I had a note this morning from Dave Young, architect of my website, to let me know that Play.com are offering all four seasons of the mid-90s action thriller series BUGS at £7.99 a pop in their New Year Sale.
(I mention the website business not because it’s relevant, but because it’s cheaper to hand out credit than payment.)
Bugs feels almost like a forgotten series now but for a while, back there, we owned Saturday nights. I can remember reading newspaper coverage of how ITV had been caught off-guard and were scrambling to find something remotely like it.
Which is kind of ironic, given that it was an ITV memo that started the whole thing. And that the entire tone and texture of the show were based directly on the kind of popular drama that had helped to define Independent Television through the 60s and into the 70s.
For me it began with a call from Stuart Doughty. Stuart had been the Presentation Department’s Promotions Script Editor at Granada’s Manchester studios when I’d worked there in the late ’70s, and he was now a producer with Brian Eastman’s Carnival Films. Carnival were/are one of the most successful of UK television’s indie houses, with a back catalogue that includes Poirot, Jeeves & Wooster, and the original Traffik.
Stuart was aware of my genetics-on-the-rampage miniseries Chimera, and believed I could probably write technobollocks with the best of them. I remember that first meeting at the Carnival offices near the top of Ladbroke Grove; it was high summer and I turned up in shirt, shorts and basketball boots and must have seemed intent on talking myself out of the gig as I told them everything that I thought was wrong with the show concept. Their response was to commission a script, which rather took me unawares.
I didn’t create Bugs. Brian and Stuart did, with a significant amount of development input and influence from Brian Clemens. Nor did I write the pilot; that was by Duncan Gould, so the show was pretty much fully-formed when I came to it.
The format had been put together in response to a memo sent out by ITV drama to all the indies, calling for submissions to fill a slot it had designated for an action series. (That’s the arse-up way we’ve done TV since 1990, when the Broadcasting Bill ended the Darwinian system of competing regional companies and replaced it with a non-creative commissioning and scheduling body.)
Every indie in town prepared a pitch, and somehow the BBC got sight of Carnival’s. They commissioned it on the spot, while ITV were still opening envelopes. A two-series commitment, no messing. It’s rare.
It also caught everyone off-guard. I came along at the point where they were having problems extending the format into a multiple-story franchise, something they hadn’t expected to be facing for a while. I fear that I was probably a bit precious about it at that stage; I wrote novels and created my own stuff for TV, after all, and probably felt that episode writing on someone else’s show was a retrograde step.
But when I started thinking of it as a chance to shed the extra burden of authorship and get involved in making something like the old Republic serials, just pure, kinetic, forward-moving fun, that made a difference. Believing that my Bugs script would be a one-off with no follow-up, I chucked everything into the story that I could think of. I called the result Assassins, Inc and was turning around to clamber back onto my lofty pedestal when the phone rang again.
It was Stuart. I remember his words exactly: “Brian says that we’ll take as many of these as you can possibly do.”
And my reply: “Well, Stuart, I do have an idea that might make another story. But it would all depend on whether you could get me a submarine.”
There was a pause. Then, in words chosen with great care:
“All I can say at this stage is that I can’t see any reason why not.”
Which led to the Season One story titled Down Among the Dead Men.
That was how it went with me. I tackled every story thinking it would be my last. I didn’t warm to every aspect of the format – I suppose my natural urge was to Goth it up a bit to contrast/juxtapose with all the shiny docklands architecture – but I worked within the style and had more fun than any series writer can decently hope for. In our season one closer, Pulse, I introduced Jean Daniel, a smooth French-born villain who’d quit the Foreign Legion because he thought it was full of sissies. Gareth Marks played him with such evil joy that we brought him back in season two and had him underpin our series arc, in which Jean Daniel manipulates the stock market from his cell and buys the prison he’s being held in.
My main contribution to season two was the Cyberax thread, a sequence of stories involving an online distributed intelligence and the first computer virus to cross the species barrier.
The BBC were unhappy with the increasingly science fictional direction the show was taking, and said so. Season three was commissioned with a directive for less sf, more relationships. I was given the job of setting that up. Craig McLachlan (‘Ed’) had been planning to leave the show and I gave him a spectacular demise at the end of the first season three episode, Blaze of Glory. But as season three went into production he agreed to stay, so Ed lived; and the character intended to replace him in the lineup, a young woman named Alex, was reworked to play a supporting role. I always liked Alex, and wished I could have done more with the character; but Craig brought so much bounce and energy to the show that I was glad to see him stay. Some of my best lines were actually his ad libs.
For my last story in season three, Renegades, I asked to be allowed to go back to the Cyberax story and give it closure. BBC or no BBC, Brian backed me on it and the result was one of my favourite episodes.
I wasn’t involved in season four. I was off making Oktober by then. In the context of my career, I tend to think of Bugs as a massive sidebar. I didn’t invent it, I don’t own it, I can hardly hog the credit for it.
But for a while, it Entertained Our Nation.