Thursday, July 12, 2018

Nostalgic for old telly

Once you saw this, you knew what was coming was good

Like many others I often get nostalgic for the television programmes I watched when I was little. Irish television tended to feature a lot of re-runs of British television from the 1970s. One that particularly sticks in my memory is "Warhammer 40,000 - The Rogue Trader". This somewhat obscure science fiction serial was produced by Thames television between 1979-1983. Younger viewers are probably more familiar with the 2004 reboot, but despite its vastly more impressive production values, I think the writing in the original series was better.

Note: You'll have to forgive me, but most of this is culled from the relevant wikipedia entry and Rudyard Oldman's seminal "Terror in Television: British Science Fiction & Horror progamming 1965-1990. OUP, 2001. Currently out of print, but well worth looking for on Abebooks.

Nigel Kneale - speaking at an interview in 2006

Warhammer 40,000 was in many ways the brain child of two very different men, established science fiction writer Nigel Kneale, best known for The Year of the Sex Olympics and the Quatermass serials, and brilliant newcomer, Richard Priestly, who is acknowledged by most fans as the main creative force behind the show.

Kneale had been approached by producers at Thames Television for a television science fiction serial that would be Thames televisions answer to BBCs Doctor Who and Blake 7. The success of Star Wars the previous year suggested that there was a great appetite for science fiction than previously thought.

Rick Priestly posing with a promotional "Orc" toy shortly 
before his tragic death in 1982 at the hands of an obsessed fan. 

The genesis of the Rogue Trader project was a meeting between Kneale and Priestly at a parish fete in Nottingham in 1975. Kneale had been asked to judge a short story competition which Priestly entered and though Priestly story was not picked as the winning entry, his tale of an embattled human empire in the far future struck a cord with the veteran scriptwriter. Invited to meet Kneale again in London, Priestly brought his notebooks and according to TV historian, Rudyard Oldman, "...the whole idea of the series was hashed out in two days of intense work." Priestly's original idea of a crusading army, "...which while brilliant, would have proved bloody expensive to film!", was replaced with the idea of a single Imperial troubleshooter and his minions struggling against pirates, heretics and aliens. As Kneale put it in an interview with Oldman in 2006 "Rick had these amazing ideas and they were great, but most of them would have involved recruiting half of Wales as extras and remodelling most of the Lake district."

This was to prove a regular theme in the writing of the show; Kneale attempting to rein in Priestly's ideas and channel them into something that could actually be filmed.

Early concept art by Ian Miller

With the initial draft work done, Kneale took the idea to executives at Thames. The initial brief had changed somewhat - the success of "The Sweeney" had convinced Thames Television that audiences were eager for more hard bitten, less optimistic programming. Warhammer 40,000 - Rogue Trader was aimed firmly at an adult audience and seemed to be exactly what was wanted. This did lead to some clashes with management, particularly when the first run of six episodes came close to broadcast date. Rudyard Oldman qoutes an unnamed former Thames Television editor.

"There were those amongst the commissioning committee who were very uncomfortable with the bleak nature of the programme. The protagonists weren't your classic good guys, one of them is referred to as "A Hero of the Nikemmedian Genocide" in the second episode for example. The advertising guys went crazy about that. They did not like the level of violence present in the show - a lot of Orks got shot, lets be honest about this. They were all played by these Welsh rugby players and there was one shot in the second episode where one of the characters is literally walking over their bodies for a minute or so. Senior management had an eppy about it. if Rick hadn't pulled off his master stroke, it's possible the whole thing would never have seen the light of day."

Terror in Television: British Science Fiction & Horror progamming 1965-1990.

Concept art by Ian Miller for Season 2, Episode 4 "Seven Seas of Rhye". 

Ian Miller, the noted British illustrator and graphic artist, had been commissioned to produce several dozen pieces of concept art and production work. He had completed the commission and delivered copies of the portfolio to Rick Priestly in London. Priestly was having a great deal of difficulty finishing episode three and had taken to wandering London in search of inspiration. It was during one such ramble that he encountered Freddy Mercury in the Tate gallery. The Queen frontman was a regular in the gallery where he often found musical inspiration.


Mercury was completely captivated by Ian Millers concept art, some of which Priestly had with him and was intrigued by the idea of "Star Trek with swearing". Discussing the matter over dinner, Mercury became more taken with the concept and was allowed to take some early drafts of the first script back to the studio where the band were working on a new album. As it happened Mercury was unable to come up with something that he was happy with, but fellow band member Brian May penned a science fiction ballad "39" as an introduction to the programme.

I may if there's interest try and dig through some of my old memorabilia and notes about the programme.

Note: Chaps, my apologies for not blogging more. Work and Kinchlets are consuming most of my time. As for the piece above, I wrote it for a laugh a couple of years ago, but never did anything with it.
The idea came from the fact that most wargamers only have a small selection of models and a limited number of terrain setups. The idea struck me that this was quite like a lot of British television in the 1970s where there was some wonderful programmes that had limited casts and budgets, but made the most of them - the Sweeney, the Sandbaggers, XXY man, Blake 7, Dr. Who particularly stick in my memory - creating huge sweeps of story with a few regular actors and a small selection of locations (industrial area, quarry, country house, etc).  What if rather than this being a result of limited wargaming resources - the ruined cathedral on a golf course/industrial wasteland look of many battlefields is actually merely replicating the locations the source material was filmed on?


  1. There's a definite cultural profile in doing much with little. Not to worry about blogging pace, there are always ebbs and flows. I trust wife and Kinchlets are well?

  2. It shows just how brave and experimental the television producers were then. Can you see any television producers putting forward such and idea. Another example is of course Battleground, the series that brought wargaming to the public. Unfortunately and I say this as an old git such ideas would cause hysteria. Instead they produce.....Love Island and the hateful Geordie Shore. Both are a great example of the demise of quality television.

  3. Very good:). think you need to start on the script now.

    1. I shudder to think what the fanfic would be like.

  4. Isn't Priestly running Warlord Games?

    1. That’s fake news. A story made up to frighten children.

  5. Are you ok, old chap? Sure you're not overdoing it? You might want to have a little rest...a friend of mine took up stamp collecting, it calmed him down no end. I do like 'Rudyard Oldman' though, you should use him again. Leader of a ( possibly right-wing ) faction in your 1979 campaign, maybe? A sort of 1970s Roderick Spode..

    1. You know - I’m never considered his politics.

  6. I admit ignorance of Kipling, which may have influenced my suggestion. He seems portrayed as champion of Empire and Colonialism, but was actually more chronicler of the common soldier? Reading suggestions welcome..
    P.s. Priestly killed by obsessive fan - the Lennon of wargaming? Featherstone, Grant and Young therefore the Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee? 😉