THE LIGHTS OF London is unique in the history of Survivors for a number of reasons. It is the only two-part storyline in the entire series, and contains the only cliffhanger ending which is recapped at the beginning of the second part. Although it was not originally intended to be a single story in two halves by writer Jack Ronder, it is a happy accident of scheduling that the one Survivors two-parter falls in the right sequence to be included on a single cassette.
The story provides for the most extensive and detailed depiction of post-Death urban chaos and decay ever revealed in the programme. The Lights of London is a dramatic city-based exception for a series that was principally rural in its setting.
In addition to the impressive location work, large sections of Lights were shot on film stock, rather than on video, with film cameras (used next for the exterior shoot on The Chosen) used for most of the opening Whitecross sequences. Shot in the pale light of early January, the scenes on film are evocative and atmospheric – far more so than the brightly lit video segments. Lights was one of the few series two episodes located, in the main, away from Whitecross. The dramatic location work in Lights is, perhaps unavoidably, offset by an unwelcome return to studio-bound sets for most of the London interiors.
The production costs for Lights were probably quite high, relative to other Survivors stories. The logistics of the urban shoot, the additional studio time and set construction, the effects shots, the large number of extras, the film segments – were all unusual add-ons for a series two shoot. It's likely that Lights was pricier than a normal show, despite the savings that would have come from producing two episodes from a single set-up.
Visitors trick Ruth into leaving Whitecross on a mercy mission, only to reveal their true agenda once their unwitting hostage is far from home. Reluctantly Ruth agrees to help, even as she learns that her real destination is a besieged community in the heart of London where dozens have fallen prey to a mystery illness. With a sense of trepidation and dread, Ruth prepares to brave the danger and disease of the decimated capital…
The outdoor settings are superb. There are excellent, chilly and chilling, underground station scenes, an unlikely allotment patch, and – as Greg helps out on a route check – fantastic sequences of rubbish strewn and car choked city streets. The London of Lights is foul and foreboding. All of this makes it easy to forgive the two not-very-special effects – one involving not very predatory (and in fact very stuffed and stuck on) rats, the other a dramatic nightime cityscape of bonfires raging across the London skyline, made up from (what appears to be) a couple of bunsen burners stuck in front of a strip of black cardboard. The effect falls so flat that it would have been far better to have relied on the audience's imagination and the use of close-ups on the horrified and disbelieving members of the cast.
The scale and sophistication of the London community is striking. Surviving Londoners enjoy the relative luxuries of hot running water, radio, cinema and extensive food and fuel stocks, but at the critically high price of enduring the 'London Sickness'.
There are several sterling performances among the guest star cast, including Roger Lloyd Pack as 'the great unwashed' dissident Wally, and most notably, Lennox Milne, utterly convincing as the irrepressible nurse and ward sister Nessie. The performance of Sydney Tafler as Manny is perhaps a weaker link, his reading of what could be quite a complex character is rather flat and obvious. Manny's dubious motives are transparent from the moment he appears on screen, where there could be more doubt about them initially. A subtler interpretation of his megalomania could also have made Manny's subsequent cold-bloodedness more of a revelation. While Wally bemoans the tyranny of the 'fascist' London state, Manny points to his democratic mandate and popular contentment with his rule.
This intriguing story is unraveled in layers, as the central plot twists and turns. Lights provides a wider vista beyond the sometimes introspective concerns of the Whitecross settlement, offering glimpses of the global situation, and throwing up thoughtful issues about the tensions between collectivity and individuality, belonging and responsibility, and — most pressing of all — the obligations that the question of long-term human survival imposes on lives of those who have just come through the Death.
At the close of part one, Charles and Greg have uncovered the deception and followed the trail to the heart of London in a bid to free Ruth from the clutches of her kidnappers. Rescued from a rat attack by the exiled renegade Wally, they are taken to the settlement run by the suspicious and manipulative Manny. There they learn of an audacious plan to escape from under the shadow of the 'London sickness' and begin again on untainted soil – a plan in which Ruth is to play a pivotal role, and which Greg and Charles are soon tangled up in…
The pace picks up considerably in the second installment of The Lights of London, as the plot twists and shifts, and the real hidden purpose behind the 'Big Move' is uncovered. Manny's 'five year plan' is revealed not as a means to liberate and revive the remaining London community, but a trick intended to passify the masses through the empty promise of a 'good life to come'. Manny sees the plan for the Move as the key to maintaining morale, and encouraging hard work amongst his subjects – and as the best way to protect his petty fiefdom, even as it is eaten away from within by illness and death. Whether or not the idea that 500 survivors is the critical mass to ensure the continuation of the human race is valid, Manny has convinced his followers that it is and that it's worth working for.
Armed and irate
When the original doctor dies, Nessie urges Ruth to flee before she becomes trapped forever. Greg and Charles negotiate their passage home, but take the now-disillusioned Ruth with them. The Whitecross fugitives scramble into the tunnels pursued by an armed and irate Manny. The dramatic final showdown in the half-light of the underground is well evoked, though events are wrapped up perhaps a little too neatly as we reach the evocative closing shot of the 'light at the end of the tunnel' and the beginning of the journey home.
The series never returns to London to see if Wally tracks down another doctor, or convinces the community to live without a paternalistic dictator. Viewers never learn whether the Move is ever attempted for real. But the London adventure reinforces the stark realities of the survivors' predicament. Returning to Whitecross, the relief of our survivors must be tempered by confirmation of the most unwelcome truth possible. In it they have learnt that, on a global scale, humanity appears to be hanging onto life by the thinnest of threads. At this point in the series there was no toning down of the raw power of its bleak central premise.
Cite this web page
Cross, R. (2021). 'The Lights of London, I & II,' [online] Survivors: A World Away, 31 January. Available at: https://www.survivors-mad-dog.org.uk/a-world-away/Archive_Rev_LL1.php. Accessed on: 11 May 2021.
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