Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Tales of the Unexpected Rehabilitated

I am completely sure I have blogged about this show here before, but since for the life of me I can't find the post, it may just be that I have mentioned it in passing. Anyway, what I have probably said about it before is that I loved this show as a child, finding it terribly sophisticated and really attention-grabbing. I have probably also said that I have recently had a set of the whole first series and found it incredibly dreary. Actually, given that that was my opinion it is not very surprising if I haven't blogged about it.
Nonetheless today I thought I would give it another go. Unless you're a fanatical completist and want the every-episode-ever box set (on something in the region of 473 DVDs), or fancy buying it one series at a time, I have a recommendation. Buy the 'best episodes' box set, which comes on ten DVDs and is manageable. If you live in the UK the most affordable way to get it is used from Cex at £12.00. I have also realised two things about this show - one is that the quality is more patchy than I remember from my youth. The other is that I have read elsewhere on the internet today, that beyond the second series the episodes weren't actually written by Roald Dahl. What I'm saying in a roundabout way is that buying the 'best of' box set will excuse you from seeing the duds, but that I have a feeling any viewer will be hard pressed to like every episode of such a long-running series.
I came to it again, willing to give it another go. To my astonishment, I found that it was really gripping. I popped a disc in the drive while cooking, and found that I kept stopping to turn round and look at the screen. I am delighted to find that my early memories of this show weren't as wrong as I thought they were - it was perhaps just that I wasn't watching the best episodes.
In fact I am so delighted that I an rushing this into print so that Tales of the Unexpected can be rehabilitated in the view of Cult TV Blog, without watching my way through all the discs. Naturally it may be that some of the episodes are not to my taste, but that will just confirm the theory I have come up with above.
Of the episodes I have watched, I would have to say that they have retained their power to terrify and horrify. For example on the disc in the drive at the moment is The Stinker. This episode accurately creates the feeling of being on the receiving end of bullying and so can only be an alarming experience for the viewer. I'll Be Seeing You is an apparently fairly conventional tale of a man and a woman who loathe each other stuck in a marriage, relieved for the husband only by the affair he is having with a woman who is steadily losing her sight. Without spoiling the story, the unexpected thing in I'll Be Seeing You is truly ironic, would have been horrible for him in reality, and was probably a bit of a triumph of technology at the time. I particularly like the economy with which the horror is developed in The Landlady, featuring the scariest landlady in world history (pictured). The Landlady takes the premise of Arsenic and Old Lace and somehow makes it so much more twisted than it was to begin with. I particular love the element of sexual frisson the landlady gets from her guests.
One of the things I have managed never to notice about this show is the absolutely stellar cast of stars. Joan Collins for a start. John Geilgud to be going on with. Even I can't moan at Really Big Names, because their acting ability tends to be so good that they enhance the show! There are also a number of familiar faces from TV of the period, but I'm going to be good and not moan about it.
So despite my recent disappointment at seeing this programme again, I'm now finding it rather difficult to think of anything critical, but I'll have a go. I suppose the obvious criticism is that if you don't take to anthology series, you won't like this. It is in the nature of the medium that the episodes will vary from each other in style and quality. I would also say that if you are watching this as a fan of Roald Dahl you are going to be disappointed beyond the first couple of series. Not only do his introductions to the episodes disappear but I have read that the later episodes weren't even written by him
Otherwise this is very much what you would expect of the higher level TV of the time in terms of appearance and production values. I would recommend it for a viewing if you're not familiar with it.

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Secret Service, with Reference to Last Train to Buffler's Halt

Some classic TV blogs can manage to keep their posts on track. I can't even keep on track within a single post without going off on some tangent, so it's no wonder that after posting about episode 1 of They Came From Somewhere Else, I've wandered off to write about The Secret Service, specifically Last Train to Buffler's Halt. The reason for this jumping from one subject to another is a very personal one - I find I tend to use this blog to blog about what I am actually watching, and it seems I'm having difficulty sticking to plans at the moment.
There is another totally personal thing which decides what I post about here - as you know I don't post about shows which are duds. Of course sometimes I just haven't got round to posting about a show or haven't seen it, but life is too short to start clogging up my own blog with my whinges about shows which usually get a good hammering elsewhere on the internet anyway. I'm saying this because in this post I'm going to have a go at rehabilitating a show which is usually considered a complete dud - Gerry Anderson's The Secret Service, the last of his 'Supermarionation' series of shows - and while it has been on my radar for a long time its unpopularity may explain why I have never seen it.
The whole Supermarionation thing is a bit of a touchy one in the classic TV world. Grown men can get a bit embarrassed about watching shows featuring puppets. That said, we all grew up on Thunderbirds and the other shows, although being specifically aimed at children they lack grown up themes and depths and can fail to appeal to adults. More appealing is the Gerry Anderson show UFO - I like it greatly but I'm wary of posting about it here because I just know I will get drawn into what the female and male actors are wearing under their string uniform thingies. UFO isn't lacking in adult themes which makes it different from the shows normally associated with the Anderson name, and The Secret Service straddles the gap between the two, being the last Supermarionation, which also included live action with real people.
I really don't need to elaborate what people don't like about this show, but it is in its mixture of puppets and real people that this show goes wrong. Reading the reviews on the internet it looks as if this creates real credibility problems for a lot of viewers. It seems some people like their unreality to be confirmed by not containing real actors - at least not visible ones. A lot of people finding the casting of the wonderful Stanley Unwin very distracting. I would venture to disagree with this estimation of the show completely. What I would agree with is that this show is all wrong for a children's show of the time and I suspect they would have seen it as too grown up and adults would have seen it as too childish, and I think this is enough to create its unpopularity on its own.
I keep returning to the real/unreal dichotomy in television of this time, and I think this show is firmly in the unreal camp. This episode is a very good exmaple of why. The plot - a train carrying a consignment of cash which is being hijacked, ridden by a secret agent masquerading as a vicar, and which vanishes, is a plot straight out of any of the TV shows I have on my shelves. In fact I think it may actually be very similar to the plot of a missing episode of Adam Adamant! The theme of the shady character who is one thing but is actually a secret agent is straight out of The Avengers, as is the fact of this character pretending to be a vicar. He drives a vintage car. He lives in an actual vicarage. That is indicative of the Church of England being in cahoots with the Secret Service, and that really is a plot which can only come from the Avengers.
A show which features action on a train is of course one which is always going to be atmospheric, and this one doesn't fail. The baddies are naturally locked up in the trap they have set up to get the filthy lucre, and this reversal is about as perennial as you can get.
There is relatively little use of gadgetry in this show, and that is again one of the criticisms of it, but I don't mind that. The man who changes size is again one of the things which reminds me of a certain Avengers plot, and places this firmly in the unreal genre of TV. Personally I like the casting Stanley Unwin as the vicar. If we approach this show as unreal, the fact that he periodically speaks his own brand of gobbledygook is perfectly acceptable, and the things he says are perfectly understandable anyway. I like this show and specifically this episode very much.
So what went wrong with it? These things are not really criticisms looking back but I have a few ideas. It seems too churchy in the titles. The theme music is all wrong for a children's TV show of the time. I have a feeling it would have been less noticeable at the time given what television usually looked like, but the cuts between the supermarionation and the live action shots look a little too different in light and colour to be confortable. That said, if you're a geek, the alternations in action look like a very interesting experiment at the time. It's just a great pity that it was so unpopular and this show has been seen as a low point of Gerry Anderson's output.
My own opinion is that this show really is overdue a rehabilitation. Plus points are that it is like the finaly series of The Avengers on LSD, crossed with Adam Adamant, The Champions, and Department S. Negative points are that if you don't like the mixture of shooting you will never really take to this show. That said, if you like the sort of TV I do, I really would suggest you give this show a go, as I think it is an overlooked, if rather flawed, gem.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

They Came From Somewhere Else Episode 1

I see that I have written a general post about this classic of cult TV, this giant of the genre, this show which was so influential on me as a young weirdo. In fact you can tell that we are in the territory of cult TV here, in that I am watching it on my laptop, downloaded from the internet, in a copy uploaded from some kind person who uploaded their original VHS recording. To watch They Came From Somewhere Else is to go out on to the true frontier of cult TV and also to experience the world of cult TV before easy downloads and DVDs - the age when people swapped actual tapes.
This show's influence on me in my youth was not limited by the fact that this is actually a spoof of the entire sci fi genre. At the age I saw this I must have been barely aware of the genre, but it was clear how the show upturned the pillars of society as we all learned them, and also upturned the pillars of the sci fi genre.
Wendy, the policewoman is a principle character of the whole series - I could see that she was also a parody of many real people, who are set firmly in their own world and rarely if ever go out of it. They are therefore unprepared for an onslaught by Something from Outside that world, because they can have no conception of it. Middleford, the show's location, is of course also a parody. I suppose the immediate inspiration would be one of the new towns - Milton Keynes, say, and while it is presented as an ordinary place where something went horribly wrong, it is plain that Middleford is very clearly intended to be an awful place. In fact I knew for a fact that it was based on the Black Country village I grew up in. Surely there can't be anyone reading this who is unaware of the Sapphire and Steel adventure set in a garage where there is just blackness outside - well that is what the place I grew up in is like, and it is also the whole point of Middleford.
Ironic, then, that we should be introduced early to the work of the forensic lab. Out here in the real world, we would assume that any business in a fairly closed community would either cater to that community or a very specialised business would largely serve the world outside. Here, the presence of a forensic lab implies that there is something very wrong in Middleford already, since it is very clear from the time we see Martin showing Shawna the ropes that the forensic lab is frankly a barmy place. Martin is one the key characters in the chow but he is show up here to be a bit of a dunce, who despite apparently being a very clever chap, can only parrot (and badly at that) what his boss says.
As an adult, of course I can see that Martin lives the same sort of dull life we all do, with his flatmate Graham. I think one of the reasons this show was so formative on me was that it doesn't have the oppressive feel you get of adult expectations when you are a teenager. These are adults, with adult responsibilities, but nonetheless they manage to live in a way which at the time I thought was very sophisticated. Martin can go off to his political meeting. Colin and Anthony play badminton after work and exchange sci fi novels. For a teenager champing at the bit of parental expectations They Came From Somewhere Else was a breath of fresh air, and its relatively constrained world seemed like an escape.
That said, I do feel that this show wouldn't stand up to too much in the way of examination. The whole point of it is that it is a parody of sci fi. The plot is also one which wouldn't really stand up to the sort of hammering I give many a plot here. As an escape route, the world of They Came From Somewhere Else would always ultimately fall on its face because it is a parody and because it isn't really intended to have a serious message.
But the key to understanding it is nonetheless to place it in its time. Recently here I wrote about The Omega Factor, which was made a decade before. The concern there for the harnessing of psychic ability by the mid to late 1980s had become all out fear in Thatcher's Britain. I have written here before about the numberous fears we lives under at the time. Such as alien hamburger restaurants suddenly appearing overnight. Well, perhaps not literally that, but once Chernobyl happened, there was a very real sense that the world was being run by dangerous lunatics and that anything could happen. The authorities responded with violence (although the New Age travellers weren't half a pain) and that violence is echoed in this episode where the police leave the party and leap into their van to go and do someone a mischief. Couple these contemporary conflicts with any amount of alternative stuff with one eye to getting a laugh and this show is very much what you will get. All the fears of the time literally appear here in one form or another and I loved it then and love it now.
There is another way in which They Came From Somewhere Else is very 1980s - I'm not sure how to phrase what I mean, but there is just so much of it. An example would be the way the stranger at Wendy's door takes off his hat and there is another one underneath, and then another. Even though the show is against a background of conflict there is never a feeling of need or want, and I am reminded that this was also the age of the yuppie. There was a genuine feeling of prosperity, a sense of richness and abundance, and I also feel that that is reflected in this show.
Without making this a spoiler, the episode ends on a wonderfully funny note of incongruence, and despite the fact that this episode has largely been spent setting the scene, sets the viewer up very well to expect some seriously weird stuff to occur in the following episodes.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Omega Factor: Double Vision and Some Conclusions

I have only been to Edinburgh once, and my main memory of it was the amount of stone used in its construction. In comparison to the more recent towns and cities down here in the Midlands, which use more brick, the stone gives a very different feel, and I remember finding it quite oppressive. That said, I was surprised at how much I liked the street scenes in this episode - they give a wonderful impression of quirk individuality and hidden parts of the city, as well as the feel of the 1970s. I particularly like the effective use of the Edinburgh dungeon as one the scenes.
In this episode many of the previously-raised themes are elaborated and the loose ends begin to come together. Once again the preoccupations of the age are brought out and given an airing: drugs ( in this case peyote), religion (in this case vodou), foreigners who may or may not be sinister, and let's face it the tacist attitudes come out think and fast. In addition to the possibly sinister foreigner we have 'no African leaves the witch doctor far behind'. You can't both study ancient techniques of mind altering and also look down your nose at other cultures.
Pain. That's another major preoccupation of this one. Crane starts to see his deceased wife and think that someone is trying to make him go off his head. His pain at Hamish's murder of his girlfriend is also palpable. The scenes of pain alternate very effectively with scenes of normal domesticity.
The absolute high point of this episode has to be the disco, for all sorts of reasons. I love the music which sounds as if it is being played through a duvet. I love the 1970s decor of the disco. I love the way a disco is simulated with a dozen actors (if that) - obviously one of 1970s Scotland's throbbing night spots.
I paused in the middle of the episode while writing this post, and I have decided I am going to write my conclusions about The Omega Factor here rather than post about the final episode. There is a reason for this apart from my innate inability to concentrate on any project for long - the things I would have to say about the final episode would of necessity present spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen the series.
What I will say about the ending is that it does at least provide a sense of immeidate closure and a better sense of who is on what side. It does leave the way clear for the second series which never happened, and it does make the sheer extent of the conspiracy absolutely terrifying. I am actually rather impressed by the way The Omega Factor ties up the various threads it had established through the series, with a conclusion which isn't over-simplistic and allows for an adult understanding of mixed motives and never being sure.
So given that I'm impressed with the way the ending ties it up, I would have to say that my verdict on The Omega Factor is that it is quality television. It manages to cover much of the same ground as The X-Files twenty years later, and it is interesting to see how the material is covered in an earlier age of television. The Omega Factor is also something of a relief from much of the television of the 1970s - I can tend to find it either overly lightweight or overly sombre, as fits the age. The Omega Factor is a relative heavyweight - you could discuss the episodes after each broadcast and what a discussion you could have.
My one criticism about the plot is that it can be difficult to follow because of the slightly different style of the different writers. Obviously, mysteriousness is the main business of this sort of TV programme, but situations and people are introduced rather randomly so that it can be difficult to get an overview until you get to the end. I do think this is merely a function of the episodes being written by different people at once without reference to previous writers.
The Omega Files excels in several things. One is that it is a Scotland-set programme which isn't self-consciously Scottish, a trap it would have been easy to fall into. It also excels in a genuine sense of mystery, fear, and intrigue. It gives the viewer a genuine sense of not knowing who to trust, and I think in retrospect an advantage is that it only saw one series so that it didn't go on too long and become predictable.
It will be apparent that The Omega Factor is getting quite high praise from yours truly. My two pieces of advice about it would be to watch the whole series through if you are having difficulties understanding it, and also if you have managed not to see The X-Files, I would suggest watching this first, to give an idea of what the parapsychology world was like twenty years before.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Omega Factor: Out of Body, Out of Mind

What a dream magical ability would be for pretty much anyone. I do love what happens to Sir Willoughby at the beginning of this one - there can surely be no-one who has not dreamt of the ability to influence people (if not actually kill them, as here), from a distance. This episode makes it very plain that being on the receiving end of that ability would be a fairly scary place.
Several other things are also made plain in this episode: that Omega has penetrated to the highest levels of society, for a start - a permanent under-secretary's assistant being fairly high up. The only thing that is wrong is that the assistant removes the band from the cigar he gives him to smoke, so obviously the government agency in question started to go wrong when they started employing men who were not gentlemen! Omega's ambitions are also clearly international rather than being limited to one government alone. I don't know when masonic/illuminati/new world order conspiracy theories fate from, and would be interested to know how old these theories were when this was written.
True to the X-Files antecedent theme, even though Crane's experience in this show started with strange dreams he has now become a sceptic when his brother talks about strange dreams: he becomes the Scully to Michael's Mulder. And of course Mulder and Scully did change round position now and then. Also in common with Mulder, Crane bawls out his boss about the immorality of the events of the previous episode, and has to be reminded that he has signed the official secrets act. This episode is also the first time that I have noticed Crane use the word 'conspiracy' - although it has been very obvious that that is precisely what has been going on throughout the series.
In this episode the X-Files are further presaged by Crane's developing sense of dissatisfaction at the underhand tactics used by Martindale to experiment on his brother. So we finally get some explanation of what has gone wrong with him, and Crane's role as the sceptical agent (bawling out Skinner) is developed. There is a slight difference that Crane sees Martindale as the fanatical true believer, so the dynamic is somewhat different. Crane even goes off to meet a contact in a park.
Previously in this series of posts about The Omega Factor I have rather flippantly referred to the way the show repeatedly shows people sitting up in bed, usually a hospital bed, in a variety of 1970s pyjamas. It is a surprisingly repetitive image in the show, to the extent that I am beginning to wonder whether it was psychically communicated to the writers so that the 'trope' would appear at least once in every episode. In this one the pyjama motif is changed. Crane's brother is out of hospital and staying with him, and the pyjama trope abruplty changes to a sleeping in underwear motif. Presumably the cod psychology explanation for this is that it suggests the truth being revealed rather than being hidden, or some such thing. Even if that is not what is intended it is a change on the previous visual pattern of the show. And what other scene would I use to illustrate this post?
The real opposition in this episode, though is between the world of scientific rigourism (which is also portrayed as the world determined to see its experiement throught to the end, and the world of human emotion. This opposition strangely puts Department 7 and Omega in the same side because they both have the same determination to see their project through to the end, regardless of its human implications, whether in relationships or the effect on Crane's brother's friend Hamish. The human side of this division is of course represented by Crane's deceased wife, his brother and his ongoing thing for Anne.
This division is then left hanging by the excellent ending of this episode, which makes a very clear that nobody can be trusted; Crane can't even trust himself not to set some train of events off unwittingly, by using the wrong word. Trust nobody - where have I heard that before?

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Omega Factor: St Anthony's Fire

This will be a short post because I only have three things to say about this episode.
The first is that Martindale is not noticeably in charge of what goes on in his department, in fact we even see him on the phone to some (presumably) superior, acknowledging that Crane does what he likes. I find it inconceivable that Department 7 could be run in this way, and that it is more likely that the personnel would not only be hand-picked but very carefully vetted and controlled to make sure they are 'discreet'. That said, Martindale is repeatedly made out to be suspicious, so of course it could be that this is entirely deliberate.
The second is that Crane is shown up as being a loose cannon in this one. He gets himself into trouble by trespassing, surely something an official of a secret government department would not dream of doing. It is apparent again that the department is not really being run that well. Martindale even has to send someone else, Anne, to stop Crane getting himself into more trouble.
And the third thing is that it becomes increasingly apparent that Crane is one sexy piece. I would maintain that in a real secret department staff would be heavily vetted and controlled and wouldn't tend to be getting their jollies with the staff of a research unit they are only visiting, and also not with the staff of their own unit. The sudden introduction of sexiness is a misjudged element in my view and it would have been better to let Crane mourn his wife throughout the series, since that would have helped to develop his tortured hero persona. Once again I have a feeling that the difference of treatment (and not just as far as sex is concerned) between different episodes of this series, is a result of multiple writers writing episodes simultaneously, and therefore without reference to what the others were writing.
Of course it is entirely possible that Crane is depicted as a loose cannon so that we are made ready for the sheer instability of the staff of the department they are visiting. In fact the staff are notorious in the local inn. Crane's antics are fairly sensible in comparison to them. I do love the scene where Martindale just doesn't believe what has happened to Anne. In addition to the familiar narrative of bad science undertaken by psychopaths, there is the additional narrative of the shadowy Omega organisation which is behind everything which happens in this show. This show really is the X-Files twenty years before the X-Files.

Shadows: The Waiting Room

Naturally a number of my recent posts have touched on the contemporary 1970s obsession with all things 'supernatural'. This extended to all sorts of TV programmes, and the episode of Shadows I'm going to write about today is reminiscent of the Sapphire and Steel adventure set in a railway station. High praise from the old curmudgeon who write on Cult TV Blog, you may think. And it is, but I'm going to have to be frank and say that this is the episode I like best on the first series DVD of Shadows. And with characterictic inconsistency I would have to admit that I don't really like period dramas, which is what tends to put me off many of the other episodes - even though this one is a drama where one period meets another.
I suppose it is a stable of the supernatural story that trains and train stations are very strong metaphors for travelling - in this case extended to travelling in time as well as space. There are a host of ghost stories about the railways and of course the railway is the setting for many a juicy ghost story. The theme of being stranded overnight at an out of the way station is perhaps best dealt with in Arnold Ridley's Ghost Train, in which of course the train turns out to be a fraud. A touch of real genius about this show is that our contemporary protagonists don't notice the point at which they step into a different time. Their avoidance of that fact is essential to the developing story. It also gives the viewer a wonderful sense of superiority at spotting the things that are wrong. I remember reading in a Ladybird book as a child that there were country places which were still not on mains electricity - I'm sure there still are but you'd have to be way off the beaten track, even in the 1970s.
The brother and sister don't notice that they've stepped back fifty years because they don't expect it to happen, and this episode is in many ways about the ways that people behave in a strange situation. In this case, because the impossible has happened, they act as if it isn't happening. It's only really when the fire man gives them a train time off the timetable for 1925 that they begin to think something is horribly wrong, as indeed it is.
On the subject of societal expectations, the brother and sister aren't sure what to make of the two people they meet at the station: since they are merrily carrying on as if 1925 has never ended, there is a very good impression given that they think they are bonkers. Or at the very least that it isn't a good idea to get on a train timetabled for fifty years ago! The arrival of the train crystalises the brother and sister's suspicions that all is not right - the train is steam, the lamp is oil, and in fact all the fixtures and fittings of the station are set decades in the past. When Gerry finds that he has been talking to someone on a disconnected telephone he begins to wonder what on earth could be going on.
Theis Shadows draws on the elements of horror found in the railway station genre of films. A small country station is that perfect closed setting and in fact in this show the protagonists get shut in to the station and can't escape. Whatever is happening there, the station clock is lying to them and it has the power to stop a real watch from working. When they find the events of the night in a newspaper dated fifty years before, the show becomes genuinely sinister and frightening. It does a very good job of making the viewer unsure of what is happening and therefore also fearful of what may come next.
I won't say what does happen next, but given that this is a children's programme, it would rightly be setting up its viewers with a folklore of ghostly things happening, and perhaps even a lifetime's interest in weird shit! I actually can't criticise this episode at all - yes, it has a small cast and only a single setting, but that is deliberate to create an atmosphere of claustrophobia. The pace is of its time, but it successfull creates the suspense in the viewer. You may criticise that it doesn't ever explain *why* the events of this show happen, but personally I think that is good because it leaves the viewer's imagination free to imagine what happens next.
Although what comes next after watching this, if taking the bus instead of the train, if you've got any sense...