The late 1950s saw the birth of the Space Age, as East and West engaged in a race to be the first ones to slip the surly bonds of Earth, and voyage out into the cosmos. This was reflected in the rise in science fiction output in both TV and films, as reality began to generate material for drama, but during the following decade, attention then began to turn towards exploring environs which were just as mysterious, but rather closer to home.
The oceans provided an ideal source for sci-fi and adventure stories, no doubt sparked by the work of the oceanographer, writer, filmmaker, explorer and pioneer Jacques Cousteau, a man who did so much to reveal some of the hidden mysteries of the deep. Irwin Allen brought us the movie Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea in 1961, which spun off into a TV show in 1964, the same year in which Gerry & Sylvia Anderson were to debut their undersea Supermarionation series, Stingray. ABC Television – the ITV weekend franchise holder serving the Midlands and the North since 1956 – also joined the fray in the early ‘60s with its own sub-aquatic offerings.
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Following the success of their Pathfinders series – a space-themed quartet of serials which had started in 1960 – ABC was looking for other programming which would hopefully replicate that popularity. Beginning with 1961’s Plateau Of Fear, a scientific-themed drama about nuclear energy, this was in some ways a thematic sequel of sorts to Pathfinders, if not a literal follow-on. Two of the cast from Pathfinders – Gerald Flood and Stewart Guidotti – also featured in Plateau Of Fear, with Flood again playing a very similar role, that of a scientific journalist at the heart of the action, and Guidotti as his sidekick, continuing their on-screen chemistry.
The serial was so well-received that two further series were made starring Flood’s Mark Bannerman and Guidotti’s Peter Blake – 1962’s City Beneath The Sea, then Secret Beneath The Sea the following year. Sadly, Plateau Of Fear no longer resides in the archives, a victim of the vicissitudes of the ITV franchising system (with ABC having ceased to exist in 1968 and being subsumed into a new London weekday franchisee, Thames Television), as well as black and white TV being seen as of very little residual value, due to the introduction of colour broadcasting towards the end of the decade. As such, a great deal of programming has been wiped or junked.
Thankfully, both City Beneath The Sea and Secret Beneath The Sea had survived the purges, and have been released on DVD by Network Distributing some six decades on from the two shows’ original transmission. A true bastion of vintage – and often rarely-seen – programming, Network has served up some true hidden gems which would have otherwise no doubt languished in the vaults to gather dust, such is their niche appeal. Neither City nor Secret Beneath The Sea seem like obvious fodder for modern streaming services, even for BritBox or ITVX, so thank goodness for Network raising them from the metaphorical depths.
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City Beneath The Sea sees Bannerman and Blake ending up becoming involved in a plot to kidnap a scientist by a former U-Boat Commander, Kurt Swendler (Denis Goacher), which sees the duo boarding a new Royal Navy atomic submarine, the Cyana, in pursuit of Swendler. The trail leads them to the underwater city of Aegira, a research facility which contains many missing scientists. Aegira is the domain of a Professor Ziebrecken (Aubrey Morris), who claims that he wants to use scientific advancement to end war and usher in a new age of peace and enlightenment, but his true motives are revealed as being potentially catastrophic for most of humanity.
The script by future Doctor Who writer John Lucarotti proves to be quite a taut thriller, which manages to steal a march on some of the more outlandish film entries in the James Bond canon, specifically The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. Coming only a decade and a half after the end of World War II, the use of a former Nazi in the form of Swendler would be something which would have carried plenty of resonance for the adults in the audience, the conflict still being so fresh in their memories, in much the same way Terry Nation’s use of fascist imagery and ideology would have been impactful in his creation of the Daleks the following year.
The continuation – Secret Beneath The Sea – picks up the story following the liberation of Aegira, with the city having been repurposed for peaceful scientific research, including a drilling scheme along the lines of the then-current Project Mohole. However, it appears Aegira may be sitting on top of a big deposit of Phenicium, a rare and highly heat-resistant metal vital in the Space Race. Businessman Sir George Smith (Reginald Smith) wants control of the Phenicium supply, so that he can sell it off at a hugely-inflated price for massive profit. However, scientific journalist Mark Bannerman and his sidekick, photographer Peter Blake, stand in his way, and may end up foiling his plans.
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Secret Beneath The Sea feels a little less accomplished than its predecessor, perhaps because wonderful and ubiquitous Aubrey Woods, who always delivers great value in his acting roles, is sadly absent as Professor Ziebrecken. The ‘big bad’ in Secret – a ruthless business fatcat – is not really in the same league as your archetypal ‘mad scientist’, as so wonderfully brought to life as he was by Morris, and the quite lacklustre performance by Reginald Smith is very understated and low energy in comparison. Having also built him up in the first two instalments, his total absence from the remainder just seeks to undercut any threat they try to establish.
However, both serials are fun, undemanding romps, and at around 25 minutes per episode, can be easily binged. With any television shows of a certain vintage, trying to get any value added material for inclusion can really be a challenge, and it almost seems churlish to raise any quibbles, given just how lucky we are to have this released at all. Thankfully, the Series Guide booklet by TV historian Andrew Pixley makes up for a shortage of bonus features on the set, giving a detailed, comprehensive look at all three serials (including the absent Plateau Of Fear), over the course of just 28 pages.
City and Secret Beneath The Sea are both sunken treasures which have been so lovingly brought back to us by Network, a company which really is in 20,000 leagues of its own.
City & Secret Beneath The Sea are out on DVD on 6th February from Network Distributing.