Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Avengers: Small Game for Big Hunters

The maid has the dinner on, all is quiet outside in the compound and I am thinking of having a sundowner so it's time to think about a blog post.
What has prompted me to write a post about Small Game for Big Hunters is that I think it gets an unfair hammering on the internet. It seems to me that the key to understand where this Avengers is coming from is to think ourselves not only into the world of the Avengers, but also into the time that this episode was happening. The world of The Avengers is of course the epitome of Britishness - and I will be the first to acknowledge that it is a Britishness which never really existed. Remember how many of the episodes are about Our Sort of People who have gone bad and bought into some diabolical mastermindery? The point is that The Avengers save Blighty and the empire goes on undisturbed for another day.
And that is the point of this episode: it is important to remember that this episode was being filmed at the absolute dying end of the empire. It was an empire which we were proud of, but that the majority of the viewers of this show would never have experienced at first hand. It was in the 1960s that the last remnants of the Empire gained independence as autonomous nations, and if you listen to what is actually being said in this episode, that perception of loss is ever-present.
In true Avengers style, this episode also brings to the fore the fact that the outposts of Empire are not only open to corruption by deceit, but were also open to being used by men who were definitely Not Our Sort of Person. This is an interesting fictional counterpart to the things we British did to the Kikuyu in Kenya and the way South Rhodesia really did go its own way as Rhodesia under Ian Smith a decade later, supported only by the apartheid government in South Africa. This episode really does pick up on the way things often went to pot in the colonies.
And yet... this episode is very much criticised for the fact that Kalaya is not a real place. Not only is it not a real place, but it is depicted as a sort of generic 'colony'. Even the natives are of several different ethnicities from different parts of the world! This is of course a valid criticism of the show's production, however I feel that since we are in Avengerland it should be viewed more sympathetically. As we know one of the points of the world of The Avengers is that it isn't real. There is a rule in the show that black people are never seen, and neither is blood: reality isn't really allowed a foot in the door here. Hence, when a simulacrum of a former colony is set up just outside London, the unreality has to be really loud-pedalled. The depiction of Kalaya is therefore interesting as a digest of every idea of what 'the colonies' were like in every jingoistic schoolbook ever. The 'native drums' which are criticised as grating after a while, are of course part of this set up. There is a twist here - the apparent 'superstition' of the Kalayan people is used by the white people who are the baddies, to cover up their planned crime: this at the same time that Kalaya has gained independence and thus entered the 1960s, including throwing out its colonial masters. The whole 'colonial' edifice hides the fact that the baddies in this one are white people: and how Avengers can that be?
There is a thoroughly modern message here, which subverts the usual pattern of an Avengers. While the thoroughly British gentleman saves the day, the reality is that the world has changed and there is no longer a colony to save. This is without any of the usual ambivalence that goes along with modernity in The Avengers and much of the other TV of the 1960s. Of course there is also a postmodern message in the wish to retire to Hertfordshire, which for the purposes of this episode is exactly where 'Kalaya' is!
These are the reasons that I think this episode is criticised unfairly. It is really best seen as a relic of the age of African independence and serves as an interesting reminder that the uber-Britishness for which The Avengers is famed, is actually set against a backdrop of change for Britain.
Frankly I suspect that this is an Avengers the viewer will either love or loathe, and I love it myself. I can't even see the problems with the plot, whcih I think (without checking) I have seen described as 'incoherent'. Perhaps it's just me, but I would definitely call this Avengers Our Sort of Television.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Avengers: Return to Castle De'Ath

This is probably one of the posts which it has given me most pleasure to post here. In fact I'm absolutely delighted to be writing this post, for the simple reason that I feel as if I have done Big Finish Productions a disservice here and am delighted to have the opportunity to make it up.
One of the things I find myself repeatedly musing about here is the likelihood that the cult TV I like so much will one day turn into a static 'canon' because there will be no more shows to be discovered. My own rather dogmatic opinion is that it is possible further Doctor Who serials will be discovered while it is unlikely that missing Avengers shows will be discovered, and I am delighted to find that I have, in a way, been proved wrong. It turns out that a comic strip of Avengers adventures - with stories not based on broadcast TV episodes - was published in Diana Magazine in 1966 and 1967.
Getting excited yet?
I certainly got very interested when I found out that that was the case, and that these adventures have been republished in book form and, even better, turned into audio adventures by Big Finish Productions, under the title of 'The Avengers - Steed and Mrs Peel - The Comic Strip Adventures'. They are naturally available for download on the Big Finish website and in two volumes of CDs if you want to be old-fashioned.
What made me very interested indeed is that these adventures genuinely date from the time that the original Avengers series were being broadcast. In my humble opinion they are therefore very likely indeed to pick up on the zeitgeist of the time which originally gave birth to the later series of The Avengers. My fear with Avengers adventures written subsequently, and indeed much of the fan fiction, is that they either caricature the 1960s or introduce elements to may main alien to the series, such as that Steed and Mrs Peel are in a relationship. And indeed these adventures are incredibly true to the originals, because they comes from that time. I am focussing on Return to Castle De'Ath in this post because it is the only one I have listened to so far and in fact I am listening to it again as I write this post. I can say without hesitation that Return to Castle De'Ath is an authentic 1960s Avengers adventure, picking up on key elements in the original series. Eccentrics galore - check. A foreign prince - check. An isolated setting which allows for a closed environment so that an Avengers twist can be put on a cosy Miss MArple - check. Glittering dialogue - check. Action scenes - check. I literally cannot criticise Return to Castle De'Ath at all.
This is largely what gives me the most pleasure in writing this blog post, because I'm afraid I did a bit of a hatchet job on the Big Finish reconstructions of the Series 1 adventures when I posted about them. My opinion of what went wrong there remains - that Big Finish have essentially recorded television scripts intended to have visuals which makes them incredibly difficult to follow. My suggestion about them was that the scripts should have been rewritten to introduce a narrator (rather like the South African Avengers radio plays). I am delighted to say that in this dramatisation of a comic strip is done in such a way that you don't need a narrator. Sound effects, the script, different accents, are all used to create a picture in the listener's head. I see that Return to Castle De'Ath is written by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, as is The Miser, while the other two are by other writers. Paul Magrs is familiar to me as the writer of a wonderful series of spectacularly eccentric books set in Whitby, but I don't know the writer of the final series in Volume 1, John Dorney at all. I would therefore caution the reader to remember that my laudatory comments only apply to Return to Castle De'Ath at this point.
I only have one little criticism, which is one that is carried over from the Big Finish productions of the series 1 Avengers episodes: the theme music lets it down by sounding like it was done on a cheap synthesizer. I will repeat what I said then: the theme music should be played by proper instruments and I don't believe it can work out that expensive to hire music students to play it - or even very expensive at Equity rates.
It is not something that is a criticism for me personally - but I'm aware that there is naturally a great attachment to Patrick Macnee as John Steed. If you are someone who feels like that you may have difficulty with these dramatisations. My personal opinion is that Julian Wadham is perfect as Steed, and in fact as he has been talking I have found myself visualising Steed in the original Castle De'Ath. Olivia Poulet is also excellent as Mrs Peel - I like that she sounds rather younger than Diana Rigg in the role (I am guessing that this is at least partly related to Diana Rigg's well-known smoking and I'm also guessing that Olivia Poulet doesn't smoke, at least going by the picture on the box). Other people who can only see Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel will again have a great difficulty with these dramatisations.
What this has made me realise is the sheer difficulty of what Big Finish have taken on, in continuing a series where the fans have such an attachment to the stars. Even with Doctor Who they don't have such a hard job, because one of the hallmarks of Doctor Who is that the lead actor changes periodically. The only other of their series which I'm familiar with is their productions of Sapphire and Steel, where again having a different male actor didn't bother me, but I have such an attachment to Joanna Lumley's vowels that I did miss her!
Otherwise, Return to Castle De'Ath is a perfect reconstruction of a 1960s Avengers adventure, because in truth that is what it is. It is really very good indeed, and I don't often say that, especially about Avengers stories!

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Gunfighters

I'd better start by saying that I wouldn't be writing about this Doctor Who adventure if it didn't come in the Earth Story duo set with The Awakening, which I had to buy as it is the only way to get The Awakening, which I fancied. There's nothing wrong as such with The Gunfighters, but I wouldn't have bought it because I don't tend to get on with period dramas. You may say that that is ridiculous when I'm writing about a TV show based on the ability to go to all sorts of times, and of course it is ridiculous, but I am just declaring a pre-existing bias.
This adventure is of course set in a very specific time, in the Wild West around the time of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, which would of course date it to the end of October 1881. I am rather ambivalent about this setting - although I note that it was at this time that Verity Lambert and others of the original team left Doctor Who and it consciously took a rather different direction. For the purpose of my scribblings here, my comment would have to be that gone is the original didactic and worthy tone of Doctor Who. Apart from the way this one would make the kids go to school and look up the history in the books the next day, The Gunfighters feels a lot more as if it is purely for pleasure.
On the positive side this is a gift of a setting for a Doctor Who, because of course there is a natural confusion between The Doctor and Doc Holliday (strangely I can find no mention of this on the wikipedia page about the gunfight. It also provides a 'real' setting for an adventure, showing how Doctor Who can actually break into real time, and of course this adventure is a far cry from some of the more fantastic ones featuring aliens and all sorts of odd thing. This Who is based on notionally historical events.
And that is where it rather goes horribly wrong for me. I wouldn't necessarily go to the stake for this opinion, but the whole point of Doctor Who is that he is not human, that he deals in worlds we can have no cognisance of at all, and deals in matters of life and death for universes. The great shortcoming of this Who for me is that his reason for being there at the OK Corral is as pedestrian as a toothache. Apart from the fact of Doctor Who and companions being from different times, they could be purely extra characters in a Western story, and nothing happens that is not in conformity with normal Earthly physics. Doctor Who even ends up carrying an Earth gun. Do Time Lords actually have to have teeth taken out? Somehow I doubt it, and the scene where he is asking the dentist for anaesthetic is just plain wrong: surely he would know that at the literal frontiers of human life medicine is often reduced to the bare necessities.
Despite my dislike for period dramas I am not overly irritated by the Western milieu of this show. I would just say that I think Britons in the twenty-first century are more used to hearing genuine American accents than we were in 1966, and as a result I think the accents can seem somewhat over-done, but that is not great fault. Similarly the Western characters can seem rather over-acted, but I suspect this is building on the almost caricature features of the Western genre. The special features on this disc refer to the fact (which you can read about elsewhere) that William Hartnell was nearing the end of his life at this point. His powers were failing, he was irritable and having more and more difficulty remembering his part. That said, he stands out head and shoulders from the other actors, and when he appears it is very evident that here is a great actor. Until his appearances the show is a standard Western, essentially, but Hartnell makes you sit up and pay attention.
Production values are very much what you would expect of 1966-vintage Doctor Who. The picture quality is very good for the era: it lacks some clarity but nothing you would not expect, and the sound track is absolutely fine. The story moves at a comfortable pace and the number of episodes is just right. I think that if it were not for my distaste for the lack of weirdness, this Doctor Who adventure would be among my absolute favourites. If you buy the DVD ( and if this is your bag I see that this adventure is available separately from The Awakening, although not the other way round) it has special features galore including a feature about the changes in the show at this time, on which I have been heavily dependent for some of the facts I have referenced here.
Despite my reservations about the terrestrial setting and atypical Doctor Who plot, if you want to see an early Doctor Who adventure while the show was at a turning point, or even if you like a Western, then this is the show for you. It also marks the point from which Doctor Who took a more exclusively science-fiction approach.

Seventies TV: Whodunnit

I genuinely thought I had already blogged about this already, but am unable to find it. I suspect I may have written a piece about this show and it vanished when I had a netbook die some time ago. Anyway, Whodunnit is a show which I can't resist writing about - as usual for all the wrong reasons!
By all means, watch this show the way it was intended to be watched, if that is what floats your boat - as an exercise in deduction, expanded into a full programme by a panel's deductions and audience participation. The formula is very simple, yet surprisingly effective: the show begins with a film showing the actual death. The panel and members of the audience who have also been selected to deduct who did the murder, are introduced. The events surrounding the murder are elaborated in another film. The celebrity panel members get to ask to see parts of the film again - they have to give some notice, because I imagine this would have presented some technical difficulties in the 1970s. The celebrity panel then question the actors (in character, obviously) in the film of the murder, they and the audience panel give their solutions, and Jon Pertwee, the compere, reveals the true murderer. If you want a straightforward deduction to work out, and to engage in a virtual discussion about how could be the murderer, then this is exactly what you are looking for. I do like a nice murder myself, but tend to lack the attention required to work it out.
But that is not all there is to a watching of this show in 2017. Did I mention that Jon Pertwee is the host (for most of the series - Edward Woodward was the host for the first series)? If I also mention that the two resident members of the celebrity panel are Anouska Hempel and Patrick Mower, it will reveal further what I am getting at here. This show is an orgy of 1970s culture, with none of the bleakness we expect from the gritty television of the era. The other guest celebrities, who differ each week, are an array of the big names of the time. One can name Honor Blackman, for example. I still intend to write about Aimi Macdonald elsewhere but she appears on this as a guest. Diana Dors is another. There are also great names among the men as well: who would have thought you could get Kingsley Amis among the panel of a TV quiz show? Obviously normally I don't like familiar faces distracting me from a TV programme, but in this case the big names are obviously the point. It is a very nice touch that members of the public also get to form a panel of deduction and submit their solutions.
Quite apart from the big names on the celebrity panel, there is something else that I love about this show. I was strangely hooked from the moment I saw Jon Pertwee smoking while presenting the show. The actors who are being questioned are often smoking as is the panel. Nobody questions this, and as a dedicated smoker who has given it up, even I am slightly surprised to see people smoking as they present a TV show! Probably that more than anything else, has brought home to me the fact that there is a huge historical gulf in the forty years between the 1970s and now.
The collars. It's not only the smoking which brings home that we are well and truly in the unadulterated 1970s here. It's the collars. Nowadays, if anyone wore a collar like those worn by virtually all of the men, it would be for a joke. Did people really wear collars like that and smoke as they presented TV shows? They must have done. Did people really have hair that long? Could Aimi Macdonald really maintain that squeaky voice without going hoarse? All of these are things which this show is making me wonder about.
The attitudes. There are some surprisingly sexist things said, or else some innuendos, which I have a feeling wouldn't appear on TV nowadays. There are even some double-entendres which probably would seem very unsophisticated nowadays, but they remind me that the 1970s was the age of the sex comedy, and the Confessions films were among the highest-grossing films of the decades. This is not even to mention some of the period attitudes which come out in the films showing the murders and the circumstances surrounding them.
There are other nice touches about this show. The set changes each show, since it based on the set of the film of the murder. The new set each week and the big names in the panel, make me think that this show must have been high-budget and high-kudos at the time. I also particularly like the relaxed way in which Jon Pertwee moderates: it is a far cry from the some of the more sedate quiz shows of the time. It is also very interesting to see Pertwee in a very different setting from the role he is best known for, and one is which he is not obliged to play anybody but himself, but just act as the host.
To be frank, I think the possible criticisms of this show are ones that you would really have to squeeze out of it. You could say, for example, that many of the filmed murders include large amounts of over-acting, but I feel that that is deliberate. The show is meant to be fun, and it makes gentle fun of its own genre. Personally I'm finding it very difficult to criticise this show for production or any in any other way. The actors who play in the films and are afterwards questioned by the panel, are doing something incredibly difficult for an actor: they are being asked questions for which they are sometimes visibly unprepared, about a character which is only a bit role for them after all. The murderer can lie, but the others have to maintain a consistency in the story, which must have been incredibly difficult to do. Naturally one thing this does is sort out the truly great actors, who answer their questions looking calm and collected in their role.
So contrary to the drabness of much UK 1970s TV, this programme not only does what it sets out to do, but also provides an entertaining spectacle of contemporary costume, celebrities, and attitudes.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Taxi! The Villain

I write today about the only remaining episode of a show I didn't even know existed until yesterday. The show was called Taxi! The remaining episode is called The Villain. I came across it because it was largely a vehicle for Sid James, one of my favourite actors. You can see this episode on youtube should you so wish.
It seems (according to wikipedia) the show was built on the propensity of London taxi drivers to tell tall stories. James features as Sid Stone, who owns the taxi company and shares a house with some of the other drivers. This remaining episode is from the first series, which was broadcast over the summer and had poor ratings; the completely-missing second series introduced more characters and therefore variety.
Taxi! raises a question for me personally: where does it stand in 1960s TV terms? I find it very difficult to place in comparison to the rather exotic offerings I routinely watch. It is from 1963 and is therefore pre-Emma Peel Avengers-era, and show none of the sexiness and adventure even of the early Avengers. One thing I would definitely say is that Taxi! shows itself for the BBC show it is: the majority of shows I blog about here are ITV shows. Taxi! feels much more like a stage play converted to the screen, which is a salutary reminder for the modern viewer that that is actually how TV was seen by the people who made the shows.
On another level, Taxi! is like many another drama (or possible sit-com) set in a particular work place. Hospitals and police stations are always good for human drama. Taxi! manages to spell out the central dilemma (through the mouth of James) very well: at what point do we put our foot down with other people, even if it means they have to take the consequences of their actions? The particular dilemma here is that Sid reports another driver - a man notorious for bullying other people and just pleasing himself - to the police with the result that he loses his license. This is naturally criticised by the other drivers, who have a (perhaps misguided, depending on how oyu look at it) loyalty to the profession above everything else. This action is despite the fact we see Sid cheating a tourist out of a return fare to the airport - the charge comes to £2 and how I wish that would get you further than the nearest lamp post these days!
There are all sorts of other ways in which this show is redolent of its age. Sid tells one of his drivers that he simply must get a radio in the cab if he wants to get ahead. Sid goes to the police station and the desk sergeant (a vanished species) knows immediately the particular case he is talking about and says he will see what he can do about getting the charges dropped. The sets look like the interiors of houses in Avengers of this period. The telephone numbers and exchanges are the old ones which not even I remember. The taxi drivers all have actual shirts on - no t-shirts or tracksuit bottoms in evidence!
This show is also an interesting mixture in terms of production: while much of the action very obviously takes place in sets, the external shots are of very good quality. In terms of production values, as I say you should expect a much more...I suppose the word is 'worthy', production than many of the shows I write about here. My one real criticism is that the story is rather confused by the introduction of a woman - the plot gets back into its track OK, but the introduction of a romantic interest isn't enough for those who want to watch romance, and detracts from the main thrust of the plot. The self-serving driver gets his comeuppance when one of his women meets his wife and he faces a far worse worse fate than the law can ever throw at him.
I have no idea how the one episode has remained - who kept it, how it was saved, and so on. I can say with certainty that it is incredibly well-preserved for an odd episode of a nearly-forgotten series. Would I want to watch the rest of the series if it existed? Probably. I don't think it would be a keeper, because of the relative simplicity of the plot. I would watch it for the 1960s milieu and background, and hope my readers do too.
Image: Sid James in Carry on Cabby

Monday, 27 March 2017

Lily Savage Parodies Classic TV

The parodies are coming thick and fast at the moment. I didn't really need to ask myself the significance of cult TV when I realise the impact it can have on popular culture. This post is about comedian Lily Savage and her parodies both of The Avengers and Doctor Who. Well, I say 'about' - it more showcases them, so click play, sit back and enjoy.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Prisoner: The Laughing Prisoner

I was very pleased to find today that the Laughing Prisoner is back on YouTube in its entirety. It vanished for quite a time because a DVD release was mooted, which it seems has never transpired, so some kind soul has uploaded it again. As I am writing this I am watching it for probably the first time in thirty-five years and marvelling on the effect this spoof has had on me. Picture it. The 1980s. In Britain we had four television channels for the first time ever and there was some difficulty filling them with material. Channel four quickly became known for its arty and risque content, amongst which was the show which created The Laughing Prisoner, The Tube. I remember not liking The Tube very much, but obviously there was something in the zeitgiest which created the best parody of The Prisoner ever. The fact that the then young crowd felt they could parody a TV show from twenty years before was that at the time much of the television of the 1960s was being mined to fill the schedules of the TV channels - I think there may also have been a showing of The Prisoner to mark its twentieth anniversary. The two things came together, and this was the result.
I don't know who had the brilliant idea of casting Stanley Unwin as Number 3, but the choice is so successful that it creates a marvellously ridiculous atmosphere. I love particularly that footage from The original Prisoner is interwoven to give the illusion that Number 6 is still imprisoned there since the 1960s. As Stephen Fry says, nobody has ever got a thing out of him, and frankly The Laughing Prisoner gives an impression that all the inhabitants of The Village are rather deranged. Number 6 is shown fighting with Rover, who elsewhere has become a good pet, who Stephen Fry takes for walks.
There are other things changed from the original series. The bleakness of the scenery and the difficulties that must have been experienced maintaining Portmeirion are much more apparent here: gone is the happy sun-filled Village of the original series, and it is replaced by a much bleaker world. This, of course, makes The Village much less frightening than the manufactured spontaneity and happiness of the original. The gloom is lifted by the musical interludes - I imagine they are there because The Tube was primarily a musical show.
When I watched this show last, I had not had the experience I had at the end of last year of resigning. My employers didn't need to ask me why, my 2,000 word letter of resignation told them in great detail all my dissatisfactions going back for sixteen years. I don't therefore need to fear that I will be taken away to a Village and pressed to reveal why I have resigned, but I am nonetheless myself in the position of Number 6 (or Number 7 here). My point is that the act of resignation puts you outside of The Establishment, who can then feel free to punish you. Of course in The Laughing Prisoner it is apparent that there are only three resignees and two of the three are doubtfully sane. The Laughing Prisoner also shows the temperamental and petty nature of The Establishment's hatred against those who abandon it, something which is left ambiguous in the original series. In my own case, fortunately my industry in this city is largely split into two organisations and I have moved from one to the competition, and a surprising number of my former colleagues are texting me asking to be kept posted on vacancies...
The Laughing Prisoner moves faster than the original series because (in my humble opinion) it isn't mainly setting out to create an enigma but rather a set of pastiches of aspects of The Village. What it does show up very clearly - despite the already archive quality of the 1980s show - how bad the original footage was at that time, in comparison to the fully-restored look we are so used to today. It looks awful. It's crackly, the colours are bad, in fact it looks like I remember The Avengers looking in the 1980s. Lucky us, with technology moving on as it has. And (this really is going to sound ridiculous) I had forgotten how big hair was in the 1980s, on both men and women. That is so embarrassing to say! But it again highlights the bleak, austerity-driven world we live in now. Perhaps it was my age, but I remember the 1980s as a time when things felt possible, when it felt as if the prosperity dream would never end, it felt as if you could do pretty much anything you wanted... The reality reminds us of the injustices and pain of the time, but also prevents the freedom we felt at the time.
This all-pervading unreality is the theme of The Laughing Prisoner and what I love absolutely best about it is the way the board of Channel 4 are all cardboard cut-outs.
I so badly want a Prisoner chair now.