Friday, 12 December 2014

Seventies TV: The Sweeney, with particular reference to Taste of Fear as an excuse for some local reflections

(Pub Bombings memorial picture credit: http://www.robertcjones.co.uk/Birmingham%20Cathedral%20Churchyard,%20UK.html)
I went to the Dental Hospital yesterday. I didn't need any work done - just my dentist fussing unnecessarily - & as it turns out I can relate that fact to the subject matter of this blog quite easily. For a start the present soon-to-be replaced building is a gem of 1960s architecture if you like that sort of thing, very much out of the same stable as the building in the opening scenes of Danger Man:
'The late Professor Alexander MacGregor, the then Director of Dental Studies and Mr H. Locksley Hare, the architect, visited many of the newer and outstanding schools in Europe. The design of the building incorporates many ideas acquired during these visits. The new building was opened in 1965 at a site next to the General Hospital (now Children's Hospital). This building was the sixth home of the Hospital and School.' (http://www.dentistry.bham.ac.uk/admissions/schoolhistory.asp)
For a fan of this sort of rapidly-disappearing architecture, it's a real treat because it's had relatively little done to it. Many of the original wall & ceiling finishes are still in situ, & the building gives an idea of how light & space were intended to work in it originally: it actually doesn't feel like it's shoehorned into an odd corner next to the STI clinic. This element of originality will of course also be its doom - it's simply filthy for a start. It can't be that difficult to put a safe system in place to clean to the top of the windows. The original finishes are plainly going to be the doom of this building, in addition to the unfashionable architecture. Removing the asbestos alone would be an incredibly expensive matter.
While I was there a Black woman came into the waiting room. She chatted about how cold it was & when I was called, wished me luck & called me Bab. That word will set a lot of people's teeth on edge, but is a Birmingham dialect term of endearment, which is one of the things that makes me think of home. (If you want to learn the gorgeous & sexy Brummie accent I would recommend <http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A496352>. If you've never heard it, most videos on youtube are few too Black Country, but for the real thing I would suggest <http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lEyYaLFm3Xc>). This relates to this blog in the way a Black person can also be a Brummie, be at home here & be settled, without fear of people referring to 'you people' or whatever. Quite different from the approach of It Ain't Half Hot Mum.
The Sweeney is out of a very different, gritty as a cat's litter tray, stable. I think one of the things that is influencing me most about these 1970s shows is the troubled history of the decade in which they were made. Continual labour disputes brought whole areas of the country to their economic knees & it was impossible to rely on mains power at the time. The Sweeney, unlike It Ain't Half Hot Mum, is set contemporaneously against this troubled time, but manages to portray a cleaned-up image of one of the areas of scandal at the time:
'The series aired during a dark period for the real-life Flying Squad, which in the late 1970s had been publicly censured for being involved in bribery, police corruption and excessively close links with the criminal fraternity. Unlike the unwavering high standards seen in the fictional Sweeney, the actual commander of the Flying Squad, Detective Chief Superintendent Kenneth Drury was convicted of five counts of corruption and jailed for eight years on 7 July 1977. An internal investigation, called Operation Countryman, was then launched to stamp out more corruption. A further 12 officers were convicted and many others resigned.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sweeney)
Taste of Fear references another painful feature of the 1970s - the conflict in Northern Ireland & terror attacks by the IRA. In the case of this episode, what appear to be IRA attacks are actually by an army deserter, made sick & twisted by his experiences in Ulster. Apart from the blithe ignoring of the likely effect of the trauma of serving somewhere like that, this also references another local (to me) connection, because this year is the fortieth anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_pub_bombings). It is once again striking how, in complete contrast to the unreality of The Avengers these 1970s series refer straight to some very difficult subjects. The Birmingham pub bombings have been a continual source of disgust for four decades. Men have been unjustly jailed for them. There was a strong backlash against the local Irish community at the time. It remains unestablished who was responsible for the three bombs - one didn't go off - & the whole matter is one which has shown West Midlands Police up in a very poor light (for the ongoing effects locally see http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/birmingham-pub-bombings-victims-remembered-8154396).
So the engagement with sheer gritty realism is what strikes me most in these 1970s shows. Jimmy Perry even states that It Ain't Half Hot Mum was a realistic portrayal of his own army life. The portrayal of reality remains - even though I think nowadays a realistic portrayal of an army unit's life would either have bits cut out or definitely be after the water shed.
The Sweeney, I'm finding, has another effect on me. I only have an odd disc with two episodes, so can't speak for the whole show, but I'm finding the way the plot is shaped gives a feeling of trudging through police work. The only real cliffhangers are where I imagine commercial breaks would have been originally, & the effect is one of -almost - eventlessness & pointlessness. I like the combination of Denis Waterman (better than I liked him in Minder) & John Thaw (better than I liked him in Morse). The relationship works to bring out aspeccts of the (?actors') characters I wouldn't have expected.
My neighbour's comment, when she told me her other half likes to watch The Sweeney, was how dated it is. And so it is. But the main effect for me personally is the relentless realism: in the division un/real, I definitely prefer unreal.

------------------

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Seventies TV: It Ain't Half Hot Mum, with special reference to changing mores regarding racial attitudes & the male body

It is a feature of this blog that the majority of the shows I write about were broadcast before I was born. I have recently come across DVDs of some later TV shows, some of which

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Avengers: Esprit de Corps

I have commented before that I don't have a favourite Avengers girl, nor a favourite series of the show. My interest in all things comes in fads & I'll concentrate on series 6 for a bit, for example. At the moment my interest is being caught by series 2 & 3.
This post is not the one I wanted to write, which was a themed post on the subject of launderettes. This was sparked by the simple fact that the flat I'm renting doesn't have room for a washing machine. I've never objected to launderettes myself - the only previous time of my life I used to go to one regularly was when I lived in Leeds. That one was on the edge of a large council estate, where there was obviously a tradition of going to do your washing, & whole families would go. I was therefore surprised to walk into the one down the road to find it full of men, all of whom were obviously on their own & hopeless at anything domestic. I'm afraid I just dumped the lot for a service wash, since I don't have a batman to do it for me. This still isn't as posh as getting the laundry down the road to collect it & deliver it.
Nonetheless this has made me think of classic TV episodes with scenes set in launderettes. What prevented this becoming a themed post was that I simply cannot remember in which episode of Danger Man Drake is handed a lighter in a launderette. Pity.
There are several things which make this Avengers for me - I love all of the more domestic scenes between Steed & Mrs Gale. I love it that she is telling him off for washing leather when we first see her in this one. It seems to me that there is a very real sense in which Steed retained his original sidekick role up until the Tara King series - in ability, knowledge, intelligence, he will always really be second fiddle to Mrs Gale. Is there nothing this woman can't do? - understanding washing & able to do unarmed combat as well!
Of course this Avengers is very clearly out of the great & the good gone bad stable. In terms of insanity the plot to make Mrs Gale Queen rivals anything in later series.
I notice the opinions on the internet about this one are somewhat conflicting - it seems that most viewers feel a certain dissatisfaction with this episode, but disagree about the source of the dissatisfaction. For me I find the slow steady development & sudden ending rather unsatisfying. However that is more than outweighed by the wonderful details. The contents of the officers' mess kitchen, for example. The whole tension of his relationship with Mrs Gale. Steed's last meal. Mrs Gale's judo scene. This doesn't quite make it into my stonking good television category but it's still vintage Avengers.
------------------

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Avengers: The Mauritius Penny

Picture credit: dissolute.com.au
I've moved house today - in great haste because my agent made a monumental balls up to the extent that I went round & took the keys off them until my belongings were removed! Anyway I'm set up in a nice flat in a nice part of the city where I can hear traffic (I can't sleep without traffic noise). Now if I could just suss out cooking electric life would be perfect & I'd only have to worry about selling my house rather than the truly present danger of starving to death!
The thought of cities & flats has led my thoughts to The Avengers, specifically the earlier series. The Mauritius Penny is actually one of my all-time favourite episodes, but I've been thinking of it in terms of its city setting. On reflection I think one of the errors the Avengers film made was to make the setting too rural & thereby downplay the citified interplay of people & interests that is actually essential to The Avengers. The reality in the 1960s & now is that the majority of British residents live in urban areas, & I think the film may have been drawing on the stately-home-and-village-fete stereotype too much.
The significance of the city setting to The Avengers cannot be overstated. For a start a city gives Steed & others the anonymity necessary to wander into criminal undertakings without being recognised. The city setting gives these earlier episodes a certain pace - I'll grant you that while I feel rural scenes increase as The Avengers wears on the pace remains the same & the characters are only ever really visitors to the country. The gentlemanly Steed is only ever really a city character - his trademark bowler & umbrella mark him out permanently as such. Steed's apartment in series 5 & 6 draws on a rural idyll, to my mind. His original apartment - as seen in this episode - & the middle one are uncompromisingly city settings. Of course Mrs Gale's apartment could only ever be found in a city. I mention these to underscore the native city setting of The avengers, until I've wrung perhaps every last drop from this whipping-horse.
This particular episode is one that could only take place in the city. The stamp shop is a real stroke of Avengers characterful scene-painting. I also love the Fascist dentist. I can fully sympathise with Steed's plight - the last time I went to the dentists myself I had to be sedated & at one point she actually told me I shouldn't be awake! I have a feeling that probably being actually killed with a dentist's drill would be a slow & messy business, although I love her continued use of dental jargon as she threatens Steed with it.
Nor is this episode short in other classic Avengers touches - the evil conspiracy is true Avengers, & places this episode clearly in the maniac-in-pursuit-of-world-domination (starting with compulsory dental inspections) category.
My one criticism of this episode is not the usual one - the face (& distinctive voice) most familiar to me personally is Alfred Burke. I'm delighted to say I saw him in this before I ever saw Public Eye, but while he is now associated with the latter role for me, I don't find his presence distracting. Rather my criticism would be that the show seems to have got lots of matters of historical fact about stamps completely wrong (see http://www.dissolute.com.au/the-avengers-tv-series/series-2/207-the-mauritius-penny.html). I don't notice this myself, not knowing about stamps, but I can see that watching this show would be a real irritation for a hard-core philatelist. These errors are surely of a sort which would be easily corrected by reference to public domain sources, & indicate a sloppiness about getting it right.
------------------

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Avengers: The Thirteenth Hole

It's been a while since I've posted on The Avengers & since I've got a man in taking apart my sideboard with a crowbar & taking away all the rubbish I don't want, I might as well post on this vintage episode. And vintage it really is. My introduction to The Avengers was the Tara King series & the colour Mrs Peel episodes, so I have a weakness for them, but whenever I return to series 4 I have to admit I can see why it's often thought the best.
I think probably the Avengers 'recipe' is at its best in these episodes. The episode is populated with a cast of characters who are overdrawn to exactly the right degree: they wouldn't seem real in the real world but aren't overdone. Steed is at his best playing his upper class buffoon role at the golf club. The scene immediately after the opening scenes, of the stocking-clad figure searching an agent's apartment, place this in the category of corruption in the Establishment. The visual language of traditional, solid, furniture & leather-bound books, are what indicate this in the language of The Avengers.
Incidentally some of the books in the bookcase, pictured just before they're overturned, look very much like volumes from Steed's library to me. That screenshot is the closest I've ever got to seeing the titles: it kills me that I can't quite read it. I realise this little obsession of mine is taking over my life & I should probably seek treatment for it. Clearly the intention is for the viewer merely to see generic leather-bound books, but I suppose I'm just not built that way. When I found them cropping up in ITC series as well (click the 'Steed's library' label on the web version of this blog to see all the places I've spotted them), but not so far in a BBC show, my curiosity was too piqued not to chase the rabbit.
My interest is also piqued by the gender roles in this Avengers. I've never noticed before that Mrs Peel is literally the only woman in the cast: admittedly it is set in the traditionally all-male environs of a golf club. I love the black & white furry outfit in which Mrs Peel turns up to play golf. It once again inverts the corruption-in-the-establishment motif by making Mrs Peel - representative of modernity & breaking convention - a major figure in ridding the episode's setting of the evil, thus suggesting that modernity props up & can be used to save, conservatism. Also in the scene where she disturbs the intruder in the flat, she gets an opportunity to fight him (surely to be on the receiving end of that beating would have been the fantasy of many a man in the 1960s!), but she doesn't win. Despite monumental intelligence & physical prowess she succumbs to the trick of being enclosed in a chair frame, relegating her almost to the role of 'the little woman'. I would read it that in this male-dominated episode she couldn't be allowed to win.
In fact that scene also creates the one thing that is monumentally wrong (to my mind) with this episode. Not only is Mrs Peel's first fight scene placed way too early, & her losing it apparently puts her in a subordinate position, but Steed's appearance is timed exactly wrongly. The stockinged-headed figure runs through the door, neatly closing it behind him, Mrs Peel extricates herself from the chair & runs to open the door, only to find Steed on the other side, who shows no sign of rush. He *should* have at least seen the intruder running away. This really is an incredible blunder, which could easily have been solved by having Mrs Peel chase the intruder & come back a little later to find Steed already in the flat. On the other hand, if you feel I'm making too much of this, it could be interpreted as an aspect of the unreality of The Avengers - the timing is almost slapstick, & may contribute also to the magical omniscience technique used so much in The Avengers.
Apart from that my only gripe would be with the large number of repeat Avengers faces (http://theavengers.tv/forever/peel1-18.htm lists no fewer than five actors), which tends to leave you wondering who people are. It took me a while to realise that Collins is Francis Matthews, who played Paul Temple in the series I recently reviewed. I don't really buy the criticisms I have read on the internet that this one's plot is ridiculously full of holes & patchy. It is saved by the excellent visuals. Some familiar locations are used which give the authentic Avengerland feeling. But for someone who would rather pull out my own fingernails than play golf I find the setting of a golf course unexpectedly atmospheric.
I'm not sure it's worthy of my Stonking Good Television category, but this is classic Avengers.
------------------

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Professionals: A Hiding to Nothing

I knew this would happen. I have a strange knack of falling on my feet. Within a week the house is on the market, all the necessary surveys have been done, I've appointed a solicitor, I've found a halfway-decent-looking flat (& even if it turns out not to be it's not forever) at a rent I'm prepared to pay in a halfway-decent area of the city, I've paid a retainer, the lettings agency are checking me out. When I get the bit between my teeth I'm like a little terrier. So I can afford to put my feet up in front of the fire (British Gas think I'm going to pay them £1000 to heat this house this winter, but I've got news for them) & watch some cult TV.
I see I have only posted on The Professionals once. This is a state of affairs which clearly needs to be addressed. I *just* remember watching on episode - the one with the creepy dummies - with my dad. In fact I'm not convinced it would necessarily qualify as 'cult' TV in most people's book - that is unless you define it as I do, whatever I take a shine to. I like to approach The Professionals as a headlong rush down memory lane, about as far as my memory will take me, to the 1970s. The hair is long, the trousers are flared, the shirts are open to show hairy chests, the men have unreconstructed attitudes, Cowley is an old-school boss, the cars are the sort of cars I salivated over in my youth. The Professionals is a time capsule, more than anything else, for me personally.
The episode I'm writing about gives a prominent role as detective & lover to Martin Shaw. I'm astonished to discover that he's a proponent of vegetarianism, but then Lewis Collins's personality was always closer to that of his on-screen character. It also took me a while to connect this Martin Shaw with the one who played Dalgliesh: interestingly versatile, & also interesting how a man can change. I literally didn't connect the two Martin Shaws.
This one begins with a wonderful display of the now-outmoded communications & video technology of the time, followed by a scene in one of the underpasses of the time, to add an aura of gritty reality. Interestingly, the glimpse of mews houses before the shoot-out in the underpass clearly places the location of this in Avengerland, which mixes my two types of TV: unreal & real. I love that this scene takes place in an underpass: even in big bad Birmingham, which was notorious for them, they're hard to come by nowadays, although they were everywhere at the time of this show.
This episode is also an interesting showcase of CI5's more sophisticated detecting. It involves an element of acting & duplicity in pursuit of a worthy cause. I think this episode would have been improved by not explaining this in so much detail to the viewer so early, so that we would have been forced to deal with the moral issues without knowing the justification.
It also more or less separates Bodie & Doyle for the earlier part of the show. Their normal chemistry was dependent on the simple fact that in reality they didn't get on. Interestingly they are seen more as individual personalities here: Bodie as the colder hunter, Doyle as the lover. Further moral issues are raised by the way they seem to 'use' the female characters, but the whole point of this episode is that those exact same tactics are being used by the other side as well.
Altogether a tautly-plotted Professionals episode, relying heavily on individual characterisation of Bodie & Doyle, & on the moral issues involved in their work. The only improvement would be to have played up those issues a bit.
------------------

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Intermission

To my great sorrow, I had to have my poor old ginger tom cat put down on Thursday. It wasn't exactly unexpected but it may cause a hiatus on here, since I'm having my house (which has been a millstone round my neck for years) auctioned on 8th December & therefore have to find somewhere to rent pretty sharpish! This will either cause my absence here or cause a proliferation of posts as I try to escape from the stress of flat hunting into the world of old TV.
Incidentally I've been reading about the classic UK test card in an effort to find an illustration to this post (the illustration isn't it, & I would refer you to http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/shortcuts/2012/apr/22/the-test-card-girl-and-clown where bothe original can be found & this quote:
'In the mid-70s, there were only three TV channels and very few programmes during the day. For long periods there was nothing but trade test transmissions, largely to enable TV shops to get the best possible picture. These transmissions were made up of the test card, with its instrumental soundtrack, and the occasional test film – such as The Home Made Car, a 1963 Academy Award-nominated short. During the school holidays, or on Saturday mornings before your parents were up, there was little else for bored kids to do but watch the test card and transmitter information – the music and the images became as embedded in the minds of a generation as the Monkees and the Robinson Crusoe theme.
[...]
'The most iconic image, introduced in 1967 with the advent of colour TV, was called Test Card F. Its designer was a BBC engineer called George Hersee and, for a dummy run, he had included a picture of his eight-year-old daughter, Carole, at the centre of it. The BBC decided that replacing Carole's picture with an adult model was too risky – they needed something timeless, and 1967 fashions weren't exactly built to last. So Carole went into a photographer's studio: the result was the familiar image of a girl with an alice band, playing noughts and crosses with a rather terrifying toy clown, surrounded by mysterious test graphics. Hersee was, unsurprisingly, teased at school and, to her discomfort, the image was used on a daily basis until 1998. Now living in the New Forest with two daughters, she can claim to have had more screen time – around 70,000 hours – than anyone else in British TV history.'
------------------