Peter Duncan reflects on his time in Survivors, recalling three episodes
‘Survivors seems more interesting than most things on TV at present’
Peter Duncan — probably best known to television audiences for his role as co-presenter on Blue Peter and star of Duncan Dares — appeared in three episodes of the second series of Survivors. Duncan's character Dave was one of the influx of young people uprooted from Mark Carter's failed agricultural settlement who arrive at the Whitecross community in New Arrivals and who play a central role in the storylines of Over the Hills and New World.
Until he joined the Survivors cast, Peter had never seen a single episode of the programme. "I wasn't auditioning for my 'favourite show' or anything", he remembers. "I don't remember being aware of Survivors until I did it, really." He recalls, however, that he did find the premise of the show intriguing. "I thought it was quite interesting, I think. Although with something that you did so long ago, it's hard to actually remember exactly what you thought about it about it at the time."
"It was certainly something that was quite 'fashionable' for the time. In the seventies, there was much more concern with the risks of a post-nuclear world, and all those kinds of things."
Looking back on it now, Peter concedes that some of the programme comes over as "terribly dated" but suggests that "the storylines were quite good". "If it had been shot now, it would have been a bit edgier, wouldn't it? But that was the style of the times. A lot of those post-apocalyptic things tend to be over-the-top dramatically, whereas this was about farming, and how to increase the population, and getting pregnant. Quite interesting issues, I thought."
Like many guest cast members on the programme, Peter did not go through a formal audition before getting the part. "I think I just got an offer — maybe because it wasn't a very large role!"
"I was doing an episode of All Creatures Great and Small, and I — vaguely — remember that one of the directors came in and said that there might be small role in Survivors. And I think I thought 'yeah, that sounds alright.' Jobs happened like that a lot." After that, Peter recalls, "it was just a matter of turning up on location, really."
Survivors was far from being Peter's first television break. Amongst other roles, Peter had appeared in Doomwatch (1971), The Tomorrow People (1974) and he'd "done three or four big films before that", including On the Game (1973), Stardust (1974), and The Old Curiosity Shop (1975). He was also well aware that his was a temporary supporting role on an established series. He did have some hopes, though, that his role might have become more substantial than it did.
"The thing is that when you get into a series proper, you don't know quite what's going to happen story-wise, although you might know that you're going to be in this or that episode. I was surprised when I watched a tape of my episodes recently — I was in it a lot more than I thought I was. I hadn't remembered my part as being very substantial or me having much of a storyline, really. When you do a series sometimes, you don't get all the scripts [up front], and you're hopeful that your part will be built up. Of course, that doesn't always happen — as people who've been in soaps and other things will tell you."
Peter had worked with a number of the Survivors cast on earlier projects. "I think I knew June Page, by then — who played Sally, the girl who became pregnant — and I'd worked with Denis Lill at The National once, back in the early seventies, so I knew him."
Of the other regular cast members, he remembers that "Ian McCulloch used to sing songs all the time. That was quite nice — and he was quite sweet." Peter's memories of the atmosphere around the set are positive ones. "It was all very friendly, it was on a nice location, and it was all quite fun. There was quite a good feel about it. I think it was quite relaxed, and it was nice being in the countryside."
During filming blocks, Peter and a group of fellow Survivors actors "lived in a little cottage nearby, in the grounds of a stately home, a few of us together, which was also nice." Roger Monk, who played the part of Pete in the same episodes as Peter Duncan "was a contemporary of mine", and was one of those sharing the cottage. "He was quite melancholy. He used to sing lots of Simon and Garfunkel quite a lot. Emily, Wherever I May Find Her, I seem to remember him singing rather a lot, in that nice cottage." Callow Hill — the real-life location of the fictional Whitecross settlement — also had "a certain sort of hippy-flavour to it" that was quite intriguing and laid-back.
As Peter remembers it, filming on Survivors was not particularly rigorous. "There wasn't a lot of pressure on getting us to do too much, really." It was certainly not, to Peter's recolllection, more intensive or fast moving than other series he had worked on. "I remember it was all done on location, which made it slightly more interesting. Even the inside scenes — they were shot on location. That was probably still a bit novel, in those days." At that time, "when you used to record for TV, you used to go on location and film on 16mm film stock, and you'd come back to this very flat video" for the studio interiors. "But, of course, everyone knew which was a film bit and which was a studio bit." The fact that Survivors was reliant entirely on on-location OB recording "gave it a better sense of continuity, I think."
Of his fellow guest-stars, Peter singles out Ian Hastings — who played the part of the 'agricultural guru' Mark Carter in New Arrivals — as of particular note. "He was a good actor, the lead guy. He was good." He is, however, much more critical of his own performance, particularly in retrospect. "I thought I was pretty awful, actually — a sort of petulant semi-cockney youth. I could have done slightly better with the characterisation there."
Peter remembers that he found the plot of his second episode Over the Hills, and its concern with reproductive rights, particularly interesting. However, he concedes that there were few animated discussions on set about the contentious issues that the show presented on screen. "I think we were too busy, really. The behind-the-scenes storylines were nothing like the real storylines on screen, to be honest."
Peter recalls that recording the balloon sequences at the end of New World "was quite fun, yes. Obviously, in my Blue Peter days, I went on to do all kinds of things like that." In fact of the footage of the balloon in the episode was — in a rare exception to the series two norm — shot on film. Peter has no doubt that this was for sound technical reasons: "Well, remember the video cameras were quite chunky in those days, whereas the little film cameras — you can take a little 8mm thing anywhere. That's probably why. They were big things to lug around — and they used to have the umbilical cords, didn't they? Even in my early Blue Peter days, all my clever bits we shot on little film cameras — tiny little things, sometimes — just to get the image of something that you couldn't get a big camera close enough to shoot."
Peter's appearance in Survivors did not transform him into a dedicated viewer of the show. "I must have watched the episodes I was in. I'm not sure I watched any of the others." Nor does he remember any discussion of the possibility of his remaining with the show after the series two finale. "That would have been nice if I'd had a better part, I would have thought. [Laughs]. But I don't remember much being said." In fact, he was unaware that Survivors was recommissioned for a third series. "I don't remember it being such a successful series — clearly it was."
His appearance in Survivors opened few professional doors for him. "I don't think I made much of an impact, to be honest. It's always funny, when I'm in something, I'm always think I'm not in it very much, and then I find, 'oh, there's a few scenes there'. I don't really remember it having much impact on my career."
Of his fellow cast members, Peter has occasionally crossed paths since. "I became quite friendly with June Page, although I haven't seen her in a while. Heather Wright [who played the role of Melanie], I'd see on the tennis court. She plays tennis. She's still blonde, but I haven't seen her for years. I also bumped into Denis Lill a few years ago."
"Since Survivors I've worked with Linda Robson again," who played the part of Barbara, another member of Mark Carter's group. "She worked with me in a panto, about ten years ago, and although we were convinced that we'd worked together, we could never work out where. That's where it was — on Survivors. So that solves that mystery."
Like many Survivors cast members, Peter finds it odd that the BBC never repeated the series after its initial transmission. "They're accused of repeating lots of things, but somehow never the things you're in. They'll always repeat Only Fools and Horses a million times, but nothing else! And yet, who knows what'll happen in the future with the back catalogues? With so many channels, people will be able to just download what they want to see, won't they?"
For Peter, Survivors compares very favourably with much current television output. "Certainly in terms of ideas and scripts, it's a lot more interesting than some of the stuff on TV today. There's so much 'glamour acting', in the sense that they're either pretty people or very familiar people, and the scripts are pretty dull, really. There is good one-off stuff, but as television series go, Survivors seems more interesting than most things in the present, most contemporary TV series."
"It makes you wonder if they attempted something like Survivors now, what it would be like? It would be interesting to look again at similar themes", he suggests, "partly because the environmental concerns would perhaps now have much more relevance than in the past."
Peter Duncan was interviewed on 3 September 2003
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