Having recently finished all of the remaining episodes of the early 1970s BBC series, Doomwatch, I had the strange feeling that I had slipped into a parallel world; one where the BBC had worked closely with the writer, J.G. Ballard, to make a series that addressed his themes. Though the series largely resembles Ballard’s earlier novels with their constant post-civilisation eco-disasters similar to The Drowned World and The Drought, several episodes caught my own Ballardian attention. To show how prescient Doomwatch actually is, one need only watch the episode from its third series, Sex & Violence, to see how it managed to unusually predict the rise of Nigel Farage. Yet the episode that really caught my eye was from the second series: The Human Time-Bomb by Louis Marks. The episode finally drove me to make the video above, a project that I had been putting off for some time: a trailer for J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, High-Rise, and what it could have looked like if the BBC had made it when it was first published.
The Human Time-Bomb rather uniquely pre-empts almost all aspects of High-Rise in such detail that it must be considered whether Ballard himself actually saw it when broadcast. I have little doubt that he at least knew about the series, such was the crossover of the series’ goals with his own conflation of science and disaster (and Ballard himself had written for a sci-fi anthology series, Out Of The Unknown, only a couple of years before so was undoubtedly aware of science-fiction television). In fact, having been immersed in 1960s and 1970s TV for some time (I watch little else and next to no modern television), it’s almost like watching the raw material, of London especially, that Ballard was tapping into post-The Atrocity Exhibition in 1970. British Television of this period is brimming with Ballardian imagery; endless brutalist structures, obsessive emphasis on cars, violence and misogyny. This is all compacted into a huge variety of drama, only ever really escaping from such aspects when a series or play was set in period. Yet The Human Time-Bomb is the ultimate in Ballardian programs as it arguably foreshadows his narrative as well as his aesthetic interests.
In the narrative, the Doomwatch team have been sent to investigate the living conditions of a new set of high-rise blocks. In their investigation, they find that the design of the building is causing stark mental effects, consisting of paranoia, anxiety, antisocial behaviour and violence. The episode follows one particular scientist as she lives briefly in the block for researching her report; the episode dramatically addressing that typical 1970s worry, the population boom. Though not a great deal happens – most of the drama is tension at what potentially could happen including the sexual assault of the scientist by a plumber that never occurs – the episode is unnerving in its lifting the veil on the corners cut by developers and councils to save money, no matter what the human cost is. This is essentially the stimulus at the heart of Ballard’s High-Rise only it is too far gone to prevent; he design was blind to the social implications of the building. In many ways, the high-rise of Ballard’s novel (and Ben Wheatley’s subsequent film) is perceptibly only a few years off from Doomwatch‘s; the social disintegration has already began and the fallout is all too clear to see.