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Watch this space

Watch this space

by Peter Fiddick
The Guardian (UK) - August 28, 1975

PETER FIDDICK on the latest sci-fi spectacular

ONCE UPON a time, it was just going to be the greatest premiere in world television history. Like coast-to-coast screenings in America, Britain, and you name the rest, all on September 9, 1975, as episode one - dateline: The Dark Side Of The Moon, September 9, 1999 - blasted the moon out of the world's orbit, and Space 1999 into the world's ratings. In the event, the American networks turned it down, the British ITV controllers got coy about showing it at the same time all over the country, and September 9 this year is a Tuesday. So what we come down to, is: "My biggest gamble" - Sir Lew Grade.

But it could just be the best coup even the ebullient Sir Lew has ever pulled off. Space 1999 is a 24-part, one hour, filmed sci-fi epic, the saga of the crew of Moon Base Alpha as they speed through space after the nuclear waste dumped from planet earth has finally gone boom beneath them.

You could call it Son Of Star Trek, though Lew wouldn't let the name of the BBC's much repeated buy pass his lips: neither, doubtless, would Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, for whom this production is the all-human pinnacle of a creative tree that came the way of all puppets, via Stingray and Thunderbirds. They have Martin Landau and Barbara Bain- if you loved them in Mission Impossible, you'll marvel at them in this-together with Barry Morse to head the permanent team, and guest stars (it's a big crew) from Roy Dotrice to Margaret Leighton.

Its special effects, all those planets and blast-offs, computer graphics and technical gimmicks, are way ahead of Star Trek, on the evidence of two episodes unveiled yesterday. More to the point, since Star Trek was dropped in America, a large audience with a taste for this space stuff was living off repeats. So what could go wrong?

After two years in the pipe-line, 15 months in the studio, £2.6 millions ("plus interest charges") out of the hank. Lew Grade offered it to the American networks. And the networks said no. "So," said Grade yesterday, "I said to Abe Mandel, who runs our company in America. 'We're going to have a Fourth Network.'"

Mandel set about the laborious process of selling it, station by station, to the independents across the States, and to the stations affiliated to the networks to use in the "prime time access" slots they are bound to fill with non-network material.

What happened is recorded in the immortal prose of a headline in Hollywood's Daily Variety last Friday: "Space Gives Webs Big Sci-defy Scare." Which, being translated, means that Mandel has sold it to 148 stations so far, and that, instead of just using it in their access slots, even some network affiliates are pre-empting peak-time network slots to show it; and what gives the webs ... er, networks ... the big scare is that the national ratings of their new programmes in the important autumn season blasting off next week are thereby threatened. One Los Angeles independent slipped an episode out as a lip-licker in advance of the run - it is said to have got ratings at 7 p.m. on a Saturday that beat the local ABC and CBS stations put together.

"So how much will you make, Lew?" we chorused. "Not much," said the world's most modest showman. "Except." he added after 15 seconds' mature reflection, "that I shall probably make a million or two in merchandising. But I have to keep that separate."

Lew Grade's Associated Television Corporation set-up, of course keeps most things separate. Space 1999 is actually made by its subsidiary Independent Television Corporation, which sells them to the ITV companies - including ATV Network in much the same way as they do to all those American stations, Abu Dhabi, or Malta. Quite why the programme won't be networked here is one of the inner mysteries of the ITV system that could be thought democratic or devious, depending where you stand. Every company has the right to make its own scheduling decisions (that's democracy); but it does also happen that if popular filmed series, especially the American ones like Columbo, or Hawaii Five O, or the big old movies, were given a simultaneous network showing, the Top Ten most weeks would look embarrassingly devoid of native talent - so they all show them, but at different times (which is devious).

Most of us see the blast-off next Thursday; London and Anglia have to wait till the Saturday; Granada and HTV wait a few more weeks.

Of course, when he says "Not much," you must under stand, he's talking about this year. Rarely in recent years has Grade had quite the air of a man with a gold-strike about to come good. If his "Fourth Network" ploy works in America this season, he'll be pitching for the full network deal next.

That there will be a second run seems increasingly certain: the Pinewood studios have been kept ready, with the permanent sets still there -" more interest charges "- and they could be in production by November.

"Variety says it will run till 1999. I'll settle for 1989. In the second year we'll make a lot of money."

Image: Valerie Leon in Thulian top; caption "Space:1999 - shape of things to come".

Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment