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.
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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.
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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.
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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.'
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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four

...With Peter Cushing as Holmes, that is. I have been watching Sherlock Holmes a Game of Shadows while it has rained interminably today, & I can only call myself unimpressed. I have just realised how watching mainly or only classic TV sensitises one to CGI. The aura of unreality it imparts works in some films, but not for Holmes. It's also no use turning Holmes into an all-action figure: the whole point of turning to Holmes on the winter evenings is that it takes the reader or viewer to a Victorian London of hansom cabs & fog, a different pace. Holmes should go slow, & the all-action approach blunts his intellect. With my love for all things weird I did love the scene with the tarot cards.
This Holmes, however, has everything that is missing from the film. I feel Holmes is better filmed in a small-screen way, anyway. This one has the atmosphere, the feeling of stepping into a different world. It has been many decades since most English-speakers have read Holmes as a detective puzzle or been mystified at his methods, so I feel it is for this atmosphere people read Holmes.
And Holmes does a funny thing to people. Surely people can never have written letters to Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple? In many ways Holmes is as unreal as Poirot (Miss Marple will always be a more real character, to my mind), & I think his drug use should have made him dodgy to his Victorian audience, but people wrote to him endlessly, & I imagine still do. I have only recently read that when the Holmes craze started Baker Street didn't have a 221B, but that as soon as one was built the owner had to hire a secretary to deal with Holmes's correspondence!
There are marvellous touches in this one - Holmes's war of wits with Inspector Jones. I love Watson in love as well.
And to think that this was going to be a post on another Jason King!
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Monday, 27 October 2014

Allegory in the Prisoner: Fall Out

I notice when I watched through The Prisoner looking to identify Number 6 as John Drake, I identified Fall Out as a flawed episode. This time I would go further: when watched from the point of view of allegorical interpretation Fall Out is the episode that makes The Prisoner fall apart.
Bearing in mind that the key allegorical interpretation of The Prisoner is of The Village as society, with reference to the various institutions etc, & their ability to harm us, it is capable of incredibly countercultural interpretations, as I think has been apparent in previous posts in this series. Fall Out makes this allegory unsustainable by turning it round to the pursuit of the individual's self-actualisation, or whatever you want to call it. 'We thought you would feel happier as yourself' are the words at which it becomes apparent we're in completely different territory here.
It is still open to allegorical interpretation, just differently: here The Village becomes the means to the individual's pursuit of himself - it's as if it has been testing for the one thing it has said it doesn't want. The juke boxes in the caverns under the village, pouring out All You Need is Love, represent the Village authorities' use of the mass hippie media to promote their message of integrity. I find this reversal of the allegory here very unsatisfying. Contrary to the impression given through the series it is actually all about Number 6. He's the point of the whole thing. This can't be how this show was meant to end, it's unconventional in the extreme but makes an unsatisfying resolution of the situation set up.
I suppose a key interpretation here could be of the need to overcome something as a means to the realisation of oneself as an individual. This is the falling apart or rebirth I referred to in the last post, & would fit with the initiatory/baptismal themes of the show. This begs the question of who or what Number 2 represents - it's possible to see the various Number 2s as aspects of the self that need to be overcome, or even as outside interference. This actually fits better with my hypothesised allegory of The Village as representative of Number 6's dreamed-of escape from his humdrum spying life.
Nor does the episode hang together well allegorically on its own. Number 48 is painted as symbolic of youth yet sings a Gospel song, surely in Prisoner terms symbolic of the power of the Church, especially when contrasted to the Beatles song. The episode ends in the seat of British power - Westminster - & in Number 6's own home. We're back where we began & it's profoundly dissatisfying. The door opening at the butler's approach however gives a hint that just possibly the apparent acceptance of Number 6's individuality is a fake, the whole episode is yet another fake test, & actually The Village is still there at every step, watching & waiting for him to give his secret away.
I was initially going to say that I don't like the section where Number 48 initiates a 'revolt': it can seem another incongruous element. However in allegorical terms it is almost an attempt to reintroduce the main allegory of the series - of power, authority, conformity, & the lack thereof. It is spoiled in the programme's context by Number 6 sitting on a raised throne, which implies (as indeed he is) that he is the authority, but this revelation hasn't yet been made. The place in which he is told by the judge that he has (words to the effect of) revolted in the right way is fairly obviously a red herring & it is a relief to see Number 6 initiate another revolt after being invited to meet Number 1.
A further nonsense is made of the whole premise of the show by the rebirth of Number 2, since the whole point here is that Number 6 has overcome Number 2 & is so 'realised' as Number 1.
I feel the allegory of this episode, indeed of the whole series, may be best resolved by a more psychological reading. In this The Prisoner is about as sixties as it can get, although the themes of self, seeking, autonomy, death, & rebirth are usually subsumed in the business of The Village. My preferred psychological reading would be that the whole series represents Number 6's journey of self-discovery & self-actualisation. He has to fall apart to return to himself - his normal home & life. He has undertaken a pillgrim's journey, such as is undertaken in Pilgrim's Progress, Way of a Pilgrim, & other such classics. In this countercultural version, though, he is the end of his seeking. I notice that I got the impression before that the series almost went off its head as it went on, as if the production team got more & more stoned. This impression is interesting coming from the devoutly Catholic McGoohan. In fact I think this episode is best explained as either a hasty attempt to tie up the loose ends or a late-sixties psychedelic trip!
Or else, it could be a critique of the feel good movements of the time. Number 6 has apparently actualised himself, but nothing in the Village is real, & the opening of his house's door at the end suggests that it isn't real, also suggesting a possibly more nihilistic moral, that nothing is real, which would be much more in line with one of the underlying themes of the series.
The ending further reinforces another underlying theme (despite the Carmen Miranda soundtrack) - that of the Butler, of whom I remain suspicious.
As a resolution to the allegory of this series, this episode falls down badly by clouding the whole issue & reversing the existing allegory to put Number 6 in the throne. Since many allegories are only fully explained by their resolution, I would suggest that the whole series may actually not lend itself that well to an allegorical interpretation, & may be better interpreted in psychological terms, or simply 1960s 'trippy' terms. Nor does a single allegorical interpretation hold up well through the series, instead individual episodes perhaps lend themselves better to different allegorical interpretations.
Thus ends my series of posts on allegory in The Prisoner. For next year I am projecting some work on echoes of Apartheid in The Prisoner - although don't hold your breath, reading about about Apartheid makes me physically sick - & I'm still interested in The Butler!
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Monday, 20 October 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Once Upon A Time

You'll notice I've gone back to my original profile picture; it marks for me that I am no longer too shy to bare my chest. Also a friend tried to tell me nobody would believe it was really me. It is really me. So sorry.
The end of this look at allegory is nearing with this episode, & you would be forgiven for thinking that I've rather lost my relish for the subject as I've gone through. What I was expecting to find was that the series was susceptible to numerous different allegorical interpretations, which it is in certain places. However I'm expecting my conclusion to be that some episodes lend themselves to an allegorical interpretation better than others. Notoriously not even McGoohan knew how the series would end while it was being filmed, & additional conflict about the number of episodes/series shows in a certain lack of direction as the series progresses, in my opinion.
Additionally in my inner INFJ world of making connections I've been distracted by the similarities of The Villages to totalitarian regimes, specifically Apartheid-era South Africa. That is the one about which I know most: as a young theology student I wrote an essay on the theological underpinnings of aparthied. This is the point at which people are either surprised I have a degree in theology or even more surprised that apartheid had (& has among the far-right) a theology. It may be found in some of the more bizarre Calvinist ideas of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Anyway, there is a relevance of all this to this episode. If you read about South Africa as it is now, it is a society deeply scarred by its past. I was shocked when I found out what the famous quote from Winnie Mandela - 'with our boxes of matches & our necklaces we shall liberate this country' - actually means. It is a particularly brutal form of murder with specific cultural connotations (if you are of a sensitive disposition do not look at http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necklacing). I was surprised to find that my (white) friend in South Africa has met Winnie Mandela, & speaks of her with respect, affection, even awe. She told me that what Winnie went through - the imprisonments, banishings, disappearances, beatings - were enough to send anyone off their head.
The relevance to this episode of The Prisoner is that it is a wonder Number 6 didn't lose it completely (or perhaps he did, in a true 1960s psychedelic enlightenment, but that's yet another layer of possible meaning). The implication of 'degree absolute' (in a very Freudian slip I found I first wrote 'decree absolute'!) Is that there is nothing more The Village can do to him. This is the point beyond which there is nothing else, & in the true style of the totalitarian regime, it is all portrayed as Number 6's fault. He is the naughty schoolboy or criminal - & if he had done something socially unacceptable as a result of the trauma he suffered in the Village, it is sure that this would have been used as further evidence of his rebellious spirit.
The allegory here is a very painful one - to our society. There is no help in the institutions of education, law, church - they are all implicated in Degree Absolute. It is very plain also that it makes a painful point about the sickness of our society. You can't come back from Degree Absolute. There's no possibility of it being mended, healed, reconciled. The message of this episode is far from the usual unreality of the series - it's about as bleak as can be.
I would like to end this post by quoting from an interview with Minnie Mandela (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/how-nelson-mandela-betrayed-us-says-exwife-winnie-6734116.html), which I think from the point of view of this post may well be read bearung in mind that she is talking about the sort of regime this episode of The Prisoner refers to:
'She looked towards my chair. Her grey glasses focused on my face. "Yes, I was afraid in the beginning. But then there is only so much they can do to you. After that it is only death. They can only kill you, and as you see, I am still here."
'I knew that the apartheid enforcers had done everything in their power to break this woman. She had suffered every indignity a person could bear. They had picked her up in the night and placed her under house arrest in Brandfort, a border town in Orange Free State, 300 miles from Soweto. "It was exile," she said, "when everything else had failed."
'At this remote outpost, where she spent nine years, she had recruited young men for the party. "Right under their noses," she said to Vidia, laughing with the memory of it. "The only worry or pain I had was for my daughters. Never really knowing what was happening to them. I feel they have really suffered in all this. Not me or Mandela," she said.
[...]
'"Look at this Truth and Reconciliation charade. He [Mandela] should never have agreed to it." Again her anger was focused on Mandela. "What good does the truth do? How does it help anyone to know where and how their loved ones were killed or buried? That Bishop Tutu who turned it all into a religious circus came here," she said pointing to an empty chair in the distance.
'"He had the cheek to tell me to appear. I told him a few home truths. I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting here because of our struggle and ME. Because of the things I and people like me had done to get freedom."'
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