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1 June 2022

Sky’s new adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos is more psy-fi than sci-fi

I feel a bit possessive of John Wyndham and his 1957 novel – and this series has some work to do.

By Rachel Cooke

What’s wrong with Sky’s new adaptation of John Wyndham’s strange and influential 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos? For a while, I thought there was nothing wrong with it at all. But then Sam West appeared, in one of those establishment-type roles that he does so well, and I perked up so much, I knew something was amiss.

I’m not being mean. West is a fine actor; he burnishes even the ropiest scripts. In this instance, though, my relief was completely disproportionate. “Hello, Sam!” I thought happily, as his character – a bigwig in the Home Office – looked grave and said something strict about the Official Secrets Act.

You will know the story, of course. A strange happening occurs in Midwich, a small town somewhere in the Chilterns. People fall unconscious, and when they wake up some time later, every woman of childbearing age finds herself pregnant, even those who were single. How did this happen? When the babies are born, it’s clear they are not wholly human. The physical growth of these sinister cuckoos is hugely accelerated, they are telepathic, and they are able to control the actions of others even from afar. The novel, whose author is revered by Margaret Atwood (his earlier novel, The Chrysalids, influenced The Handmaid’s Tale), has twice been made a film, most famously The Village of the Damned (1960), starring George Sanders.

People my age tend to feel a bit proprietorial about Wyndham. As children, we watched a terrifying and incredibly successful adaptation of another novel of his, The Day of the Triffids (1951; killer plants!), after which we eagerly read all his books for ourselves (or at least I did). Is this playing into my resistance to this series? Perhaps. It’s by David Farr (The Night Manager), and he has chosen to set it in the present day, something that makes the story seem less freighted, somehow: babies without fathers were an altogether different thing in 1957 than today. It’s a decision that leaves Farr with some work to do. For instance, he has had to write in a scene where several of the women decide, as they inevitably would in 2022, to have a state-sanctioned termination (I won’t say what happens, though you can probably guess).

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In the end, though, these plot points probably matter less than the mood overall, which is so Midsomer Murders-like – all cricket pitches, leafy lanes and illicit affairs – you half expect John Nettles to appear. I almost wish he would. Instead, we have Max Beesley as DCI Paul Kirby, the Midwich copper whose job it is to keep an eye on this, erm, developing situation, and I find him a bit unsympathetic. In the novel, one of the most important characters is an elderly man called Gordon Zellaby. But elderly men – in fact, all older people – are tacitly forbidden in sexy Box Set Land, so Farr has created Dr Susannah Zellaby, a family therapist, played by Keeley Hawes, whose daughter is among the impregnated. I like Keeley Hawes a lot, but she is completely wasted here. Her character’s existence is just too convenient. I mean, she made her living talking to children before the happening, and now here is she is, ready and waiting for the Home Office to use as a spy-come-shrink, talking first to the mothers and later (I presume; I’m only a few episodes in) to their alien offspring. She spends a lot of time looking Very Worried, and trotting out reassurances that sound like they’ve been lifted from Teach Yourself Therapy.

I’m trying to work out to what degree, ultimately, Farr will be unfaithful to Wyndham. Dr Zellaby’s talk, pre-happening, of “the wave of anxiety” that is crippling the nation’s young makes me wonder if he isn’t more interested in psy-fi than sci-fi. I think he might be going for the Giant Metaphor Approach, which would certainly explain his decision to set The Midwich Cuckoos in our own time.

In fact, now I think about it, I couldn’t help but notice how the people of Midwich seemed to be greatly more perturbed by their phones not working for a while than by the discovery that their womenfolk have fallen mysteriously, even miraculously, pregnant. Unexpected alien babies? Okay, call Deliveroo and order the Pampers. No mobile signal and ten unanswered text messages? Someone needs to bring in the army right now.

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The Midwich Cuckoos
Sky, 2 June, 9pm; now on catch-up

[See also: Bergman Island review]

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special