Orbiter X

Radio Times illustration for Orbiter X (BBC Light Programme, 1959).

This was originally written to tie in with Radio 4 Extra’s first repeat run of  the 1959 Light Programme sci-fi serial Orbiter X in April 2016; the first time that it had been heard in over fifty years, and indeed since its original broadcast. It was really just intended as a background detail-fuelled way of drawing more attention to the repeats, giving a little bit of readable context and ‘story’ to this genuine obscurity and a sense that this was something more of an ‘event’ than most listeners would not unreasonably assume it to be. However, I found myself more drawn in by the tense and slow-building serial with its archaic but evocative sound effects and pronounced Cold War overtones, finding it perfect as late-night listening and looking forward to each weekly instalment every bit as much as Space Race-obsessed youngsters must have been way back when. As a consequence I really enjoyed writing this and really threw myself into it – I have a vivid memory of tapping a couple of paragraphs into my phone while waiting at a Tube station one bleary Sunday morning – and this must have been evident in the finished feature as after a slow start, it suddenly started to get a massive amount of hits and a good deal of appreciative feedback, and is one of my few works to be properly referenced on – as opposed to just outright stolen for – Wikipedia. Orbiter X has since been repeated several further times, suggesting that what was once little more than an impenetrable title on hastily flipped-past pages of Radio Times now commands a little more attention and respect, and I am proud to have played a small part in that.

This was one of the first features that I decided would go into Can’t Help Thinking About Me – with a new longer introduction about my fascination with the lost world of fifties sci-fi and some detail on Orbit One Zero, another similar serial subsequently unearthed by Radio 4 Extra – which you can get in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

You don’t really tend to get very many people talking about archive BBC radio sci-fi. In fairness, that’s probably because there’s never really been that much of it to talk about.

Well, in equal fairness, there’s been quite a lot of it, just very little that is actually widely known about. Leaving aside the possibly unresolvable question of whether The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy counts as ‘sci-fi drama’ or not, there are indeed a couple of well-remembered and widely-loved examples; the original atom age Light Programme cliffhanging serial Journey Into Space, Radio 4’s lengthy post-microchip ‘intelligent sci-fi’ cult favourite Earthsearch, and the same station’s superlative adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings (the former, incidentally, almost shorter in its entirety than the first part of Peter Jackson’s bloated big-screen reading).

Beyond these there are a handful of shows with minor but significant appeal to fans of other genre favourites; Nigel Kneale’s largely forgotten nineties postscript The Quatermass Memoirs, serials and plays by Doctor Who writers including Victor Pemberton’s The Slide and Robert Holmes’ Aliens In The Mind, and a late sixties version of The War Of The Worlds with music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s David Cain. And beyond these, there are hundreds if not thousands that came and went and thrilled a few million listeners before being almost completely forgotten.

Broadcast once by the Light Programme late in 1959, Orbiter X was a relatively straight-laced serial inspired by recent scientific developments in the ‘space race’, which was then at its most intense and confrontational. Running to fourteen episodes on Monday evenings between 28th September and 28th December, the storyline was based very closely on theoretical plans for an orbiting ‘refuelling station’ that would enable rockets to travel deeper into space than was then physically possible. However, this wasn’t the only topical aspect to the serial; while it was carefully and diplomatically disguised with less contentious character and place names, there was a definite tinge of Cold War paranoia in the unfolding storyline.

You would be forgiven for expecting the action to take place on board Orbiter X itself, but at the start of the series it hasn’t even been built yet. A rocket carrying a team of experts who were due to supervise the construction process has gone missing, prompting Captain Britton and his assistants – more inquisitive than intrepid – to set off on a rescue mission. On arriving at the station’s intended location, they are greeted by an unidentified spacecraft, and discover that they’ve been led into a trap; someone – who may or may not be from Earth – has plans for Orbiter X that go way beyond doling out a bit of additional rocket fuel. Brilliantly, the audience must have been as surprised by this as the characters were; the sizeable Radio Times article that accompanied the first episode cunningly only suggested that the series would examine the emotional and technological impact of working in a vacuum.

Radio Times listing for Orbiter X (BBC Light Programme, 1959).

Produced by Charles Maxwell, a name more normally associated with radio comedy (most notably commissioning the phenomenally popular sketch show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again), Orbiter X was written by prolific radio dramatist B.D. Chapman. Previously a lead writer on Dick Barton – Special Agent, Chapman had deliberately devised the serial to appeal to a family audience rather than just flying saucer-obsessed youngsters, and saw the scientific plausibility and topical concerns as key to achieving this; indeed, Chapman only half-jokingly told Radio Times that he was concerned some aspects might be overtaken by reality ahead of transmission. Hammer Films and ITC regular John Carson headed the cast as Captain Britton, with Barrie Gosney and Andrew Crawford as his assistants Flight Engineer Hicks and Captain McLelland; reportedly, the three wore makeshift space helmets during recording to get an authentic sense of change in breathing for scenes where they were required to put them on or take them off. This attention to sonic detail was shared by sound effects designer Harry Morriss, who created a set of around forty effects that could be combined in different ways to lend the serial a touch of variance across its lengthy run.

Orbiter X was apparently never repeated, and was also apparently wiped shortly after its lone transmission. Following that, the series was all but forgotten about, and until recently the only mention of it on the entire Internet was on a general fifties nostalgia site. At some point, a set of BBC Transcription Services discs of the entire series were discovered at BBC Enterprises; putting it in very simple terms, these were essentially vinyl records of BBC radio shows made for sale to overseas broadcasters. Often these would have material removed or re-recorded to avoid confusing or offending overseas listeners, and a small amount edited out to allow broadcasters to fit in commercial breaks, so these recordings may not quite be what audiences thrilled to back in 1959, but the fact that they survived is remarkable enough frankly. Now they’ve been literally dusted down by Radio 4Extra, and have proved to be a more compelling listen than perhaps anyone was reasonably expecting.

Far from being a creaky relic weighed down by overly polite voices and laughable ‘futuristic’ elements, Orbiter X is a taut and believable thriller, and enough time and technology have elapsed for its quaint sounds and  equally quaint theories to blast off into their own esoteric solar system. True, given that it was made not just with a different audience but with an entire different way of enjoying radio in mind, it isn’t exactly what you would call an easy background listen. But it’s one that rewards the small amount of additional effort and attention required tenfold, and if you blast it out from a tiny phone or tablet speaker, you can even get some sense of what it might have sounded like issuing from the ‘radiogram’ back in the days before Yuri Gagarin had even lifted one foot off the ground. 

Orbiter X is hugely enjoyable proof that there’s always something new – and good – to find hidden away in the radio and TV listings of the past, and let’s hope there’s more to come. Meanwhile, you may well have noticed, there aren’t any radio stations devoted to revisiting the vast archive of sci-fi – or drama, comedy, documentary, soap opera, live sessions or whatever else you might care to mention – from commercial radio. Funny, that.

John Carson, Andrew Crawford and Barrie Gosney in Orbiter X (BBC Light Programme, 1959).

Buy A Book!

You can find an expanded version of Orbiter X, with much more on fifties sci-fi and the early days of BBC Radio, 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.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Though not one of the ones in pill form they were probably fully stocked up with on Orbiter X though.

Further Reading

Orbiter X enjoys pride of place on my list of Twelve Radio Programmes That Need To Be Given A Proper Release; you can find out more about the other ones here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking about more forgotten old dusty bits of radio – although this time it’s comedy on BBC Radio Three and the Third Programme – in Looks Unfamiliar here.

© Tim Worthington.
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