Tuesday, 25 January 2011

the omega factor

BBC Scotland's occult Edinburgh-set 70s drama The Omega Factor has been called a forerunner to the X Files, Medium, Supernatural and Sea Of Souls, with bits of The Prisoner. But few have heard of it, or possibly even seen it. Screened once in 1979, there's just one series and 10 episodes, and when it was released on DVD in 2006 The Omega Factor couldn't muster the flimsiest of fluff fanfare newspaper features for nostalgia value.

Being fair, even in 1979 The Omega Factor was never going to be take Britain by storm, no matter how much the BBC press department tried to hype it as "a stunning new thriller" that explored "the night and darkness of human experience". Produced on the kind of minimal budget that meant some sets that would've looked more convincing if they'd just drawn the props on the walls and let the sets instantly collapse at the end of each scene, and shunted into the summer filler viewing schedules, The Omega Factor also came out at the end of a decade where not just TV but popular culture in general seemed to have overdosed on a psychedelic spree of paranormal-themed everything really.

For an audience that had more than its fill of the supernatural, from documentaries about exorcist priests and occult TV detectives to monster-themed crisps and astrological diets, The Omega Factor must've looked like it was merely mopping up the remnants of a bonkers decade. All that was missing was Morecambe & Wise doing a comedy routine about tarot cards and telepathy (if I missed that I need to know about it).

That was then and this is now though, and The Omega Factor is a enjoyable chunk of late-70s telly strangeness that makes the most of its lo-fi special effects, ladles on lots of real and therefore properly atmospheric gothic Edinburgh settings and chucks everything possible into the plotlines, from shady secret government operations to satanic possession. Plus they got a particularly vitriolic response from self-appointed campaigner against immoral TV filth Mary Whitehouse for one of the episodes, so bonus points there. 

The hook of the story is a secret government psychic unit, a newspaper reporter with psychic abilities and a not-highly-original-but-sinister-enough conspiracy to take over the world using mind control. 

Tom Crane (played by James Hazeldine) is a supernatural-specialising features journalist whose latest investigation into "the powers of the mind" leads him to Edinburgh and to a rogue psychic called Drexel. 

We know Drexel's a bad sort, because he's "the man that Crowley wouldn't meet" and he's hiding out under an assumed name as an occult bookshop owner with a wraith-like assistant called Morag (that's wraith-like as in hammered home visually with pale make-up and full-length floaty white Victorian gown from Laura Ashley). 

Drexel warns Crane to leave town, glaring in such a way that you wonder if he's going to say "nudge, nudge, wink wink" like a sinister Eric Idle. Crane doesn't listen (of course), and then Crane's wife dies. Coincidence? Crane thinks not, but when Crane returns to confront them, the shop has been cleared out and Drexel and Morag have disappeared, leaving only a pentagram drawn on the floor. He's not exactly subtle, Drexel.

Crane returns to London, brooding and bitter, and is approached by Roy Martindale, otherwise known as the man who looks like Gordon Burns from Krypton Factor. 

Martindale is the head of Department 7, an Edinburgh-based unofficial government project that's exploring psychic phenomena - ESP, telekenesis, poltergeists, out of body experiences - the full caboodle, no expense spared. They probably even have CIA funding. 

Department 7 want to make full use of "The Omega Factor", something they've defined as "the ultimate potential of the human mind", which could just mean being really, really good at crosswords or putting wallpaper up or making cheese but no one seems to question this. 

Crane, it turns out, has psychic abilities, which Department 7 seemed to know already but Crane didn't, despite several glaring giveaways that don't say much for his journalistic instinct. Still, Department 7 want to make use of Crane to do The Omega Factor thing, and he wants to join, but only because they seem as set on getting Drexel as he is. Which is handy. Drexel at this point is like the go-to bad guy, hopefully with some kind of lavish underground lair and cats. 

What follows is a rollercoaster of episodes that include haunted houses that incur demonic possession and a military experiment that triggers off visions of Pictish soldiers dancing on a hill but mainly follow Crane as he "uncovers the truth", or at least discovers that, as in all supernatural fictional things, no one is quite who or what they appear to be (even Drexel, though there's no lair or cats) and everyone's meddling with forces that, typically, no one understands.

It all ambles along like a less strange Sapphire and Steel, offering a comfortingly familiar sense of fictional dread, but with wild detours throughout, particularly in the special effects department, providing pop-up visual thrills and chills: hallucinogenic cut-up visions, a spectral Morag popping up in Crane's dreams, stark shots of a burning man or a woman dead in a car. And then there's the fifth episode, Powers Of Darkness.

Mary Whitehouse called Powers Of Darkness, "thoroughly evil" and "one of the most disturbing programmes I have ever seen on television" and true enough, this is the showpiece episode of the series. The Omega Factor writers go all out, starting with a student seance and hypnosis session that convinces one girl she's a 16th-century witch and ending with a satanic ritual in a church, complete with dead blackbird on the altar, and Crane battling the devil to free the girl from demonic clutches.

There was a lot that was more shocking on 70s British television, but Powers Of Darkness proved to be the last gasp of the occult decade. Whether it was Mrs Whitehouse that did it or not, The Omega Factor wasn't renewed for second series. Go watch that first series and savour BBC Scotland's occult moment.

1 comment:

  1. Looks great. Any objection from Mary Whitehouse usually guaranteed that the object of her disapproval was doing something right :)