A version of this article by Ian Wheeler was first published in the fanzine, Eagle Flies Again, in Issue 7. This online feature includes additional material by Jon Carpenter, John Freeman, Andrew Pixley and others – and we are grateful for the contributions of the project’s original team and a number of Dan Dare fans for extra information and imagery
Last updated: 21st July 2023
Added: Planned filming dates for the show in 1979 and 1980 uncovered, sourced from ITC files, courtesy Andrew Pixley
The Dan Dare Corporation‘s 2002 Dan Dare television series (partly released on DVD in 2005) was by no means the first attempt to bring our favourite space hero to the small screen. There have been at least two previous TV projects – the first by ATV in the early 1980s and the second by Zenith, in 1994. This article concentrates on the ATV version. We’ll try to piece together the story of the project and why it never ultimately happened, featuring contributions from those who were involved at the time.
For the benefit of younger readers, ATV was one of the old ITV regions. In the early days of ITV, the Midlands and London were each split into two franchises – weekdays and week ends. From the mid-1950s, ATV held the Midlands licence for weekdays and the London licence for weekends. In 1967, ATV lost the London franchise but were able to broadcast in the Midlands seven days a week from the following year. The company produced such memorable programmes as Pipkins and Crossroads and evolved into Central in 1982.
The ATV Dan Dare project sprang from an earlier attempt to bring Dan Dare to the big screen by Phenomenal Film Productions in the 1970s and an advertisement promoting the project appeared in Variety in October 1975, offered on eBay in 2016.
Paul A. de Savary, aka Paul de Savary, mentioned as working at Phenomenal Film Productions (alongside Malcolm Aw) in the advertisement, owned the TV and film rights to the Dan Dare character, and continued to do so into the 1980s.
Artwork for the project had been created and a Space:1999 producer was also apparently involved in the project.
Some of the art for the project was the work of illustrator Les Edwards, including a design for the Mekon.
Les has worked in many fields and areas for over 40 years but is best known for the huge number of book jackets he has produced in the fantasy, SF and horror genres. He’s created two graphic novels based on stories by Clive Barker and worked on many major advertising campaigns.
He’s also created posters for films including John Carpenter’s The Thing and Clive Barker’s Nightbreed and he has worked in film production and gaming.
His Mekon art was painted for Phenomenal Film Productions, “which actually looked as if it might go ahead,” he notes, unlike other, later attempts. But it was not to be.
“Eventually. of course, there was no film. A shame, as I would have liked to see this guy on screen. However, when one of the producers told me that they were going to use an actor in makeup to play the Mekon I knew the project was doomed.”
The Dan Dare TV Project
De Savaray didn’t give up on the space hero however, and the ATV series was the next attempt to bring Dan Dare alive beyond his comic incarnation.
On the face of things, the early 1980s was a good time to launch a new science-fiction series. Star Wars was still fresh in people’s memories and Doctor Who was riding a crest of popularity with Tom Baker in the title role. It seems entirely reasonable that ITV would want their own space hero and resurrecting such a classic, quintessentially British character would perhaps have made more sense than risking the introduction of a new, untried and untested creation.
Dan Dare historian Alan Vince was approached to act as an adviser on the TV project.
“The first contact I had was around the time of the planning for the Eagle convention in 1980,” recalls Alan, “and the Dragon’s Dream books on Dan Dare etc. This had been ‘in the air’ since Frank’s [Hampson, creator of Dan Dare] awards in 1975-6. This first attempt involved Paul de Savary of Phenomenal Films, but I only dealt with one of his assistants.
“A lot of money seemed to have been spent, involving a lot of artists, but nothing ever appeared. At our 1980 convention I was promised we would all be back in 1981 to celebrate the TV series!”
According to the official press release, Dan Dare the series would have been produced by American Leon Clifton (who had produced Evel Knievel’s show at Wembley when the famous motorcyclist had attempted to jump 13 buses) and would have been written by Phil Redmond, now famous for creating Grange Hill and Brookside.
Directors included Dennis Vance, whose credits included episodes of The Avengers, and Peter Harris, who had worked on The Muppet Show and conceived the popular Saturday morning show, Tiswas.
James Fox was to have played Dan Dare, (the epitome of the rugged, resourceful, stylish Englishman who knows what is right and what is wrong). Fox had been an international star in the 1960s before leaving the profession to become a religious worker. Dan Dare was to have seen his return to acting.
The Dan Dare TV stories were to have been set in the year 2000 and other familiar characters would have been present including Digby, Stripey, Peabody, Sondar and the Mekon. The press release promised that “1981 will be a landmark for British television” and that the series would combine “the best of the new technology in video effects and computer graphics with the flair of comic book story-telling techniques.
“We will create a new look for television: live actors fully integrated into weird and exotic graphic landscapes, unusual camera angles, vivid colours, split screen effects, armies of Treens will march on the Therons, and the space ways will be full of strange alien machines. We will deal visually with the television screen in the same way as we would a comic panel — the show will be as stylised as a comic book is. A new television form will be born. A new form that has no limits except in the imagination of the creators.”
It was all pretty ambitious stuff for 1981 and one has to wonder whether they could really have delivered everything that they promised. It is likely that the production team would have had to rely heavily on a technique known as Colour Separation Overlay (CSO) which allows characters and other objects to be placed in a setting or background of the director’s choice — it would all have been pretty tame stuff compared to the computer technology available to the makers of such films as Spider-Man and Star Wars today — now they really could create Treen armies!
Each half hour episode was to have included as many as 40 different settings. Music would also have played an important role.
According to the fanzine Astral Group Members Forum, which was published by Adrian Perkins for six issues between 1980 and 1981, videotaping for the 13-part series was due to start at Elstree in January 1981, but was postponed for one year. The fanzine reported that the budget for the series was four million dollars.
In 2018, 2000AD artist Brendan McCarthy explained how he and Brett Ewins were production designers on the TV project and responsible for commissioning Brian Bolland, original Dan Dare artist Keith Watson, Angus McKie and Mike Cosford and others to paint background graphics which actors would be placed over using the ‘Chromakey’ process.
Brendan also says punk star Johnny Rotten was considered for playing The Mekon, shrunk to fit, “which would have been hilarious.
“The show fizzled out eventually.”
Mike Cosford, who began his career as a cartoonist, has worked extensively in design and layout for commercials, creating backgrounds, colour visuals, and storyboards.
Effects wizard Martin J. Bower was to have worked on Dan Dare and has his own views on what might have happened. He also recalls that another actor was in the running for the Dan Dare role:
“Sadly, I think it would have been an unmitigated disaster!” says Bower today. “They intended to update the stories; in my opinion always a mistake. Gareth Hunt, fresh from The New Avengers, was to be Dan Dare, Rodney Bewes from The Likely Lads was Digby and a dwarf was going to be the Mekon!
“I attended several meetings at ATV’s then head studios at Borehamwood with an SFX director called Tim-something-or-other, who I can’t ever remember hearing of again, and who had never even shot any special effects!
“He also came over to my studios at Bracknell in Berkshire at that time, and made it fairly obvious he knew nothing at all about Dan Dare (Indeed, he had a copy of the 1980 annual and seemed to think this was the original!) So I dread to think what the final result would have been.
“Anyway, the project collapsed through lack of finance.”
Filming Dates Uncovered
While the series may have crashed and burned, we now know it at least got as far as some initial recording. In 2023, television archivist Andrew Pixley write to downthetubes after unearthing some dates for planned and, it appears, actual filming for the planned show, in 1979, located in ITC records.
“Dan Dare (Production No 5555) was first booked in for an experimental session at ATV Elstree using Studio D for Friday 10 and Saturday 11th August 1979 when it was due to be directed by Dennis Vance,” he writes, “but this was precisely when the ACTT strike that was to black out ITV screens for several months hit. At this point, it had already been delayed because of additional studio time required to complete the second serial for Sapphire and Steel which had been recording from March through to May.
“The experimental session was remounted by Peter Harris the following year. An initial day in Studio A on Monday 8th September 1980 was cancelled, but two more test days were apparently spent recording in Studio B on Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th.
“In late October 1980, it was announced in the trade press that recording was due to start on Wednesday 14th January 1981, but this was abandoned in mid-December 1980.”
Was the strike the final nail in the coffin for the show? What was recorded, we wonder, during the “experimental sessions”? Effects tests? Models? Sadly, neither of the directors of these is alive to ask them.
Dan Dare: Known Directors
Dennis Vance (18th March 1924 – 6th October 1983) was a British television producer, director, who began his career as an actor in the late 1940s, appearing in small film parts, such as Poet’s Pub, in 1949, before switching to become a producer with BBC Television in the early 1950s. Later, in 1955 he became the first Head of Drama at the ITV contractor ABC Weekend TV, who went on air in 1956, serving the Midlands and the North of England at weekends. He also produced episodes of The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1956), also directing a couple of episodes.
At ABC, Vance oversaw the creation of the anthology drama series Armchair Theatre, which was networked nationally across the ITV regions on Sunday evenings. It became an important long running landmark in British television drama series. Vance, however, left the Head of Drama role in 1958 for a promotion within ABC, being replaced by Sydney Newman. In 1961, he directed episodes of The Avengers.
Sadly, there’s one aspect of Vance’s life that can’t go un-noted. In 1960, Vance suffered a nervous breakdown and became obsessed with fellow producer at Teddington Studios, Janice Willet. He began stalking her, and assaulted her, culminating in an attack on her which led to a court case.
As is noted here on the ABC Art Large website, a psychiatrist testified that with a guilty plea and two to three months committed to the St Luke’s Hospital, Vance would soon be well again. The judge, satisfied that this really wasn’t Vance’s fault, gave him three years probation, of which the first year, or until he was cured, should be spent in the mental hospital.
Sacked by ABC, he was back producing drama for ATV by early 1962, and was employed by Thames when they opened in 1968. His career in television remains celebrated to this day. He helmed episodes of programmes such as Thames’ The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971). He also produced and directed The Misfit and The Bass Player for ATV, and directed episodes of Public Eye.
Janice, meanwhile, left ABC in 1962 to work for the Central Office of Information and very little information about her later life is known.
Flamboyant, larger than life director Peter Harris (1933 – 23rd February 2021) discovered Lenny Henry on New Faces, worked on Celebrity Squares, played a major role in the success of the children’s show, Tiswas, and also directed episodes of Family Fortunes, Crossroads, Fifteen to One and a variety of other shows in a career spanning five decades.
He was one of just two directors on the original The Muppet Show, working on the first 73 episodes, and became the director of the satirical television puppet show Spitting Image in 1984, capitalising on his experience of working with Jim Henson’s creations.
During the 1980s, Harris also directed the British game show Bullseye, and coined several of the catchphrases of acerbic presenter Jim Bowen.
He died from COVID-19 in a nursing home in Ferndown, Dorset, on 23rd February 2021, at the age of 88.
Show Props Surface
In 2020, we were informed one of the physical props created for the show was offered for sale by the Prop Gallery, credited to Bill Pearson, with whom Martin partnered as Bowerhouse Model Associates. The spaceship went on to be used as Zep One, the vehicle used in the BBC children’s show, Captain Zep.
Adrian Perkins recalls that “there were several short articles in 2000AD about the revolutionary animation techniques they were going to use. There was also some prototype merchandise around. When the series was cancelled, Corgi diecast models had to reprint their catalogue as the proposed one had a model spacecraft from the series!”
It would seem that attempts to get Dan Dare on television were still going on in 1982 when Eagle was re-launched and I asked Eagle editor David Hunt if the politics of the TV show had interfered with his work on the comic in any way:
“In a word,” says David, “Yes. Not so much the artwork, of course, but most definitely with regard to the storyline. The fact that our Dan Dare was the great, great, great grandson (was it three times removed?) of Hulton’s Dan Dare was contrived rather than meant.
“In 1982 the De Savary Group owned the TV and film rights to the Dan Dare character. I recall Barrie (Tomlinson) and myself meeting De Savary and his team in a plush London office to discuss the creation and development of our Pilot of the Future, soon to star in the new Eagle. But after lengthy talks it became clear to us that if the De Savary organisation was ever going to do a TV series then the whole project was still very much in its planning stages. So, rather than clash with their ‘eventual’ creation we made the decision to pitch our Dan forward a few generations.
“On reflection, this was the wrong decision because, of course, De Savary never pulled it off. If we had known this at the time I feel our first Dan would have reflected the original character more, something scriptwriter Tom Tully and the brilliant Keith Watson did so well at a later date.”
We will leave the final word to James Fox who kindly responded to my letter asking him to comment on whether the series might have been a success. “Yes. I do think Dan Dare would have worked,” writes James. “Now I’m ready for Sir Hubert!”
Now there’s an idea!
Phil Redmond on Dan Dare…
Phil Redmond’s book Mid-Term Report (Century Random House, 2012), an overview of his television career, gives some further behind the scenes details about his work on the mooted 1980s Dan Dare TV series, Ian Wheeler notes.
Phil recalls that he received a call from ATV Scripts asking if he would like to have a go at dramatising Dan Dare. 1980 was probably, he reflects, “the most formative year of my career… working on Dan Dare, Going Out and County Hall simultaneously taught me what television was really all about.”
“It was some form of co-production between ATV and, well, I was never quite sure who,” writes Phil. “The producer, Leon Clifton, was American, and one of the exec producers was Paul de Savary… They seemed to operate out of a plush Georgian mews house just behind the US embassy… and the production offices were out in Elstree.”
Phil had grown up reading the Eagle comic. He remembers that “it was decided to cast a Playboy Playmate as Professor Peabody” although he feels that “while this might have been a great box-office idea, that it could ever have been described as ‘wholesome’ in the way the Reverend Richard Morris stipulated is debatable.”
Phil describes the script process as “daunting.” ATV already had a pilot script, by The Likely Lads writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, with which they were unhappy. When deciding how to approach the project, Phil pondered on how things had changed since the launch of Dan Dare in the 1950s. He thought it would be interesting to have Dan fighting on two fronts – saving the world whilst also having to dodge the bureaucracy and cost analysis of peacetime.
The theme music for the series was intended to be a rework of Chopin’s Etude No.3 in E major, adapted by Elton John (who would of course later provide the theme for the Dan Dare animated series). Estimates for the costume budget were high, with Phil writing that the helmets alone would have cost £3500 each. There was talk of rewriting the script so that Dan and Digby would never be seen in the same scene in space so that they could share a costume! It was then pointed out that Dan and Digby are hardly similar physical and that Peabody would also need her own suit.
There were plans to use RAF-filmed footage shot (using infra-red film) over the Arctic to resemble the Martian landscape. (Paul de Savray has told downthetubes in emails that they were going to use NASA, not RAF footage).
Phil was asked to meet actor James Fox to discuss the role of Dan and Fox stayed over on a camp bed in the spare room at Phil’s home in Teddington. The two men discussed the possibility of casting Rodney Bewes as Digby, a suggestion of which Fox seemed to approve.
Phil reflects that 1980 was the year of applications for the renewal of the ITV franchise licences and that ATV and therefore Dan Dare was one of the casualties (ATV had to reorganise and evolved into Central). He speculates “was Dare Dan nothing more than a gambit in the franchise game?”
The Dan Dare TV Series – What Happened to ATV?
Jon Carpenter sent us the following info:
As noted above, ATV evolved into Central in 1982 (it is a common mistake to assume ATV simply lost its franchise to Central) which resulted in a change in management and a shift away from existing ATV projects. Central never seemed committed to Crossroads despite strong ratings and Sapphire and Steel only briefly survived the change as the final story was already in the can. This change likely didn’t do Dan Dare any favours.
ATV’s main shareholder, ACC (Associated Communications Corporation) hit financial problems around this time. This was as a result of a series of failed feature film projects unrelated to ATV. This lead to a change of ownership and a ‘fire sale’ of assets (which included Classic Cinemas, ATV Music, ITC etc) in the early 1980s. As part of the franchise award, ACC was required to dilute its shareholding in ATV/Central to 49 per cent. The change in ACC ownership saw the company ownership shift to Australia. It was against IBA rules to have an ITV company owned by a foreign business and ACC swiftly sold its remaining stake in Central.
A changing market place and increasing production costs saw ATV and its ITC distribution company move away from high budget episodic series towards mini-series. Amongst the last of a kind were The Return of The Saint and Hammer House of Horror. Changes in the franchise meant the loss of easy access to the ITV network in the UK.
If ATV intended to make Dan Dare on videotape, it is likely it would have been made at their Elstree Studio Centre (ATV/ITC’s filmed series were made at film studios such as ABPC Elstree (aka EMI Elstree), Pinewood and MGM Elstree). ATV Elstree was used by Central while their Nottingham Studio Complex was completed and then sold on the cheap to the BBC. Long-running shows such as ‘Allo ‘Allo and Grange Hill moved from Television Centre to Elstree, to be joined by new programmes such as EastEnders, Going for Gold and Newsroom South East.
Elstree’s studios were considered to be under-resourced by BBC standards and, for years, the studios for the likes of Top of the Pops and Grange Hill used OB equipment (outside broadcast) and trucks while the ‘in-house’ technology was replaced.
Wakefield Carter was responsible for a lot of image gathering from the planned series but, sadly, his original web site about the project is no longer available
With thanks to Jon Carpenter, Rufus Dayglo, Neil Hunt, Dale Jackson and Chris Weston