write Artemis 81 as a serial, and incorporated ‘breaks’ so that it could be shown in three sections or (his preferred format) two halves. These breaks are evident in the finished film – produced by David Rose, directed by Alastair Reid, edited by Mike Hall – and one can deduce from the Times review that a press-show interval was provided (though Church mistakenly interpreted this as some kind of lighting malfunction), enabling critics to gather their thoughts before the increasingly disorienting second half.

For the 1981 viewing public, however, decades before programme-pausing Personal Video Recorders (such as ‘Sky+’ and TiVo) there could be no such respite. Over the course of three hours, they were thrown into and around the Manichean, byzantine intricacies of a plot focussing on successful science-fiction novelist Gideon Harlax and his (girl-)friend Gwen Meredith, as the pair investigate a series of unusual suicides. It turns out that the deceased had all been passengers on the same North Sea ferry from Denmark to England, along with world-famous organist Albrecht von Drachenfels. The imperious Drachenfels is later revealed as a mere pawn of cosmic forces – his theft of a Pagan artefact from a Danish museum one element of a nefarious, potentially apocalyptic grand design.

To avert Armageddon, Harlax must somehow enter and traverse a kind of parallel reality – one which looks, sounds and feels like a dystopian vision of over-industrialised, late-1970s Eastern Europe – while shaking himself free of his ingrained, solipsistic detachment. At its core, Artemis 81 traces the halting, sometimes painfully traumatic transition of an intellectual from ivory-tower solitude (Harlax has been, literally, building himself a tower) towards fragility and feeling – towards spiritual/emotional rebirth, towards the possibility of human love…

The Danish touches in this continent-hopping tale were incorporated into Rudkin’s screenplay from the earliest stages, as Artemis 81 was for much of its gestation intended as a co-production between the BBC and Denmark’s equivalent state-broadcasting organisation (then known as Danmarksradio, a one-channel monopoly as recently as 1988) only for the co-operation to fall through at a late stage – too late, as it transpired, for rewrites and re-shoots.

The production itself was a fraught affair (“all that labour to be born…” as Gwen wistfully remarks of a tiny, delicate bloom.) Rudkin recalls: “I think the shoot was a Hellish experience – especially during the mere three days we had for the Danish location work. On the North Sea ferry there and back, there were shots that he had only one chance to get right. [Director Alastair Reid] needed all his commitment to the piece, and all his formidable technical mastery.” {4} As the writer asserts, Artemis 81 “is a film”, but “made on a ‘telly’ budget, it must be said!” {5} What results is a determinedly and unashamedly adult-oriented, highly demanding drama of unusual geographical scope – exploring the English ‘provinces’ (principally Liverpool and Birmingham, the pair ‘fusing’ into a nightmarish vision of the ‘underworld’ city), and with extended sequences on the ferry and on dry-land in Denmark, the latter also standing in for an eerily idyllic parallel dimension: part alien planet, part ‘inner-space’.

Rudkin’s own ‘official’ synopsis provides further illumination:
Gideon, a successful novelist, insulated from reality and emotionally arid, is deeply and ruefully loved by two people: a woman musician, and a man who teaches film. But Gideon flinches from all human contact. From an alien planet, an angel of love descends, to try to unlock Gideon’s emotions and save him. But an angel of death comes not far after, seeking to imprison Gideon in his frigidity. At the climax, high within the tower of an abbey, while an organ recital proceeds below, Death’s trap is so sprung that, if Gideon succumb to him now, the whole world will be destroyed. {6}

Even by the standards of the early 1980s, such material would not be classed as obvious BBC1 evening programming for the Christmas period – at a time when communal TV-watching was seen as part of Britain’s festive experience. The arrival of the double-issue BBC listings magazine Radio Times in mid-December was, for many, a domestic publishing-highlight of the year, allowing readers/viewers the luxury of poring over a full fortnight’s worth of advance schedules. These pages were filled with high-profile movies – many of which would have been on cinema screens only a couple of years before – alongside extended versions of favourite shows, and star-packed light-entertainment one-offs.

The BBC1 offerings the night before Artemis 81‘s transmission were more typical festive fare: 1976 war-movie The Battle of Midway, followed by the News; at 9.10 the ‘easy-listening’ delights of Val Sings Bing (Irish crooner Doonican saluting his trans-Atlantic counterpart Crosby); at 9.55 popular Cockney comedy Only Fools and Horses; at 10.40 the BBC’s resident movie-critic Barry Norman’s Films of the Year. Perhaps sensing that the outré content of Artemis 81 might be a tough ‘sell’, Radio Times previewer Robert Ottaway emphasised “the cast – which must be the most intriguing assembly of actors from different backgrounds ever attempted. There’s Hywel Bennett (from [ITV’s successful comedy] Shelley), and Dinah Stabb (from the National Theatre), and Dan O’Herlihy (who was nominated for an Oscar for his part in [Luis Buñuel’s] Robinson Crusoe). Above all, there’s ‘Sting’, lead singer of [chart-topping pop-punk-reggae outfit] The Police … in his first major dramatic role [Sting had previously appeared more fleetingly in 1979 releases Quadrophenia and Radio On]. He is the Angel of Life, and was deliberately chosen as a present-day ‘god’.” {7}

Ottaway omits two notable performers who were, however, to be listed on the 2007 DVD’s packaging, both appearing in a humorous sequence set in an Oxford University library: Ingrid Pitt – vivacious stalwart of Hammer horrors and briefly seen in a previous British Pagan-themed cult classic, The Wicker Man (1973) – who cameos as a character identified in the credits only as ‘Hitchcock Blonde’;  and a then-unknown Daniel Day-Lewis, two years before his first significant big-screen role in Gandhi (1983).

More surprisingly, Ottaway makes no reference to the pedigree of the film’s behind-the-scenes talent. One might have expected acknowledgement of Rudkin’s highly acclaimed TV-play Penda’s Fen (1974) – directed by the revered Alan Clarke, and in many ways the main precursor to what was being attempted with Artemis 81. As Clarke’s sometime colleague Barry Hanson (producer of both gangster-classic The Long Good Friday [1980] and seminal TV-movie The Naked Civil Servant [1975]) recalls in Richard Kelly’s oral biography of the director, Penda’s Fen “is a play of mystical Olde English, a boy beset by angels and devils, and a pagan king emerging through an earth that held various appalling nuclear secrets. It also had [“clean up TV” campaigner] Mary Whitehouse thinly disguised in it, and all sorts of obsessions and fears that were abroad in that early part of the 1970s. You name it, they all cropped up…” {8}

Elsewhere in the same volume, prominent British dramatist/director David Hare evokes the creative context which gave rise to Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81: “We were all working together on the same corridor at BBC Birmingham when Alan was making Penda’s Fen – Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell. And there was [producer] David Rose just being a wonderful impresario. When I saw Penda’s Fen, I just couldn’t believe it. And that is the whole BBC Birmingham culture right there, which was David Rose letting people do what they wanted and nobody in London knowing what was going on. You know: ‘The earth splits open?’ ‘Oh yeah?’ There’s just no way a London producer and script editor would have been having that. But my God, that film went out at nine-thirty at night on a majority channel, it’s incredible — an hour and a half long. And how bold to do it!” {9}

Hare’s exclamation at the ‘boldness’ of Penda’s Fen‘s themes and scheduling gives a sense of how radical Artemis 81 must have seemed seven years on: twice as long (with no break), and broadcast not on an obscure Thursday night in March but during Christmas. With no repeat scheduled, and for the vast majority no opportunity for another view via videotape, Artemis 81 proved too much to digest for many. Michael Church’s Times review ends with a paragraph of disjointed dialogue quotations – transcribed, it seems, straight from his notebook – capped with an exasperated summary: “Total poetry, total theatre, total bewilderment.” {10}

Church’s inability to ‘tune into’ Rudkin’s wavelengths is encapsulated by his assertion that Gideon’s film-lecturer friend “Jed had uttered the immortal line ‘only a three-sixty shot from vertigo can bring the living water to my eyes.’ So.”{11}  This line does, as transcribed, sound like the epitome of pretentious verbiage – but given the running stream of Hitchcock references in Rudkin’s screenplay, it should obviously read “only a 360° shot from Vertigo can bring the living water to my eyes” – and thus the dialogue is crucially leavened by a streak of mordantly self-deprecating humour.

But if that august broadsheet The Times struggled with the breadth and idiosyncrasy of Rudkin’s folie de grandeur, he was to receive a surprisingly warmer reception from a rather more ‘downmarket’ newspaper, the tabloid Daily Mirror. In a preview published on the morning of the broadcast and headlined ‘Don’t Worry – Just Enjoy It’, the left-leaning mass-market newspaper’s reviewer Kenneth Hughes admitted “It could be the most baffling show of the holiday, but Artemis 81 … is also one of the best of the year.

“This three-hour thriller, giving pop singer Sting his first big television role, is a knockout. But even some of the people most closely involved are not too sure exactly what it’s about. Director Alastair Reid calls it a television Rubik Cube. And actor Hywel Bennett, who is at the heart of the action says he doesn’t understand it. Artemis 81 IS very complex. It has to do with a threat to the future of mankind, a series of mysterious deaths, a strange affair involving the Angel of Love [sic] and a great organist who, if he hits the right (or wrong) note, could blow up the world. My advice: Don’t worry about understanding it, just relax and enjoy it.” {12}

This ‘relaxed’ approach mirrors the modus operandi of David Rose, the producer identified by Hare as personifying “BBC Birmingham culture” and – after Rudkin – the second-most important individual in terms of Artemis 81‘s gargantuan ambition. Appointed by world-famous broadcaster/administrator David Attenborough during the latter’s energetic 1969-73 tenure as BBC Director of Programmes, Rose was sent to the Corporation’s Pebble Mill studio in Birmingham shortly after it opened in 1971, with the title ‘Head of Drama (English Regions).’ According to Barry Hanson’s blunt recollection, “In a way, Pebble Mill was a white elephant, so they’d given David Rose this brief to just do something – whatever…” {13}

Enjoying considerable autonomy, Rose quickly established himself as what UK broadcasting mandarin Jeremy Isaacs called a ‘benign magus,’ in a 2004 Independent article marking Rose’s 80th birthday. Isaacs wryly contrasts commissioning practices of the 1970s with those of the new century, by which time the BBC had been ‘reformed’ by successive Conservative governments (most notably those of Margaret Thatcher, 1979-1990) which tended to see the state broadcaster as an instinctively left-wing ‘enemy within.’

“It now commissions drama either from outside proposals or from internal groups who are treated as independent businesses in (friendly) competition with each other,” according to British cultural commentator Graham Nelson, who describes the Corporation as “semi-privatised.” “Now that producers are on the outside, they have less ability to pull strings; at least some of them feel that there is less of a culture in which they are seen as artists. On the other hand, it’s certainly true that the environment of the BBC’s best work was at times shambolic, always plagued by union disputes and bureaucratic obstructions caused by too few resources shared too widely.” {14}

Rose’s Pebble Mill tenure can thus be seen as an example of the BBC’s unique, pre-Thatcher culture(s) yielding demonstrably flavoursome and enduringly influential fruit. “It is not just what David did that is instructive,” wrote Isaacs, “but how he did it: no committees of consultants; no focus groups or market-testing. Just an eye for a situation, a nose for a script, and a mind of his own to make the critical judgement.” {15}

As has generally been the case in British television – especially BBC TV – the main auteur of a programme, be it a stand-alone show or a series, was identified by Rose as the writer. Authorial collaborations are rare – in contrast to the American model, where group-work is the general scriptwriting rule. The giants of British TV tend to be identified as its writers: Dennis Potter (1935-1994); Jack Rosenthal (1931-2004) and Nigel Kneale (1922-2006); men who seldom sat in a director’s chair.

Rose’s Pebble Mill ‘stable’ included such luminaries as Rosenthal, Russell, Bleasdale, Hare, David Mercer and Malcolm Bradbury – many owing Rose a crucial debt for their careers’ inception and/or development. Rather less well known (then as now), David Rudkin – who in the sixties and seventies was at least as celebrated for his stage work – occupied a more marginal position on the ‘visionary’ eccentric/experimental wing.

Several key figures in this ‘golden age’ of BBC drama did work in film, of course – and today Pebble Mill alumni Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears are best known (certainly outside the UK) for their cinema-careers. But with the British film industry in the doldrums during the 1970s, television was seen as the best option for writers (not to mention directors, actors and crew-members) who wanted to make a living from their craft: the BBC’s Play For Today perhaps the most notable outlet.

And audiences often responded enthusiastically, partly because of the limited alternatives available at a pre-personal-computer, pre-internet, pre-multiplex, pre-DVD era when video-recorders were the preserve of the relatively wealthy and/or the technologically inclined. The most extreme example of this came one famous evening in 1979, when Britain only had three domestic channels – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV – and foul weather kept most of the population indoors. ITV was off-air because of an industrial dispute, and Leigh’s corrosively acid, convulsively hilarious comedy Abigail’s Party attracted around 16 million viewers (for British audiences it remains the single work for which Leigh is best known.)

Artemis 81 was never going to achieve anything kind of mass viewership, of course, even at Christmas – a time of the year when science-fiction offerings on the BBC were usually in the mould of family-friendly Dr Who spin-off K-9 and Company, a 50-minute one-off (in fact a pilot for a series that was ultimately never commissioned) broadcast in an early evening slot the very day after Artemis 81‘s transmission.

The ostensibly berserk and foolhardy creative ‘gamble’ presented by Rudkin’s epic does, however, make perfect sense when viewed in the wider terms of David Rose’s general, time-tested approach. It would be his ‘last hurrah’ at (and perhaps also a ‘parting shot’ directed towards) the BBC, as by the time of its broadcast he had been installed (by the aforementioned Jeremy Isaacs) as Head of Drama at Channel 4, a new commercial channel with an explicit remit to showcase and sharpen the creative cutting-edge, and which started broadcasting in November 1982.

In some ways, Artemis 81 would have been a better fit for Channel 4 than BBC1 – the new channel was responsible for a very eclectic range of films, many premiering on the small screen before successful releases, and became quickly associated with unapolgetically challenging offerings like Ken McMullen’s Ghost Dance (1983) – inspired by the writings of Jacques Derrida and featuring the man himself among its cast – and David G Hopkins’ four-part Percy Shelley adaptation Zastrozzi (1986).

Rose – who in his nine years at Channel 4 was to fund (or help support) key films by Peter Greenaway, Jerzy Skolimowski, Terence Davies, ‘Merchant-Ivory’, Andrei Tarkovsky and Wim Wenders – hired a safe pair of hands to direct Artemis 81, a project which it seems was never likely to be handled by Rudkin himself (Rudkin, who as a young man had worked with François Truffaut on the dialogue for Fahrenheit 451 [1966], is only an occasional director.)

Then 40, Scotsman Alastair Reid had cut his teeth on pioneering medical soap Emergency-Ward 10 from 1960-65, going on to amass a solid array of BBC credits including the long-running Play For Today and ground-breakingly gritty crime-series Gangsters (1976-78). Reid has directed the occasional theatrical release over the years, but he’s essentially a TV director: extremely popular cop-drama Inspector Morse (Reid was responsible for the first episode), Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (1993), and Traffik (1989), Channel 4’s miniseries remade by Hollywood as Traffic (2000 – landing Steven Soderbergh the Academy Award for Best Director.)

But while Reid performed an evidently crucial role in bringing Artemis 81 into the nation’s living-rooms, he’s very seldom been mentioned in discussions of the programme, either then or now. The Radio Times, contemporary reviews, and the programme itself firmly identify the work either as “David Rudkin’s Artemis 81” or “Artemis 81 by David Rudkin”, and even if the piece is freighted with references to films and film-makers – including numerous specific shots, intended to evoke certain cinematic forebears (principally Hitchcock, secondarily Dreyer) – it’s clear from Rudkin’s written recollections, and from Rudkin and Reid’s jocular statements on the DVD commentary-track, that these are as specified in Rudkin’s screenplay.

Not that the finished article conforms precisely to the writer’s wishes and expectations. As Rudkin notes with pained disdain:
The producer David Rose left BBC to take up a senior post at the then new Channel Four, and although he kept a watch on things, in effect we lacked his controlling presence. I nurse a particular grievance about the editing. The up-and-coming young editor I thought right for Artemis, and who wanted to do it, was not even considered: this was a ‘big’ project, and so was allocated to the Senior Editor – with whom I was never granted so much as a discussion. On Penda, I had been given reasonable access to the edit and the dub, and my responses had been sought and sometimes acted on. On Artemis I was allowed to see no rushes, no rough assembly, no rough-cut; my first invitation to a sighting was together with members of the publicity department. I protested, and was granted a viewing before that; but it was a formality. As I feared, much had been done to Artemis in the cutting-room and dubbing-suite that I could never have endorsed. {16}

This troubled gestation and ‘birth’ is another example of the way Artemis 81 blurs distinctions between television and cinematic ‘film’, as it is almost invariably the latter which provides example of auteurvisions being mangled or destroyed by interfering studios. Notorious examples are Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)and the aforementioned Wicker Man. Nevertheless, as Rudkin himself admits, even the ‘impure’ edit of Artemis 81 remains the fruit of what “had been an extraordinary enterprise…” {17}

Indeed so – in terms of British science-fiction, few germane parallels can be drawn with contemporary big-screen offerings. Around the period in question these chiefly consisted of US-funded entertainments intended for worldwide consumption, and heavily indebted to Stateside predecessors: remakes (Flash Gordon [1980], Alien [1979], Outland [1981]); rip-offs (Inseminoid [1981]), and movies blatantly hoping to cash in on the colossal box-office success of 1977’s Star Wars and 1979’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the latter was, ironically enough, to have its first UK television showing on ITV the very night before Artemis 81 aired.)

As an essentially British affair – despite the Danish elements – Artemis 81 has much more in common with ITV’s ill-fated autumn 1979 Quatermass revival, one in which (according to publicity materials) “Earth’s dark ancestral forces awaken to a summons from beyond the stars.” This big-budget four-parter, developed at the BBC until 1974 but abandoned amid financial concerns and only years later picked up by its commercial rival, was shot cinema-style on 35mm. It was optimistically intended to repeat the seminal success of Nigel Kneale’s three 1950s BBC Quatermass serials – which subsequently formed the basis of three fine Hammer movies.

Kneale’s downbeat, apocalyptic script was filmed by British director Piers Haggard, with results that were quickly – and universally unfavourably – contrasted with Quatermass‘s 1950s outings. The 1979 Quatermass (also shown in certain territories as an edited-down TV-movie) has never enjoyed a fraction of the ‘cult’ status long associated with BBC ‘contemporaries’ such as Terry Nation’s brutally cynical Blake’s 7 (1978-81), a series acknowledged by Joss Whedon – a great admirer of UK sci-fi in general – as principal forerunner of his ill-fated 2002 TV “space western” series Firefly and its big-screen sequel Serenity (2005).

But while Blake’s 7 has remained prominent in Britain’s general cultural consciousness after its abrupt cancellation, thanks to semi-regular repeats and VHS/DVD releases; and while Doctor Who (always principally aimed at younger audiences), has never really gone away, the ‘lost’ standalone Artemis 81 was always a rarer, much more elusive, even esoteric kind of beast. This tended to endow Rudkin’s (inner-)space oddity with an unusual, exalted standing that was confirmed and significantly boosted by its 2007 ‘re-entry’ into the cultural atmosphere.

As Sight and Sound magazine’s DVD-reviewer Sergio Angelini noted, “David Rudkin’s densely layered three-hour fantasy epic has remained largely unseen since its original transmission in 1981 but is still as baffling and compulsively entertaining as it was 26 years ago. A surreal cornucopia of science fiction, organ music, movies and Greek mythology, this sprawling, rich tapestry finds its ur-texts in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Hitchcock’s Vertigo… The section set in a city of death is powerfully rendered by director Alastair Reid, but there are several longueurs along the route – especially an elaborate but meandering sequence in an underground bunker – before a kinetic finale replete with references to Rebecca and Rear Window … Unfortunately, due to rights problems, some cuts have been made to sequences showing stills from Hitchcock movies.” {18}

Though many who purchased the DVD (and there has still never been a network repeat, not even on one of the BBC’s new, theoretically more risk-embracing digital channels) may have experienced echoes of contemporary reviewers’ ‘bewilderment’, and/or disappointment at the programme’s stagier, more dated aspects, it’s no hyperbole to say that the re-emergence of Artemis 81 has attracted new legions of admirers in the UK and abroad. Among the latter is Slovenian film-maker/programmer/critic Jurij Meden, who described it as a “piece of cinematic novum” {19} and treated it as having as much right to filmic status as, say, David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE (2007) – much preferring Rudkin’s journey into the interior unknown.

But for its televisual origins, it would surely have figured in Sight and Sound‘s August 2010 salute to what it called ‘Weird British Cinema’, aiming to “unearth the ancient rituals and traditions that seep through soil into British films… From The Wicker Man’s pagan Summerisle and the haunting of Suffolk lands in Witchfinder General to the old Albion of A Canterbury Tale.” {20} The revival of interest in Artemis 81 led to several commentators seizing upon this uncompromisingly eccentric and erudite artefact (“if you’re talking about writers who are instinctive, in a way there isn’t anyone quite like Rudkin” – Barry Hanson) as proof of how television in general – and British TV in particular – has degraded into a blander, more risk-averse business. In the foreword to his 1983 collection Glued To the Box, Clive James – the Australian academic/journalist who through the 1970s pioneered (and arguably perfected) the art/craft of TV criticism, could write that “American television is undoubtedly worse than British television” {21} without fear of contradiction, citing only Hill Street Blues and Lou Grant as US offerings worthy of respect. Things, clearly, have changed since then – in 2011, the majority of educated, cultured, cosmopolitan Britons are at least familiar with, say, Lost, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire.

Mark Fisher is among the most illuminating examples of what might be termed the ‘Artemis generation’, old enough to have experienced both its 1981 and post-2007 incarnations. He has written a comparison of Artemis 81 and its closest West German ‘equivalent’ – Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, 1973) for Film Quarterly (“Visionary Television,” Vol. 64, No. 2, Winter 2010), while in his analysis of Rudkin’s film for the website k-punk, Fisher combines personal recollection with wider cultural analysis:

I first saw Artemis 81 when it was broadcast for the first and only time in December 1981. Even though it struck me then as incoherent and incomprehensible, I willingly sat through all three hours of it. Judging by the internet responses to Artemis 81, my experience was a common one amongst kids who, like me, were allowed to stay up late and watch it because it was broadcast during the school holidays. … What makes Artemis 81 still alienating to watch are all the things that it lacks – all those strategies for producing audience identification to which we are now so accustomed. The acting style is as Brechtian as anything you would see in a Straub-Huillet film; the dialogue is anti-naturalistic, highly mannered (it reminds me more of an opera than television writing – and Wagner is one of many intertexts). I hardly need say that it is impossible to imagine something like Artemis 81 being commissioned, still less broadcast by the BBC today. … Like much seventies culture – and Artemis 81 really belongs to the ‘long seventies’ that ended circa 1982 – it deploys pretentiousness as a visionary force. To use a musical analogy, Artemis 81 combines the overblown ambition of Prog with the cool Ballardianism of postpunk. It is quintessentially pulp modernist – there are references to The Devil Rides Out as well as to The Seventh Seal and Carl Dreyer. It is the BBC that made and broadcast Artemis 81 which should be recovered and defended, not the institution as it currently functions today. {22}

It should not be forgotten that in televisual terms, the ‘institution’ is one which relied heavily on serious – and seriously scary – science-fiction to boost its renown and acceptance in its earliest days. During the early fifties (many UK households obtained their first sets – usually rented – to watch Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation) the most watched and avidly discussed programmes were headed by an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (starring a pre-Hammer Peter Cushing) and Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment (1953), the latter leading to further serials Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958).

The most famous and long-running of all BBC programmes – regardless of genre – followed in 1963: Doctor Who‘s crypto-eponymous hero combined aspects of Sherlock Holmes and Kneale’s Professor Quatermass, travelling through space-time in a blue ‘police-box’ known as the Tardis. The Doctor is a humanoid alien from distant planet Gallifrey who has nevertheless remained recognisably somehow very British through all his many incarnations during the show’s runs: from 1963 to 1989, via a one-off TV movie in 1996, and the current ‘reboot’ which has aired to conspicuous success since 2005.

But with the only very occasional exception, Doctor Who and its more adult-oriented, more explicitly Kneale-influenced spin-off Torchwood (2006-) stand almost alone in terms of the BBC’s ongoing commitment to science-fiction. The corporation now expends more energy on ‘prestige’ period dramas, literary adaptations, cop thrillers and topical parables of urban anxiety. Artemis 81, now thirty years old, has been cited as an influence by writers of various stripes, but the prospect of even a small-scale remake seems distinctly remote – and such an enterprise would surely be shunted off to a ‘minority’ channel, kept well away from BBC1 and/or the Christmas period when audience-ratings have become a matter of paramount concern.

Long gone are the days when the viewer had the limited ‘choice’ of Artemis 81 on BBC1, Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Apartment (1960) on BBC2, or a three-hour broadcast of Trevor Nunn’s The Three Sisters (a Royal Shakespeare Company version of the Chekhov play) on ITV. The latter ran from 9.02 to midnight, thus scheduled in direct competition with Rudkin’s written-for-TV experiment (The Times‘ Church was unimpressed by the Chekhov televisation, branding it “ultra-tasteful, ultra-sensitive, and for one viewer at least, ultra-boring.” {23})

Artemis 81 – with its novelist ‘hero’ and indelibly, intricately inscrutable dialogue – is nothing if not a writer’s piece, and so the last word should belong to its creator, its auteur, David Rudkin: “An existential morality, told in terms of Gothic fable… I can see why some disparage it now as a ‘pretensh-fest’ by a ‘hi-aim author’ (okay folks, let’s all be happy little epsilons and aim low…); but where people positively respond to it, it’s to its prodigality with images, and its mythic charge that flows into parts of us that meaner contemporary TV drama (and cinema for that matter) do not even know are there.” {24}

Neil Young
October 2011

This essay was originally published, in Slovene, as  “Ves tisti trud, da bi se (ponovno) rodila: Artemis 81 Davida Rudkina” in Proti koncu: sodobna TV serija in serialnost, edited by Jela Krecic and Ivana Novak. (Ljubljana: Slovenian Cinematheque, 2011). English-to-Slovene translation by Maja Lovrenov.



James, Clive. Glued to the Box. London: Pan, 1983.
Kelly, Richard. Alan Clarke. London: Faber, 1998.

Magazines / newspapers
The Birmingham Post
Daily Mirror
The Independent (online edition)
Radio Times
Sight and Sound
The Times

David Rudkin.
Home Page of Graham Nelson.
Jigsaw Lounge.



{1} Graham Young, “David Rose talks of his time with BBC Birmingham at Pebble Mill,” Birmingham Post, September 23, 2009, accessed June 15, 2011,

{2} Michael Church, “A Bewildering Sort of Poetry,” The Times, December 29, 1981, 9.

{3} David Rudkin, “Artemis 81,”, accessed June 15, 2011,

{4} Rudkin, “Artemis 81.”

{5} Rudkin, “Artemis 81.”

{6} Rudkin, “Artemis 81.”

{7} Robert Ottaway, Radio Times, December 19, 1981.

{8} Richard Kelly, Alan Clarke (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 68.

{9} Kelly, Alan Clarke, 69.

{10} Church, “A Bewildering Sort of Poetry,” 9.

{11} Church, “A Bewildering Sort of Poetry,” 9.

{12} Kenneth Hughes, “Don’t worry… just enjoy it,” Daily Mirror, December 29, 1981.

{13} Kelly, Alan Clarke, 68.

{14} Graham Nelson, “Science fiction at the BBC,” accessed June 15, 2011,

{15} Jeremy Isaacs, “Happy Birthday to the leader with the golden touch,” The Independent, November 8, 2004, accessed June 15, 2011,

{16} Rudkin, “Artemis 81.”

{17} Rudkin, “Artemis 81.”

{18} Sergio Angelini, Artemis 81 review, Sight and Sound, May 2007.

{19} Jurij Meden, “On Artemis 81, for the 26th Anniversary of the Original Broadcast”, Jigsaw Lounge website, accessed June 16, 2011,

{20} Sight and Sound online edition, accessed 15 June, 2011,

{21} Clive James, Glued to the Box (London: Pan, 1983), 18.

{22} Mark Fisher, ” “Just relax and enjoy it”: Geworfenheit on the BBC”, accessed June 15, 2011,

{23} Church, “A Bewildering Sort of Poetry,” 9.

{24} Rudkin, “Artemis 81”