Thirty-nine years ago today, a Scottish television drama was broadcast for the first time – leading TV watchdog Mary Whitehouse to brand it ‘thoroughly evil.’
Created by Glasgow writer Jack Gerson, The Omega Factor was The X Files of its day, being set in Edinburgh. The central character was journalist Tom Crane (James Hazeldine) and his involvement in shadowy Government department Department 7, which was concerned with psychic phenomena and the unexplained.
Department 7 was led by Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson), with Crane meeting them after his wife’s murder by evil psychic Edward Drexel.
Only 10 episodes of the series were made, being set in Edinburgh with locations shot in the old BBC Scotland studios in Glasgow.
Louise Jameson, who had starred in Doctor Who as Tom Baker’s companion Leela, before being cast in The Omega Factor, recalls: ‘I suppose you could say it was The X Files but without the budget!
‘It came about two years after I started in Doctor Who, and I remember all the headlines at the time were about “Louise is playing the doctor now”, as I was Dr Anne Reynolds.
‘I’m really sorry it only lasted for one series or 10 episodes. It really did deserve to do more than that, as we expected it would be at least two or three series.
‘When we were making the TV series, the cast were hanging about 24-7. We made music together, we gave up smoking together – it was a really good team, and I loved that six months.
‘Although it was set in Edinburgh, we were based in Glasgow, and I was really surprised there wasn’t more involvement from Scottish actors. It’s a bit odd, when you think about it, as they were bring up these actors from London to play the three leads. I don’t know how I’d have felt about that if I’d been based in Scotland at the time.
‘But when we made it, everyone was so welcoming and so generous – I have very happy memories of it all.’
Also featuring the series was Natasha Gerson, the daughter of the series creator. Natasha, who still lives in Glasgow, recalled: ‘When I think back to the original series, it was the best of times. Those days were just great. I didn’t do a great deal, to be perfectly honest, but I did learn a lot.
‘The whole cast were just wonderful and we had such great fun – and I had such a fantastic time on it. I know my dad did too. We used to have badges and t-shirts.
‘I remember dear old Cyril Luckham used to call me his “little sausage” – I was a little bit chubby back in those days! He was a great, a real gentleman, and he helped me a lot.
‘I adored Louise and Jimmy Hazeldine – they were just so kind and good fun.’
Natasha played Morag, but the character was silent on screen.
She recalled: ‘In one scene, Jimmy Hazeldine drove a car, as his wife was killed. I was to stand in a road at a riding school outside Glasgow, until it got dark.
‘At half-past nine, the production assistant told me the car was going to drive round the corner, and when they said so, I had to start to walk towards it – but they told me to feel free to jump out of the way. Thankfully, the car did stop!
‘They then told me they would have to do it against as there was something wrong with the sound! I went back, shaking, and when I did see it, I’m sure they could have done it another way without me. But when it’s your first job, you will do anything.
‘Originally, I was just in five episodes, and because I had a gap in my schedule, I went and worked as a floor assistant.
‘They asked if I’d like to come back and do another month, and it was a great learning experience. I didn’t go to drama school, and it was a good way to see how television worked.’
Sadly, Jack Gerson died in 2012, but Natasha proudly recalled: ‘Mary Whitehouse hated it. She thought it was “thoroughly evil.” My dad was thrilled about that!
‘I’ve still got that letter which she sent to my dad somewhere.’
Although The Omega Factor was cancelled after one series, it lives on today, as a series of audio dramas that pick up from the events of the original series, in the modern day.
These are made, with Natasha’s approval, by Big Finish Productions in London, featuring Louise Jameson as Dr Anne Reynolds, although she is now joined by John Dorney as Adam Crane, the son of James Hazeldine’s character Tom.
Twelve new episodes have been produced since 2015.
Producer David Richardson said: ‘I know Louise very well, and it was something we had chatted about occasionally. And then one day I stopped chatting and actually looked into the rights, tracking down Natasha Gerson. We chatted on Facebook and Natasha said yes pretty much immediately. I later discovered it was because she’d looked at my profile, saw some photos of me with my cats, and thought anyone who likes his cats that much be a decent person worth dealing with!
‘The way I work on anything is to get the team together, if possible, and brainstorm ideas. For The Omega Factor we met in a noisy bar in Paddington train station. These kinds of meeting are vital I feel – they’re adrenalin-charged, hugely creative and they throw out loads of rich ideas that coalesce into a series plan. It never ceases to amaze me how we all feed off each other’s creativity and enthusiasm, and something tangible is formed.’
For David, bringing back Louise and Natasha was important, to keep the original series continuity.
He added: ‘Without a doubt. The idea was that the new Omega Factor was built very firmly on the foundations of the old. This is a continuation of the story, admittedly decades later. Lou and Natasha are intrinsic parts of that developing story, and quite rightly too.’
Natasha said: ‘I had an email from David Richardson, who was wanting to know if they could use my father’s creations.
“It was always one of my dad’s favourites, as he was really into the supernatural, and was really disappointed it never came to a second series. While he was still alive, it came out on DVD, but sadly, it never took off to get that second season.
‘I just know he would have been just thrilled by this, with a new series on audio.
‘As soon as I saw a picture of David on Facebook, I just knew it was going to be alright – he’s a cat person, and I knew it would be fine!’
Louise believes that The Omega Factor taps into something everyone can relate to.
She explained: ‘I think there’s something about The Omega Factor that most people can connect with. There are people who say, “I’m not religious but…” Or the ones who say, “I don’t believe in an afterlife, but…” And then there’s the “I don’t think there’s anything out there, but…” and then they tell you about something odd that’s happened to them.
‘A few years back, I had an operation where I died on the operating table. I did have that experience, of seeing the white light and seeing my mother who had died. There was such a sense of peace and surrender about it, but I knew I couldn’t go as I had my children to look after – and then I was back in my body. It could have been the drugs or whatever, but it was so real to me because it was such a very strong emotional experience.
‘I’ve had an out of body experience, and I think everybody has something like that at one time or another. There’s got to be something else out there and people are fascinated by that.’
The new stories have been released as box sets of four stories, with one written by Natasha, and another couple by Edinburgh-based Roy Gill.
He said: ‘It’s a very rich location in terms of history and landscape and myth. There’s lots to work with! Ironically, my first Omega Factor episode isn’t really set in Edinburgh at all, but rather in a spooky old prison on the outskirts, and in a small Scottish town as well.
‘For my second one, I wanted to take advantage of the Edinburgh setting. I wanted to do something that was specifically Scottish and bring that into the story. I didn’t want to do anything too cliched or obvious, though. I’d been to a couple of exhibitions of the work of two pioneering Victorian Scots photographers – Hill & Adamson. They had a studio on top of Calton Hill called Rock House, and part of this Omega Factor story takes us back there.’
A new Omega Factor novel and audiobook has also been written, by Dundee man Iain McLaughlin.
Natasha concludes: ‘What I’ve found really gratifying is that people who liked the original series have liked what’s happened with Big Finish and where we’ve gone.
‘When Omega Factor was on TV, it suffered as a result of Mary Whitehouse and internal BBC politics, so I’m eternally grateful to Big Finish for these three series we’ve done so far.’
Find out more about the audio series by clicking HERE.