Any person who serves in the armed forces has my utmost respect, gratitude and admiration. It takes a brave person indeed to deliberately risk injury and death fighting to save and help other people. People who serve in Bomb Disposal Units have a bravery which is on a whole other level entirely. It takes nerves of complete steel to deliberately stand next to a live bomb and attempt to diffuse it or check if it is live or not.
In 1979, a British television series called Danger UXB was created. The series would focus upon a Bomb Disposal team working in London during the Second World War.
As the German Luftwaffe carry out their seemingly unending bombing raids across Britain, we would follow this brave disposal team tasked with diffusing and destroying the thousands of bombs that had been dropped from German aircraft, but which had failed to detonate on impact. The series would follow the team from the start of the war, right up until the war ended in September of 1945.
The completed series would become one of the most realistic, suspenseful, authentic and gripping TV series ever made. The series was created by writer/producer John Hawkesworth(the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, Upstairs, Downstairs)and John Whitney. John Hawkesworth took the series idea to producers Verity Lambert(then head of Drama at Thames Television) and Johnny Goodman. The pair were on the lookout for a new series and they both loved his idea. The series was inspired by the book Unexploded Bomb – The Story Of Bomb Disposal, which had been written by Major A.B Hartley.
The series would also help to change the face of British television forever. Up to this point, British television series/episodes had been shot on tape and were mostly filmed in the studio, with just a few brief scenes sometimes shot out on location. Danger UXB however was filmed entirely on location. The quality of the stories, coupled with the visual quality of the episodes, meant that in effect this series looked like a collection of thirteen films. This series proved what it was possible to do when making a TV series. It begs the question as to whether or not we would have got all those glorious 1980’s miniseries shot on location, without this one having paved the way first?
Another new and unusual aspect of the series was that the writers were unafraid to kill off main/significant characters. Long before series such as The Bill or Game Of Thrones broke audiences hearts with shock character deaths, Danger UXB was doing just that. In doing so, I think it helped to bring home the brutal realities of life as a Bomb Disposal officer to audiences. Death or life changing injuries could claim these men at any second. This decision also ensured that all the bomb disposal sequences in the series became doubly tense, due to audiences knowing full well that main characters weren’t free of harm and that anything could happen to them. What made it all the more powerful was the knowledge that although the characters are fictional, real men had actually gone through what these characters were enduring. It gave the series a reality and a great deal of emotional weight.
The series was filmed in 1978. It would be broadcast on ITV between the 8th of January, 1979, and the 2nd of April the same year. The series follows new Royal Engineering Officer, Brian Ash(Anthony Andrews), as he takes command of a Bomb Disposal unit in London, after the current commander has been killed while attempting to diffuse a bomb. Brian is nervous at first, but he soon settles into the role and gains confidence as a commander. The men soon grow to respect him and they form a good team.
Brian’s ever dependable right hand man, is the steady Sergeant James(Maurice Roeves), who is the father figure to the team and really does his best to keep an eye on how everyone is coping emotionally and psychologically. The main members of the team are Sapper Wilkins(George Innes), who is the joker of the team, a chainsmoker, and also a petty thief; Lance Corporal Salt(Kenneth Cranham), a married man who is always terrified for the safety of his wife and children and who later becomes haunted by events in the series; Sapper Powell(Robert Pugh),who is sometimes loud and a bit of a bully, but who has our sympathy when he becomes truly terrified and traumatised on a couple of occasions due to bombings.
The team are up against the five different types of German bombs which were usually encountered in Britain during the war. All of the bombs vary in size and damage capability. As the series goes on, Brian and his colleagues discover that German engineers are booby trapping bombs or altering the way in which they can be diffused, this of course makes diffusing even more dangerous than before. Butterfly Winter, the 10th episode of the series, introduces the team to a new type of bomb – the unusual and extremely nasty Butterfly Bomb – a device which was very small and didn’t look like a bomb at all. Whoever designed this device was especially wicked.
In addition to following the team on their job, the series also focuses on civilians and shows us what life was like on the homefront. Brian lodges with a middle aged woman and befriends her outgoing and sexy daughter, Norma(former Doctor Who companion Deborah Watling). Brian also falls in love with Susan Mount(Judy Geeson), who is the gentle daughter of scientist Doctor Gillespie(the terrific Ian Cuthbertson), who is helping the government find new ways to defeat German bomb fuses.
Brian and Susan love each other so much and each one brings the other to life in a way neither have been before. This relationship is complicated though by the facts that Susan is married – unhappily so it has to be said, but she is still married none the less – and that her husband is slowly cracking up while working as a codebreaker. Brian and Susan’s relationship also means that Brian has to steel his nerves even more when he goes out on a job because he doesn’t want to be killed and leave her all alone.
I love this series so much because it has something in it for everyone. I also love that despite mainly being focused on the war and upon male characters, we do also get some strong and interesting female characters and we see how they got through the war.Susan in particular is interesting because she is a very intelligent and determined woman, one who gets involved with her father’s scientific work and isn’t content to merely stay at home and be the dutiful little wife. I also love watching how she blooms in Brian’s company and begins to feel properly loved and fulfilled romantically and sexually for the first time in her life.
Norma and Susan. Screenshots by me.
The character of Norma is also shown to be different to the expected female norm. She is a rulebreaker, a woman who loves to have sex, despite not being married(oh, the scandal!😉). We see through these two women that the old way of life for women of this time was changing. Women worked during the war in jobs which had always been done before by men, and they quickly realised they loved to work and were just as capable as their men were. Women were realising that they could be so much more than just wives and mothers, that they could do what they wanted to, not what society and tradition forced them to do. These characters and their actions make for just as much interesting viewing as the lads do.
I also like how the series shows us the psychological impact that this job had on the men who were a part of it. Their horrific and frightening experiences can’t just be forgotten and swept under the carpet, they will always carry the disturbing images and feelings of fear with them. We see the brave faces they put on in public, but we also see how much what they must do affects them.
All of the episodes are excellent, but I think it’s fair to say that Butterfly Winter, The Pier, Digging Out and Cast Iron Killer are the best of the best. The Pier and Butterfly Winter in particular are two of the most shocking and suspenseful episodes of the whole lot. I also like how The Pier shows us that there was great danger to be faced from British explosives – as well as from the German ones – as the team are ordered near the end of the war to help dismantle British mines lining the coast. Beaches had been mined by our troops as a last line of defence should the Germans have ever attempted to invade the mainland.
The whole cast deliver absolutely superb performances, but it is Ian Cuthbertson, Anthony Andrews, Maurice Roeves, Kenneth Cranham, Robert Pugh and George Innes who all standout the most for me. A large number of soon to be famous faces appear throughout the series and it’s a real treat to see them. Anthony Andrews, Judy Geeson, Robert Pugh and Kenneth Cranham would go on to become very well known actors over the years that followed. Anthony would become a household name after his performance in another classic British series, Brideshead Revisited, just two years after he appeared in this. Anthony’s performance in Danger UXB is one of the best he’s ever given.
Danger UXB is not only a brilliant television series, but watching it makes me respect and admire my grandparents and their generation even more than I already do. The amount of horror and difficult choices that generation had to face during WW2 was just staggering. I think this series does a very good job of helping those of us from younger generations connect with that time and with the emotional and physical impact of the war.
This is undoubtedly one of the best series about WW2 ever made. If you enjoy series which let characters, events and stories unfold slowly, which don’t have annoyingly fast editing every few seconds, and which don’t insult the intelligence or attention span of the audience, then this is most certainly the series for you.
This is my entry for the WW2 blogathon being hosted by myself and Jay in a few days time. I can’t wait to read all of your entries.
I’ve decided it is high time to write about Callan. Despite it having been made twenty years before I was born, this excellent British TV series has ended up becoming a firm favourite of mine. I love it so much. It is a groundbreaking series in so many ways and is one which packs quite a punch.
The series is a gritty, serious, violent, bleak and extremely moody spy drama. The series plays out like a blend of the spy worlds created by John le Carre and Len Deighton.
The characters in Callan are some of the most complex and interesting that you will find in any TV series or film. Aside from the characters of Liz and Lonely, nobody in this series is completely all hero or villain. The main character/hero of the series is the most complex character of the whole lot. This character complexity is just one of the many things that set this series apart from others made at the time.
Callan is a dark and grim series focusing on things that were never really seen on screen all that often at the time the series was made. We see the main character becoming traumatised and losing his nerve for a time after being shot. We also see another main character reach his emotional breaking point, after his actions leave a young woman permanently brain damaged. That is some heavy stuff right there! And those examples provide only a small taste of the overall dark content and tone of the series. This series seems quite ahead of its time to me. People didn’t really talk about issues like trauma or stress back then, so for this series to actually show us tough men struggling and cracking was really quite daring in my view.
Callan may well have been created after the films The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Ipcress File had been made, but it aired on TV over a decade before the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy miniseries became the last word in gritty and realistic spy stories on screen. Callan became one of the most popular and beloved British series. It provided audiences of the 1960’s and 70’s with the most realistic portrayal of espionage ever seen on the small screen at that point in time. The realism of this series is a far cry from the glamorous missions of James Bond and the quirky and stylish adventures of John Steed and Emma Peel in The Avengers.
Callan was created for television by British teacher turned author, James Mitchell. Mitchell had written several gritty crime and spy novels under various pseudonyms, including James Munro. He also wrote for several Television series too.
Callan first began life as a pilot episode written by James Mitchell, called The War Game. The pilot episode was originally intended to be made as part of the popular BBC series Detective. When this fell through, James Mitchell then sold the episode on to ABC for their Armchair Theatre anthology series. The pilot episode first aired as part of that series in February, 1967. The pilot episode was given the new title of A Magnum For Schneider.
David Callan was a new type of TV hero. Screenshot by me.
Before the pilot episode had even been aired, Armchair Theatre producer Leonard White, and the story editor Terence Feely, both strongly felt that this story had the potential to be developed into a full series. The pilot episode introduced viewers to a new type of TV hero. The main character was a far cry from the many suave and morally upright TV heroes of the day. The hero of this series was the deadly and tough, yet troubled and introspective British agent, David Callan(Edward Woodward).
David Callan is the top agent of “The Section”, a department within British Intelligence permitted to use the most ruthless methods against individuals who are considered to be threatening the internal security of the UK. The department is seen to be run by various chief agents over the years, each one known to us only by the codename of “Hunter”.
The section regularly orders its agents to spy on, kill, blackmail, torture and intimidate people who are deemed a threat. Suspects names are placed into colour coded files. Blue Files contain the names of individuals who belong to or support the ‘wrong’ political party. Yellow Files contain the names of people who are currently under surveillance. White Files contain the names of people who are to be put out of action by placing them in mental homes, the divorce courts, bankruptcy or prison. Red Files contain the names of people considered to be extremely dangerous/marked for death. Callan is often assigned to deal with suspects in Red Files.
Callan is a highly skilled agent who is excellent at his job. The trouble is that Callan also happens to loath his job. He also happens to be trapped in the job. It may be an unpleasant job, but it’s a job that he is undeniably good at.
No matter how much Callan may long for a normal life, he can never make himself walk out and leave his life as a spy behind him. It doesn’t help that he knows he could possibly end up in a Red File himself should he ever try to leave his job.
Callan frequently challenges his bosses on why many of the dirty jobs he’s assigned must be done in the first place. The more jobs he does, the more Callan starts to wonder about the people he follows and threatens. Do some of them even deserve what is being done to them? Callan also feels aggrieved that he and his fellow agents are the ones getting their hands dirty, while Hunter and other senior intelligence figures don’t end up partaking in the grim tasks they order. The higher ranking agents don’t have to try and live with the unpleasant memories associated with these unpleasant assignments, unlike the agents assigned to carry out these duties.
What makes Callan such a likeable and fascinating character, is that although he is a tough and professional killer, he is also a very moral man with a conscience and a heart. He hates what he has to do and while he knows that many of the jobs he does are necessary, there are others that he really isn’t sure about.
We may hate some of the things that Callan has to do, but we can’t help but like and admire him as a person. Callan may well kill, but he certainly doesn’t kill without reason in cold blood. He doesn’t take any pleasure in what he has to do. He also stands up to his bosses, even memorably threatening the first Hunter: “Don’t you push me too far will you? Because I might just let myself be killed. Only you won’t be there to see it, because, mate, I’ll get you first. And I can do it, believe me I can do it. You ought to know. Because after all, you did train me“. David Callan’s threat to the first Hunter.
I can’t really think of any other series(old or current)which have characters standing up to their bosses and being as openly hostile to them in the way that Callan is to his.It’s also quite remarkable for the time to see Callan, who is a working class man, challenging the authority of his superiors, many of whom are from the British upper classes.
There have been few series which feature such complex and grey characters as the ones seen in Callan. Edward Woodward described the grey nature of Callan best, in this quote of his from a 1987 audio interview, which can be heard in This Man Alone (a documentary about the making of Callan): “I was very much looking for that kind of character to play. I was tired of playing either crooks or heroes. This man went right down the middle. You couldn’t make up your mind what he was and nor could he. He had such a chip on his shoulder, was sort of an anti-hero. And was a hero with feet of clay”.
I can imagine no actor other than Edward Woodward in the role of Callan. He does some of his best work in this series. Edward was an up and coming stage and TV actor when he accepted the role of David Callan. He was due to be going on holiday with his family when he received the script for A Magnum For Schneider. After reading the script, Edward knew that he had to take on this role. Alas, the Woodward family holiday had to be cancelled so that he could get right to work, but I’m sure that personal sacrifice was considered to have been well worth it in the end. This series made him a star.
Edward Woodward does some of his best work in Callan. Screenshots by me.
He brings such depth to the character of Callan. He totally makes you believe he is this cold and hard professional, but that he is also a very gentle and weary soul. I also love how Edward does this thing where he very briefly shows little flickers of emotion behind Callan’s hard mask. His eyes will briefly look haunted, tender, angry or amused, and then it is as if the shutters are slammed shut, and in a matter of seconds he quickly switches his expressions back to being the cold and detached professional once again. The only other actor who I think could do acting like that was Jeremy Brett(see his Sherlock Holmes series to see what I mean). Edward is also excellent in the scenes where Callan loses his temper or is intimidating someone. The series made Edward a household name here in the UK and he would become one of our most beloved actors.
Although Callan is the main character of the series, there are many other regular characters who we get to know as well.
Seasons 1 and 2 see Callan often paired with the sadistic Toby Meres(Anthony Valentine). Meres was first introduced in the pilot episode, in which he was played by Peter Bowles. Mears seems to relish the violence of his job. He is also quite a scary, yet charming and suave man.
Anthony brings a real edge to the character and makes him so chilling. Meres is the living embodiment of what Callan would be like if he didn’t have a conscience. It has to be said that Meres is a very good agent who is working on behalf of his country, but he acts almost like a psychopath and loves dishing out violence. He and Callan develop a grudging professional respect as time goes on, but neither man likes the other. Due to the gap between filming seasons 2 and 3, Anthony wasn’t able to return to the series due to other commitments. He would not be seen again until season 4.
Callan also works with the arrogant and hot tempered James Cross(Patrick Mower). The character of James Cross was written to replace the gap left by Anthony Valentine not being available for season 3.
James Cross is less scary and cruel than Meres, but he is quite thuggish. He wants to rise up the ranks of the Section and take Callan’s place as the top agent.
Cross is an excellent agent, but he really annoys Callan, who knows full well that Cross covets his job. A genuine respect and affection does gradually develop between them and they make a good team when out on assignments. Patrick steals all the scenes he is in,often with just a look or an angry expression. He also works very well with Edward Woodward and there is a real intensity in their shared scenes, particularly when the characters argue or needle each other.
The four faces of Hunter. Top left to right: Ronald Radd, Michael Goodliffe, Derek Bond. Bottom: William Squire.
Over the course of the series there are four actors who play the chief agents known as “Hunter”. The first was played by Ronald Radd. The first Hunter is the one that I consider to be the most interesting of the four. Ronald’s Hunter was a real tough nut. He was ruthless and you just know that his word is the absolute law in that department. The second Hunter was played by the great screen actor Michael Goodliffe. The second Hunter is more intellectual and seemingly not as hard as the first one was, but you never doubt his authority for a second. Michael left the series after only a few episodes of season 2, apparently he didn’t like the violent nature of the series. The third Hunter was played by Derek Bond. The third Hunter knows Callan personally and seems more friendly and approachable than the others. We last see the third Hunter in season 2. The fourth Hunter is the one who has become the most popular. Played by William Squire, the fourth Hunter is a mix of toughness and warmth. The fourth Hunter also encourages Callan to give him lip and argue with him, understanding that this is what keeps Callan sane and helps him blow off steam. The fourth Hunter really sees Callan as a major asset. William is terrific in the role and often steals all the scenes he is in with just a look or by the tone in which he delivers a line. Edward Woodward himself would also briefly take on the role of Hunter in season 4, when Callan is promoted to the top position in the Section for a time.
The second most important character in the series is the adorable Lonely (Russell Hunter). Russell delivers one of the best performances in the series and makes it impossible not to like this character.
Lonely is all wide eyes, exaggerated shock and childlike innocence. Lonely is a local thief who has terrible personal hygiene.
Lonely is able to get Callan items he needs at quite short notice. He also assists him on some jobs, such as helping him to break into properties. At first Lonely is scared stiff of Callan, who early on in the series often threatens him with violence if he ever tells anyone about what they get up to. He needn’t worry though, dear Lonely would never betray him. Gradually the threats fade away and are replaced by banter. Lonely later comes to the correct conclusion that Callan is a spy. When he tells Callan that he knows what he is, this leads to the interesting development for Lonely, which is put in place by Callan much later in the series.
It quickly becomes very clear that Callan and Lonely have a genuine emotional connection. They each become the only friend that the other has. Callan provides Lonely with the only bits of warmth and kindness he gets in his life, and he also makes him feel needed and valued.
Lonely allows Callan to relax and briefly let his guard down. When they are together their relationship offers Callan the only bit of a normal life he’ll ever get to have.
The way that Russell plays the role of Lonely, it seems to me that Lonely is supposed to also be mentally challenged in some way. Lonely is quite slow and vulnerable, and he is easily taken advantage of, this makes Callan very protective of him. Woe betide anyone who threatens or hurts Lonely, because Callan will give them a big dose of their own medicine in return. Their comical and poignant relationship is the highlight of the series for me. Their banter also provides the only source of relief from the overall grimness of the series.
Other regular characters include the reliable and loyal Liz(Lisa Langdon),who is the secretary to each Hunter. Callan and the fourth Hunter are both very fond of her. She and Cross have a brief affair, which is brought to an end by Callan in order to save both of their careers(Section colleagues are not supposed to become romantically involved). Another regular character is Dr. Snell (Clifford Rose). Snell is the cold and scary medical officer for the Section.
The first season of the full series of Callan entered production at ABC in April, 1967. The episodes were transmitted over July and August that same year. Producer Terence Feely would leave the series after this first season to take up a role at Paramount(UK). He was replaced in season 2 by Reginald Collin, who would stay on in the role of producer for the rest of the series. John Kershaw was brought on as the story editor, but he would leave after season 2 to go and work on Armchair Theatre. John Kershaw was replaced by George Markstein, who would remain until the end of the series. James Mitchell would write the majority of the episodes, but there were also other writers working on the series too.
The first two seasons of the series were shot in black and white and recorded on videotape. Standard practice at the time was to reuse the tape once its original content had been broadcast a few times, this practice sadly led to several episodes of the early seasons being permanently wiped. All of the episodes for seasons 3 and 4 survive.
The picture quality of some of the early episodes is sadly not as good as on the colour episodes of season 3 and 4, but that is simply due to how things were filmed at the time. As good as the series is in colour, it really can’t be denied that the black and white photography suits the grim tone and dark atmosphere of the series perfectly.
Adding to the bleak atmosphere of the series is that unforgettable title sequence. The title sequence is simple and very effective. It features a swinging lightbulb casting light and shade across Callan’s face to the strains of the now iconic theme tune. The theme music was called Girl In The Dark, which was a piece of stock library music composed by Jack Tromby. In 1970, Edward Woodward(who was not only a good actor, but was also a very fine singer) would record a vocal version of this tune entitled This Man Alone, to coincide with the production of season 3 of the series.
In mid 1968, ABC underwent an enforced merger with Associated Rediffusion to become Thames Television. The second season of Callan would be broadcast in 1969.The incredible public reaction to the cliffhanger finale of season 2, which saw a brainwashed Callan kill Hunter and then get shot himself by Meres, ensured that the series would continue to be made by the newly created Thames Television. Everyone wanted to know Callan’s fate after that episode aired.
Season 3 was broadcast in 1970. The first episode saw a wounded and traumatised Callan trying to recover from the events in the season 2 finale. The transmission of this season would be disrupted due to live football matches being aired, and also due to coverage of the 1970 General Election. As the seasons past, the popularity of Callan grew and grew with the viewers. The series moved from being a cult favourite to one of the most popular series on the air at that time.
Season 4 of the series wouldn’t air until 1972. From 1970 onwards, James Mitchell would write a number of short Callan stories, which were then published in the Sunday Express newspaper. These written adventures ensured that the public demand for David Callan continued to be met in one way or another. James Mitchell also wrote and published several Callan novels.
The series would come to an end in 1972. The final episode was suitably bleak and moving and concluded a three episode storyline. I like that the series ended on a high note and didn’t drag on, unlike some series which end up really outstaying their welcome after a while.
There would be two Callan films made (both starring Edward Woodward), one in 1974 and the other in 1981. Unfortunately neither film is as good as the series is. The 1974 film in particular seems like such a wasted opportunity to me. Instead of making a fresh story, or maybe even carrying on directly where the final episode left off, the film is instead a big screen version of the pilot episode A Magnum For Schneider.
Apart from the poor picture quality of some of the early episodes, I think that this series hasn’t really dated at all. The strength of this series is that it is a series which sits back and lets the actors and scriptwriters do all the work. There is no fast and annoying editing every few seconds, nor is there any intrusive music or special effects. The strong scripts, interesting characters, character interactions and all those superb performances are what keeps you glued to the screen. Callan is good television. It is a real testament to all the cast and crew that this series still works so well today.
The complete series is available to buy on DVD. The series has recently been rerun on the Talking Pictures TV channel here in the UK. I’ve really enjoyed reading the many positive comments from people seeing this series for the first time thanks to this rerun. The positive response proves to me that this series has lost none of its impact all these years later.
I really need to get around to checking out the Callan novels at some point. Has anyone read them? If so, do they need to read in order of publication or not? I wonder if any of the short stories James Mitchell wrote for the paper are available anywhere? It would be great to read those as well.
Have you seen this series? What do you think about it?
In 1959 a new Science Fiction TV series aired. This new series was quite unlike anything else airing at that time. The series bravely tackled the big issues of the day; issues such as racism, fear of others, individuality, conformity, hatred and war. These often controversial issues and topics were able to get on the air via this series in the guise of Sci-Fi.
The series also examined what it even means to be human. The series reflected the unpleasant truth about the horrific things that humanity is capable of. The series is scary, moving, shocking, powerful and very thought provoking. The series stands up very well when viewed today, and not only that, but it more than retains its impact and ability to make the audience think. That series is The Twilight Zone.
“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into The Twilight Zone!” Rod Serling’s opening narration for seasons 4 and 5.
I love this series! Growing up I had heard and read a lot about this series, but I had only ever actually seen a handful of episodes from it. That all changed a couple of years ago. I treated myself to the complete series on Blu-ray(the episodes are beautifully cleaned up and look like they could have been made today). It is now one of my favourite series.
In addition to it being one of greatest Science Fiction series ever made, I alsothink that The Twilight Zone is the most human TV series that has ever been made. This series so perfectly captures just what it means to be human.
The series shows us our weaknesses, our strengths, our desire to better ourselves or to change a situation we don’t like. The Twilight Zone reflects humanity back to us, by showing us the best and worst of ourselves right there on that TV screen. The series also contains some very moving performances and scenarios which have the ability to really touch the viewers heart.
I especially love the episodes where we in the audience are made to think what we would do if we were in a particular characters shoes. Who among us wouldn’t love to be able to go back and offer advice and support to our younger selves? Well, by watching Gig Young in Walking Distance we can feel like we have done so. By watching No Time Like The Past, we can see that the good intentions in trying to change terrible historical events may not be possible or even advisable.
The Twilight Zone series was created by Rod Serling. Rod was an American WW2 veteran who despised hatred, war, bigotry and cruelty. He poured his heart and soul into this series and it shows on screen. He not only created the series, but he also produced it and wrote many of the episodes.
The series first came into being with a script written by Serling, called The Time Element. This unofficial pilot episode for the series was first aired on the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, on the 24th of November, 1958.
Martin Balsam(who would go on to guest star in the official series)and William Bendix were the stars.
This pilot episode focuses on a man who claims to be able to travel back in time to Pearl Harbor, just before the horrific attack there on the 7th of December, 1941. This episode really sets the tone for the series that we know and love today. This episode is included as an extra with the Blu-ray boxset.
The official series aired a year later, on the 2nd of October, 1959. The first episode of the official series was called Where Is Everybody? This episode finds a man (Earl Holliman) discovering an abandoned town and not remembering who he is.
The series would continue on the air until 1964. The series is primarily classed as Science Fiction, featuring many stories of time travel, alien invaders and alien worlds.
I like many of the time travel and alien focused episodes, but my personal favourite episodes are the creepy ones; episodes such as The Grave, Thirty- Fathom Grave, The Hitch-Hiker(the first episode that I ever saw), Deaths-head Revisited and The Howling Man.
The powerful performances and different weekly settings ensured that Serling’s series became very popular with audiences. The series real claim to fame though was the twist ending to each episode.
These endings are the series trademark, and these twists often leave us reassessing the previous 25 minutes that we have been watching.
I love that no matter how many times I watch the episodes that those twists still retain their shock factor, even when I know full well what’s coming next they still work.
It is a credit to Serling and his superb regular writing staff of Charles Beumont, George Clayton Johnson and Richard Matheson, that the series is still as powerful and impactful today as it was when it first aired. Many other famous writers including Ray Bradbury took turns writing scripts for the series.
The scripts are real quality too and they are very good character pieces. They really knew how to write back then and how to put so much into a simple 25 minute episode.
You just don’t see anthology series like this any more. You also seldom get script writing of this quality anymore, which is a real shame I think.
I also like how you never know where you’ll end up next in this series from episode to episode. One episode could be set on an alien world, another set in the old west, and another in the present(50’s and 60’s).
Serling’s series also bravely tackled the big issues of his day, particularly racism, fear of nuclear war, fear of people and places unknown to another set of people etc. The morality tales still pack quite a punch while sadly making you see that in some ways not much has changed since the series aired. Humans are still intent on killing one another, there is still racism, and there is still fear of other cultures etc. When will we wake up and accept that we are all the same under the skin? We are born, and one day we will all die. Why do we have to spend our lives being hateful and violent? It’s madness. I think that Rod Serling would despair of the state of the world if he were alive today.
I can also think of no other series where the creator became such an integral part of their own series(not even Alfred Hitchcock on his anthology series.) Serling is the heart and soul of the series I think.
He provides the voice over narration for all episodes and he filmed intros and outros to the episodes. The face of Serling is as much a part of the series as the famous theme tune and the twists.
In the Blu-ray boxset, Serling’s intros and outros are included for all the episodes. I really enjoy watching those and seeing Rod introduce each episode.
I consider the first three seasons to be the best in terms of quality. I am also in the minority of fans who actually quite likes season 4 too(locks self in sealed vault to escape onslaught of season 4 hate 😉 ). While I will agree with the season 4 critics that the format change from 25 minutes to 50 was a mistake, I do strongly disagree that the episodes found here are the weakest of the series.
Some of my favourites from season 4 are The Thirty-Fathom Grave, On Thursday We Leave For Home, Miniature(one of the most moving of all the episodes, and featuring a memorable performance by a young Robert Duvall),The New Exhibit, Jess-Belle and Printer’s Devil.
I actually think that season 5 is the worst of the series. So many of the episodes in this are terrible(what went wrong with the writing here?)or bear too strong a resemblance to earlier episodes. There are a few gems to be found though such as In Praise of Pip, Nightmare at 20,000 feet(perhaps the best known of all the episodes), An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, The Masks, Living Doll, Night Call and Stopover in a Quiet Town.
Throughout the series there are many fan favourite episodes: Time Enough At Last, Five Characters In Search Of An Exit, The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street(although I personally think this one would have worked better as a paranoia story without the alien involvement which we later discover), Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, The After Hours, And When The Sky Was Opened, The Invaders, In Praise Of Pip, Walking Distance, It’s A Good Life, The Silence, The Masks, A Stop At Willoughby and The Odyssey of Flight 33.
There are also somewhat lesser appreciated episodes to enjoy: The Last Flight, Nick of Time, People Are Alike All Over, One For The Angels, Printer’s Devil, The Hunt, The Passersby, I Am The Night,Color Me Black, The Sixteen Millimetre Shrine, I Shot An Arrow Into The Air(surely the origins of Serling’s film The Planet of the Apes?), Judgement Night, The Obsolete Man, Passage For Trumpet and Mirror Image.
I also love how many big film stars feature in this series. I envy classic era audiences who got to tune in weekly not knowing who would appear next. A handful of these stars made more than one appearance on the series: Jack Klugman(superb in several deeply moving episodes), Burgess Meredith, William Shatner, Martin Balsam etc. I think the quality of the work is evident given the amount of film stars who agreed to guest star in these episodes.
The series also features one of the most instantly recognisable themes in TV history. Chances are if you’ve never seen an episode, you’ll have heard that intro tune at some point in your life. The original theme tune for the series was composed by Bernard Herrmann, this theme can be heard in season 1. As much as I do love the later theme, Herrmann’s theme is very eerie and mysterious and I love it very much indeed because it’s so atmospheric. The theme that we all know today didn’t make its debut until season 2, that iconic later Zone theme was composed by Marius Constant.
I suppose there is also the big question as to just what exactly The Twilight Zone is and what it means? I take it that it is a phrase that perfectly sums up the weird and unexplainable events in life, be it our current life or in a time back in the past or forward in the future. I have often found myself saying “I can’t believe this, it’s like I’m in The Twilight Zone”, when faced with bizarre or horrible situations in my life.
My ten favourite episodes are: The Passersby(featuring a heart wrenching performance by Joanne Linville, as a woman left in deep emotional distress following the American Civil War), Walking Distance, The Last Flight, The Grave, Printer’s Devil, The Odyssey of Flight 33, The Changing of the Guard, In Praise of Pip, The Howling Man and One For The Angels.
Similar series to this which I like are One Step Beyond and Thriller. I have also seen Rod Serling’s later series called Night Gallery; this is a much darker series than The Twilight Zone and I highly recommend it to horror fans.
Please share your thoughts on the series. What are your favourite episodes?
Never seen an episode? What are you waiting for? The Zone awaits you. Just make sure you get a return ticket though, because you wouldn’t want to get stuck there. Would you?