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The Dark Island
BBC 1962
BBC Television had previously commissioned Robert Barr to deliver a gripping espionage series to capture the imagination of the British viewing public and had created a vehicle for Bernard Archard in Spycatcher.

After three successful series and nineteen half-hour episodes, Barr turned his hand to writing a programme for BBC Television's long-running Sunday evening thriller serial slot. The Dark Island opened on the Atlantic shore of a relatively lonely island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Ian McLeod (Bryden Murdoch), a local crofter, found what he thought was a torpedo on the shore. Contacting a rocket range on the island to pass on the information about his discovery, soon a Naval team descended on the scene to deal with the apparent menace.


Accompanying the team was Nicolson (Robert Hardy), a security officer intrigued by the discovery. Further investigation revealed that the torpedo was no ordinary weapon of war. Instead, it contained a "complete do-it-yourself spy kit with an international flavour". The contents revealed, amongst other items, a Finnish passport, British and Swedish money, United States Services revolvers and East German binoculars.

However, Nicolson is more intrigued by the final item in the torpedo - a fragment of sheet music which appeared to be from a Hebridean lilt. Joined by Grant (Francis Matthews), a fellow security operative, the pair investigate the sudden appearance of the torpedo but are met with resistance from villagers and tourists alike. Reticence is a hinderance they can cope with, but when their investigations lead to murder, they realize that someone is trying to hide a deadly secret. As Nicolson draws closer to the truth, he is lured into a trap and rendered unconscious, leaving Grant to pick up the trail.

However, as Nicolson recovers he is left reeling at the news that Grant has been murdered after recognizing what he thought to be a friendly face on the island. Determined to find the party (or parties) responsible, Nicolson redoubles his efforts and uncovers an ambitious espionage scheme.

Robert Barr
introduced the series in the Radio Times on 5th July:

For weeks a BBC unit has been filming in the Outer Hebrides, on the silver beaches and sea lochs of Benbecula and South Uist, and at the seventeenth-century inn at Pollachar overlooking the Sound of Eriskay - an inn "already old when Prince Charles Stuart rode by" and within sight of the reef on which a wartime merchant ship went aground with its fabulous cargo of whisky galore. Gerard Glaister, the producer of the serial, is a regular visitor to the islands and chose the inn as the exterior of the remote hotel around whose guests the mystery of this thriller revolves.

All of the outdoor scenes for the story have been filmed on location with the willing, and at times magnificent, cooperation of the islanders. "Without the help they gave us, lending their homes and handling their boats on the coast and sea lochs," says Glaister, "we could not have caught the true atmosphere of the islands". The remote position of the Outer Hebrides must now be familiar to millions of viewers - that tadpole-shaped chain of islands which they see each night on the weather map, standing like a breakwater off the north-west coast of Scotland.

They lie some fifty miles out in the Atlantic, a chain of islands, islets, and reefs running in an almost unbroken line for one-hundred-and-thirty miles. The total area is more than one thousand square miles but the total population is only thirty-nine-thousand of which two-thirds live on the northern Isle of Lewis.

The rest is sparsely populated, and many of the smaller islands are uninhabited and seldom visited. The eastern coasts of the islands are mostly steep and fretted with sea lochs, but the Atlantic side provides an almost continuous line of deep, white sand beaches, at places driven into dunes twenty-feet high by the force of the winter gales. It is on these deserted beaches, moorland, and lonely islands that the story is set. Bryden Murdoch plays the young crofter whose local knowledge and native skepticism lead to the heart of the mystery.

He and all the other members of the cast - including Robert Hardy and Francis Matthews - had to be in good athletic trim for the rigours of filming among the fast tides, quicksands, and rockstrewn shores of the island. And so, too, had the members of the Scottish film unit.

The plot? Recently a Defence spokesman disclosed that Russian trawlers patrolling off the Outer Hebrides were part of the spy-net in Britain. He added: "This espionage has been going on for a long time". During one of the filming sessions an island who was watching, and did not know the plot, was asked about a trawler lying offshore - was it a local boat? He said quietly: "It may be, or it may be Russian - they're always coming in here when something is happening". This is my first attempt at a thriller-serial and it is in some ways a natural successor to Spycatcher, with the addition that it is worked out in a strangely remote and, to me, fabulous setting. The story is fictional, but it may be much nearer to fact than many of us dare to believe.


Perhaps best likened to The Town Of No Return in ITV's The Avengers, The Dark Island ostensibly revolved around the concept of Russian spies invading England via Scotland by replacing the villagers with themselves and blending in as best they could (in preparation for a mass invasion). Cold war tensions heavily influenced a considerable number of productions during the 1960s, and this serial stands amongst illustrious company.

However, whilst the content may not be strictly unique (although it was transmitted prior to The Avengers more quirky variation on the theme), the cast and crew are particularly noteworthy. Robert Hardy (later to become instantly recognizable in Mogul, The Troubleshooters and All Creatures Great And Small) and Francis Matthews (later to become the ever-debonair Paul Temple) lead a cast predominately populated by Scottish actors (a positive rareity on the part of 1960s television), whilst the production was lead by Gerard Glaister (the man responsible The Expert, The Brothers, Howards' Way and Trainer, to name a few).

A rewarding serial, somewhat ham-strung by the early evening time-slot, and a note worthy contribution to the BBC's long-running thriller schedule. As a self-contained drama production (something the BBC certainly prided themselves on for at least twenty years across the 1960s and 1970s), the programme failed to capture the imagination of the British viewing public . The series was repeated several years later, but was later junked and now no longer exists in the archives.


Regular Characters
Portrayed By
Nicolson
Robert Hardy
Grant
Francis Matthews
Mary Somers
Angela Browne
The Brigadier
Cyril Luckham
Ian McLeod
Bryden Murdoch
The Lieuntenant
John Forbes Robertson
The Petty Officer
James Copeland
Major Williams
Denis Holmes
The Orderly
Angus Martin
Margaret
Morag Forsyth
Davy McNeil
Walter Carr
Alec Thomson
Douglas Murchie
Swanson
Michael Golden
The Fisherman
Alistair Audlsey
Mr Stewart
Alex McCrindle
Colonel Jamieson
William Sherwood
The Club Steward
John Shedden
George Hammond
Edward Jewesbury
Donald MacAulley
Wallace Campbell
Katie Kennedy
Ellen McIntosh
The Foreign Seaman
Arthur Boland
Doctor Mackenzie
James Gibson
Doctor Glenville
Michael Barrington
The Corporal
Roy Hanlon
The Sergeant
William Simpson
The Attendant
Ian Trigger

The was series created and written by Robert Barr, produced and directed by Gerard Glaister. The series was transmitted on Sundays.


Text © Matthew Lee, 2003.
Thanks to Simon Coward for additional detail.

1
TX : 8th July 1962

Synopsis : A strange "torpedo" is found on the Atlantic shore of a lonely island and in the attempt to defuse it a disturbing discovery is made.

Notes : The series was originally transmitted on BBC-1 from 5:25pm to 5:55pm on Sundays. A radio version was also transmitted on Radio Four and does exist intact. A book adaptation was published in 1973.



2
TX : 15th July 1962

Synopsis : Grant, a man from government Security, joins Nicolson in the Outer Hebrides in his investigation of the mysterious "torpedo".

Publicity : On the Atlantic shore of a small and lonely island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland a torpedo has been found by local crofter Ian McLeod (played by that stalwart of character parts north of the Border, on both television and radio, Bryden Murdoch). McLeod passed on the information about his discovery to a rocket range in the islands and it was not long before a Naval team arrived to deal with the apparent menace. With them came Nicolson (Robert Hardy), a security officer. The torpedo, however, turned out to be no ordinary weapon of war. Instead, it appeared to contain a complete do-it-yourself spy kit with an international flavour. A Finnish passport, British and Swedish money, U.S Services pattern revolvers, East German binoculars - these were just a few of the items. But perhaps the most mysterious of all was a fragment from a sheet of music which proved to be from a Hebridean lilt … Thus began Robert Barr's new spy thriller last week. In today's episode, Grant, a man from government Security, joins Nicholson in the Outer Hebrides in his investigation of the mysterious torpedo. Playing the part of Grant is Francis Matthews, who has been seen in such television serials as The World Of Tim Frazer and You Can't Win. - Radio Times Review For Episode Two (Article Dated July 12th, 1962)

Notes : The theme music for the series was composed by Iain MacLachlan and performed by Archie Duncan.



3
TX : 22nd July 1962

Synopsis : Nicolson visits the white shores and his discovery on a deserted beach leads him into a trap.

Notes : The film cameraman for the production was Gordon Mackay.


4
TX : 29th July 1962

Synopsis : With Nicolson temporarily out of the fight, Grant decides to upset the quiet comfort of the remote hotel.

Notes : Film Editor for the series was James Mearns.


5
TX : 5th August 1962

Synopsis :
Nicolson takes a trip with Mary Somers, and Grant meets a visitor.

Notes : The series was designed by Douglas Duncan.


6
TX : 12th August 1962

Synopsis : An expedition to the dark island while the trawlers wait, and an unexpected meeting in the black house. What is Doctor Glenville doing in the islands? Who is the mysterious friend of Colonel Jamieson whom Grant recognized? Who killed Grant and why? With his colleague as a Security agent dead, Nicolson has the enormous task of answering these questions and clearing up the mystery surrounding the Dark Island.

Notes : The programme was later adapted for radio and transmitted on Radio Four between 11th September and 16th October 1969.
 
Please note synopsis are taken from the original Radio Times listings for the day of transmission.