John Fletcher’s peculiarly titled television play is a singularly British piece of work, a meditation on the long-standing rift between town and country, between the agricultural and the industrial, the traditional and the new, all played out in a far distant future. Fletcher wasn’t a dramatist but a historian with a special interest in pre-industrial England and it’s this specialism that informs Stargazy on Zummerdown.
In the 23rd century, Britain – or possibly just England, it’s not really clear – has been renamed Albion and has divided into several commonwealths, united by the benign Reformed Celtic Church. In the commonwealth of New Harmony – the broad and not always convincing accents place it somewhere in the West Country – the rural Aggros live uneasily alongside the urban Toonies. Every year the church arranges a summit between the two sides to air grievances and hammer out trade deals amid a series of bizarre events that include onion-eating competitions, bouts of competitive swearing (“the winner will be he who most succeeds in upsetting the traditional judge for this event, a frail and elderly vicar”) and quasi-religious rituals. The play follows the build-up to and the actual summit that takes place on midsummer’s day on Zummerdown.
Stargazy on Zummerdown (first broadcast on 15 March 1978) is a very strange, unclassifiable, occasionally deep, frequently nonsensical and even at times psychedelic play that’s never really that entertaining. As befits a strand called Play of the Week, it’s a very stagy production (outdoor scenes are recreated in a cramped BBC studio), the sort of thing that would never get made in today’s television climate. There’s simply no room for this sort of experimental weirdness aimed at the tiniest of niche audiences. Its very theatricality – with long-winded monologues and too many cod-Shakespearian performances – makes it less interesting than it sounds and it’s more interesting now as a curio of 70s British television than as an entertainment in its own right.
The characters are thinly drawn cyphers, the dialogue is functional and often baffling rather than poetic (no matter how many faux-futuristic colloquialisms Fletcher comes up with) and the BBC studio sets struggle to convince anyone that any of this is taking place in a part of the West Country. Indeed director Michael Ferguson (who had waved the plunger at Jacqueline Hill at the end of the second episode of Doctor Who serial The Daleks (1963-1964), making him technically the first person to play one of the most iconic of television monsters – he later directed the serials The War Games (1969), The Seeds of Death (1969), The Ambassadors of Death (1970) and The Claws of Axos (1971)) acknowledges the artificiality of the proceedings in the final shot that pulls back from the Stargazy festivities to reveal the studio’s lighting gantry and members of the production crew before panning down to find the words “the end” spelled out on the studio floor.
Fletcher might have been a fine historian but his grasp of technology is shaky and he resorts to deploying a few techie buzzwords here and there with no real suggestion that he actually understood any of it. He’s on safer ground building his off-kilter future society and using allegory rather than technobabble, a plea for a better balance between the technological advances that were propelling 70s British society and a more ecologically sound, older way of living, a debate that continues to this very day. With is strange rituals and well-imagined alternative, agrarian based lifestyles it joins Sky (1975) as a rare example of the entirely made up and never-going-to-catch-on genre of “folk science fiction.”
There are some nicely jarring juxtapositions, like Israel Tonge (Roy Dotrice) and Ruth (Toni Arthur)’s home being half farmhouse kitchen and hi-tech computer centre but the music tends towards the twee and irritating and Fletcher’s script is full of drawn-out proselytising and chest-beating monologues. Subtle it isn’t. Satire is the bluntest of tools in Fletcher’s hands as he delivers his messages at full volume (shouting seems to be the chosen method of discourse in 23rd century Albion) and by beating his poor audience repeatedly over the head.
An interesting cast battles gamely with the accents and the faux ruralisms with Dotrice in particular leaving not a square inch of set unchewed. Toni Arthur is now best remembered by a generation of British television viewers as one of the ensemble cast members of pre-school favourite Play School (1964-1988) and it’s more grown-up sister programme Play Away (1971-1984), a young Roy Marsden turns up as a Toonie dropping hints via videophone about a space programme being developed in Sheffield, and the likes of Jack Haig (Leclerc from ‘Allo ‘Allo (1982-1992)), the great Peggy Mount (playing Opinionated Alice), Stephen Murray (from Hammer’s Four Sided Triangle (1953) and Ron Pember (playing another of his angry working class men, this time with a creative line in abuse during the Creative Swearing bout: “You Darwinian disaster, you genetic train crash”) turn up among the surprisingly large supporting cast.
Fletcher had tried his hand at writing television drama as early as 1974 with the Silence episode of the Second City Firsts strand and later reverted to his original calling when he wrote for the documentary series Out of the Past (1969-1980). He kept his drama writing hand in though, contributing episodes to comedy drama Boon (1986-1992), long-running medical drama Casualty (1986-), military thriller Saracen (1989) and detective show Bergerac (1981-1991). Nothing else he wrote was quite as odd as Stargazy on Zummerdown.