Producer Richard Bates has been working for fifteen years to put the stories on the screen. He commissioned the script originally as a film and when that fell through he sold the idea to the BBC. The story of three sixteen-year-old boys escaping from the mind-control of the alien Tripods who have created a happy but totally subjugated human race, their journey to the White Mountains, location of the rebel groups, and the Freemen’s plot to overthrow the Masters should make good family viewing over the next three years.
The first eight episodes, taken from the film script, are full of action and likely to grab an audience with a liking for fast-moving adventure. In the following five parts the mood changes slightly and there is more drama, the characters begin to be explored and the underlying themes emerge. The makers of the programmes are particularly proud of their special effects which promise to be even more spectacular as the series develops.
We talked to Ceri Seel, the eighteen-year-old who plays the part of Beanpole – one of the three boys who challenge the Tripods.
Those addicted to television adaptations of children’s books will have seen Ceri Seel before as William in The Bagthorpe Saga. Ceri has grown taller and thinner since his Bagthorpe days but it was the recent repeat of that series that brought him the chance to be in The Tripods.
`One of the directors happened to see the series, rang me up and asked me to audition.’ And eventually he was the one chosen out of the 200-300 young actors who were being considered. It was a big decision. `We filmed from June to December in 1983 so I missed all the Autumn term at school. I don’t think I’ve done very well in my A-levels but it was an opportunity not to be missed.’
And it was very hard work. `When I did Bagthorpes it was on summer holiday in a house in Tetbury. We didn’t do any studio work and it was all very relaxed. With Tripods there was no time to sit around. It was a very tight schedule and we were always falling behind, especially as our directors were such perfectionists. We went on location all over the country – Devon, Wells, Folkestone, Snowdonia, Kent. It’s hard to remember where we did what. And there were lots of rehearsals first in London, and also filming in the studio. On location we started at 6.30 in the morning and went on until 7.00 in the evening or maybe later. When we were filming in the studio we started really early too (they send a taxi to fetch you) and went on until 10.30. It’s very different from being in the school play. There’s no way you can get in the swing of it, start feeling it. It’s all start, stop – and it’s quite difficult to act being really terrified of a Tripod five times in a row early in the morning, then stop, have a cup of tea and be terrified again.’
It’s especially difficult, as Ceri went on to explain when the Tripod isn’t there either, because it’s a special effect. `The whole series was made on video tape and the special effects are all images put onto the tape using a computer. The tripods were actually about two feet tall so when we “acted” with them we were filmed in front of nothing. Unless it was just their legs. Those were full-size sometimes – 30 feet high and put up in a field by huge cranes. They did a lot of the locations using special effects too. The bits where we were supposed to be in Parisian streets (big cities are deserted since the Tripods, though we find evidence of past resistance in the Metro) were filmed on a deserted airfield and we had to say things like “Wow, look at the Arc de Triomphe” pointing at nothing. The White Mountains are the Alps – we went to Snowdonia and they put the snow on the top after. For the close-ups we had 50 square feet of foam for snow.’
The character Ceri plays is Beanpole – the name given him by Will and Henry. He is French and a little older than the other two. `I really like the character – though I think in the book he is more sensible than he’s written in the series. Henry is a bit selfish. Will is a bit throw-away, a bit brash. Beanpole is like a father figure; he stops them getting at each other; he keeps cool and detached, has all the ideas, gets them out of scrapes. And he’s an inventor – he prefers machines to people. The only problem with Beanpole is that because he’s French they wanted me to do it with a slight accent. I didn’t like it and some of the things I had to say and do I didn’t think fitted Beanpole. But I got used to it – that’s the thing about acting, you have to do what they want. Still I hope I’ll get a bit more going about Beanpole in the next series. John Christopher came to see us several times; he seemed pleased with the way we looked and said it was as he’d imagined us.’
Ceri remembered reading the books when he was eleven or twelve and enjoyed re-reading them for the series. How close is the adaptation? `It’s very close. I don’t think anyone going to the books would be disappointed. They’ve added some things and invented characters – for instance, there are girls for Henry and Beanpole in the farmhouse, as well as Eloise for Will in the castle! But by the time something’s been adapted and so many people are involved, it seems quite removed from a book. Once you’ve taken it out of your mind it’s a new thing. Not that it’s any worse – just different.’
When we talked Ceri was just about to start filming the second series – The City of Gold and Lead. What memories did he have of The White Mountains now it was all over? `The worst bits when we’d just started. We were filming in a department store in London that had been closed down – it was half ruined and full of broken mirrors – weird. I was feeling a bit lost and we hadn’t got going properly. Being shouted at for 8-9 hours really makes you want to cry. And the best bits in Kent by the sea in midsummer and filming on a boat with just two of us and a cameraman – and no-one shouting.
And looking ahead? `I’m looking forward to seeing people again, and going on location to the Rhine, and to seeing the set the director has designed for the city. In the third series Beanpole invents a hot air balloon. I’d really like to go up in one of those; but I bet they’ll get a stunt man. We weren’t allowed to do anything remotely dangerous. When Will absails out of a window in this series it’s a stunt man. But I did get to throw a hand grenade – it was really a dud one but lots of dynamite went up as I threw it down this tunnel.’
If the A-levels turn out badly, will it have been worth it? `It’s good training – you learn you’ve got to get on and get the most out of people. Jim (Baker) and John (Shackley) and I were around the whole time, lots of other people came and went, and we had to get on together. And I’ve earned enough to buy some recording equipment. I’ve got a four-track recorder and synthesizer. I don’t think I’m really cut out to be an actor. I want to make music.
`When the programmes are shown I’ll probably feel a bit embarrassed. It’s silly but when you’ve been on TV people expect you to be something different, something special. They forget how normal everyone is. Being in something helps you to understand television and how it works. The Tripods got control over the human race by brainwashing them through TV. I can see how people can be manipulated by it but I still manage to waste quite a lot of time in front of it.’