1 9 8 1 (UK)
1 x 180 minute episode
From 9.00 pm to midnight on Tuesday 29 December 1981, BBC1 broadcast one of the most densely symbolic, allusive and obscure pieces of television ever made.
For the first hour and fifteen minutes or so, it was a finely crafted supernatural thriller. Then something happened, and things began to get very, very weird . . .
Flitting from a North Sea Ferry to Liverpool Cathedral to a laser-festooned slave camp buried under a Welsh mountain to an alien planet with two suns, Artemis 81 was a potpourri of Hitchcock blondes, dry ice, master organists, trolleybuses full of consumptive Danes, abused jellyfish and mass clinical torture with muzak accompaniment.
Fantasy author Gideon Harlax (Hywel Bennett) was the nominal protagonist, stumbling from one weird piece of the puzzle to the next, sporting an expression of quizzical determination throughout.
The name that got the papers excited, though, was Sting (singer and bass player from The Police), playing the angel, Helith going head-to-head with the evil Asrael after Asrael woke the Earth spirit Magog from her slumber – although, to be fair, he didn’t do much apart from drift moodily across the landscape in a cowl and dangle from a helicopter.
The three uninterrupted hours – low on explanatory dialogue and rich in meditative atmospherics – were filled to the brim with apocalyptic cities, swarms of ravens and mythic alien worlds.
“Don’t worry about understanding it,” reassured the Daily Mirror, “just relax and enjoy it,” while the Express called it “three hours of codswallop”. Sting himself later called it “unintelligible”.
Albrecht Von Drachenfels
Mary Ellen Ray