The Midwich Cuckoos, legendary science-fiction writer John Wyndham’s 1957 novel, has twice been adapted for the screen before, both times under the more sensational title, Village of the Damned. The assumption, presumably, with these movies, was that the book’s curiously twee – and singularly British – title would alienate international audiences. It is refreshing, then, that the novel has finally come to TV this week under its original name – though that sop to the Wyndham estate is the only respectful element of this bland, faithless reimagining.
The Midwich Cuckoos (Sky Max and NOW) follows a spread of characters living in the rural village of Midwich, one of those unexciting places where nothing much happens. Imagine The Archers, if everyone in Ambridge were even more insipid and under-written. But something strange is afoot: horses whinny, murmurations dart inexplicably, traffic lights flicker. And into this milquetoast milieu descends a bolt of golden lightning, and the so-called “day out”, where all the Midwichers fall unconscious and the village is rendered inaccessible from the outside. When the population reawakens, the young women find that they are mysteriously (and, often, impossibly) pregnant. Cue much hand-wringing from the authorities about what sort of life forms are growing in the wombs of the Midwich mummies. “I’m pregnant, how can that be a hostile act?” one of the host mothers yells at a town hall meeting. She’ll be delighted to discover there are seven long episodes to find out.
With this premise, involving elements of high-concept sci-fi and body horror, it’s natural that adaptations have tended to err on the side of scary. The Midwich brood, it turns out, aren’t quite normal. “We could see that our children were special,” Zoe (Aisling Loftus), a blow-in who had struggled to conceive in the big city, declares. “Not normal for their age.” That’s putting it lightly. The dead-eyed cuckoos move around Midwich as a single malevolent entity, ultimately plunging the town into hysteria and chaos.
This all sounds quite fun, but sadly the script (written by David Farr, responsible previously for The Night Manager and Hanna) never ignites. An extravagantly ominous musical score underpins each turn of the narrative with such signposted foreboding that you’ll see each twist a mile off. And the performances, particularly, are hit-and-miss, ranging from RSC histrionics to children’s telly over-annunciation. Keeley Hawes is a terrific actress (and watchable in anything) but the British TV industry seems determined to shoehorn her into any project they can find, however ill-fitting. The patented brand of suburban malaise she brings to the lead role here – child psychologist Dr Susannah Zellaby – only compounds the listlessness of the production.
Wyndham’s novel is, at least in part, a camp romp, where existential considerations of the human condition are interrupted by the scoffing of cucumber sandwiches. This adaptation is so humourless that it treats the immaculate conception of hypnotic schoolkids like it’s the News at Ten. “No one wanted a baby as much as me,” Zoe chokes through tears as things begin to deteriorate from filial paradise. “And now you have her!” her husband Tom (Ukweli Roach) yells. “I don’t love her,” she realises in that moment. It has taken her several long, tedious, episodes to arrive at the conclusion that there is something fundamentally unlovable about her soulless offspring. I doubt it will take viewers as long to reach the same verdict about this series.