Ground-breaking Edinburgh supernatural telly series that inspired The X Files is back in new novels
Chilling and disturbing, the supernatural TV series The Omega Factor, set here in Edinburgh, may now be largely forgotten but its impact on those who saw it remains, indeed it is claimed that it even inspired hit show The X Files.
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Created by Jack Gerson for BBC Scotland and starring the late James Hazeldine and Louise Jameson, The Omega Factor ran for 10 weeks from June 13 to August 15, 1979.
Hazeldine played Tom Crane, a journalist with untapped psychic ability, and Jameson, Dr Anne Reynolds, a physicist with the secretive government organisation, Department 7.
Filmed on location in the Capital, it featured scenes on the Royal Mile, in Holyrood Park, at the zoo and on The Grassmarket and quickly drew the ire of self appointed 'morality crusader' Mary Whitehouse, who described it as “thoroughly evil,” due to its depiction of the supernatural and a scene in particular in which a man burned to death.
With a remit to investigate paranormal phenomena, everything from hypnosis to brainwashing, extra-sensory perception, telekinesis, poltergeist phenomena, out-of-body experiences and spiritual possession, Crane and Reynolds, teamed up at Depratment 7 by the sinister Martindale (played by John Carlisle), engage in a deadly battle with the powerful renegade psychic Edward Drexel (a disturbing turn from Cyril Luckham) and a mysterious group called Omega.
It's a clash actress Natasha Gerson remembers well. The daughter of the series' creator, she also appeared in the drama as Morag, Drexel's mute medium, a role she acquired by disguising her identity when auditioning.
The petite former ballet dancer recalls, "My first job was with Scottish Ballet, but I always wanted to act and The Omega Factor was my first telly job. I was 19 at the time and decided I didn't want it to be viewed as nepotism so I went to see Paddy Russell, the director of the first episode, and pretended I was somebody else. Actually, I was also offered one episode as Martindale's daughter, a part that was later cut from the series. Even though Morag didn't have that much to do, I'm glad I chose that part. I reckoned I'd learn more playing her.
“Basically all Morag had to do was hang about looking spooky. I saw a photo of me in the role recently, it brought back so many memories. I remember, I stood for ages by so many trees when we were filming that at one point a dog lifted its leg on me," she laughs.
Being a ballet dancer allowed Natasha to “stand very still, which Morag did a lot,” she says, however, although she didn't speak she still made quite an impact, especially with “the weans up the road” who would shout, 'Morag! Morag!' whenever she went out although she quickly discovered that no matter how ghostly her on screen persona, in real life she wasn't all that frightening.
"It was disappointing actually. I could fix the weans with a look but as a tubby adolescent, I wasn't particularly scary."
Natasha had first become aware of the series a year earlier when her father first pitched the premise of the series to the BBC. Unsuccessfully.
"At that time it was called The Undiscovered Country, which became the title of the first episode, but the BBC didn't want it," she remembers.
The genesis of a series had come from Gerson's love of all this unexplained, something the single parent shared with his daughter.
"We were both interested in spooky stuff. Dad and I shared an unhealthy interest in the supernatural; I was brought up on that and serial killers. We both liked reading about that sort of stuff, I mean, my bedtime stories were anything from Algernon Blackwood to M.R. James... none of your usual kiddies stuff," she laughs.
For a month during filming, Natasha also worked as a Floor Assistant on the series and recalls that as filming advanced, so strange incidents began to blight the production.
She explains, “My dad had actually had a couple of frightening experiences a few years earlier. Once, at a party, he had tried to hypnotise a girlfriend, which he did, but at the same time stuff started to move around the room on its own. Glasses were broken. He also told me about a seance he was at where the flat was wrecked."
Similar incidents began to occur during filming. In one late night graveyard shoot, a dark hooded figure could be seen lurking through the camera viewfinder... even though there was no one there. During another recording session, props started moving of their own accord. Other bizarre accidents were logged too, including a falling gravestone which hurt one of the crew.
Natasha recalls, "I was told about the gravestone that fell but also, a camera fell into a grave. I remember because I was lurking behind some trees as usual and the grave just collapsed. We lost that camera.
"Another episode that spooked me was one about a house that was possessed, there were all sorts of unexplained things going on. I remember being in the studio and having to appear at the top of the stairs on the set when suddenly all the lights went out and the clocks stopped. I really did not feel happy. It was as if there was something else there."
It wasn’t just those terrifying encounters that the series had to overcome - Mary Whitehouse was never far away, determined to prevent a second series being made.
"Somewhere, I have that letter from Mary Whitehouse saying she thought the series was ‘thoroughly evil’. My dad was very proud of that. I don't really know why they didn't do more. Dad was really disappointed because he felt there was more to do. Mary Whitehouse didn't help."
Today The Omega Factor lives on through a series of audio dramas produced by Big Finish Productions, which have reunited Natasha and Louise Jameson as a now ‘not so mute’ Morag and Dr Reynolds, as well as three new novels penned by the actress herself.
All three - Festival of Darkness, influenced by Natasha’s own experiences appearing at the Fringe, Divinity, and the forthcoming Immaculate Possessions - are released in audio book form, however, their author hopes to see them in print one day too.
"It was easy to recapture the characters for the books,” she says. “I remembered them so well because I had such fun doing it. I remember filming on the streets around the Royal Mile on a really windy night, which was very spooky, but the most frightening bit was when Morag had to appear in front of a car to make it crash.
"They took me out onto the road and said, 'A car is going to come around the corner at 30 miles an hour but he'll stop just before he hits you... but feel free feel jump out the way.'
"I was holding my breath but he stopped about two inches away from me - then they discovered a problem with the sound and we had to do it all over again."
And what about the claim that The Omega Factor had inspired The X Files, well, it seems it might be more than just TV folklore after all.
Natasha reveals, "My friend Verda Duchovny is David Duchovny's step-mum. I'll have to get her to ask him."
The Omega Factor: Immaculate Possessions is released by Big Finish Productions in October www.bigfinish.co.uk