Strange

2002 | United Kingdom

In March 2002, something very strange began. In actual fact it began approximately three years before, when writer Andrew Marshall came up with the idea of a television series based around the concept of the devil living somewhere in England. And so Strange was born, and the pilot episode was shown on BBC1, gaining pleasing viewing figures. So what is Strange all about? Well in the words of Jude Atkins in the pilot, "it's a sort of supernatural whodunit only one of them's a demon!"

The pilot episode introduced us to John Strange, played by Coupling's Richard Coyle (that's the original British Coupling, not NBC's version). John Strange was thrown out of the Church of England after an unfortunate incident involving several gruesome deaths, and as the mysterious Canon Black tells us, "all the while he was running around telling all and sundry about demons in disguise." As the series progresses, the audience are treated to further insight into this event, which forms an important part of the ongoing plot. 

Strange's leading lady, Nurse Jude Atkins is brought to life by Samantha Janus (now Samantha Womack), star of such TV shows as Game On, Liverpool 1, EastEnders (as Ronnie Mitchell/Branning) and who also portrayed Sandy for a while in the London stage production of Grease. Jude is a researcher-turned-nurse, who lives with her boyfriend Rich (Alistair McKenzie) and their son Joey. As the events of the pilot unfold, Jude encounters John Strange and is introduced to the world of demons, having a dramatic effect on her life from this point onwards. 

Constantly attempting to thwart Mr Strange, and to keep the demonic world hidden under his "by now bulging carpet", is the sinister Canon Adolphus Black, otherwise known as the superb British actor Ian Richardson. Black's motives remain a mystery to us throughout the series. Is he good? Is he bad? And just how much does he know? Only Andrew Marshall can answer those questions. Always on call to do Black's bidding is the young doormat, Doddington, brought to our screens by relative newcomer Samuel Barnett. 

Strange TV series

Aiding Strange in his hunt for demons is Toby, computer expert and self confessed "grubby geek," who may be familiar to viewers from Primeval, Andrew Lee Potts. In the pilot episode however, the part of Toby was played by Brian Dick, who did not return when the full series began filming.

Canon Black's gardener, Kevin (Timmy Lang) also works with Strange and Toby. Kevin has Downs Syndrome, and as a result is more or less ignored by Black, giving him the opportunity to spy for Strange and keep him informed of the Canon's activities. Kevin also has the unusual gift of being sensitive to demonic vibes, which comes in very handy! Completing the regular cast is young actor William Tomlin, who plays the part of Jude's son Joey, who may or may not have inherited certain traits from his father!

Strange is written and created by Andrew Marshall, who may be known as one half of the Marshall and Renwick writing duo, who were responsible for such hits as the radio show The Burkiss Way and a number of comedy shows. Independently, Andrew Marshall has written for such comedies as 2Point4 Children and Dad, among other things. The Strange pilot episode was directed by Joe Ahearne, creator of vampire drama Ultraviolet, who returns to direct several episodes of the series, sharing duties with Ballykissangel director Simon Massey. 

When the pilot aired, it pulled an impressive 5.83 million viewers, which was sufficient for BBC executives to commission a full series of six episodes. However, Marshall only had six scripts in total, the first of which was filmed as the pilot. Therefore a new opening episode was needed which would serve as a second pilot to those who hadn't seen the original, but would also pick up from where we left off, continuing the story for those who had already encountered John Strange the previous year. 

The actual air date had already been put back multiple times. Having originally been told that the series would begin in the Winter of early 2003, this was pushed back to March, then April, and after another shuffle to make room for the Eurovision Song Contest (which incidentally Samantha Janus featured in back in 1991), Strange finally began in May 2003. 

Samantha Janus in 'Strange'

The hype surrounding the beginning of the series was interesting. Most of the press coverage focused on Samantha Janus, the more well known of the two stars, even though Richard Coyle was both the title character, and the star of the show. Strange marked Ms Janus' grand return to television after taking some time off to focus on her family, and was also seen as a new direction for the BBC, who rarely ventured into the sci-fi/fantasy genre at that time. Strange was billed as 'British Buffy', and received coverage in a number of leading genre magazines including Dreamwatch and Shivers. The show even spawned its very first fan-site, 'Strange Online' after the pilot episode, which was mentioned in several publications surrounding the launch of the series, and was even described in interviews with Richard Coyle. (Sadly this site is no longer available). Boasting an impressive guest cast including the likes of Doctor Who star Tom Baker, and an already growing fan-base, Strange was showing all the signs of being a cult hit. 

Unfortunately, the complication of having to start with a second pilot episode was responsible for alienating many potential viewers. A common complaint was that people simply did not understand what was going on. Some had not realised that there had been a pilot, and got hopelessly lost in the back-story and relationships between the various characters. This could have been solved by the BBC repeating the pilot before showing the series, but they chose not to do this for reasons unclear. The BBCi Cult team did investigate the possibility of a web-cast of the pilot on the BBC's Strange website, but this was not possible. However, despite the confusion the episode got acceptable ratings in its Saturday night prime time slot at first. This episode saw Jude reunited with Strange and thrust back into the world of demons to solve a number of mysterious deaths, while the pair tried to evade the efforts of Canon Black to stop them at every turn. 

However, the response was far from overwhelmingly positive. The BBC's Strange message board began to fill up with negative comments describing Strange as a cheap clone of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the X-Files, the acting was bashed at every opportunity and the episode was critically panned in most of the national newspapers, but this did not stop the merry band of Strange fans. The fan-base was growing online with discussion communities springing up and the aforementioned fan-site growing all the time and receiving more hits as the public opened up to John Strange and his world. 

The criticisms did not ease greatly after the second episode, and people were already beginning to complain about the formulaic nature of the series, the poor special effects, the supposedly terrible acting and illogical writing. The ratings dropped but the fan-base grew more determined to defend this fledgling show. 

An interesting point to note about the second episode is that it was originally intended to follow on from the pilot, and when watching with this fact in mind, actually flows far more smoothly than the aired first episode, which came across as some what clunky in places, where the effort was made to reintroduce the regular characters and concepts without rehashing the pilot. The second episode once again throws Jude into the demonic world, but this time it is handled far better, and now she's there to stay. At the same time the character of Toby is further developed as we learn a little bit more about his history and involvement. 

By the third episode, in which Strange and Jude faced a banshee, those who wanted to watch were watching, and those who didn't...annoyingly were still watching and making sure everyone else knew that they did not want to. The BBC's official message board had become the popular place to bash Strange, meaning that most of the fans gravitated into the Yahoo groups, where Strange was appreciated for what it was, and was not constantly compared with Buffy. 

But by now the general public reaction to Strange seemed more negative than positive. The ratings had now stabilised at just over three million viewers, and the audience share was consistently lower than ITV's The Bill spin-off MIT. The fourth episode featured an unusual demonic infestation, and the fifth episode of the series, in which the dead were seemingly appearing, was dropped from the prime-time slot and shown later after the Saturday night movie. The BBC had already announced plans to renew various dramas for a new season, but there was still no word on the future of Strange, and the signs were not looking good, especially when plans for a new supernatural drama, Sea of Souls, were unveiled.

The final, and arguably the best, episode of the series saw a return to the 9pm timeslot, and a special appearance by Tom Baker. However all advertising had stopped, and the erratic time-slot meant that only the fans were still hanging on. The shocking finale came to an end and the future of Strange was far from clear. 

By this time a new discussion community had emerged online, and was serving as the focal point for fans of the series. A petition was established and campaign ideas were discussed, in the style of the infamous Tabasco campaign which saved US sci-fi drama Roswell from cancellation after its first season. Sadly however the petition was abandoned and the campaigns never got off the ground. Slowly the discussions dwindled until only the hardcore fans were left. Then came the news, reported to the Yahoo group by a reliable source, then confirmed a number of weeks later by the BBC, the plug had been pulled on Strange. Issuing a statement claiming that "although we [the BBC] were very pleased with the results, we have decided not to recommission Strange." There was never any clear reason given for the cancellation. 

Despite the cancellation of Strange, the fan community refused to roll over and die. The BBC's message board still remained used by some for a while, and other discussion communities survived the death of Strange, even though some did not and the story of Strange continued in the form of a number of short stories submitted by creative fans. 

Interviews with Andrew Marshall revealed that the beginnings of an ongoing story arc had been firmly established in the first series, which would have continued to develop and grow as the show went on with a second season openner in which was to have been found dead in the first episode. For a while there were suggestions for audio dramas or novels to continue the story, but nothing transpired. However, to mark five years since the original broadcast, creator Andrew Marshall wrote an additional short story entitled 'Ramset.' 

Published on April 16th, 2019. Written by Mark Harvey for Television Heaven.

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