Monday, 26 July 2021

If You Like The Avengers You'll Like These Films

This is a post I've been thinking about for ages, because we all wish there was more of The Avengers (particularly in its later incarnations) but there couldn't really be any more. The New Avengers doesn't quite catch the feel of the later series of the original show - perhaps you had to be stoned out of your head to write them. With this in mind, here are three films from the sixties which I think also capture the ethos of the original Avengers.

Just to be totally clear, I mean the Peel/King series with high levels of unreality, lots of magical omniscience, and set in a very swinging London. This was of course a London where you didn't have to have an income of £300,000 a week to live there. The world of parties, lots of experimentation, and a time which will never be repeated. It was a world in which the entire resources of the world weren't aggregated in the hands of half a dozen corporations.

First up we have The Sorcerers (1967) in which Boris Karloff plays an ageing medical hypnotist who with his wife uses technology to take over the mind of a young man played by Ian Ogilvy. I wasn't really thinking of this sort of magical omniscience! They use their control of the young man to experience things they haven't for years, or now can't because of their age. However it soon goes wrong and the wife turns into the sort of megalomaniac we are used to from The Avengers, beginning with getting the man to steal her a fur coat.

There is a sense in which the plot of this one isn't the Avengers feature - it doesn't end well for the couple but there isn't really anyone saving the world in style. The Avengers flavour comes from the swinging London setting. We see clubs, pubs and bars of the time. We see the life lived by these youngsters in bed-sitters - exactly the sort of free life which would have been Tara King's cover story, given that she was a secret agent. I also love the scenes of 1960s London, which is so different from today's uniform cities. I must be getting old.

In Blow-up (1966) a photographer in Swinging London is living a proper sixties life-style however then takes a picture of a murder. This film, like all good TV, can be read in many ways, including what moral you take from it and the way it can even be seen to be about photography. It is set in the swinging London milieu we are familiar with, and of course photographers appear a couple of times in The Avengers as staple characters of the time.

There is something very reminiscent of Steed at his most suave about this film. I think the jazz score may contribute to that. I think what makes it feel so Avengers is that it captures the unreality thing to perfection and of course there is a crime involved. At times I find myself wondering whether the protagonist is a secret agent. But the thing I absolutely love best though is the totally dismissive contemporary review in the Guardian which described the pot party scene as grotesquely unconvincing. In reality it was filmed on location and the actors were genuinely stoned out of their minds so yah boo sucks to the Grauniad.

The Sandwich Man
(1966) is purely about a day in the life of a man whose job is to walk around the city in a morning suit wearing an advertising sandwich board, and the things he sees and people he meets. His real interest in life is pigeon racing. This is probably the least arty or niche film of the three because it is intended to be a comedy, and the eccentric characters he meets are played by some of the biggest names in film and comedy of the day.

Of course it is the eccentric characters which makes this so Avengers and many of them would even give the murderous knitter with the nephews a run for money in eccentricity. The only problem with this one is some very dodgy portrayals of race, and yet the ethnic characters thus depicted are portrayed to be thoroughly integrated into British society.

If you want to see how close to reality the film gets there is a documentary called The London Nobody Knows (1969).

Pssst don't tell anyone I told you but the last time I looked everything mentioned here was available to see for free in various places on the internet.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Manhunt: Fare Forward Voyagers

I had better start off by clarifying two things. The first is that this post is about the series broadcast in 1970. The second is that I am very much out of my comfort zone because as a rule I don't like period films or TV, by which I mean ones set in a previous time to the time it is made. Don't get me wrong, I love old TV but there is in my opinion a lack of authenticity in period shows - they can't really get into the mindset. I have touched on that here before when talking about Peaky Blinders - while undoubtedly a good show it is too squeaky clean to represent the authentic Second City of the past. Another example which I haven't written about here before is Mad Men - what put me off that as an ex-smoker myself was (I do realise how potty this will sound) that the smoking seemed a bit self-conscious. Those of us who remember the seventies remember that everyone smoked and it was no big deal. it is difficult for an actor to portray something which is no longer routine, as a normal thing. It is strange for these youngsters to be smoking indoors, let alone in the workplace, and thus the authenticity is broken.

This is one of my little dislikes, like not liking recognising actors and having to think who they are. You would think that this drama, which is not only set in a different time but a different country wouldn't be my sort of thing. And you would be right, but I bought it on the offchance because its internet reviews are uniformly exceptional. Just to get this out of my head, I have also recently been watching some episodes of Allo Allo for the first time in years with great amusement. That show was current while I was at school and we used to ask our French teacher if she had seen it (she was an actual French woman) to her great displeasure. I actually found myself wondering whether Manhunt was an influence on Allo Allo at least in the visuals, however have found no confirmation of that online.

You see, Manhunt manages to get the period drama thing exactly right. The show is clearly set in wartime occupied France, clearly filmed in what looks very much like France, but is without the slightest element of caricature. The characters speak English without French or German accents, which to me is just perfect. The accents would make it too much of a caricature. What keeps hitting me is that it looks like Allo Allo (which is obviously studio-based) but is a serious drama.

It is genuinely a serious drama, but also with an incredibly light touch. Much of the drama made here set in the second world war has an element of motivation to it. This includes the films which were made well after the Second World War - the motivation of course was to get people together to get on with it and get the war done. Manhunt has no such agenda, and you will keep seeing online how it was striking at the time for depicting the Germans as ordinary people rather than monsters. I think it goes much further and depicts a lot of the normal motivations and feelings of real people in an extraordinary situation. It depicts them dispassionately and therefore gives you real twinges of sympathy and conflict as it goes on.

It drew me in and kept my attention, which isn't easy with my grasshopper mind.

This first episode sets the premise for what follows, and it will be some indication of how good I think this show is that I have leapt on here to write about it and actually don't know how the situation is resolved, because I have never seen this show before. In this episode a British airman, Jimmy Porter, crashes in occupied France and comes into the hands of a resistance cell. They are naturally suspicious of him but take him at face value when reassured by London. I'm not going to fib here, but I personally thought it would be much more realistic for them to do what they initially thought, which was to disbelieve his story and shoot him. But hey, really good TV can surprise us with our own reactions.

Just one criticism, which won't be surprising - lots of big names in the cast. However they cast Alfred Lynch as Jimmy, and I literally have no criticism for him as an actor. He was one of those really good actors who make you forget they are there. I have also recently seen him with Sean Connery in the wartime film On the Fiddle (1961), where he seemed a very different, cheeky chappy Cockney character. Incidentally that film is worth watching for its gay coding alone - Lynch and Connery talk and act like a couple and when you know that Lynch was gay you can see that he clearly wanted Connery to ravage him.

So no major criticism and I'm not promising that this will become a series of posts on this show because whenever I do that they fizzle out very quickly.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Dr Who: The God Complex

High time we had some more Who and this one is a cracker. It will give you some idea of how highly I rate it if I tell you that this Who is comparable to an original Sapphire and Steel, and uses many of the writing techniques used by The Avengers. There are also some Harry Potter resonances.

The magical omniscience of The Avengers mean that the doctor and his companions just arrive in the hotel with no explanation. The closed world of a hotel where something distinctly peculiar is going on, is exactly the sort of set up that Sapphire and Steel use - in fact this feels very much like the adventure in the railway station.

My absolutely favourite thing about this is the beginning and especially the bit where the doctor decides a character's pathological urge to be conquered means he must be from Tivolia, a planet whose inhabitants have been willingly conquered so often that their anthem includes a blank for the name of the current invading force!

The adventure also includes a number of literary references, including the Minotaur of Greek mythology and has been compared to The Shining and 1984. There is a more psychological understanding of these things, though, because the show is really most about beliefs, fears, and how those can be used against us. This of course makes it very topical a decade after being made!

I do like Matt Smith as the doctor. I love his rapid speech, and here his rapid investigation of a nightmare situation. His humour is very Steed - for example when he says that being tied up wasn't in the hotel brochure.

Unusually for a show of this recent age it is mainly studio-bound with just a little CGI. If it isn't your bag you could probably find the fact the whole thing happens in the hotel, quite constricting. Apart from showing that you can do good TV without loads of CGI, the show rather directs attention inwards to ones fears and beliefs. There is endless discussion on t'internet about what was the fear in the doctor's room, but that's not something I'm going to go into. I comment on it to make the point that like all good TV, this can be encountered in a number of different ways.

I honestly don't have anything bad to say about this at all and so it gets my rare accolade of Stonking Good Television.

Friday, 2 July 2021

The Avengers: Invasion of the Earthmen

Oh dear, this Avengers doesn't half get a hammering on the internet. For example Grant Goggins says,

'This story is a complete turkey.'

Simon Wood says,

'It’s an interesting episode to watch and quite absorbing just as a curiosity, if you watch it with suitable detachment. But it doesn’t fit, production values are very low, and it’s certainly not a return to ‘realism’.'

And for the most damning, David K Smith says,

'Doubtless one of the worst classic Avengers episodes of all time.'

Given the total train wreck everyone else considers this adventure, it will surely come as no surprise that it is one of my favourites. Don't get me wrong, it has incredible shortcomings so let's get them out of the way first.

The temporary change of director means that there are elements more reminiscent of other shows here. Star Trek for example. I do see that. There are also elements of incredibly bad sci-fi movies. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if parodying them was in mind at the time. 

There is a further weakness, which is that it was made soon after Mrs Peel left, and virtually every review comments that the relationship between Miss King and Steed isn't really solidified. I suspect that that may be one of the reasons people find this one unpleasant - there are many remnants left of the sexual tension between Steed and Mrs Peel, and also hints of the mentor and student relationship which it would settle into as the series went on. This combination is incredibly uncomfortable in itself. It is very clear that they weren't quite sure where to take it. The hints of sex are not outside the bounds of possibility - it isn't that unusual for a couple to have such an age gap.

And yet... I have always resisted the idea that Steed and Mrs Peel were actually at it. I have always seen their sexual tension as something acknowledged by each but never acted on. Mrs Peel was of course a talented amateur, and a sexual tension with Miss King would make Steed unprofessional as well as possibly a dirty old man, depending on how you look at it.

So far so pedestrian, but where the show excels is in overdoing the kitsch. In terms of the unreality the Avengers specialised in, this pushes unreality to the extreme and a bit further. The school and tunnel are obviously not intended to be real, and yet are cleverly juxtaposed with realistic shots of the hotel and others.

The sheer amount of unreality suggests that that is the element which is foremost and that is what makes me wonder whether this was at least in part a conscious parody of the sci-fi of the previous couple of decades. I haven't come across this explicitly stated in any interviews so we will never know for sure. Even if not intended I think sci-fi parody may still be the best lens through which to view it.

The spaceman alone. Seriously, it is funny and not scary! The best comparison I can think of is The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965). This film is notable for making it on to IMDB's list of worst films of all time, and the titular monster (pictured right) has a similar effect of being funny rather than scary. Exactly the same effect.

I particularly love the design of the school and of the tunnel. That green and purple colour scheme should be a crime against good taste - imagine coming back to that with a hangover! And the tunnel is so wonderful - I love the fibreglass rocks. I love the effort one actor puts into picking one up! The uniforms for the school are usually interpreted as being inspired by Star Trek. I wonder whether British fascists of an earlier decade were also an inspiration, although of course their pullovers were black.

In the visual language of the Avengers this is one of those episodes where the great and the good become diabolical masterminds. The internal modernism of the secret parts of the school is contrasted with the external appearance of the school and also with the hotel. What could be more British establishment than a private school - they produced generations of Our Sort of Person, or rather Steed's sort of person.

My only real disappointment is to find that the actors playing the pupils of Alpha Academy don't seem to have been identified. I had a feeling that some of them would have gone on to great things!

So to summarize - you may well find this episode is total dross but I think it repays sympathetic viewing.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Bognor: Deadline

There isn't very much about this show on the internet so I hope I will achieve writing about a show Mitchell Hadley hasn't heard of again.

I have had this box set for some time. The reason I have rather avoided writing about it is that it is a show which repays attentive viewing, and that it also takes some understanding. It is based on a series of books by Tim Heald in which Simon Bognor is a special investigator for the Board of Trade. I'm not going to lie, I find it slightly confusing how the apparent remit of the Board of Trade could require lengthy investigations spilling over into investigating such things as murder! Because the show is adapting whole novels, an adventure lasts several episodes and the two series only adapted the first four novels of the series of books. The show therefore operates in a way which benefits from extended viewing and is not that good for dipping in and out.

I suppose that TV series based on series of books, unless based on phenomenally popular works or great classics, depend for their popularity on the popularity of the original series. The only other series in a similar position to Bognor, would, I think, be Murder Most English, which may also appear here at some point, and dramatises the Flaxborough novels of Colin Watson. I feel the rather low-key popularity of this show reflects the popularity of the books.

While Flaxborough looks backwards in time, one of the greatest charms of Bognor is that it is very much of the 1980s. You will have noticed that 1980s TV rarely gets mentioned here, and that is simply because I think an awful lot of 1980s TV isn't much cop. A lot of the TV I remember also isn't set in the 1980s. In retrospect the decade was in many ways a bizarre time, but I personally prefer to remember it as a happy time - probably reflecting the age I was. One of the things I associate with the time, rightly or wrongly, is the relationship between the press and other bodies being somewhat troublesome. Deadline, the second book dramatised for the series, is set in a newspaper office after the gossip columnist is murdered. As Bognor says, the murderer could have been pretty much anyone in the country! It also features a trade union of the time, a sort which is now extinct, to the loss of every worker. You get to see into many homes in this one, and I know for a fact that if I had set foot in those homes in the eighties I would have thought their residents very sophisticated. I suppose I am acknowledging a totally personal reason for liking this show!

Deadline, which I have focused on here is the whole of the second adventure over six episodes. I like to focus on one episode of a thing usually, simply because even if I don't blog about the whole thing I have something to come back to in the future if the mood takes me. In this instance I thought that one episode alone wouldn't really provide enough meat. This is not a criticism because the show is not designed to move snappily, but if you like your TV at a fast pace you'll be bitterly disappointed. As I say it is a matter of design, but I think the action could have easily been got into four episodes. I do have one criticism which I would like to get out of the way, though. Bognor is supposed to be an investigator for some such body as the board of trade. Yet he gets involved in matters, such as murder, which are clearly CID business. I am, however feeling a little confused about this, because I have read in some reviews that the Board of Trade job is a cover for an actual job investigating this sort of thing. This is the fourth or fifth time I have watched through the series and I haven't noticed any mention of his nominal job being a cover. It is not impossible that I have missed it or that that fact appears in the books. However if a worker who is supposed to investigate business is investigating murder and not either protesting or walking out, it leaves a real problem of credibility. He also has a knack of getting duffed up in the course of his investigation which makes it even less watertight.

The characterisation of this show is superb. Characters leap off the screen fully developed and sympathetic. The conflicts within the newspaper are also very clearly described. I find David Horovitch's performance very interesting. Regular readers will be familiar with my dislike of intrusive faces who appear in lots of TV shows. I only realised when I read it that Horovitch also plays the inspector in Joan Hickson's Marple. He comes across as quite a different personality here, which I think an exemplar of how to do it and a Hallmark of good acting.

The plot gets complex as the episodes go on, although there is a unifying theme of the effect of the dead man on other people. Come to think of it, this complexity may be such that it needs the whole six episodes, but I'm not fixed in this view or my previous one.

There is just one thing I keep thinking, which is that this show would be better for being watched all in one go. Watching one a week as intended would be very confusing. Overall I think you would either like this show or not, but you will know!

Monday, 21 June 2021

The Tomorrow People Master Post

 You will see from my existing two posts about The Tomorrow People that while I set out to write about all of the adventures in the original series, a mere two posts in I have made a colossal jump. I have noticed that the series tends to have an effect on me that I just cannot get it in order in my head, plus I got the discs confused. I am also not sure that I can usefully say much about some of the adventures. For example the one where pre-pubescent kids are put in slave outfits while Mike Holoway does an impression of Jimmy Savile - that is literally all I have to say about that one.

This 'master' post is therefore predominantly an attempt to get a grasp on the amorphous mass of the series in my own head and keep track of what I have already written about. One of the difficulties that have stopped me writing about this show is that it is basically a different show from beginning to end, and is at best patchy. Additionally as said above some of the things on the show would not appear in TV today and I can't begin to think what they were thinking. If I have some personal rude remarks to say about an episode which don't deserve a full post, I may put them here.

Another thing which has always confused me is that although I now have the complete set in one box, region 2 releases have taken two different trajectories, one released in series and the other released in adventures.

Series 1

Slaves of Jedikiah (five episodes) broadcast 30th April to 4th June 1973.

The Medusa Strain (four episodes) broadcast 11th June to 2nd July 1973.

The Vanishing Earth (four episodes) broadcast 9th to 30th July 1973.

Series 2

The Blue and The Green (four episodes) broadcast 4th February to 4th March 1974.

A Rift in Time (four episodes) broadcast 11th March to 1st April 1974

The Doomsday Men (four episodes) broadcast 8th April to 6th May 1974.

Series 3

Secret Weapon (four episodes) broadcast 26th February to 19th March 1975.

Secret Weapon

Worlds Away (three episodes) broadcast 26th March to 9th April 1975.

A Man for Emily (three episodes) broadcast 16th to 30th April 1975.

The Fastest Gun

Revenge of Jedikiah (three episodes, but with such a similar name no wonder I was confused) broadcast 7th to 21st May 1975.

Series 4

One Law (3 episodes) broadcast 21st October to 5th November 1975.

Into the Unknown (four episodes) broadcast 7th to 28th January 1976.

Series 5

The Dirtiest Business (two episodes) broadcast 28th February to 7th March 1977.

A Much Needed Holiday (two episodes) broadcast 14th to 21st March 1977. This is the one with the slave children and the Jimmy Savile impression.

The Heart of Sogguth (two episodes) broadcast 28thMarch to 4th April 1977.

Series 6

The Lost Gods (two episodes) broadcast 15th to 22nd May 1978.

Hitler's Last Secret (two episodes) broadcast 5th to 12th June 1978.

The Thargon Menace (two episodes) broadcast 19th to 26th June 1978.

Series 7

Castle of Fear (two episodes) broadcast 9th to 16th October 1978.

Achilles Heel (two episodes) broadcast 23rd to 30th October 1978.

Living Skins (two episodes) broadcast 6th to 11th November 1978.

Series 8

War of the Empires (four episodes) broadcast 29th January to 19th February 1979.

The reason for my confusion will be readily evident from the names of the different adventures. Some have similar names and others have names similar to other series and fictional works, including H P Lovecraft. The show evidently gave itself an ability to venture into all sorts of subjects and times, real and fictional. Looking at the titles it comes across as a less orderly Dr Who. No wonder I'm confused!

Monday, 14 June 2021

The Tomorrow People: A Man for Emily - The Fastest Gun

This part of the Tomorrow People demonstrates perfectly why I fought shy from blogging about it. The show went on for so long with so many story arcs that it can be difficult to keep hold of.

I think we can truthfully say that A Man for Emily is the point at which it went off the wall. We have the bizarre space family, we have Peter Davison in swimming trunks, we have them make an Earth mission with the only research done in old westerns and we have the Tomorrow People interfering in this.

In plot terms I personally feel this may have been stretching the Tomorrow People slightly further than was a good idea. This is entirely personal because I can well see that the idea of a next evolution in human life would well include interaction with aliens, because this is one of the weird interests of the time. There are also a lot of completely earth-bound concerns dealt with by the show, including racism and ghosts. My own opinion is that this episode gives them too much to do and also raises the question of who gave the Tomorrow People this policing role. It is after all the curse of the advanced and intelligent to be suspected and held back, rather than being given opportunities actually to help the world!

That said, it is worth watching this string of the show purely for the sight of Elmer on earth in his mother's idea of what Earth people wear. I suspect she had seen Dolly Parton, but apparently the reason you never see Dolly Parton out in public is she doesn't wear her wig and dresses more quietly.

The best bit is the scene in the grocers shop. If you watch the women behind the grocer they literally can't keep a straight face, the situation is so ridiculous. That the grocer assumes he is on Candid Camera is a nicely reflexive point about the TV of the time.

I do wonder how this would have gone down at the time, but have not been able to find any contemporary reactions. In general terms as we know the fashions were pretty wild in the seventies but only for those who could afford the fashions. The show is careful to contrast the outlandishness of Elmer with 'ordinary' people dressed much more drably, so I feel it would have been a straightforward reaction that arriving here dressed like that was ridiculous.

I see from the DVD commentary that Peter Davison is very embarrassed about this his first role. Perhaps it is best approached as one of the wilder aspects of the 1970s!