A Slight Case Of Reincarnation

Adam Adamant Lives! - A Vintage Year For Scoundrels (Big Finish, 2020).

BBC Records And Tapes’ 1980 compilation BBC Detective Themes (which you can find much more about in Top Of The Box Vol. 2 here) may boast a cover featuring a faceless private eye furrowing his brow over an ashtray, a gun, a half-demolished bottle of whiskey and a ‘clue’, but the contents are every bit as thematically haphazard as you’re probably imagining. It starts off in the long-lost days of must-listen radio serials with the orchestral overtures to Paul Temple and Dick Barton – Special Agent, causes a generation of Angry Young Men to fear getting their collars felt by Dixon Of Dock Green and Z-Cars, whips up the lounge-funk for The Two Ronnies‘ Charley Farley and Piggy Malone and revived Second Division Cold War paper-pusher Quiller – whose theme music is notoriously equipped with a Moog tone so loud and elasticated that it seems almost designed to torture Soviet agents into defecting – turns its glove cuffs down and drives like a bloody maniac through Starsky And Hutch and Kojak, and brings everything right up to date with a grim trudge through the streets of Thatcher’s Britain with Shoestring. There’s also the proggy jazz-rock gallop that accompanied angular postmodern violence festival with added social commentary Gangsters, which still defies categorisation even now. Small wonder, then, that by the time it came to the back cover, the downtrodden ‘tec had apparently done a runner.

There was one theme, however, that sounded like nothing else on there, and seemed completely out of place amongst the slow-burning funk and wailing harmonica laments. It sounded like someone had given Dusty Springfield a Bond Theme after it was yanked away from Scott Walker at the last minute but not before he’d managed to irreparably render it too existential for Light Programme listeners, backed by an orchestra who appeared to be fighting for elbow room at the bottom of a well made out of reverb units. It was a dramatic ode to some stylish affection-shunning adventurer who was apparently both bold as a knight in white armour and cold as a shot from a gun, and it doubtless leapt right out at a great many sixties-fixated younger listeners. It was the theme song from Adam Adamant Lives!.

Created by original Doctor Who driving forces Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman, and inspired by their own exasperation at figurative Victorian in modern times Mary Whitehouse, Adam Adamant Lives! ran for two series on BBC1 between 1966 and 1967 and depicted the adventures of Adam Llewellyn De Vere Adamant, a dashing Victorian secret agent, in Swinging London; he had been been tricked into suspended animation by his arch-enemy The Face in 1902, and revived when some builders discovered him while, symbolically, demolishing a Victorian building. With the often barely tolerated aid of his Mod-attired friend-in-need Georgina Jones and shady retainer Simms, Adam foils a series of bizarre crimes ranging from subliminal crime-initiating messages hidden in pop records to a murder committed with a stick of Blackpool Rock. Everything about it – including the theme song – sounded amazing, and this expectation was borne out when BBC2 repeated the opening episode, A Vintage Year For Scoundrels, as part of their themed strand One Day In The Sixties, and when it joined the similarly thrilling Death Has A Thousand Faces on a BBC Video release. I wasn’t the only one who was this fascinated by this long-forgotten series either; there was a significant upsurge in interest following the release of the it has to be said ‘similarly themed’ Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, Mark Gatiss wrote and presented a superb documentary for the full DVD release of the remaining material from the series, and Mitch Benn namechecked Adam Adamant Lives! prominently in I’m Proud Of The BBC. There was only one downside to this; while the first series existed almost in full – and even more of it would turn up later on – the second – in which The Face made an unexpected return in the present day and which sounded even better still – was almost entirely missing. Quite how the two age-old adversaries clashed over sinister goings-on in a retirement home will have to remain – appropriately enough – a mystery.

Adam Adamant Lives! (Big Finish, 2020).

If you’re looking for further Adam Adamant Lives! adventures, though, then all is not quite as lost as Face In A Mirror and The Resurrectionists. With its devoted cult following, strong links to Doctor Who – in fact, there’s a reference in these new adventures to a certain pop combo that effectively makes it ‘Expanded Universe’ – and general feeling that audiences never quite got to see enough of Adam, Georgie and Simms, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that following their well-received reworkings of Space: 1999, The Prisoner, The Avengers and many more, prolific audio adventure publishers Big Finish should have turned their attention to Adam Adamant Lives!. Starring Blake Ritson as Adam, Milly Thomas as Georgina and Guy Adams = who also provided the scripts – as Simms, the debut collection A Vintage Year For Scoundrels features three new stories – What Is This Place?, loosely based on the first television episode A Vintage Year For Scoundrels, an updating of Death Has A Thousand Faces, and the brand new escapade Georgina Jones Dies!. With the cast on tremendous and suitably larger-than-life form throughout, these new adventures retain the wit and flair of the original series while giving it a more contemporary edge; this is especially evident in the first story, where the protection racket theme of the original script is reworked as a blackmail plot that, while still very definitely anchored in the attitudes – and legality – of the times, will doubtless have a few listeners fuming that they’ve ruined good old Adam Adamant Lives! by making it ‘woke’. Presumably it was a different series inspired by disdain for someone who was attempting to bring Victorian attitudes into the present that they had imagined having watched.

That isn’t the only effective attempt at updating this very deliberately of-its-time concept for a modern context without losing any of the charm of the original. One of the greatest obstacles in presenting Adam Adamant Lives! in an audio-only format is that so much of the original series was so visual; not just the powerful contrast between the modish pop-art designs and authentically seedy London locations, and Ridley Scott’s highly atypical for the time direction, but also that’s where some of the humour and drama came from too. There can hardly be many people reading this who aren’t already thinking of the startling image of a frightened, exhausted Adam staggering the wrong way up an escalator as he tries to come to terms with the familiar yet unrecognisable world he has found himself in. Fortunately, everyone involved has put a good deal of effort into making the lack of visuals more interesting, with characters and plot devices developed and expanded to fill the unseen space. Simms, so often little more than vaguely sinister comic relief, is given a good deal more depth and there is now a question mark over whether he is simply a once-popular entertainer fallen on hard times and covering his crushed self-esteem with a blustering display of confidence – something that Adam can more easily relate to – or hiding in plain sight from a more malevolent past. Margo Caine, the ageing East End thug who proved such an effective villain in the first television episode, becomes a recurring antagonist played brilliantly by Issy Van Randwyck. Most strikingly of all, Adam’s arrival in 1966 is neither explained nor explored, with suspicion frequently voiced over whether he is the genuine article or simply someone who believes himself to be; not least by Adam himself, who conducts this tortured debate in internal dialogues with what appears to be The Face. If you’ve ever wondered what the second series of the original Adam Adamant Lives! was like, then you’ll doubtless be looking forward to seeing where they go with this unexpected twist.

“Are our two worlds so far apart?”, mused the Adam Adamant Lives! theme song whilst Adam and Georgie struck a series of end credit-accompanying dashing poses and pop-art hearts and targets flashed across them. This revival isn’t so far apart from the original, and it rattles along with an exuberant wit and energy that recalls those dim and distant and partially lost black and white small-screen adventures while making them very much its own. As for that theme song itself, it’s been overhauled by Benji Clifford with a wallpaper-shattering belted-out vocal from Louise M. Kimber, and rather than being the sort of bland cyberneticised carbon copy that it would have been easy to resort to, it sounds exactly like it would if someone was overhauling it for Lana Del Rey or Adele. Is it time we had a Big Finish Themes? Well, vinyl is another sixties relic making a comeback…

Milly Thomas, Blake Ritson and Guy Adams in Adam Adamant Lives! - A Vintage Year For Scoundrels (Big Finish, 2020).

Buy A Book!

You can find a feature on the notorious ‘drug party’ episode of Gerald Harper’s post-Adam Adamant Lives! vehicle Hadleigh in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. There’s also more about BBC Detective Themes in Top Of The Box Vol. 2, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Apparently they do really good ones in that there ‘Swinging London’.

Further Reading

A Story Of A London Family Adapting To Life In A Country Town is a feature on another Verity Lambert production, the BBC’s mid-sixties soap opera The Newcomers; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can find some chat about Adam Adamant Lives! producer Verity Lambert’s stint as producer of Doctor Who in The Zeitgeist Tapes: Dr. Pod here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.