The BBC’s 1981 adaptation of the John Wyndham novel The Day of the Triffids is back! It's now on BritBox for a new generation to enjoy, as well as existing fans, enabling Radio Times to reappraise this acclaimed TV drama.


The six-parter generates unease from the first moment, with the main character, Bill Masen, in hospital with bandaged eyes and everyone around him witnessing the spectacle of a meteor shower that will blind most of the world's population.

Masen has worked on a farm where Triffids – mobile, carnivorous plants – are cultivated for their oil. But the poison from one of their stingers got into his eyes, hence being operated upon to restore his sight. On removing the bandages, he discovers a global catastrophe...

Over the years, the intelligence of Wyndham's stories has been much admired and there have been many adaptations of his books – a 1962 film of Triffids plus another TV series in 2009, while The Midwich Cuckoos has only recently been serialised by Sky. But few have caught the public imagination quite so forcefully as the BBC's 1981 drama. Radio Times caught up with its star, John Duttine, to talk about the show.

John, how did you react when you were first approached about the project?
I was very excited. I was working at the BBC at the time so I was aware that it was doing the rounds. Then I was suddenly asked to go and see Ken Hannam, the director.

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Had you read the novel, or any John Wyndham, beforehand?
That sort of science-fiction wasn’t my cup of tea, as it were, but I did get into it after that.

It involved a lot of location work...
It was great to get out and about. What I do remember is being able to film in the city of London at the weekend, when there was nobody about. Also in Surrey and Sussex – just up the road from where I live now.

John Duttine with his Day of the Triffids co-star Emma Relph, who appeared on the front of Radio Times as well as the inside feature in September 1981

It’s a very serious piece, and it's played dead straight – were there any opportunities to let off steam?
[Laughs] I don’t happen to recall any!

How long did the whole thing take to shoot?
Six to ten weeks I would think. I’m going back in time here.

In the early scenes, in which meteor showers blind most of humanity, your character, Bill Masen, is himself blindfolded after an operation. Did you have to do much preparation for those scenes "in the dark"?
That was done by [writer/adapter] Doug Livingstone to avoid some kind of preamble. We couldn’t do it by voiceover or subtitles, so he came up with the idea of me talking into a recording machine and describing what had happened leading up to that fateful night. That was novel and it was great – except that I couldn’t see and I had to learn rather a lot of monologue.

How The Day of the Triffids was billed in Radio Times on 10 September 1981

How were the Triffids actually operated?
By the men inside them! The special effects men who created them actually got physically inside the structure and moved them about.

Were there a lot of technical hitches waiting for them to “play ball”?
If I remember rightly, yes! Waiting for them to hit their mark.

Caution: heavy plant crossing – the Triffids were brought to life by effects technicians who were concealed within the base of the plants and shuffled along backwards to disguise the human form

Although the story is ostensibly about flesh-eating plants, it still holds up superbly as a portrait of the collapse of society...
I know what you mean, yes. It was a time of Margaret Thatcher’s early days, Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire”, so yes the world was in an apprehensive state, a state of flux, with Orwell’s “1984” just around the corner. And I think they were quite wise to make a film just to show the end of the world as we know it...

But the lesson of history is that nobody ever learns. So even after an event like that or a nuclear war or a catastrophe, people will carry on doing the same thing over and over again, as we’re witnessing at the moment...

With series like To Serve Them All My Days – in which you played a soldier-turned-teacher – also on the BBC, this was a busy time for you?
My son was born in 1980 and Triffids was 1981, so it was a good time personally and professionally for me.

John Duttine as Bill Masen in The Day of the Triffids and, right, as the clean-shaven David Powlett-Jones in To Serve Them All My Days, which ran from October 1980 to January 1981

Triffids is still a respected sci-fi drama 40 years on. There have been other Wyndham adaptations, but they haven’t caught on in the same way. Do you have a theory as to why the series stands up so well?
That I don’t know but Dougray Scott did a version [in 2009], with Eddie Izzard, and I did watch it. I don’t know why that didn’t… maybe when I did it people were prepared to suspend their disbelief a little bit more than they are today. But I do occasionally bump into people who saw [ours] and said it scared the pants off them, men and women.

You must be very proud of it?
Yes absolutely. If it had been done with a bit more budget the Triffids might not have been quite so amusing, but as I say people still think that they were terrifying, so I can’t judge that one.

Bill Masen and young Susan (Emily Dean) are forced to make a hasty getaway

Are you officially retired?
I never say officially. I never say never. But I live down on the south coast now and I spend most of my time walking the coast.

Do you have an overriding memory about filming the series?
Yes, my dog Rufus was with me and I used to take him with me on location whenever I could — it was a good excuse because we were out in the countryside quite a lot. There was a girl of not more than ten or 12 years old [who played Susan] and she suddenly got what you might call stage fright or camera fright and she just clung on to Rufus because she made a friend of him and he didn’t mind. She wouldn’t go on set without the dog. So my dog got a part and he’s there on celluloid or videotape for ever!

The Day of the Triffids is available on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.

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