Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Avengers: Propellant 23

A blog about TV suggests the blogger is blogging about what he is watching. I have always aimed to make this blog more about what I think is good TV, and since I last wrote I have been watching some more Archer and a few other things. The other things won't be named because they won't be blogged about here and I have thus made a point of returning to quality TV, and hence this post. This is a series 2 Avengers episode which I've never really got on with, and so this blog post is my way of making myself think more about it, and hopefully come to understand it.
In the visual language of 1960s television, the episode begins by telling us that the action will take place among the privileged, or possibly powerful. This is done by the simple device of setting the opening scene on a passenger plane. I feel that in the early 1960s flight would have been less available to most people than it was with tha later advent of cheap package holidays, and thus already sets the expectations. Additionally the plane is flying to Marseille - nowadays this flight would be nothing from, say, Heathrow, and of course Tripoli remains a truly far-away place, but at the time 'the Continong' was inconceivably exotic to many in Britain.
The next scene may begin to explain why I have always found this episode hard to understand - not least because of my habit of not paying attention. The scene is of Mrs Gale and Steed. Leaving aside the question of why he recruits an anthropologist to help with a matter of national security, and she allows him to wake her up in the middle of the night to ask her, the scene is full of the sort of magical omniscience the later series of The Avengers are better known for. Steed and Mrs Gale are at Marseille. There is no explanation why they both just happen to be at the scene of the action - they just are. I like the visuals of this scene - we see them sitting in the car but the background is completely black and they could actually be anywhere. Visually this is so effective, and the whole effect of the scene is rather disorientating, rather the way one feels while 'in transit'.
'Terrible bore hanging about in airports, isn't it,' says Steed to a man in the airport, thereby indicating that this mode of travel is old hat to him. In comparison to the visual effect of the last scene in the car, I love the way the sirport set gives a much more amateurish effect. It is very obviously a set indeed and this effect remains throughout the episode.
I love that Steed is his old shady self in this one. He enveigles Mrs Gale into helping and then when the airport gendarme asks him what he is doing in France he gives a very dodgy, almost blustering, answer, which would normally be guaranteed to make a policeman of any nationality prick up his ears. Steed turns the tables on the gendarme and starts asking him questions! He then asks another gendarme if he can take the murdered man's briefcase back to London - another of the sort of questions you just don't ask in a context of international travel! Steed gets even more shifty by returning to search the police's office at the airport after the've all gone home. Once again the airport gives an impression of not quite being real. I don't doubt there are tiny airports whic effectively close down at night, but I'm still sure they were patrolled by security if not police, even in the 1960s! While I have interpreted these characters as belonging to the gendarmerie, I see that they are actually security, yet are dressed as steretypical old-fashioned French policemen.
In common with being shady Steed, Steed in this one also puts Mrs Gale in a ridiculously dangerous position, with I have noticed he tended to do with Venus Smith as well. The wonder is that Mrs Gale just happily goes along with it! I like the way Steed's hair is very shiny and slicked back in Propellant 23, using, presumably, brylcreem. A further style thing I like very much in this one is to see Honor Blackman smoking a cigarette in a holder. And of course Steed just has to put in an order with the baker as he is looking for the bottle.
It is so Avengers to have the next scene set in the lingerie department of a shop! - Preceded by a fight in the airport that we don't see, but in another act of magical omniscience during the interval Steed has got the briefcase, Mrs Gale has examined it and they have arranged to meet. We see that Steed is answerable to somebody, and we also see that this episode is about a rocket propellant, which of course Mrs Gale knows about already, which places this episode firmly in the rocket age. Steed is outrageously flirtatious with the sales assistant, telling her that he will take her when she asks what he wants - these early Avengers really are incredibly flirty. This scene gives rise to my favourite exchange in this episode:
Mrs Gale: 'Do you always arrange to take your calls in a lingerie department?'
Steed: 'If humanly possible.'
Mrs Gale's garter gun which we see at the end is unthinkably kinky!
Subsequently we see more of the lives of the characters as they relate to Propellant 23. The mystery of who the young Geoffrey Palmer's character ('bit of a cock up in the catering department') is remains - but I think this is deliberate, naturally. However then we see that he is in cahoots with the man we see trying to stab Mrs Gale.
Something the episode does very well is to resist having the French characters speaking in 'French' accents. This adds a further layer to the unrealism, because while the effect of being in France is given loud and clear, these people are clearly not French. I can only repeat that I rather like the economy of the sets - few, simple sets are used to give the impression of this jet-setting world, and in monochrome they are very effective.
My one criticism of this episode is that unless you are really paying attention it can be quite difficult to follow. I suppose this reflects the sort of attention TV writers expected fifty years ago, but the difficulty is increased by the way the episode tends to jump from scene to scene in a rather impressionistic way with little explanation of what has happened. This isn't a criticism as such, but the small cast makes the scale of this Avengers seem much smaller that its international setting would suggest, more like a stage play. I mean that everybody knows who the man touting for a hotel is, suggesting the cast is smaller and more intimate than it would be in this sort of setting in reality. It is also rather evident before the denouement who is on what side and so by the time we find ourselves in the bakery there is only one way this can end.
So my conclusion about this Avengers is that it is quality television which requires close attention to keep track of what is happening. The scripting is rather impressionistic and the visuals are very effective. This is one of the more arty episodes of The Avengers, which is therefore harder work for the viewer.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Archer: First Impressions

All things espionage. That has recently been the subject of this blog, because that was the fashion in the 1960s, when so much of the TV I like was made. The spy thing, of course, is paradied in so many of these TV shows: I might mention Man from UNCLE in addition to Get Smart, which I have recently rediscovered.
But none of those parodies parodies the world of espionage as effectively as Archer, which I have only just discovered. My only regret at having discovered it so late is a rage at a cruel world that I have somehow managed not to hear about the show up until now. How could that have happened? I can only conclude that the universe produces another TV show for me to watch when I conclude there isn't enything left.
Archer parodies the inner world of the spy. The real world of the spy. The world of the spy where you actually work in an organisation with HR and all the other paraphernalia of the modern workplace. Add the twist that his boss is his own mother and you have the makings of a farce. It is a sign of the quality of this show that it manages to parody clueless secret agents working for a chaotic organisation, without losing interest and while remaining intelligent. At the time of writing I am half way through the first series so obviously can't speak for whether the show keeps up this level of interest in future series, but merely avoiding becoming repetitive for the episodes I have watched so far, is a considerable achievement.
Archer himself is hopeless. There is a wonderful scene where we see a secret agent's cover blown because Archer has rung him on his mobile asking him to confirm that they work for Isis, for some girls in a bar. The point is that all the ethnically diverse agents of Isis have been lost, and we are privileged to see that Archer has done the same thing over and again. This premise of a secret agent who is hopeless is not normally one that would appeal to me but Archer pulls it off with aplomb and style.
That said, the sense of humour is probably a bit adult for a lot of people. Nonetheless Archer's anarchic, sexy humour appeals to me personally, and here in the UK the show only has a 15 certificate which indicates that the British Board of Film Classification doesn't consider it *that* shocking. Of course the point is that the whole show is a parody of the sexiness of the secret agent, perhaps best personified by Mr Bond.
I particularly like the mother. I love the way she has swapped over all the medicines in the medicine cabinet to confuse the servants. And I really love the way she rings a bell for the caterers to bring in the soup at a dinner party. It is the same bell she kept on her bedside table to wake the nanny when Archer wet the bed as a child; a fact she doesn't hesitate to tell the guests.
Archer is a show which has made me laugh out loud. And if you like to see the spy genre parodied, I would highly recommend it to you.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Department S: The Soup of the Day

My recent watching of Get Smart and the comments on the contemporary craze for all things to do with spies has caused my mind to turn towards Department S. This is an over-generalisation, of course, but it may be significant that as the sixties wore on and in the US the spy-craze turned more towards parody, in the UK it just turned bizarre. I'm thinking of all the ITC shows, distantly related to spycraft and espionage, whose characters became more and more flamboyant, peaking in Jason King. In the midst of the Cold War the actual espionage remained a serious matter and those who did it became the subject of the TV shows. I'm quite prepared for this little thought of mine to be blown out of the water, of course.
This Department S episode is one which is a very good example of why I dislike familiar actors reappearing in all sorts of shows. Right at the beginning we see Patrick Mower appearing as a baddy. A few years later he was appearing as a goodie in Special Branch. Of course they wouldn't have been seen together but I'm finding it a little difficult to think of a TV show of the time in which Patrick Mower didn't appear and was always obviously himself. Naturally the two shows are not quite contemporary, and I'm also not keen on actors being typecast, but when you're living on a diet of the TV that remains form the sixties and seventies it can be a bit confusing.
One of the things I like most about this one is that it starts off by showing the reality of multicultural background of Britain of the time, with its scene in Chinatown. None of the pretend Britain of The Avengers - Department S is set in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan world of the 1960s, and so must have been as aspirational as any other TV show could be. Sir Curtis is of course not only black but is also a knight and has the sort of accent which can only indicate an Oxbridge education, so the show really does show the sort of sophisticated mixing that was frequently a few decades in coming in the real world. So Soup of the Day has an element of unreality, which reflects that despite the show's cosmopolitan aspirations, this episode is very much set against the unreal background of Swinging London, demonstrated best in the kind of interiors we see (pictured), and even more in the sudden change of scene to the Portobello Road stresses that this episode is set in Swinging London. When the empty crate of fish soup is found, the music changes further to stress the Swinging nature of the set-up, before moving to the cosmopolitan setting of Lisbon. There is just a suggestion here, so common in the TV of the time, that the age was going wrong, and the latest trends were actually the instruments of Our Enemies.
As a mystery this one is unfortunately handicapped by a huge error of plotting. It is very obvious very early in the show that the soup is only a red herring and the point of the heist is the radios. The fact that we know that means we just watch Department S being mystified. Since the soup was dumped and there was nothing unusual about it, it was always going to be obvious that the soup was not the point. This episode gives the game away far too early. It is also apparent that the baddies are not at the top of their field because they've managed to draw attention to themselves. A further weakness is that the plot can be very difficult to follow.
That said this episode has many high points. I love the curio shop run by the two girls to whom Jeremy seels a radio. As a purveyor of the sort of kit you would want if you were furnishing your home as an outpost of Avengersland it is a delight. In fact it could serve as a textbook for how to furnish your home in the style of Swinging London. Another high point is Jason King's abortive attempt to chat up the secretary at the soup exporter's - which is ruined by her insistence on bringing her mother along as a chaperone, so that King is forced to say that he would also bring his own mother as a chaperone. King falls at the first hurdle, for a change, but the secretary overcomes this difficulty! The boutique selling military clothes is another high point. In fact this show is something of a compendium of the suppliers to the in crowd in Swinging London.
Despite being largely studio-bound this show doesn't stint on the props. One of the smaller ones is the transistor radio, which in its leather case reminds me of a cassette player my mother had in the seventies, and I remember it being fascinating that it had its own leather case. Her explanation for that was that it was 'portable'. The other prop I love is the huge American car used by the baddies in Lisbon. There is a scene where you see the door open and the thickness of the wall of that car is quite something.
So in conclusion, despite the plotting defects of this one, it is a wonderfully atmospheric view for the fans of 1960s TV or of the 1960s in any way.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Hancock's Half Hour: The Cold

I was very chuffed at the way my last-but-one post kicked off a conversation mainly about British comedians and the difficulty we have exporting them elsewhere. Dominic Bird made the pertinent comment that the only humour anything like ours is Russia's and that it must rain a lot there. Which brings me nicely to the subject of this blog post - Hancock has a cold. In addition to the weather, colds are a British preoccupation. The rumours are true that there used to be a place which researched treatments for the cold, and people would go there on holiday to be given a cold and experimented on.
It is only a nation which could support that kind of official centre which could also produce the sort of humour we have in this episode. When you say it, it sounds strange: the object of humour here is a man's illness. Oh dear, how can I live with myself?
The joke is, of course, in Hancock's approach to his cold. The rest of us may go to bed for a couple of days if it's bad enough, but he's invested in every quack remedy going, including even Mrs Cravat's witchcraft! Hancock is taking exactly the same brave-hero-who-is-really-being-rather-hopeless approach he does to everything else, including dating in the last episode I wrote about. We all know that nothing he does is going to help at all. On the other hand we all know that in private we have all fallen for these quack remedies ourselves, although naturlaly we wouldn't tell anyone. Hancock, however, gives us the opportunity to laugh and feel superior about somebody's irrational faith in quack remedies, secure in the knowledge that ours will never be in the public domain. And needless to say Hancock's little peroration on how wonderful he is, is to say how superior his nose is to Sid's.
The ridiculousness is shared by Sid James. I love the way he wears a face mask and sprays an aerosol every time Hancock coughs. And Sid's ridiculousness is counterpointed by Hancock developing full-blown flu, and then taken to extremes by Mrs Cravat. The point is that Hancock is behaving like we all do with a cold, as if we're going to die, and nobody believes in any of the mumbo-jumbo he's invoking to sort it.
There is an episode of Hancock's radio show where he also resorts to magical practices as a result of being required to perform on Friday the 13th - only in that case Sid screws him for all he's got with a fraudulent druid order. Again, it is extraordinary the way Hancock's humour relies on situations where humans actually have no power and have to resort to superstition - in this case he goes to see a proper doctor who has a cold himself and naturally has no treatment for it.
I suppose the underlying characteristic of this humour is that it takes the things we all do but are ashamed of, laughs at them, and puts them on the TV for all of us to laugh at. The marvel, the wonder, the raw talent, is to get a whole half hour out of this and to remain funny, a funniness which remains after repeated viewings. Galton and Simpson were comedy genii.

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Goodies: Gender Education

 I suppose there was a time when the only source for information on cult TV was books - and friends, of course. Then came the internet and provided a place where fans of old TV could both publish their own opinions and be influenced by other people's. I find these days that whenever I want information about a TV show and google its name, the web pages which give me the information I want will tend to be from blogs, and will also give me the writer's opinion to make me think in a different way. This post is almost entirely due to the influence of Grant Goggans's blog, since he has been watching The Goodies with his son and has prodded me into giving the show another go.
Of course I have seen The Goodies before, but I suspect I wasn't in the right mindset at the time, because I remember heartily disliking it. On watching it again I find I like it enormously and in fact have watched the discs I have, several times. But let's get the criticism out of the way first - the show is very much of the time and hasn't really aged that well. There is one show which talks about South Africa - obviously with reference to apartheid, but younger viewers may not get the reference. The other thing is that it is a bt of a nostalgia fest - the trousers and flared, the hair is long, in addition to the contemporary references. For a TV fan it is interesting to see the contemporary outside broadcast set-up after Bill is taken on by the BBC - no doubt it looked bang up to date at the time. I do like, though, the Avengers-esque set in a field. These contemporary references of course have a tendency to sound different forty years later - there is for example a reference to doing an impression of Rolf Harris!
The contemporary reference in the case of this episode Mrs Desiree Carthorse is an obvious reference to Mrs Whitehouse's obsession with having nothing naughty on TV. The Goodies use the medium of a TV show very cleverly to show up Mrs Whitehouse's prudery and obsessionality with stopping normal elements of human life appearing on TV. The joke is of course that their gender education film, 'How To Make Babies By Doing Dirty Things,' is so ridiculously unsexy that it's hilarious. The results of Mrs Carthorse's actions are shown by the way people turn against The Goodies, who are referred to as Baddies in their hate mail.
But the absolutely best bit of this is the spectacle of Richard Wattis in a wig and a pink suit, interviewing The Goodies who collectively play another prude, Sir Reginald Wheel-Barrow, who decides that the film is inocuous. Wattis tells him that he has only been invited to give an extreme loony point of view. The absurd visual humour of The Goodies is shown by the fact that Wattis can only see that they are The Goodies and not Sir Reginald, when they take off their moustache.
The humour gets steadily more ridiculous as the episode goes on. I particularly love the way Bill goes berserk and starts shouting rude words (like brassiere) at Mrs Carthorse before eventually blowing up BBC TV Centre. I think if you like Monty Python you will probably like this - although it has a less cerebral feel and was obviously aimed at a slightly different audience.
My one criticism of it being slightly too contemporary and thus dated is my only one. The picture is perfect - and the colour palette is rather brighter than the porridge colours which dominate in so much TV of this time. The sound is also perfect. My impression is that a lot of trouble has gone into the restoration and I have enjoyed watching this for the fourth or fifth time greatly. That said, despite ending on a happy note I will still traumatise the cult TV blogosphere by appending a picture of myself enjoying the sun on the canal bank earlier today - it's been a glorious bank holiday here for a change!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Hancock's Half Hour: The Big Night

I've been meaning for ages to write a post about Tony Hancock here, and have been prompted into it today by watching some of a DVD called Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson's... which is Paul Merton in a number of plays originally written by Galton and Simpson for other people. I watched most of The Bedsitter, and found there's nothing really wrong with it. I like Merton's persona and acting hugely, but the trouble is the script was written for Tony Hancock and you come out with the impression that Merton is playing Hancock playing the part. So I have returned to watching the original.
Surely everyone reading this blog will have heard of Tony Hancock? That name is a legend in British comedy. And of course he was born here in Birmingham, although never lived here for very long. The show is of course Hancock's Half Hour but also features Sid James. The scripts, as I mentioned above, are written by the legendary Galton and Simpson. Have I overdone the words legendary here? It was very difficult to come out with a dud with that stable of talent. And that's the main difficulty with Paul Merton playing scripts written for Hancock: he's a good actor but simply can't compare with the lad himself.
Hancock is also a show which is remarkable for something else. It's my personal perception but the majority of (British) 1950s TV I have watched moves at the pace of an incapacitated, very elderly snail, in comparison to the 1960s TV I like best. This is not bering bitchy, although it might be a huge generalisation, it is genuinely my perception of a major difference of pace between 1950s TV and 1960s TV. And this slowness of pace is not something which can be said of Hancock's Half Hour, even though the episode I'm writing about here was in the fifth series, broadcast in 1959. The show sizzles along, never fails to satisfy, and best of all, takes many a repetition and still draws a laugh.
I think a major reason Hancock is so funny is that he is talking about the life we all lead but try not to talk about. In this one he is going out on a big double date with Sid and they literally don't have anything to wear. I love that the reason for this is that the daily woman, Mrs Cravat, has taken all of their suits to the dry cleaners, and they are forced to collect their clothes wearing running gear. I also love the fact that he has a daily woman at all. The point is that Hancock is trying to be the great gent - Mrs Cravat waits at table during breakfast - but fails completely. The reality is that we none of us really get to what we aspire to (although I personally am living in the poshest place I've lived in in my entire life, which is also strangely the cheapest), but we don't broadcast it. We are entertained by Hancock's discomfort at his own inability to live up to his own standards, but who has never found they don't have anything to wear?
The other strand of his humour is the way everything goes wrong, which takes it one step beyond the level of disaster we can usually expect, and prevents it becoming uncomfortable for the viewer. In this case Mrs Cravat has failed to wash any of his dirty shirts, so even after he has a suit to wear he doesn't have a shirt. This gives an opportunity to use the stalwart scene of comedy TV, the laundrette. I am delighted that he describes the shirt he wants to wash as made of parachute silk and says how it excites the girls when they get a glimpse of his string vest through it! I love laundrettes, myself, and particularly love the laundrette in this show. I love that they have to weight the clothes first. I love that Hancock is so fascinated by the clothes going round in the machine. And I particularly love that James is smoking in the laundrette. But I most love that even though it is his first time of seeing a washing machine, Hancock takes the opportunity to give the man to his side one of his little discourses on how he knows all about it!
Of course the whole point is that we know the big night is going to be a disaster. Hancock has the gall to blame it on Sid James not dressing properly! This is how Hancock comforts the viewer - by amplifying our own social inadequacies and embarrassments in his own person and allowing us to laugh at our own coping strategies.
Another thing I find interesting is the attitude of the cinema manager to Hanock, initially refusing him admission because he has turned up in a jumper without a shirt. The other men in the cinema are dressed in suits and ties, and I love that a suit is the natural thing to wear on a date. In the manner of the time Hancock tries to dress as a beatnik because there is nothing else, and is seen as a hoodlum. Can that be any indicator of how much our world has changed since 1959? Would anyone seriously wear a suit on a date nowadays?
My only sorrow about this episode is that we don't get to see the actress Hermione Boot, who is starring in the film they go to see!
If you haven't seen these, I would just say that if you want a perfect picture you will be disappointed. There are obviously various bootleg versions of these shows doing the rounds anyway, but I am watching these on BBC DVDS and the picture is very grainy when expanded to full screen. I don't object to that or the sound which also isn't perfect, but if you object to those things, you will find this difficult to watch.
But my advice would be to set those things aside because this is definitely Stonking Good Television.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Get Smart

I had forgotten about this show, when I came across the bosed set in the HMV shop just round the corner, and the face of Maxwell Smart brought back memories. It is not surprising that I had forgotten it, because I can't remember reading about this show on the cult TV blogosphere ever. It is also not one mentioned in the books. Which is odd, considering it is very much out of the same world which gave birth to so many of the shows I write about here - The Avengers, Danger Man, and, especially, The Man from UNCLE. Nonethless I must have watched this show before, because I remember it. I have been unable to find UK broadcast dates, but suspect that I was very young, but suspect that it was around the same time that I was a huge fan of Mission Impossible and The Man from UNCLE, and as I remember my younger self loved Get Max equally.
I have a feeling that this show's lack of presence in the TV blogosphere (as surfed my me, that is) is because it is a relative lightweight in comparison to the shows it spoofs. I'm also not at all clear how popular it was at the time or now: there is a website which has obviously been going for years, which includes a plot summary of every episode and a list of merchandise, which usually indicates a really cult TV show. I am therefore at a loss as to why I haven't read about it in the 35-ish years since I last watched it and have had to seek out the information on the internet. I don't want to assume the programme was unpopular (because it got into several series and remakes, etc) but would hypothesise that it may be one of those shows which is neither one thing or the other - I'm particularly thinking of how the introduction of more humorous elements into the third series of The Man from UNCLE alienated the viewers). If you're looking for a comedy, it is just what you want, but its apeing of the spy genre of the time may not have been that popular at the time, and the reason for that unpopularity may simply be that the spy genre was so popular that apeing it was not acceptable. As I say this is a theory and not one I would go the stake for.
It pleases me to announce that Get Smart manages to include every convention of the spy genre of the time. I particularly like the opening sequence, with the convention of the hidden headquarters. It is of course in the nature of the show that all of these conventions are overdone - particularly the gadgets. I love the sheer ridiculousness of so many of the gadgets. Of course this is another thing which may make this show simply too much for some viewers to find funny.
I also particularly like the character of Maxwell Smart. He is a sort of anti-hero to the hero figures of so many of these shows. Bond never drops anything, and with ridiculous nonchalance brings the case to a conclusion, with time to seduce several women along the way. The men from UNCLE work rather harder and of course have differing approaches to the opposite sex, but nonetheless nothing really goes wrong as such. Do these people really never drop anything or walk into a door? I now realise why - it is because all of the accidents have been soaked up by Maxwell Smart on their behalf and so the probability of Bond falling over as he is taking off his socks is minimal. Smart actually fulfills a function in our society, therefore. To put it another way, he is a secret agent who is more like us than the ones in films and TV. In fact he is so like us that he has had to be given this air of ridiculousness so that we always have the luxury of looking at him and thinking he is more accident-prone than we could ever be. Get Smart is therefore the ultimate comfort viewing.
Nor does Smart actually have a sex life, which places him apart from most secret agents (and ensures that my region 2 set of the first series has a PG, or G in Ireland, rating). He would like one, and is surrounded by beautiful women, but I at least feel slightly relieved for these women because we all know that if he got anywhere with them something terrible would happen. His female colleague, 99, remains firmly in the background in a rather unreconstructed way, in common with the series of the time.
So apart from the humour the conventions of the spy genre are actually all present and correct. We have an evil organisation bent on world domination. The men wear suits. The show is wonderfully redolent of the 1960s - I think if you like the sort of ITC shows I have written about here, if you can cope with the humour, you will like Get Smart. The episodes look and feel very much like...well, like Uncle or any ITC series. They are very much studio-bound, which makes for a very controlled and good quality picture, which has also been restored wonderfully. The only thing I don't like about it - although it is in accord with the US TV of the time - is the canned laughter track.
It is not an accolade I think I have given at all recently, but Get Smart definitely gets my rating of Stonking Good Television