Friday, 19 September 2014

The Avengers: Wish You Were Here

I'm presently suffering from another episode of the depression that has plagued me for the past few years. This time not only am I on fluoxetine (Prozac), which I'm liking better than the antidepressant I've been on before, but I'm trying to work through it. I have, however, hit the point at which you suddenly feel much worse before you feel better so have given myself a duvet day. I get very blokey, irritable depression, & my normal renowned forbearance goes out of the window - not the time to be facing the workplace. I'm interested that I've fallen on The Avengers as duvet television - in my real/unreal dichotomy unreal is definitely better for comfort, I've always loved the Tara King season, & this is one of my favourites.
I say unreal, but I think this episode is only unreal so far as the Avengers characters go - certainly introducing Mother's nephew who is forbidden to call Mother Uncle at work is a genius touch - & the plot is actually worthy of a classic thriller in Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh vein. The hotel is of course a staple of the genre as a setting for the group of people who may include a murderer - here changed to be the setting of imprisonment in an apparently ordinary hotel. The apparent ally who turns out to be an enemy is also a staple of the genre.
The programme is not without characteristic Avengers touches. In The Avengers' visual language, it presents an interesting contrast between the modern (the firm for which Tara's uncle works) & the apparently traditional (The Elizabethan Hotel). The fact that the rot has set in at the hotel makes this an Avengers where the enemy is posited as the Establishment gone bad. I see that that would probably chime better with the idea that this show is a send-up of The Prisoner, than the cosy golden age mystery approach I'm taking.
A further Avengers touch is tha apart from the relatively serious subject matter, this one is a lot of fun all the way. It is almost slapstick in the attempts to keep the 'prisoners' imprisoned, & in the prisoners' acts to bring down the facade of a regular hotel at the end.
Visually it's superb. The hotel set is spot on for the British cosy murder milieu. The set for Mother's office, with its cardboard cutouts of suspects, is so visually effective it will stay with the viewer long-term.
It is probably one of the highest accolades I personally can pay a TV programme that even with repeated viewings, at no point have I ever thought there was anything wrong with this. Of course you could pick holes in the plot if you wanted to, but it hangs together remarkably well. My only criticism would be the incredible number of Avengers regulars who can be distracting.
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Saturday, 13 September 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: A Change of Mind

Image credit: http://v4valentine.tripod.com/SPP/MA0102_Index.htm It's a Soviet propaganda poster about fearing enemies of the people.
I was astonished when I came to watch this episode again, to find I not only had no recollection of my blog post about it earlier this year, but I even had the impression it was the episode borrowed from the projected Series 2, where Number 6 becomes someone else in a job outside of the village. I'm intrigued that I focussed on the sheer pretence of everything that happens in the Village (http://culttvblog.blogspot.de/2014/01/the-prisoner-change-of-mind.html?m=1). I had already started this post with the lengthy quote below, not realising that I'd already used a shorter version of it in my previous post:
'A lot of The Prisoner is about the individual versus the collective. This episode was probably the most Orwellian. Prisoners can't just suffer their imprisonment. They cannot be depressed or in any other way unhappy. They must participate with the activities of the collective, smile and be content, socialize with others, and exercise in the Village gymnasium instead of alone in the woods. (This is starting to sound like high school.)
By refusing to be part of the Village community, our hero became "public enemy Number Six". He was shunned by the pod-people-like Villagers who marched about chanting "unmutual" and "disharmonious." He was bombarded with attempts by the "Appeals Subcommittee" to bully him into submission, and bashed with striped umbrellas. And finally, Six was subjected to "instant social conversion."
'The Committee, with their top hats and striped shirts, looked exactly like the Council in "Free For All." For that matter, the Village bullies who attacked Six were wearing the same type of striped shirt, but instead of black pants, they wore blue jeans (so you'd know they were bullies). Bystanders in the Village were wearing khaki pants with *their* striped shirts. Clones everywhere.
'Denunciation, re-education, and re-integration are something that have been with humans for a very long time (see: Inquisition, Spanish), but they took on whole new meaning in the 20th century with the rise of Communist states. This episode very much mirrored the kind of public conformity exercises typical of the Stalinist era show-trials (where one hoped very much merely to be placed in the Gulag for a few years).
'The thing was that "actually existing Communism" (to use the term of art) was defined by a lot of things, but one of the key ones was that it focused on the creation of a radiant future for which people as they are today were completely unsuitable. When Number Six is declared "unmutual," it means he isn't even trying to be suitable for that sort of future. His fellow citizens who confess and conform to both the letter and spirit of the thing aren't any more ready, but they are worthy to keep building it. In Stalin's day, many Russians released from the Gulag (despite incredible hardship, disease, and psychological torment) desperately wanted to rejoin the Communist party and demonstrate that they might still be ready to work for that future. It's this kind of thinking that allows weak people do some very hard and terrible things, and its fingerprints can be found at the sites of horrendous violence throughout the century.' (http://www.douxreviews.com/2012/06/prisoner-change-of-mind.html?m=1 I've missed out chunks of that post to get the bits I want)
One of the things I'm always banging on about in this blog is how different the world was in the time in which most of the series I talk about here, were made. Europe was firmly divided across the middle & it was relatively simple to decide who the 'others' were. I think the Communism reference is therefore the obvious Occam's razor-style reference for the allegory of this episode.
Given that I'd already referenced the above quote but managed to forget about it completely (perhaps 'they' have taken me by night & made me malleable - anyone who knows me in person would laugh hollowly at that) it therefore comes as a shock to me that I've actually already written about the allegory in this episode, although I wasn't focussing on it then in the way it is now. Yes, this episode is allegorical for the perennial subjects of paternalism, social engineering & peer pressure, but the most obvious allegory is of The Village representing a communist state, & functioning as a warning for us in the West of what could happen if our states became like the ones on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
A warning indeed: most of society's institutions are brought into play here. I commented before on the religious (or moral) overtones of this, of the extraction of confessions. The act of telling the Villagers what to confess & therefore how they have 'sinned' would reference for McGoohan the 'educated conscience' talked about in Scholastic Catholic theology. I talked also before about how The Village functions like a cult - in fact in my personal opinion the majority of even respectable mainstream religions can & do function like cults. The obvious example would be the obsessive secrecy with which Catholic clergy have cheerfully covered up the criminal acts of other clergy.
Nor is psychiatry neglected & this episode functions (in the heady anti-psychiatry milieu of the 1960s) as a terrible warning of what happens when medical psychiatry becomes a tool of social control. The council warns about Government & the way the rules of mutualism are applied warns about the Law.
A relatively simple allegory here, but nonetheless making this one of the more countercultural episodes.
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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: It's Your Funeral

Not a favourite of the fans, this one, although it is one of my own, except when it comes to trying to be creative about the allegory here! I keep trying to get away from the standard allegorical interpretation of The Prisoner, that The Village is an allegory for what is (or was in the 1960s) becoming of our world, particularly trying to escape into my own cherished theory that The Village is both Number 6's own creation & represents his dream of escape from the high-pressure world of his intelligence or espionage job.
This is also one of the Prisoner episodes which have been rather overtaken by technology, & their warning has become more frightening in the process. The activity prognosis on Number 6 represents an omniscient knowledge of all variants in The Village, to the extent that an unexpected variation can be predicted. This was of course decades before the advertisements on the internet were tailored to our individual shopping habits & everywhere we go online can be tracked. For example, the statistics of this blog will tell me how many hits a particular post has had & where the viewers of the blog come from. The US is always top, followed by the Ukraine for some reason (hello, there, do leave a comment if you wish). But I don't doubt that somebody somewhere has the details of which computers have been here, how often at what time. What The Prisoner warned about has actually come to pass.
There is another, probably more postmodern, approach to this episode that also makes it frightening. If you take The Village as either Number 6's creation (going with the theory that he was John Drake & invented a retirement village for dangerous people) or else that it is his dream of escape from his own world, this puts that blame for what happens in The Village fairly & squarely on Number 6's shoulders. This actually also fits well with the resolution that Number 1 is Number 6 himself, since it makes the series completely reflexive & about Number 6 himself. The Village *is* Number 6 & everything that happens there is his doing: a view which leaves Number 6 not looking very good.
This would actually explain Number 6's act of helping a Number 2. It is an internal conflict - whether in his creation or at a deeper level in Number 6's psyche - & after Number 6 is Number 1!
I both hugely agree & violently disagree with Howard Foy's appraisal of this episode:
'If Appreciation Day itself is nonsensical, so too is the assassination plot itself on which the whole structure of the story is based. Why should No.2 be so concerned - as has been suggested - to gain a public excuse to crack down on Village dissidents? Surely if the Village authorities want to be rid of irksome Villagers they can simply be eliminated? As prisoners, they are already as good as dead as far as the outside world is concerned. Even if they are too valuable to be killed off, couldn't they be transferred to a more conventional prison where such dissident activities would not be tolerated? Why hasn't the Village got its own prison where troublemakers could be incarcerated, perhaps in solitary confinement? It seems strange that a Village with all the appearance of a real-life community - shops, newspaper, town council, graveyard - should lack something so glaringly necessary as a police station with a few cells for people who break the "law". The inconsistencies of "It's Your Funeral" can largely be attributed to the fact that writer Cramoy was given either too much licence, or not enough information, when creating his image of the Village. Nevertheless, it is interesting to speculate on where he got the idea for Appreciation Day, the ceremonial transfer of power between Village leaders, and the assassination plot with which it is inextricably linked.' (http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/article4.htm)
I agree enormously, because of course it is nonsensical. On the other hand nonsensical acts are the bread & butter of totalitarian society (for a slightly later parallel, there is footage of a Pioneers' Day ceremony in Rhodesia in the 1970s on Youtube). Once nonsense is presented as sense, it takes a brave Number to be the one to admit it is nonsensical. Allegorically this can be a warning about society or even a psychological failing in Number 6. I also like Foy's parallels between this episode & the kind of ritual killing of kings described by James Frazer.
There is a further layer of meaning in almost a return to the death-rebirth motif of Dance of the Dead, except that here The Village is the source of death rather than life. So it's closer to the 'I am your world' spoken by Number 2 in that episode.
So all in all a multi-layered episode, which may simply lend itself best to the traditional allegorical meaning, but nonetheless is capable of being explored in different ways.
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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Baron: First Impressions

I was becoming worried recently that this blog had far too much Doctor Who, & thus was becoming too much like many another UK TV blog. But, fickle soul that I am, I've made up for that by my more recent rash of ITC viewing, & The Baron is the latest ITC series that I've never seen before but now have a box set of. In my real/unreal television dichotomy, this is aimed more or less at the real side, featuring an antiques dealer gentleman adventurer, actually, in true ITC style, played by an American. It also has a symbiotic relationship with The Saint (explored at length, & contrasts drawn, at http://doubleosection.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/dvd-review-baron-complete-series.html?m=1).
It's interesting coming to this straight from later shows like Jason King & Hazell, to see how sheerly dated it feels. It was made around the time that Mrs Peel was kicking her way through The Avengers - this reference is also a way in to mention that the street scenes of London therefore look more Avengers upper class, than the gritty council flats of Hazell.
I'm particularly endeared by Mannering's...way with women. Every time he chats up a woman it is so cringemakingly embarrassing by today's standards that it is hilarious. And this can be as simple as telling an airline hostess, who has got rid of an antiques groupie for him, that he would like to show her his gratitude over dinner. She replies, 'Your place or mine?' I mean, this is just unreal! What's also rather unreal, in a less positive way, is his profession as an antiques dealer who is taken on by British intelligence. The first episode shows a ridiculously sophisticated surveillance system in both his home & his shop, which nonetheless fails to prevent a burglary. The gadgetry places this series firmly in the spy-fi genre of the time.
I don't object to Colin Gordon's casting as the archetypal British pin-stripes spymaster, since this role suits him so well. He is the only familiar (to me) face I've identified so far, so it may be that this series isn't plagued by the repetitious casting of some other series.
The show feels to me made with much more of an eye to the American market than here - it looks more like the later series of The Man From UNCLE, than most ITC series. It's interesting, again, to compare it with later series - it moves faster than either Hazell or Jason King, or probably many a British TV series of a good decade later. I'm guessing that this was to conform with American broadcasting of the time, but stand to be corrected.
The plots are - so far - more standard espionage stories of the Cold War era, with none of the bizarreness of some ITC series. It makes a rather porridge & champagne contrast after watching Department S & Jason King recently!
My conclusion so far on The Baron is that several episodes in I haven't found anything to object to, so it must be OK. I like the jet-setting, gadgets, sixties milieu & sophistication elements in particular.
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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Hammer into Anvil

I was wondering how on earth I was going to get a convincing allegorical meaning out of this episode. I was making the mistake of thinking that the plot could be summarised as 'Number 6 sends Number 2 off his head. The End,' & thought that the only allegory I would be able to find was the 'messages' that Number 6 gives to Number 2 - blank paper, false message, cuckoo clock.
Then it struck me that the allegorical point of this episode can be found in what does not happen. Wikipedia characterises this episode as one of the few where Number 6 doesn't make an escape attempt & the authorities don't really try to get any information out of him. I realise that I haven't really been accepting that view & so have missed its significance.
In fact this realisation has made me recall my own pet theory that The Village is allegorical for Number 6's own fantasy escape from his everyday life. His actions in this episode are therefore allegorical for self-sabotaging behaviour, the resistance & sabotage of authority & even possibly 'daddy issues' - or perhaps 'mummy issues' if the successful attempt to get rid of the father figure is seen as akin to an Oedipus complex. Mother in this view would be the Village itself as his fantasy lover. Seen like this this episode is well in the countercultural vein of The Prisoner, & one of the ones with the heaviest, yet so subtle, psychological depth.
Right from the start the issues around sexual relationships & fidelity are reinforced in Number 2's taunting of Number 73 with her husband's supposed infidelity. Her first suicide attempt & subsequent successful one are allegorical of a divided psyche: the fight with father is started when Number 6 tells Number 2 he will pay for Number 73's suicide.
The fight with the roughs abducting Number 6 can be interpreting as defiance of the father figure's authority & position. The mention of sadism & Number 2's threatening of Number 6 with the sword blade develops the existing competitive dynamic while giving it a more kinky edge: from here on, this episode is capable of interpretation in incredibly sado-masochistic terms.
Yet I have some other questions about this that are usually raised for me by the later episodes of Danger Man. Number 2's breaking point - the fact that he will not brook interference or help - is plainly apparent in the scene with the sword. The additional fact that Number 6 breaks him with some very simple techniques to plant doubt - which frankly in a totalitarian regime like The Village should be easily dealt with - indicates that The Village authorities have put in a man who isn't up to the job. It's not really the point in this post that's supposed to focus on allegory, but surely the authorities should have rooted out this Number 2 as vulnerable to the type of simple psychological tricks played on him here.
The other usual allegorical approach to The Prisoner, of course, is that The Village represents society. This episode in that reading shows what one man can do if he puts his mind to upsetting the order of society. I've been tending to avoid this interpretation in this series of posts, since that's the allegory that always appears & I want to think about the series in a new way, but I think that may be the best allegorical approach for this episode.
So in conclusion, an episode that is as usual understandable in several different ways, even possibly as not presenting allegory at all, but which has unfortunately remained obdurate to my attempts to rethink its allegory.
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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Hazell: First Impressions

Yesterday I found in the Entertainment Exchange in Leamington Spa that someone with a wonderfully vintage taste in TV had obviously been forced to buy the DVDs, ripped them to a hard drive & then sold the discs on. Naughty! And also, to my mind, unwise - you can't have things backed up in too many places in my opinion. That was how I got the Jason King box set, also The Barron, that I have never seen, & the first series of a show I have never heard of, Hazell. I did turn up a box set of The Saint (because I have some single discs & haven't liked it half as much on coming back to it as I did as a child) & also a box set of Paul Temple in colour.
I suppose in reality the TV series I write about here can be divided into two genres: the real (Public Eye, Callan, The Professionals) & the unreal (The Avengers, Department S, The Prisoner, in fact the majority of the series I watch). In this dichotomy Hazell definitely fits into the Real category. It has the grittiness, without the bleakness, of Public Eye. It has all the sentimentality of Callan. Yet being the seventies it has the sex of Minder with the dress sense of Bergerac.
'James Hazell first appeared in the 1974 novel Hazell Plays Solomon, introducing himself as "The biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell-button." He was the creation of novelist and sports writer Gordon Williams and footballer-turned-manager Terry Venables, using the joint pseudonym 'P.B. Yuill'. In transferring his adventures to the small screen, producer June Roberts presented Hazell as a slightly tarnished East End version of Raymond Chandler's immortal detective Philip Marlowe.
'The series struggled at first to find the right balance of humour, action and 1940s pastiche, getting through three story editors before hitting its stride under experienced comedy and thriller writer Richard Harris. The original authors also had quite a lot of input, although Venables' involvement was curtailed when he became manager of Crystal Palace. Each episode features humorous voice-over narration in classic private eye fashion, while visually providing a 1970s equivalent to the distinctive film noir look of 1940s Hollywood thrillers. Beating out John Nettles for the title role, Nicholas Ball plays Hazell as a rueful but charming cockney lad who successfully picked himself up after being kicked off the police force (for turning to drink when his marriage broke up).
'Although perhaps a bit too young to suggest the slightly jaded world-weariness of the character in the books, Ball's humorous yet tough portrayal ensured that he was more than able to hold his own against a large cast of supporting characters, especially when facing the perpetually unimpressed Inspector 'Choc' Minty (Roddy MacMillan). Showcasing early performances by Michael Elphick and Pamela Stephenson (Nicholas Ball's wife at the time), the series is also remembered for Hazell's office landlady and occasional employer Dot Wilmington (Barbara Young), one of the first regular gay characters in British series television.' (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/975974/)
I am quite chuffed that it reminded me of Minder:
'Another of the later episodes was written by Leon Griffiths, who developed on the series' mixture of black humour, cockney charm and delinquency when devising Minder (1979-94), the hugely successful series that eventually replaced Hazell in the ITV schedules.' (Ibid)
I remember Minder but don't remember Hazell, so I miss out on some of the nostalgia that is a feature of this series for many of the reviewers on Amazon. I think my parents were probably too old to try to be too fashionable in the seventies, so the interiors are almost a caricature of the seventies to me. The exteriors - underpasses, concrete, & gritty streets, are probably a fair reflection of 1970s London, since they're certainly that of the Midlands in the 1970s. Everyone smokes, apart from anything else.
There is another way in which Hazell screams 1970s - the characters are almost caricatures. Hazell is *so* Cockney - the Glaswegian in the episode I'm watching now is *so* Glaswegian! The pacing of the show is exactly what you'd expect for the era - significantly slower than you'd expect today. It feels almost as if the actual plots are padded out with superfluous conversation, yet it is strangely easy to miss key events. This is not intended to be a criticism, it is merely a description. The visuals are also very seventies - this is something I don't like, because the look of the show is too grey for my liking, which can obviously tend to lack interest. The plots are standard gritty private eye-type plots of the seventies, perhaps more Sweeney or Minder than Professionals or Public Eye.
As a version, or perhaps pastiche, of Marlowe, it fails dramatically, unfortunately. Nicholas Ball is too young, it's too 1970s, he isn't hard-bitten enough. Perhaps it's best watched purely as a predecessor to Minder.
One other thing interests me - the amount of time Ball spends in each episode bare-chested, in swimwear, or even naked. I don't object - I'm a bit of a bare-chester myself - but I find it interesting in a show of this age that the flesh on display is entirely male. At least that's on the basis of what I've seen so far - some breasts have been shown, but they were on a pin-up, & while Hazell gets lots of sex, the women remain totally covered up. I wonder what this would have meant in the 1970s - I suspect nothing, if this was aimed at a heterosexual male audience, & presuming that the sexualisation of the male chest was really cemented with Marky Mark in the 1990s. A non-sexual meaning for this would be confirmed for me by the fact that Ball isn't one of those hairy medallion-wearing types (think Jason King) who epitomised male sexiness in the 1970s. On the other hand, the nudity & sexiness may have been intended to portray grittiness.
All in all, I quite like Hazell if it is approached as a 1970s drama, with everything that you'd expect. If you approach it as a modernisation of Chandler's stories I think you'd probably be disappointed.
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Saturday, 30 August 2014

Jason King: Second Impressions

Apologies for the recent hiatus on posts here: I have been, & remain, unwell, so have not been able to get my head round my usual acid interpretation of a defenceless TV programme. My recent watching of Department S, & conclusion that it had hidden depths, left me wanting more, so today I bought the box set of Jason King, its follow-on. In vain will you seek my first impressions of the series on this blog: they happened some time ago with an odd disc & I was not impressed, but I thought I'd give it another go.
'The series featured the further adventures of the title character who had first appeared in Department S (1969). In that series he was a dilettante dandy and author working as part of a team of investigators. In Jason King he had left that service and was concentrating on writing adventure novels following the adventures of the fictional Mark Caine, [which the Jason King character was also writing about in Department S] who closely resembled Jason King in looks, manner, style, and personality. None of the other regular characters from Department S appeared in this series.
'In the course of visiting international locations as part of his research, or through being summoned by people needing assistance, King would be frequently embroiled in adventure stories featuring glamorous women, exotic locations (for the era), menacing villains, political turmoil, or espionage intrigue.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_King_(TV_series) - the Wikipedia page also recounts the surprising cultural legacy that this relatively recherche TV series has left)
In fact, reading about Jason King has made me gain an even greater respect for Department S, since Jason King carries on the identification of King with his fictional creation, to the extent that it isn't always clear who is who:
'The show is cleverly postmodern, both in its allusions to other novels and films and in its self-referentiality. King, the author of Mark Caine novels, is often confused with his fictional creation: this is an ongoing aspect of the series. In the episode entitled 'Nadine', Nadine tells King that 'You change, Mark Caine has completely taken over […] The fantasy world becomes more real than the real one'; King's response is to assert that 'It's only because the real world is much more improbable, much more like fiction'. Likewise, in 'Flamingoes Only Fly on Tuesdays' the character of Pelli (Hugh McDermott) asserts that 'The worlds of Marc Caine and Jason King are extremely close together. I think you would run guns just to get the feel of them'. This aspect of the character of Jason King is usually taken as a direct nod towards Ian Fleming (see Chapman, 2002: 192), who some biographers tell us shared a similarly ambiguous relationship with his chief fictional creation, the character of James Bond (see Pearson, 2003; Cabell, 2008; MacIntyre, 2008).' (http://www.dvdcompare.net/review.php?rid=541 - this review also talks about the particular spy films parodied in Jason King: I'm probably not familiar enough with the spy genre myself to avoid missing references)
My impression is that you either love Jason King or you definitely don't. You think the man himself is worth the show - I have even read a review that says his moustache alone makes the show worth watching - or he'll irritate the hell out of you. You either think the flamboyant King needed the foil of the normal people in Department S & is too much on his own, or you don't. You either think this is wonderful seventies nostalgia TV (well, this isn't that bad a reason for watching a TV series), or you think it a waste of the 16mm film it was filmed on for economy.
My own second thoughts are more positive than my first - I really didn't take to this show the first time I saw it. So, perhaps it's best to address the common objections in order. Jason King is a very seventies-bound series: there is simply no escaping this, & if you find the taste of the 1970s nauseating, you will not like this show. Seventies style takes me back effortlessly to my childhood so I personally don't have a problem with that. What many people will find more difficult is King's attitude to women, again very much of its time. The series feels to me most like The Saint - perhaps in terms of exotic locales, luxury hotels & expensive cars. Jason King is definitely one of the series that would have been escapist viewing for a working-class populace.
Finally, it seems to me that Jason King has found his milieu in this show. I disagree with the criticism that he needs the foil of normal people in Department S: I feel that background made him stand out as more odd, but in Jason King, the fact that everything is camped up a bit makes him appear more normal.
Production values are of the time, of course. I don't object to the 16mm film, but the stock footage is rather obviously showing its age over the studio footage. If you're looking for detective plots this is probably not the show - it is plainly intended as a vehicle for Jason King himself.
So all in all, a pleasant surprise to come back to Jason King & find I like it more than I thought!
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