Sunday, 17 July 2016

How I Spent My Summer

Apologies for the lack of TV-based posts here recently. It has been the weather for getting out and about, and when indoors, the picture which illustrates this post will show where I have been! The pub is actually the Gunmaker's Arms in Birmingham's Gun Quarter, which sells proper beer, much of it made by the local Two Towers Brewery. 

Friday, 1 July 2016

Survivors: First Impressions

It is my day orff, I have done the little jobs I have to do and it is looking like rain, so instead of me sitting in the park reading Philip Heselton's new biography of Doreen Valiente (weird is my life), you lucky people get a blog post about Survivors. Survivors is a series which I have rather avoided so far, despite having looked at it in shops and on line multiple times, I have always metaphorically put it back and in fact am writing this post on my first viewing of the first series. It is having an interesting effect on me, in that it is making me question why I like the television that I do. In fact considering from watching The War Machines (see my last post) I got a warm comforting feeling that IT failings would almost certainly prevent the takeover of the world by computer-based machines, Survivors gives me the warm, fluffy feeling that the holocaust imminently-expected in the 1970s didn't actually happen.
You see if War Machines taps into a major fear of the modern era (namely, what if the computers actually take over?), then Survivors taps into another one, namely, What would it be like after the disaster we're expecting? I suspect that that is what has actually put me off the show for so long, because I was expecting it to be very much out of the Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm stable. We know full well how badly humans can behave in a crisis, and particularly how the said crisis magnifies some of people's more irritating traits, such as a tendency to order or dictatorship, or just being not bothered, but I personally don't find that trope of human behaviour after the disaster very entertaining. Naturally there is an element of observing the human behaviour in Survivors, but that isn't all there is to it at all.
Survivors manages to put a very subtle twist on the plot device of how humans would behave after a disaster, and also manages to avoid the 1970s fantasy of a return to the dark ages, by theorising a world in which the majority of the population is wiped out by illness, but the resources and technology of the modern world are left intact to provide a large but limited resource for the survivors. I like this very much, because while it also taps into another major trope of the 1970s - the fear of what would happen if the oil runs out - it avoids the sudden ending of the modern world while requiring the characters to be resourceful in adapting to the world they are left with.
I have a feeling that at the time this would have been one of the things which made Survivors so popular. While I find myself commenting here repeatedly on the naked fear which characterised much of the dialectic of the 1970s, Survivors is actually relatively comforting. The fact that a virus is chosen as the way to wipe out most of the population provides a less-frightening scenario than the much-mooted one of the nuclear winter. Strange that a show in which the majority of the world's population could be wiped out is nonetheless more reassuring than a major environmental concern of the time.
Yet this less-threatening scenario is haunted by the spectre of human behaviour. It is self-evident that in the scenario we have described, some humans will behave indescribably badly, some from mixed motives, and some will attempt to create a new community where the precious remaining resources are stewarded. Even though I have tried to paint Survivors as a less-threatening alternative to the major contemporary fear of nuclear holocaust, it is haunted by this simple uncontrollable fact, which gives it a whole layer of fearfulness. And of course Survivors is spot on to use human behaviour rather than the actual disaster as the source of fear, since disasters are frequently caused by human behaviour. Well after this show of course, the Chernobyl disaster showed this fear to be well-grounded: I mean sitting in the control room of a nuclear reactor and deciding to have a go at something which the instruction manual specifically says not to do, is never a good idea, is it?
Survivors counters this fear of disaster and the unpredictability of human behaviour with an undercurrent of pagan ideas, again plugging into a prevalent idea of the time. 'How far back in time can we go?' is the question asked repeatedly in this series, and a return to paganism is one of the ways in which this question is answered. And it is here that I find a personal criticism, which I also feel may be me being somewhat unreasonable. Overall the show does an absolutely superb job of showing a Britain where the majority of the population is dead. Particularly in the 1970s, without CGI, it must have required endless labour to remove people for external shooting, and I actually only have praise for that. But this is also a criticism, because what is shown is a 1970s landscape frozen in aspic. In reality there wouldn't have been enough people to maintain the landscape in its agricultural-era state, and of course greenery only takes a season to start growing back with a vengeance. I feel that that is a failing on the part of the show: while it draws on pagan ideas, it fails to draw on the reality that when you are competely dependant on the land for sustenance you gain an extra sense of vulnerability to the land's own power over you and this major fear is completely absent. Of course you may feel that the show concentrates more on human response to the disaster, but I feel that there is a real sense in which the survivors are too sheltered from the arbitrary nature of living on the land.
Otherwise the show is in my opinion a masterpiece of writing and production. It is one of the few shows which gets into my personal category of Stonking Good Television. The more-leisurely pace of 1970s TV exactly suits the unfolding disaster at the beginning, and gives a ruminative feel to the dilemmas faced by the survivors as time goes on.
It may be somewhat superficial of me, but major stars in this show are the cars. The Land Rover which appears at one point is exactly like one my uncle in Kenya had. There is a magnificent mark 3 Ford Cortina estate, and I particularly like a vintage Volvo. As the series goes on these icons of 1970s motoring accede to more utilitarian vehicles, but they are still wonderfully evocative of the 1970s for me. Naturally the scenes in cars would nowadays be seen as disasters waiting to happen - people blithely smoke in cars, even with children there, and of course there isn't a single seat belt in use. Anyone would think they weren't frightened of dying!
Another criticism I do have is the usual completely personal one that there are too many familiar faces among the actors. Even if they are not always big names like Peter Bowles, familiar actors always detract for me from the show I am watching. I want to be watching the show not the actors. For some reason, familiar models among the cars don't strike me as such a distraction!
My conclusion on Survivors (even before I have watched all the way through the first series) is that it is a thought-provoking show which ruminates over some of the predominant fears of my era of television. My quibbles are probably completely personal ones, since I would wish that just a few things could have been done differently, but nonetheless for 21st century viewers, it will provoke discussion while also providing a reassuring sense that things haven't turned out half as badly as the milieu of the 1970s believed they would be.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Doctor Who: The War Machines (revisited)

Since the majority of hits to this blog are from places other than the UK perhaps I had better begin this post by apologising for my compatriots. It is #notinmyname that we are leaving Europe, in fact it's nothing but an embarrassment.
Which is almost true of my last post on this First Doctor adventure ( http://culttvblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/doctor-who-war-machines.html ), which I'm slightly ashamed of on re-reading it. I suddenly found a new, sealed, DVD of this show amongst my library (can't think where it came from, obviously by rogue computer technology) and decided to give it another go. Much of what I wrote about it the first time still stands, in terms of the dead sixties fear of encroaching technology. Ironically of course, it is only the connection of computers all over the world which means you are reading this, which would have seemed like an impossible dream of the future at the time.
On rewatching this show I am finding the mixture of technology and non-science quite interesting. I love it that the feared take over by computer is in part achieved by mind control, by a mechanism which isn't explained, but must have been fairly frightening at the time. The sixties were of course a time of explosion of interest in the paranormal, magic and paganism, as part of the larger questioning of received authority and values. The name of the computer of course recalls an ancient European pagan god, and thus the show presses historical buttons for Europeans. In a more sinister vein of course, Wotan, Odin or Woden was in the European pantheon hijacked by the Nazis and hijacked from respectable heathens by neo-Nazis ever since. This leads to a distinctly complicated collection of associations woven for the viewer by this adventure. In an interesting opposition to the contemporary  fear of the computer, it was actually quite usual at the time to give computers names - that is bearing in mind that they would usually take up a whole room at the time. A local example to me was the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell, whose acronym was WITCH ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harwell_computer ). If you happen to be at Bletchley Park you can see that one in operation to this day ( http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2012/11/21/re-boot-for-worlds-oldest-computer/25396935/ ). Of course this personification of the computer is wonderfully parodied in the Avengers episode Who Killed George XR/40? Ironically the Doctor falls into this language as well, when he speaks of paralysing the war machine's 'nervous system'.
I stand by my original criticism that the actual war machines themselves are a let-down because they are nowhere near scary enough. They don't elicit any sumpathy, simply being machines, either. On rewatching this show I feel that its great redeeming feature is the 1960s milieu. The scenes of Swinging London are wonderfully evocative. Unfortunately the actual story hasn't aged well, largely because it is based on a contemporary imagination of impossibly futuristic technology, always a risky thing. Another difficult thing to pull off is that the adventure is set in our own world yet the technology is not real, so that it creates an unfortunate dissonance in the mind of the viewer. Of course it was probably not be anticipated that this show would be subjected to my cynicism fifty years later.
I suspect that probably the idea that the war machines attack failed because of incomplete programing would have been seen at the time as the merciful intervention of the still-necessary agency of the human. Of course that scene sounds differently to our ears now, where we are used to software conflicts and the everyday ridiculousness which is living with IT.
My conclusion on this one on a second viewing, is that it is an atmospheric first Doctor adventure. Its best asset and also worst failing is the contemporary setting of it. I feel this one may be best watched with at least a sympathetic eye to how people saw technology in the 1960s, or at best a view to reminiscing about the London of the time. The plot is a straightforward conflict and resolution one. The print is very well restored both vision and audio-wise. The adventure is also exactly right at four episodes long. I would certainly not say not to watch this, but you will have to suspend disbelief when you do.
Image credit: http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2012/11/21/re-boot-for-worlds-oldest-computer/25396935/

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Brought to Book

This is, of course, one of the series 1 Avengers episodes which have been recorded in audio form by Big Finish. SInce I bought that first release I do have that audio version to listen to as well as the synopsis in The Strange Case of The Missing Episodes. Let my initial criticisms of the Big Finish versions be considered as read at the start of this - I maintain that the TV scripts needed more adaptation to audio form - since I want to concentrate on the actual show in this series of posts. Suffice to say that I am finding the Big Finish audio much more understandable combined with the descriptions of events and scenes in the book.
This episode, only the second in the first series, brings to the fore Dr Keel's pain and feeling of mission to be an avenger after the murder of his fiancee. In a very real sense, the rest of The Avengers makes no sense without the events of these first two episodes, even if the series progressed beyond Dr Keel's very personal trauma. In Brought to Book we see the demimondaine London I posted about in my last post, and also how this relates to Keel's personal interest, which is surely a very small part of the jigsaw. I feel that this is an element which is genuinely different from later series of The Avengers, where the matter to be avenged became subsumed into a world of English eccentrics but within a Cold War context.
There is no hiding the simple fact that in this episode Steed once again uses Keel, pressing his buttons as it were, to involve him in this gang warfare. Naturally there are always risks involved in Steed's line of work, and no doubt Steed's superiors would have been in a position to pull strings if anything had gone wrong for Keel, but nonetheless it seems to me that Keel has a lot more to lose than Steed. Naturally this reflection merely serves to highlight that Keel probably felt he had already lost just about everything that mattered and had to focus on the one thing necessary to avenge the situation. Nonetheless this seems an extraordinarily insensitive time to make use of Keel; tactically it also feel like it wouldn't be a good idea to make use of someone with such a personal involvement in the matter at hand. Not only was the 1960s still the age of the amateur, but it seems to me that it was the age of the over-involved amateur!
Once again I love the impression of Steed as dirty old man, appreciatively eyeing up Carol the receptionist and making a lascivious comment on how he can now see she is not plain because his eyesight is improved! My own feeling is that he continues to give this impression through series 2 at times, but probably the closest he gets to Steed as dirty old man in the later series is when he smacks a nurse's bottom in Split! Naturally as he moved into the more fatherly figure to Tara King it would have been incongruous. Nonethless in contrast to the focussed figure of Keel, I feel there are intimations of the later Steed in the lightness of his tone and the way he is almost flippant.
I have been rewatching (for the first time in many years) the Charlie Chan movies, and while they were considered a counterblast to the 'yellow peril' thinking of the time, nowadays listening to them in Chinatown seems like an incredible faux pas, as does the phone call in this piece from the very obviously 'Oliental' woman. Still, O tempora, o mores. This is, however, probably the thing which most gives an old-fashioned impression about this episode; the rest of the episode is probably easily translatable into the present day.
My conclusion about this series 1 Avengers episode is that it is certainly not a dud, as rumour had it for many years the series 1 episodes were. It develops much of the point for the original Avengers, in Dr Keel's personal bereavement and subsequent need to be avenged. It also shows Steed in his earliest form. It therefore provides a good grounding in the origins of the series and the direction it was originally intended to take.
Image credit (which see for more information on Chinese nightclubs): http://www.gastronomica.org/late-night-lions-den-chinese-restaurant-nightclubs-1940s-san-francisco/

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Please Don't Feed the Animals

I go rushing back to the early sixties with a series 1 episode of The Avengers, of which fortunately more survives than does of the last one I posted about. That said, the synopsis I am basing this post on is based on surviving camera script according to the book and has some patches of dialogue too. I believe this is available in reconstructed form from Big Finish, if you like that sort of thing, but I haven't heard that myself.
My overall impression of this episode as I read the synopsis is the likelihood that this would have been exactly the sort of television that would have given Mary Whitehouse the screaming abjabs at the time. On the surface it is essentially a straightforward spy story (with a remarkably Avengers touch in the fact that information is transmitted at the zoo using a monkey) with much of its setting being in the underworld of a strip club. Thinking back to the Britain of the time, this was probably far more risque fifty years ago than it would be today, since a major concern was corruption in high places. The sexual revolution probably wasn't in full swing for most people yet, and no doubt Steed encouraging Keel to enjoy the sight of the girls at the club would have been very shocking to many people, symbolising the corruption of a worthy calling. Of course their attempt to blackmail Steed means that we would have seen him canoodling (apparently they go as far as kissing) with one of the girls, which was recorded as evidence. Of course his 'wife' would not have been concerned at all about this dalliance! All of this would probably have been considered very racy at the time.
I think what I like best about this episode is actually the juxtaposition of the strip club, with its underworld associations, with the setting of the zoo, which can only be intended to bring up images of family days out and childhood. This is an excellent contrast to make and must have been incredibly effective: for the first time I'm actually finding a real sense of regret that I will never see these Avengers episodes I am posting about here.
A further very sixties element is the influence of the spy genre: at least this is very sixties to my mind. I am still pondering to what extent the Bond books could have been influential on The Avengers, and while obviously Steed is here a much more workaday spy than James Bond, I feel that the spy genre was much more influential in the early days of The Avengers. I love that Steed is set up with a cover job in Whitehall and yet his bosses seem to have no objection to him roping in a complete amateur. This is perhaps one of the things which makes the early days of The Avengers more dated than the unreality-oriented episodes of the later series, that this was the age of the amateur, and it is surely inconceivable now that amateurs would be drafted in in the way they are in The Avengers. Another example of this is the owner of Brinkley House Zoo; apart from the ethical concerns about zoos nowadays, he is also an amateur in the sense that it is something he started up after he left the army and they have never really had as much money for animals as they would like.
That said, Renton-Stephens, the owner of the zoo, is exactly the kind of enthusiast who populates the later series of The Avengers in such abundance. Another stereotyped character is Kollakis the indisputably foreign, and therefore dodgy, owner of the strip club, who is behind the blackmail. These two characters, in addition to the eccentric zoo setting for the passing of messages, give a touch of the later Avengers to this show, in addition to the series 1 grittiness of the strip club/spying/blackmailing routine.
In conclusion, a gritty, demi-mondaine series 1 episode, which nonetheless shows signs of The Avengers to come in future series.
Image credit: http://deadline.theavengers.tv/images/keel11.jpg

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Thriller: First Impressions

I have a policy for this blog of not posting about TV shows which I consider complete duds: naturally that means more frequently that if you don't find a show written about here it means that I've never seen it, which applies more to the American shows you will find talked about on the cult TV blogosphere. That said, I am writing about this show to try to clarify my own thoughts about it: the fact that it appears here means that I don't think it is no good, but I have decidedly mixed emotions about it.
Firstly is the fact that somehow I had managed never to hear of it. I see that it was broadcast from1973 to 1976 and so I would have been in no position to see it when it was first broadcast. It has all the hallmarks of quality, because it was created by Brian Clemens ( a name which should require no introduction to readers of this blog) who scripted the majority of the episodes. I see from the wikipedia page that some of them were based on Avengers scripts (including Take Over, Don't Look Behind You, and The Joker) and were re-used subsequently to become New Avengers episodes (Medium Rare and The Colour of Blood). The original music was composed by Laurie Johnson, another name who should be familiar to us all, and it becomes apparent that Thriller is, in a sense, what came between The Avengers and The New Avengers. I haven't watched the whole series at this point, but it has already become apparent to me that wikipedia is right to state that many of the episodes are set in the English home counties/stockbroker belt. Of course we cult TV aficionados would perhaps be slightly quicker to call the setting Avengerland. The wikipedia page goes into further details of how the different episodes step into different genres, including detection and the supernatural. This strikes a chord with me because I have been reflecting recently on how The Avengers parodies different genres of screen writing; for example the series 6 episode Wish You Were Here is an Avengers-style reworking of many a Golden Age detective story. All of the elements of the story - the conspiracy to take over the firm, the country house hotel, the 'locked room' plot device of keeping certain people prisoner in an otherwise innocent hotel - all could well come from Agatha Christie.
The respectable antecedents of Thriller gather together to make the show look and feel exactly like The Avengers. Thriller uses the same visual language of traditional settings and ordinary respectable situations to create the Avengers atmosphere of a respectable, comforting world gone awry; in fact compared to other 1970s series Thriller must have looked somewhat old-fashioned because of its use of a more colourful palette than the predominant browns fashionable at the time. The visual setting of Avengersland further reinforces the Avengers feel of the series.
But there's something not quite right, which detracts from my enjoyment of this series which ought to be bang up my street. In trying to put my finger on it, I have thought about how I approach The New Avengers: I have written before her about my humble opinion that to enjoy The New Avengers it is important not to approach it as if it is The Avengers but as if it is a completely different 1970s series and approach it as if it were, say, The Sweeney or The Professionals. How then should I approach Thriller, bearing in mind that it comes from the same stable as The Avengers and yet is not The Avengers? This is the difficulty I am having in deciding how best to approach it. I feel that Thriller in a sense is short-served in comparison to The New Avengers because in addition to being closer in time to the original Avengers it is also closer in development. It has so many Avengers overtones that it is impossible to overlook them and yet bearing in mind the Avengers overtones leads to automatic disappointment because some classic Avengers elements are completely missing.
What is missing may be summed up by saying that Thriller lacks the conscious unreality of The Avengers. While the setting is apparently very similar, there are none of the caricatures and ridiculous situations which are a staple of The Avengers. This is not a criticism: Thriller is definitely not in the same weird stable as The Avengers, and it is necessary in a series called Thriller to make the viewer build up an expectation that what is happening could happen in real life. I have a feeling that this uneasy relationship to The Avengers will make or break this show for me, that I will either manage to forget the Avengers link and love it, or will forever be dissatisfied.
My personal ambivalence aside, the show is one which I would very much recommend to anyone who likes Our Sort of Television. The writing is naturally excellent. It varies a little since the episodes are aiming for a number of different genres, including horror and detection. The plots are naturally of a pace which would fit in in the 1970s: once again if you want slow suspense rather than short attention-span television, this is for you. The sets are fairly obviously mainly studio-based, perhaps overly-so to my mind, but this isn't really a criticism I suppose. I have kept an eye open and failed to see familiar items from ITC shows or The Avengers, and failed, so they must have used a different prop supplier. There are occasions when I feel that the show would benefit from a larger cast - even in pieces set in public, such as a library, it is obvious that the same few souls are reappearing over and over again. My one criticism of this show, which some will consider entirely a personal preference, is that it uses far too many familiar actors of the time. I much prefer the ones where I don't know the actors, since even though the big names are not playing characters for which they are famous, it still makes me recognise the actors rather than the characters. My only criticism of the Network boxed set I have is that it seems to play rather unpredictably: I have often got to the end of a disc only to find it replaying a scene I have alreadt seen once.
If you like anthology series, and want to experience one written by a major contributor to The Avengers and so with many Avengers echoes, I would recommend Thriller highly. As for whether I will be able to take to it, long term, we shall have to see.

Image credit: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dvd-Thriller-Complete-Disc-Box-Set/dp/B0009P7VWG

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Crescent Moon

I am back after a small natural pause: with a fortnight's annual leave and nothing much except for watching cult TV planned, I will certainly be able to get back into the swing of blogging! Since the last post was decidedly frivolous, I am making a complete change by returning to a randomly-chosen episode in the first series of The Avengers, Crescent Moon. And I'm afraid I must start by confessing that I am finding it rather unsatisfying, not simply because there is virtually nothing that remains of it.
Once again we require a little rethinking of our assumptions to get into how these shows would have been understood at the time they were broadcast. The very fact that this show opens on a Caribbean isandn would have spelt an incredible aura of luxury for the majority of UK viewers in the early 1960s. I suppose strangely it can best be compared to the aura of luxurious sophistication emitted by the James Bond books, their subsequent film adaptations, and indeed of their author, Ian Fleming, himself.
That said, it is possible to overdo the luxurious Hispanic references, and I find the names of the characters particularly unsatisfying. I suppose they would have fulfilled their function of spelling out foreign insurrection at the time.
I think my dissactisfaction more stems from the fact that this is basically not The Avengers as we know it. Of course I shouldn't be surprised at that idea, since we all know that series 1 and even series 2 were to some extent feeling their way to an identity for the show, but I personally feel the plot of this Avengers could really belong to any of the ITC shows of the sixties. 
Of course I immediately feel guilty for writing that and am reflexively thinking that on the other hand this episode doesn't do nothing to show us the origins and development of The Avengers. The characteristic position of Steed as the employee of a vaguely-defined government agency is very clear, as his usual ability at turning up in all sorts of strange parts of the the world on information received. SImilarly, the subordinate position of Dr Keel is maintained in this. At the risk of coming across as a conspiracy theorist, it is very plain to me that Dr Keel, having once been of use to the government, will continue to be used and has, as it were, signed up for life. The rather emotional and unstable roots of his commitment to 'avenging' would seem to make him a rather surprising choice, but then I'm not running a secret governmental agency.
My conclusion on this rather wispy Avengers episode is that it has fuelled my frustration at the lack of information about first-series episodes. I think I would personally prefer there to be absolutely nothing in this case than merely the synopsis which begs for so many holes to be filled from the fertile imaginations of Avengersistas. This is therefore an episode which gives me conflicting emotions, but which since I will never get to see it, these emotions will have to remain unresolved. My fear of course is that this episode would just turn out to be a sui generis 1960s espionage story, so it is perhaps as well that fear will never be fulfilled.