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THE SLIDE by Victor Pemberton
BBC Radio Dramatisation in seven parts
Starring Roger Delgado, Miriam Margoyles and Maurice Denham
Victor Pemberton, bless his heart, was one of those writers that had one really stonkingly good idea and then spent the rest of his career plagiarising himself. That sounds kind of harsh, but this landmark production from 1966 is one of those things that really creeps you out, so it is easy to see why the author used this story as the basis of an original novel, and a Doctor Who script in 1967.
Whenever I refer to The Slide, I always describe it as “Quatermass for radio”. If you have no idea who or what Quatermass is, I will move swiftly on, but if you do know what I mean and this excites you, you will not be disappointed. This could easily have been written by Nigel Kneale, and you can’t help thinking he listened to this on the original transmission and thought, damn this Pemberton fellow has beat me at my own game.
The MP of Redlow New Town is the outspoken and highly territorial Hugh Deverell, so when random bits of nature starts to die off just outside the town he’s eager to hush it up, despite pleas from his constituents to send for an expert. When a fissure opens in the middle of one of the country lanes near the town Professor Gomez (Delgado), fresh from a controversial scientific expedition, is soon on the scene, There’s instant friction between Gomez and Deverell, and when his wife takes a shine to the scientist it all begins to unravel for the respectable politician. Soon the hospital is full of people who can’t bear any kind of light, and it becomes apparent there is a link between the increasing number of patients and the peculiar, sliding kind of mud that spills from the widening fissure.
I tried listening to this with my girlfriend but whilst I was gripped by the atmosphere and slightly manic performances she got bored and gave up after episode two. The first couple of episodes are fairly plodding scene setters, but there was enough tension and menace to keep me involved and intrigued. I splurged on the remaining five episodes in one marathon sitting, and I have to tell you I was thoroughly creeped out by the end.
Special praise must go to Maurice Denham for the all too real portrayal of a control freak who’s used to getting his own way lose control of himself and his town. Gradually succumbing to the frustration at the professor, and the science he doesn’t understand and a strange force he cannot resist. A different, more personal type of slide than the one threatening the town. It’s a real masterclass performance, and one that still haunts me now.
I wonder how a more sensitive 60’s audience took to this. It is a properly grown-up kind of scary,without resorting to body horror or violent moments. This is adult in a very real way, most notably in the character interactions. It is the things not said, the words that are almost danced around that lend this production real power and punch. The relationships are incredibly believable, and although there is a glut of characters to meet in the early episodes, and you may find yourself becoming lost, they soon come into their own. It’s worth keeping track of who’s who because it unquestionably heightens the drama when later their lives become threatened by what they think is just some mud.
A word must also be said for the sound design. I reckon Pemberton must have asked himself at some point when writing his script exactly how he could convey the sliding mud of the title, as it begins to engulf and infect all around it. I wonder if the answer – to give the mud it’s own distinctive sound – is one of those gorgeous serendipitous writing moments; when necessity gets into bed with creativity and has a memorable night together. The sound effect of the mud is fantastic. At first quiet, in the background until it becomes a deafening cacophony by episode seven. The BBC used to have a special in-house sound department, which seems to have been money well spent because the work here still feels original and clever. It is an essential ingredient to the increasing menace, as much a part of this serial’s tremendous success as the writing and the acting.
The Slide is one of those dramas that lives on in your mind, long after the final instalment. I can’t see myself being up for a repeat listen for a good while yet because the vivid nightmarish pictures it painted are still fresh in my memory. The Slide. It just slid into my head. And now it’s solidified.
This was recently repeated on Radio 4 Extra so you may find this still available on the BBC Sounds app. If not, YouTube will likely come to your rescue, or if you prefer, a commercial release is available from Amazon.
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