The Devil’s Eggshell (Play of the Month) – BFI Southbank

As part of the BFI Southbank’s “Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder” season, this rare showing of the Play of the Month of June 1966, ‘The Devil’s Eggshell’ took place last night.

It’s an odd piece, only nominally nodding in the direction of sci-fi when strange egg-shaped objects (or “POs”) seem to be the cause of disasters ranging from rail and car crashes, suicides, stock market shenanigans, and more.  Leonard Rossiter’s weirdly-accented PM (is he meant to be Welsh?) takes the whole thing very seriously, bringing the country under the military rule of the Fascist-inclined Major General Atkins (John Phillips) and ignoring the pleas of rational political observers Sir Edward Bell (David Langton) and Lord Portmanteau (Bernard Hepton, also curiously Welsh at times) to inform the public from the start.

Things take a curious turn when scientist boffin Dr Quilliam (Keith Barron) hits upon the plan which in a nutshell is to create a ‘Foe’ who can cause world domination purely to cause the general public to turn on their elected leaders.  Such a plan seems fraught with danger, and indeed as the public turn to an ugly and frightened mob it does seem that the end result will be devastating.

Sharply satirical and blackly funny, this play also addresses the notion of press freedom, mob rule, and hysteria in the face of events we do not understand.  From the early demise of the nosy journalist (Michael Culver), to the introduction of death by guillotine for those who were gullible enough to think they could influence public opinion, it is sobering to note that by the end those who survive are the old guard, back in power again, just as corrupt and just as clueless.

The play uses a lot of footage on film which looks to be from real disasters or mobs, and this adds to the pedestrian look to the in-studio pieces.  The cast, which also includes Marian Diamond (Jean), Edmond Bennett (Fowler), and briefly, Burt Kwouk as a Chinese delegate to the conference of war, are good, but the play itself, by David Weir and directed by Gareth Davies, is muddled, and falls between the satire and the unease of the portrayal of mob rule and military coups which seem eerily accurate (this was only two decades after the fall of Hitler, and at the height of the Cold War).