DOWN AT THE WORLD’S END : David Rudkin’s ‘Artemis 81’ (TV 1981) [8/10]

9.0       Artemis 81
a film by DAVID RUDKIN     With Hywel Bennett, Dinah Stabb, Dan O’Herlihy   featuring Sting and Anthony Steel, Margaret Whiting, Roland Curram, Ingrid Pitt
A Danish museum case shattered, the pieces of a pagan statue hidden in cars on a North Sea ferry, the subsequent deaths of ferry passengers, an old musician terrified that a curse upon him will cause the devastation of the earth. Gideon Harlax, a successful young novelist of the ‘paranormal and unexplained’, thinks he has found the material for a new book. But as Gideon coldly exploits human tragedies, angry powers from man’s ancient past are gathering.^^

Radio Times, 1981 Christmas issue: daily programme-listings, Tuesday 29th December.


If, back in the late seventies, BBC mandarins had decided to come up with a genuine cult TV play/film/programme, they couldn’t have much better job than what actually happened with Artemis 81. It’s a wildly ambitious, unashamedly erudite, apocalyptic fantasy-epic with science-fictional and gothic-horror elements – ostentatiously riddled with references to Wagner, Hitchcock and the mythology of several European countries. The writer was David Rudkin, who’d already baffled and delighted audiences in roughly equal measure with the Alan Clarke-directed ‘Play For Today’ Penda’s Fen (1974) – and Artemis was originally intended as a co-production with Danish TV, to be transmitted in either two ninety-minute episodes or three hour-long segments.

The funding from Denmark eventually dropped out, however (all that labour to be born…”, as someone remarks about a delicate flower) – too late for the script, full of Danish elements and featuring several Danish settings, to be rewritten. And then it was decided to show the whole thing in one three-hour marathon, at the relatively prime-time hour of 9pm on the main BBC channel in the middle of the 1981 Christmas holidays – its December 29th slot ensuring that it would, in title at least, be “dated” only 48 hours after transmission.

There had arguably never been anything quite like it on British TV before, and, some of Channel 4’s more outre offerings apart, there hasn’t been since. Attacked in certain quarters* as a pretentious and wilfully obscure enterprise – one which shouldn’t have been granted public funding or such extravagant exposure (as an old woman in an Oxbridge library barks, “Young man! If you must fantasise, do so elsewhere!”) – remained enduringly vivid in the memory of many of those who saw it. Especially, it seems, younger viewers allowed to stay up post-watershed due to the absence of school the following day.

Which was just as well: over the ensuing years the programme attained a semi-legendary status, largely because, despite numerous requests, it was never once repeated by the BBC, on any channel or format – and nor was it made available on VHS or DVD.

Until now, that is. Artemis 81 has returned, after more than a quarter of a century “away”, via a (12-rated) BBC DVD which has, according to the its sleeve, the suitably-enigmatic running-time of “xx mins approx”. This version is a little shorter than the original, due to thorny copyright issues involving Hitchcock stills. But otherwise the programme is intact and presented in a crystal-clear transfer – complete with extras including an invaluable commentary from Rudkin and director Reid (whose subsequent gigs, he reveals, included rather more mundane small-screen mysteries in the form of the first Inspector Morse episodes.)

This release is nothing if not timely, coming just as a perpetually crisis-torn BBC has announced its to make “bigger, better, fewer” programmes. Artemis 81 might not be the precise model Director General Mark Thompson would like his staff to follow – though it surely has all the makings of an internationally-lucrative DVD title – but producers, directors and writers could do much worse than to at least check it out. Certain aspects have, inevitably, dated less well than others – some of the special effects which seemed so cutting-edge back in the day now seem quaint; some (a threatening sky-full of crows) faintly risible.

But it’s remarkable how much of Artemis 81 remains vibrant and stimulating – especially on a second viewing, with the benefit of Rudkin and Reid’s commentary to join the dots of their sprawlingly expansive, allusive work. It doesn’t all come together, however – it’s hard to think of many less metaphysical or fantastical film-makers than Hitchcock, the countless references to whom feel incongruous affectations. And certain aspects of the plot – the precise nature of Asrael’s dastardly plan – seem opaque to the point of obfuscation.

How enormously refreshing to encounter a TV drama which not only treats its viewers as adults, but as intelligent adults who don’t need everything spelled out at every stage – even at the climax. One minor point that reveals much about Reid and Rudkin’s approach: the presiding deity of the piece is a Scandinavian goddess known as Magog. But it takes an alert eye to spot the “Gog Magog Hills” in a map of Britain which we glimpse on the protagonist’s desk – a lesser dramatist would perhaps have included a lengthy detour around the rather different ‘Magog’ to be found in English mythology.

Said detour would, of course, have been expressed via Rudkin’s deliberately stylised dialogue – a literary and arch-sounding manner of speaking shared not only by the protagonist and his on-off paramour, but also several of the supporting characters. This sounds even stranger to contemporary ears than it must have done back in ’81, but is all of a piece with the way Artemis creates an entire fictional universe into which the viewer may find themselves irretrievably immersed.

Neil Young
20th October, 2007

ARTEMIS 81 : [8/10]
aka ARTEMIS ’81 : UK 1981 TV
dir. Alastair REID, scr. David RUDKIN : 180 mins (BBFC)
seen on DVD in Sunderland, UK : 15-16th October 2007

for more on Artemis 81 (much more!) click here for Neil Young’s 2011 essay

[*] Though not all:
Daily Mirror, 29th December 1981
Don’t worry.. just enjoy it.
It could be the most baffling show of the holiday, but ARTEMIS 81 (BBC-1, 9.0) 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 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. KENNETH HUGHES
NB — original rating : 7/10. Upgraded to 8/10 after reflection and partial re-viewing (with DVD commentary by writer and director). The “official” title, according to the film’s opening titles and the BBFC, is actually ..ARTEMIS..8..1..
^^ Radio Times picture caption:
What is in a pagan relic so compelling that Drachenfels (Dan O’Herlihy) is drawn to steal it? Gwen (Dinah Stabb) loves Gideon (Hywel Bennett) but he is withdrawn within, beyond her reach — a condition the Greeks called being ‘in the thrall of Artemis’. Asrael (Roland Curram) and Helith (Sting) fight for control of man’s destiny: 9.0pm