I finally got round to watching all of the TV series The Brack Report. This has been a very long project, since I originally wanted to watch it when it was first broadcast in 1982. I did try to watch some episodes at the time, but it was all a bit much as I was too young for all the adults getting shouty about relationships and having complex political intrigues against each other. I do remember a few striking scenes – the bit where Brack tells Smitherson his numbers don’t add up; the car crash at the end of one episode; the cliffhanger ending of the whole series that was never resolved in a sequel.
However what I mainly remember was the slight feeling of smugness from hearing people on TV talk about things I’d already read about in The Usborne Book Of The Future – or rather, the instalment about Robots.
The three titles in this series – Robots, Star Travel, and Future Cities – were compiled together in to the single volume Book Of The Future and that’s the one you can find scanned on-line, from a copy that seems to have been scribbled on a little by someone who was already bored of the 21st century 20 years early. Although there’s a fair bit of junk about ESP space-battleships, the Robots volume starts with some material about “Providing For A Power-Hungry Planet”.
This is the sort of thing that characters in The Brack Report talked about, or at least mentioned in every episode, and I knew very vaguely what they were on about. It was reshown recently by Talking Pictures and I am illustrating this with some screengrabs from their broadcast, which is why you can see their logo in them if you look carefully.
Every episode starts with a low humming and a doodly piping sound as the sun rises above the horizon of a peaceful world.
Then Christopher Gunning’s music crashes with the percussion as a nuclear installation materialises on the seaside, and barbed wire fences and pylons are added with each stab on the piano.
Then that dissolves away to a copy of the titular report (which we do finally see published in episode 10, looking as it does in the titles).
Physicist Paul Brack works at the nuclear installation at Windlesham. He is not opposed to the work done there but he is frustrated that they are simply patching up the reactor instead of committing to the radical overhaul he sees is necessary. He also believes that fission reactors are an inadequate technology and we need to be getting on with the real serious business of getting nuclear fusion to work, which he spent years researching in America before coming back to ever-increasing dissatisfaction.
An earthquake causes serious problems in the reactor core and the CEGB just wants to blandly cover it over, causing a final clash between Brack and the chief Norman Phillips, who’s been throttling fusion research for years but is willing to shunt the troublemaker off in to that cul-de-sac with a few more empty promises.
Brack gets in touch with an old hero – Max Challen, a pioneering nuclear physicist who quit the field to write angry books about the need for disarmament and a turning away from the illusion that fission could provide power too cheap to meter.
Challen’s daughter Sarah is herself a physicist and one of Paul’s colleagues at Windlesham… and her mother left Max to live with Norman Phillips. It’s a small world amongst these clever people whose professional rivalries are somewhat overdetermined. Challen puts Brack in touch with millionaire ex-oil executive Harold Harlan, who has his own energy consultancy business and thus is interested in someone with inside experience of the nuclear industry, who can write a report surveying the state of the options available on “alternative energy”.
And so Brack is now set on a course of travelling around Britain, hearing about ideas for power generation and the collateral issues that could also be solved with a rethink of the engineering underlying industrial society. At the same time, his marriage is going through trouble, as Pat Brack was happy to be a supportive wife during the odyssey to America and back, when she felt he was driven by a vision. But his crisis and breakaway from his career just seems like a self-indulgent diversion. His 2 kids aren’t very impressed either, and they all know soon enough that he’s falling in to an affair with Sarah Challen.
However, the female characters are not simply mirrors for the important men striding about and making big speeches. Pat is a law academic at Oxford (it is obscure how she managed to get that position from out of nowhere, it seems); Sarah Challen is as smart as the boys, and up in the North-East we meet a lady scientist who’s got her own research project on wave power that is better than the one the southerners want to sell up there. Also Harold needs help from his American business partner Sophie Ferris.
We see her helping Harold out with his newfangled desktop computer, an innovation hardly anyone seems to have at this time. Brack had to check Smitherson’s faulty modelling of methanol combustion with pen, paper, a simple calculator and a night fuelled by coffee.
Computers are usually creatures of the “electronic control room”, like the one we see in the visit to the thoroughly modern coal mine in the Midlands, which is well on its way to be fully automated with no humans in positions of physical danger. Fun fact: the gruff no-nonsense colliery manager is played by John Atkinson, who was also the vicar in Penda’s Fen.
But who is Brack? He’s a scholarship boy who did well at exams and met Pat at Cambridge. When he meets Harlan he explains that that’s where he also learned to smooth away his Yorkshire accent; Harold bonds with him by admitting he completely jetisonned his one to acquire the fruity posh version that is so much more useful in business, especially if deals need to be greased with visits to Whitehall and Westminster.
But is he a cartoon “technocrat” or devotee of “scientism” who trades one simple-minded faith in “progress” for a regressive “alternative”? No, not on this showing, and that’s a tediously glib narrative to be charting in 1980 or 40 years later. He is thoughtful enough to be reading and considering Max Challen’s heresies long after they fell out of the mainstream. He is aware of questions about the nature and limits of science. Popper is mentioned in the first episode; and in a bizarre moment Pat starts a row with Paul by repeating back to him a potted version of Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions he apparently endorsed earlier. However the big reveal is when he goes back to the family house to collect his favourite books, and he tells his disappointed feminist daughter that Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge was important to him.
As we all know, Polanyi’s work in philosophy of science has a different pedigree since he did have a career in analytical chemistry before he worked on epistemology. His work is also marked by a commitment to ideas of objectivity and the rationality of the universe whilst at the same time dismissing the “historical fictions” that vulgar “rationalists” tell about science and how its theories develop. So he doesn’t fit in to any shallow Culture War dichotomy between realism and relativism. Brack doesn’t think science, certainly not Big Science, has all the answers or even can deal with all the questions, as he wouldn’t have got that line from Polanyi. He doesn’t like the awful paintings made by Smitherson’s pretentious wife, but he doesn’t hate the arts or Humanities. He still remembers some scraps of the Latin and Shakespeare he had to learn about to get in to university, and doesn’t regret them much. He isn’t lost or uncomfortable when the Whitehall mandarin class are chattering quotations around him.
So what are the positive ideas that go in to the Report? One item missing that modern viewers will notice is what they might think is the real issue: Climate Change. It’s never mentioned, even though the Greenhouse Effect and the role of carbon dioxide was certainly well-publicised by 1981, already established in school chemistry textbooks. What really matters for these people is the Energy Crisis, and the political drive to focus on nuclear fission as the main solution to it. In contrast, Brack thinks coal has a better future (via the fluidised-bed combustion process that Smitherson should be put back to working on) even if the modern automated collieries don’t rely on many miners ruining their health by digging it up. Oil and gas could be useful as well. Wave power should be implemented by getting the shipyards of the North-East, facing extinction as order books are empty, working instead on new pontoons or variants of Salter’s Ducks. New wind-power turbines need to be built, as many and as big as possible. A tidal barrage should be put up in the Severn Estuary, regardless of the environmentalist quibbling about possible impacts on wildlife. A visit to the depressed Northern town of Rainsborough brings up an ambitious plan to follow the example of Mondragon and power it with a new installation consuming waste and pumping the heat directly out to local homes.
Yet nearly all these schemes founder in various ways due to either intrigues in Whitehall, or conservatism from below. Here we come to the tricky business of the politics of the Report. It doesn’t seem to be too keen on the actual policies of the current Thatcher government (she is not named, but this drama is clearly contemporary with broadcast), but it does show trade unions and other local vested interests as the wreckers standing against new ideas. The leader of the shipyard workers isn’t happy with Harlan’s idea of using “robot welding” crews to do the difficult bits of the wave power units, as that will spoil the paygrades (Harlan wins him over by bluntly stating that it’s either his future or no future at all); in Rainsborough the opposition on the Council are quick to undermine the great Mondragonic vision. The reason wind-power can’t advance is that the unions in the power sector won’t like a power station without many workers. The irony from our perspective is that Brack doesn’t hear any problems about the N.U.M…. it seems that it should be ok to expect to use more coal, and nobody minds the drive towards automation in that industry.
All along he continues to see these as temporary fixes that should be less important once the Holy Grail of nuclear fusion is available, which should happen by 1990 and it’ll be patched in to the National Grid by the end of the century. That was pretty much the same timescale envisaged in the Chronology Of The Future pages at the end of those Usborne books. The tone of the series shifts abruptly in later episodes as we take in the saga of the defection of the top Soviet nuclear scientist and fusion expert Andrei Tchenkov. The most famous Soviet nuclear scientist of the time was Andrei Sakharov, but they have little in common. We do get a monologue about the differences between West and East, but it’s not a simple echo of any right-wing views of the time, and it doesn’t shake Brack from his negative view of nuclear fission in all its manifestations.
In the final episode the Report is published and our hero gets to intervene in a public inquiry on setting up a new reactor. We see some left-wingers amongst the campaigners who have him on their side – behind his back there is scepticism that he understands “the crisis of capitalism”, and there is certainly no sign that he’s thought about it, or the thoughts of the other Polanyi, the one who wrote about an earlier Great Transformation. Like a lot of TV shows of the time, The Brack Report had its own tie-in book. This has some interesting differences from its source material.
The book covers the events around the final episode, but goes beyond them and has some further excavation into Brack’s past in America. Back then he knew someone who was linked with a group called Alternative Scientists, who had a radical journal called Custard Pi that printed secret things the establishment wouldn’t want the public to know about. The book states it is “Based on the scripts of the Thames Television series The Brack Report by Christopher Penfold”. Penfold was the creator of the series, but not the sole writer, however the book only uses material from the concluding episodes. The puzzle is: does the book represent the full original version of the ending, which didn’t get made or broadcast, and if so why wasn’t it all used? Was there supposed to be an 11th episode that was cut to save money, or was the subplot about Tchenkov’s defection inserted to make things more exciting, and room had to be made for it by truncating the ending? Or was the whole business about “laser enrichment” too close to a real knuckle, and quiet words were spoken? Laser processes in the nuclear industry turned up a few years later in Edge Of Darkness. Whatever the reason, I think Brack deserves to be at least as celebrated as Bob Peck running around the Barbican and various potholes and hillsides.
Despite the title I’ve given this, Brack wasn’t exactly a Green. The term was known but not in wide circulation at time. The Ecology Party got a fair amount of coverage in the 1983 General Election and adopted the name already used by their German counterparts a year later. Meanwhile, much of his Report waits to be implemented. We’re still thinking about a Severn barrage, Salter’s Ducks are back in contention after it was discovered the numbers had been calculated wrongly, and wood is being used for combustion even though Harold Harlan saw that idea as a dead end. But best of all, we’re finally getting near to starting a fusion plant, 30 years after Brack and Usborne Books expected it. The future is still on schedule and will arrive eventually.
Morgan Ellis was in his mid-thirties, one of the brightest among the Opposition’s most recent parliamentary intake, with a seat in the industrial north that had to be as safe as the Rock Of Gibraltar. He had the kind of qualifications that promised a successful career: he was enough of a working-class boy made good to have a solid appeal to his constituents, fashionable enough in his thinking to gain influence in the middle-class pressure groups.