Wednesday, 25 March 2020

The Avengers: Man-Eater of Surrey Green

In theory I am working from home but surprisingly can't get on to remote working and have done nothing for two days. I have additionally been offered another job, and since my manager couldn't be bothered to acknowledge my notice or speak to me, I am not minded to be helpful! The perfect opportunity to write a blog post.
I don't know why I have never noticed that this Avengers is one of those which spoof a whole genre of film, in this case the dangerous plants theme which is a sub set of 1950s creature features. It is suitable for the Avengers  which so frequently refers to the 1960s love and fear of science, which at the same time was mirrored by a love and fear of nature.
One of the things I find interesting about this is that in theory the action leaves Avengersland completely, going as far as Denbigh, which is in Wales. There are also other distances involved, by means of rockets and what have you. There is therefore a sense in which this show is an exception to the normally constrained world of the Avengers.
Unfortunately this far-ranging ambition doesn't pay off as far as the plot is concerned. My advice would be not to watch this too critically, as is often the case with The Avengers, but to sit back and enjoy it. When it is watched like that it holds together, but if you subject the plot to too much scrutiny it rather falls apart. I have read that many or all of the scientific references and names of plants are fictional or just plain wrong, which of course would be annoying for specialists.
What did they think they were doing? I cannot believe the Avengers was only aimed at people with no knowledge of the science mentioned at all, but I also don't want to make out there was a slapdash failure to check facts. I am going to take the view (on no evidence at all) that the fictional science and nonexistent facts were deliberate, and therefore can only have been intended to give the knowledgeable the message that this isn't real, which is well in line with the approach taken from series 4 on. It is easy to find other examples of unreal nations, people, events in the series, and the Avengers deals in broad brush strokes and stereotypes rather than facts.
As always, writing these blog posts teaches me things and apparently this Avengers is strikingly like the Dr Who adventure The Seeds of Doom, which was also written by Robert Banks Stewart, in a hurry as a replacement script.
Apparently there is some dispute amongst the fans as to whether Steed puts poison on Mrs Peel so that it's taken up by the plant, or whether he poisons the plant. Obviously he's poisoning the plant directly!
So to summarise: not one which takes too much scrutiny, but does have many of the recurrent themes of the time.
My favourite moment: Steed revealing the cactus hidden under the blanket in his car.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Avengersland: The Wrestling Parson

I am accustomed to saying that the world depicted in The Avengers is not real. Until now. British Pathé did a series of films on eccentric vicars and this one (from 1963) is straight out of The Avengers. Many a clergyman must have been involved in wrestling or boxing, but working in Canada  buying a horse from 'the gypsies' and giving the horse beer to drink take it to the next level. And that wrestling match in the open surely wasn't set up for the camera was it?

Monday, 2 March 2020

Minder: Gunfight at the OK Laundrette

How have I managed not to pass comment on Minder up to now? Despite being a series which IMHO went on too long, I love the gritty depiction of 1970s London in the early episodes. This is the same world shown in The Professionals and The Sweeney, just seen from the underside.
This episode is based on real events  of the Spaghetti House Siege in 1975, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Minder script. Three black men attempted to steal the week's takings from an Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge, but wound up taking the staff hostage. Surveillance techniques were used by the police, the hostage takers made rather confused attempts to pass the robbery off as a political act, the press nobly agreed to help the police manipulate what was happening by their headlines, and one of the hostages developed what later became known as Stockholm Syndrome. 
The episode also deals with another issue of the time, namely immigration, by cleverly juxtaposing the concerns of Italian immigrants, who are bothered that their children no longer identify as Italian and can barely speak the language, with the concerns of black criminals who try to pass off their theft as a political act. The Spaghetti House robbers demanded a plane to Jamaica despite the guy who wanted it actually being from Nigeria.
My frank thought about this is what a horrendous life it is being a 'minder' - or rather general odd job man, usually for jobs which require some intimidation or muscle. Minding the owner of the launderette as he gets the money out of the machines being a case in point. It is striking that nobody in this is exactly prosperous (I don't think stripping brings in that much money), but despite that the characters are not miserable and Minder avoids the bleak despair characteristic of so much seventies TV. 
If I have a criticism it is that it feels a bit claustrophobic and drawn out once the siege starts, but of course that's the point. Of course we all know that the siege has to end OK for the protagonist and I suppose that is one of the things which makes TV comforting rather than traumatic. 
Perhaps I had better end with the disclosure that I have a bit of a thing about launderettes, I find them absolutely fascinating and apparently the one featured in this show is still there if anyone wants to visit. 

Monday, 24 February 2020

Randall and Hopkirk Deceased (2000 Version): A Man of Substance

I never thought I would ever be blogging about this show here. The original series is one of my favourites and I thought this one had everything I dislike: I loathe remakes and thought this was one. But then I read a blog post by Grant Goggins about a different episode (here) in which he says,
I’m afraid the previous three episodes were really uneven, but Randall & Hopkirk went out on a high note written by Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson as a very cute tribute to The Avengers. It’s “Death at Bargain Prices” crossed with “The House That Jack Built” as Jeff and Jeannie are trapped in an escape-proof department store full of lethal traps. And just to add to the tips of the bowler, they brought along some mannequins that evoke the Autons from Doctor Who and dressed one of them like Steed.
... And of course I was smitten. This series manages to play tribute to just about every classic TV series and film ever made, including often focusing on the unreal Britain of The Avengers.
That is particularly apparent in this episode, which is a bit of a tribute to The Town of No Return, with nods to The Wicker Man and endless horror films. This page does a better job of identifying cultural references than I would.
I would however comment that this episode is firmly in the genre of literature portraying villages as not quite what they seem. This can include various murder mysteries and much folklore including folk horror. The fact that the residents are ruthlessly organic and middle class adds to the awfulness. As a town person myself I don't feel frightened of city living in the slightest, but the thought of the country fills me with horror.
I can quite see why this is not a favourite of the fans - if you are inclined to you can see the ending of this episode as a weakness, since it is frankly extraordinary. Mary's behaviour doesn't come across as good, but of course it all ends alright. Personally I think a series finale when one of your leading characters is dead, would have to include the dead antics of some power crazed nutters intent on world domination. And how Avengers is that?

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Monty Python: The War Against Pornography

For some strange reason I have managed to blog about TV for this long and not once blogged about Monty Python and this is an omission which requires immediate correction.
I have commented recently on the energy and youthfulness of TV comedy before everyone became very cynical in Thatcher's Britain, and of course Monty Python is no exception. The Pythons seemingly took whatever came to mind and made it hilarious. Their humour was not without relevance to the events of the day and the war against pornography referenced here was of course a real war being waged at the time: regular readers will have noticed how often Mary Whitehouse is referenced on this blog. If you want the other side of that story I would recommend the film about Mary Millington which I have recently watched with much enjoyment.
The other thing the Pythons bring home is how the world has changed in the intervening decades. Part of this episode mentions Britain and trade with other nations, and of course the seventies were a hopeful time of European common living. We have of course left Europe and the government is putting out ads about how we will now build relationships with Europe. This must make sense in someone's head but it certainly doesn't in mine, when we had agreement with Europe! If push comes to shove members of my profession can immigrate to Ireland, so all is not lost.
I have a feeling that Gumbys were among the Leave voters. The reason I picked this episode was because I love the Gumby brain surgery! Of course the point is that nobody would think they were a Gumby themselves... Although we've all met a few!
It is more evident to classic TV viewers like us than most people but the Pythons are of course making heavy references to the TV of the time, which makes Monty Python very reflexive and really quite postmodern before its time. IMDB tells me that it directly references Dr Kildare and Match of the Day, but I feel there are also references to documentary and nature shows which I'm not in a position to name.
Sit back and enjoy this show - to criticise Monty Python would be churlish. Oh - I like shows referencing the war against porn - as a prolific consumer of porn myself I like to think Mrs Whitehouse would disapprove.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Dr Who: Terror of the Autons

High time we had some more Who. This one features Jon Pertwee with the Master, of course one of the Doctor's greatest enemies.
The premise of this one is relatively simple, but tends to become complicated when it is explained. The Master gains access to Nestene intelligence which allows anything plastic to become dangerous. It's really as simple as that. You can get as sci fi about as you like.
But of course that is not how I would approach it - the premise of dangerous plastics allows endless japes, like murderous toys, deadly flowers and chairs which eat people. Oh, and plastic police officers. You can approach this one as horrifying if you want - in fact it was given in Parliament as an example of how children's television had become scary - but watched as an adult, it is a jolly romp.

This Who calls in a feature of the TV of the sixties which I bang on about here - the ambivalence about the bright new scientific future which was otherwise all the rage at the time. Two points about this are made in the special features of the disc - that again this was horrifying because it made something dangerous which is found in every home, and that there was a fear this storyline would clash with Doomwatch's line about plastic deteriorating. It is commented that this fear was ungrounded because Doomwatch was completely serious, so perhaps I am not too far off in my approach to this show.
Blue screen filming is used extensively here, both to allow the effects but also for many scenes to give a backdrop. Of course it was the technology of the time, and can look very old fashioned. Otherwise the adventure is paced perfectly and four was the perfect number of episodes.
Can anyone reading this not have seen this? But if you haven't, do run away and watch it.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Billy Liar

This was very nearly a post about Tales From Fat Tulip's Garden, which is a delight and which I remember the first time round, although I was probably older than its intended audience. Tony Robinson (Baldrick), dissatisfied with the quality of story telling around at the time for his own young children, tells stories in a gorgeous listed house and garden. You can read about this show at the Curious British Telly blog here and here and about the sad story of the house here. I would recommend the show to children of any age.
Also in my current viewing heap is the TV series Billy Liar, which I have seen before and for some reason didn't take to. On revisiting it I have come to the conclusion that this show is also a delight. The Billy Liar meme lasted for a good couple of decades after the initial novel, about a terminally dreamy young man came out and encompassed film, play, sequel and this TV series. The idea is very simple, Billy Fisher leads a humdrum life still living at home and working as an assistant to an undertaker. His day dreams enliven his boring days and what makes it so good is that we get to see his dreams which often incorporate his family and employer in various fantastic scenarios. What makes this good TV is that we see all of these fantasies acted out, sometimes with the characters in very uncharacteristic roles, and this show must have stretched LWT's wardrobe to its limit!
In a change to my normal policy I do like that the actors in this show are virtually all familiar faces, because we get to see them in unusual roles. I particularly like May Warden as the sex-obsessed grandmother.
The series is set in that ethereal place I have mentioned here before, t'north, which as we all know is a symbol of poverty, lack of ambition, and gritty, kitchen-sink drama. All the better then that this show transforms its location into a place of dreams. We are also lucky that it was happily unable to escape from the early seventies and that the hair, the clothes and the decor are all of the period and marvellously reminiscent of the period for those who remember it.
The illustration is what happened in Billy's fantasy world after his father said, 'I' ll eat my hat'.