Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Artemis' 81 (1981)

If there is only one thing that Artemis 81 will do, is it will make you think.

God knows what the post Xmas viewers made of it on the Beeb in 1981!

What you have is a strange bewitching, beguiling but ultimately downright frustrating three hours of a single play TV drama!

The basic premise, as far as can be gleaned, is that a pagan artefact is stolen from Denmark and broken up on the ferry back to the UK. For the passangers involved, this is bad news; as one by one they inexplicably commit suicide.

Paranormal author Gideon Harlax, superbly played with characteristic detachment by the great (and starting to get chubby here) Hywel Bennett, begins to climb down from his ivory tower of uninvolvement to dedicate his time to finding out just why. As he does so he becomes involved in the battle between age old good and evil, light and shade, as represented by a very wooden Sting (who insisted on employing him as an actor back then?!) and a very flamboyant Rolad Curram (later of failed BBC soap Eldorado no less)

The author of the piece, David Rudkin, throws everything but the kitchen sink into the three hour running time; great all encompassing themes and stylings and homages, so that what the viewer gets is ( and brace yourself here ) Hitchcock meets Bergman meets paganism meets sci-fi meets chillers meets horror (Hammer too-Ingrid Pitt turns up) meets Tales Of The Unexpected meets Bram Stoker meets 1984 meets philosophy meets, in all eventuality, a bloomin' headache for most!

What Rudkin comes into a lot of flak for is his stylised way of writing. A lot of dialogue is spoken very much in the Olde English, mock Shakespearian style; especially between Bennett's cold and fragile love interest Gwen and the mysterious composer, a sub Hammer Horror enigma named Von Drachenfels (German for 'dragon's rock') but latterly by our hero Bennett himself in the film's final half. It's all very bizarre and sadly, rather pretentious.

Ultimately, you are advised by many to watch this weighty film in two halfs. I broke off around the 90 minute mark which, for me at least, was perhaps where the film became most satisfactory, and tantalisingly close to a real thriller with a steady easily followed build up. Sadly this pace only kicks in around 40 minutes and lasts up until the 90th (the first half being a very slow and confusing start, in keeping with the slower gentler bewitching pace television had back in this period) and what you have here in this pacier segment is a very involving Hitchcokian (especially Vertigo) puzzle of a mystery.

After the 90th minute, the film descends back into pretensions and abstract surrealism once more that no doubt leaves many tearing their hair out.

What we have in this last part is an intriguing evocation of an almost Orwellian landscape; a strange austere Eastern European depiction of a wasted landscape (in actual fact the location was a striking blend of Liverpool and Birmingham where many scenes where filmed, and indeed if you are familiar with these cities it is a joy to see them in the early 80s and try to see where each one starts and stops) From there, Bennett arrives in a laboratory set up straight from Doctor Who or a James Bond film, complete with a light show that is more familiar to late 70s concerts performed by The Who or Pink Floyd, as he rescues Gwen from within and they murder their way out to escape to the final showdown; a live recorded recital by Von Drachenfels in which good triumphs over evil by way of the aforementioned Hitch's Vertigo.

So what was it about? Answers on a postcard please. Essentially I believe it was about a man who could not see and feel who becomes involved in something that changes that and him forever. To that extent the symbolism is pleasing enough and there for all to pick up on.

But what was the ultimate reason? Where was the mysterious apocolyptic wasteland meant to be? What was really going on in that lab? Why were the passengers killing themselves?

Yes, it certainly makes you think. And to be honest, it's good to sometimes give the intellectual muscles a bit of a work out, even if you secretly suspect it was all a bit Emperor's New Clothes.

Oh and Hywel Bennett was on record at the time as saying he hadn't a clue what it was about either!


  1. I'm in the happy position of being able to tell you what "the post Xmas viewers made of it on the Beeb in 1981" - it bored and mystified the hell out of us.
    I must add that I am a far from representative sample of the whole, seeing as I was only 8 at the time. But my mum - who let me stay up and watch it because Sting was in it! - was, if anything, even more bored and annoyed by it than I was, and she was 38 at the time.
    Now I'm 38, perhaps I should give it another chance. I can see now that being a Police fan made for a feeble impetus indeed for sitting through it. Now I'm older, and a Shelley fan, I'm sure it'll be much more palatable...

    1. It's only barely palatable alas. I mean it has some genuinely good points, like I say, it really starts to whip along from about 40 mins to 90s mins in. But to pick at it and wonder just what the hell he was trying to say is fun in a masochistic kind of way.
      Shelley on the other hand, much better. I'd advice a night of all that instead ;)