Monday, 22 January 2018

The Avengers: Take-Over (with an aside on Licensed to Kill and Where Bullets Fly

This was very nearly another blog post about a film - or rather two films, as will become apparent. Instead I will drag myself back to the subject of this blog, write about the Avengers episode Take-Over and comment on the films which inspired this post at the end.
I know I say this about every Avengers episode but this is actually one of my favourites. I love it for its incongruence - I love the respectability of the baddies. I love the absolytelu chilling sweetness of Circe. I particularly love Tom Adams in his cold, calculating role.
This Avengers episode is also in my opinion a bit of an odd one out. Particularly once you get into series 6 you can watch The Avengers for the atmosphere of Avengerland. It can be seen as comfort viewing. Take-Over allows the viewer no respite. None. And it does it marvellously by creating an atmosphere of terror in a charming country house, which also manages to be wildly modernist at the same time. This is one of the ways in which this episode messes with the viewer's head. It starts off by establishing the baddies as solid respectable people by their Rolls Royce and vesture. It then overturns this impression by having them murder a man with a device in a lighter.
The scene is set outside the house with a view of its gracious frontage. Once inside a different impression is given. The traditional interior has been dramatically altered - not unusal for the time, of course. But the interior is given a certain cold quality by the nature of the light. The walls are all white and the light makes the setting cold. Despite Steed's warmth of feeling for the Bassetts, the feeling given is of coldness and aloofness, which I can only feel is intended to reflect itself into the viewer and create discomfort. To stop this post becoming unnecessarily repetitive, suffice it to say that the discomfort returns and is intensified at every twist of the plot, and that is much of the point of this episode. The usual Avengers unreality is given an incredible twist of horror in this episode.
Visually, naturally, this one is superlative. The set of the Bassetts' house is of course very effective and the artifacts they own are used to their best effect to create artistic camera angles. My one criticism of the visuals, which in fact I've just noticed through setting out to be critical, is that the exterior shots, interior shots and one scene of Steed supposedly driving, don't cut together that well, and look too different. But that is merely a criticism of the technology of the time. Normally familiar faces drive me up the wall, but in this one I don't object at all, because all of the actors are playing strong roles and you don't notice who they are.
Tom Adams is particularly strong as the fantasically-named Fenton Grenville, the leader of the baddies. Chillling, I think is the word. He plays the role completely straight and matter of fact.
Two points which aren't really criticisms. I like to notice the props used in The Avengers because obviously the same ones were used and they tend to reappear. For example in this one the seat from Mrs Peel's series 5 flat reappears in the Bassetts' living room - you can just see it at the back of the picture. A statue of a pope which appears in Game also appears in their living room. Just saying - I'm not implying that they owned a props business! The other one is that the character of Circe Bishop is so frankly odd that if you're annoyed by that sort of person you could be put off this episode by her.
Best Steed quote in this piece: I haven't seen a room clear so quickly since Freddie Firman took a live skunk into the Turkih baths.
Tom Adams stars in a quite different role in the two spoof-spy films which I have been watching this week and which I almost wrote about here. The first is Licensed to Kill and the second is Where Bullets fly. He plays the country's second-best secret agent after Bond, and that is the point of the spoof. I have been wanting to watch those films for ages after repeatedly seeing stills from them on the internet and finally found someone selling a single copy for a reasonable price on eBay. Licensed to Kill is the first and the better of the two, in my opinion. It feels better made and the joke is new. The music alone is a dead groovy sixties nostalgia-fest. Similar to my last post (click the right pointing arrow at the bottom of the page to see it if it doesn't appear as you scroll down), these are films which I think will appeal to the lovers of the TV shows of the age. My only warning would be that you will be horrified by a) the prices people charge for them and b) the reviews of the quality of these discs. Sadly until they get a commercial release copies by small media firms are the only way to get them. One of the reviewers on Amazon said that the films were the worst viewing quality he had ever seen. I don't agree with that, and think the viewers of classic TV will be better-able to deal with them. My own copy was distributed by 'Onyz Media International' (no address given), is PAL format, and the disc claims that they are digitally restored. I am sure they are rather restored, however the picture quality is nowhere near what you would get from a commercial restoration. It's not the worst I've seen, but it's not brilliant. I am just happy finally to have a copy of these films, and think you will probably like them too.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Incense for the Damned

Patrick Macnee, Edward Woodward, Peter Cushing, and Patrick Mower. I think merely listing the names of the stars is sufficient explanation for this film's appearing on a cult TV blog, don't you? It wouldn't normally be my sort of thing, but I simply wanted to see what a horror film starring Patrick Macnee and Patrick Mower would be like. Incidentally it is often known by its alternative title of Blood Suckers.
I was not put off from buying this film by the online reviews, which are, if not almost universally bad, not exactly what you would call good. It seems that a lot of people want to like this film but find it sadly lacking when it comes down to it. In fact it is sadly orphaned, because even its own producer disowned it. It was made in two goes, and after a break caused by the money running out, new scenes had to be shot with new characters, and I will grant you that once you know that fact this film does seem rather cobbled together.
Yes this film has its strengths. One of the things I'm always banging on about here is the necessity of remembering the time in which TV shows (and therefore films) were made, and trying to see them through the eyes of that time, as a way to understand them better. I think that approach would really pay off in the case of this film. We are talking about the era of package holidays in the Med, sexploitation films, and Hammer House of Horror films.
The Greek setting of much of the film is one of its absolutely strongest points. I have never been to Greece but wonder whether the Greece shown here is a real one or a mythological one. Certainly it contains the caricatures of Greece held in the English imagination - little old ladies dressed in black, priests everywhere, you get the drift. The Greek setting is the excuse for John Steed, sorry Patrick Macnee to appear in his best light. You will pardon my slip but Macneee does seem rather Steedly in this film, expatiating on mythology, which we just knoe he learned at school from the original texts. My absolutely favourite scene in this film is Macnee being assisted onto a donkey by priests in black. Incidentally I also love the scenes of the Land Rover driving through the mountains, and it has brought back happy memories of riding in the back of the pick up with the servants when my aunt had had enough of me and would kick me out of the cab. The murrum raised by the vehicle's wheels would literally get everywhere - it is the most dirty place to travel in a vehicle in dusty terrain.
As a sexploitation film it is of course of its era. Sex was very much in the air at this time and the films of the time were often relentlessly sexy. There is an irony here, of course, that Mower, despite not being able to perform, has wound up as a vampire as a result of his sexiness. I bet many a couple came out of the cinema giggling about making each other vampires when they got home. Another seventies aspect of this film is that it feels very much like the Hammer House of Horror films of the time, which often had an element of sex to them, as I remember. I remember watching them in my teens and waiting for something sexy to happen but it never did. Similarly the cultic elements underlying the plot are usually suggested, rather than explicit.
Another favourite thing, although it is a blooper, is the couple of scenes where rocks fall on first Mower and then Macnee. If you look carefully you can see the 'rocks' bounce, which rather takes the horror out of the scene!
So what is wrong with this film? It's a bit difficult to say except that it isn't really one thing or another. As a sexploitation it's short on sex, as a horror it's short on horror, as a glamorous-1970s-living film it's short on glamour. It doesn't even really have a moral message because let's face it no viewer is going to be put off sex outside wedlock or joining a sinister cult, by the warning of being turned into a vampire. The front of my DVD box says 'See the terror! Feel the pleasure! Taste the pain!', and if you're only looking for one of these you're going to be somewhat disappointed.
In fact I would suggest that this film has missed its key audience, which ought to be people like me, who want to see some of the big names of the time shoved in a horror film together. If you like Our Sort of Television you will at least give this film a go. There is even a scene towards the end, set in Oxford, where Mower stirs up a riot in his college dining room. To we who know The Avengers, the scene can only be reminiscent of his performance in that show. In fact he sounds, naturally, very much like the same character.
So my conclusion is that if you're not a horror fan, but instead a lover of the TV of the sixties and seventies, this show may be right up your street.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Public Eye: The Girl in Blue

You have to be in the mood to watch Public Eye, in my humble opinion. Or rather, one of two moods. One would be the mood where everything is going your way, you've just won the lottery, you're one of the few people left in the world with a pension which may actually support a retirement, you get the kind of thing. The other mindset is a deeply world-weary mindset. You've seen all the bad behaviour that human nature has to offer, you've spent the day wearing out shoe leather in your enquiries, and you're almost certainly wearing an old mackintosh.
It may be incongruent, then, that this series of Public Eye is set in Windsor. It is location for our poshest public (private in US English) school, and we all know Who have Windsor as their surname. It almost seems to suit the show better when the earlier episodes take place up here in big bad Birmingham, and the down at heel world of Brighton also suits the show well. Nonetheless the world's problems manage to come through Marker's office in Windsor High Street.
The milieu for this one goes into the world of what the episode itself calls 'blue movies'. It starts with four businessmen watching one of these movies and one of them recognises his daughter in the film. That scene is one of the things I love best about this episode, simply because it so dated. The film is literally a film, being shown on a projector which chunters along in the way they did, although I don't think I have heard that sound in reality for at least 35 years. The titles of the films are subsequently revealed to be - hilariously - The Parson Knows and Fun and frolics with Francine Freda - but I suppose this was the seventies and there are real films with such corny titles of this date! The scene which follows takes place in the hotel bar which is similarly dated, and in my incongruent way, when one of the characters gives the barmaid an order to put it on his bill I found myself wondering how the hotel would have kept accounts like that in the days before computers. Now it would just appear, but I suppose then paper records would have been involved. Later there is a scene where Marker takes the three-pin plug off the projector to plug into a two-pin socket at the police station, which is also a scene very much of its time because our sockets were at the time only on the way towards the almost ubiquitous three-square-pin models we have now. If anyone particularly wants me to wander off into the subject of plugs just ask and I will put it in a comment but as it is I am holding myself back from talking about one of my little hobby horses.
I am also reminded of the moral milieu of the time - this was the age of Mrs Whitehouse trying to keep filth off TV. The director of a frozen food complany had hired both the projector for the occasion and hired the films from Soho, and it is interesting to see how quickly he caves in when Marker merely threatens him with exposure for this fact. This is shown in counterpoint to the attitude of Inspector Firbank, who has no hesitation at watching the film to see the daughter. Once again it means setting up a screen and the involved matter of threading the film.
Firbank is even more cynical than Marker, and not only shows no surprise at the film but accepts these 'blue' movies as part of the modern world. Marker is more sympathetic to the girl, commenting that all of these girls are always somebody's daughter. I would have to point out that this series of Public Eye has got a 15 certificate here, suggesting that standards have changed. I have no idea whether anybody would have found the shots of women in bras pornographic at the time, and of course this show was always intended for TV broadcast, and I have no doubt that there was much more graphic pornography than this widely available in 1972. Nonethless I agree with Firbank's verdict that The Parson Knows could be shown at choir practice!
This episode, having set up a moral issue around the blue movie, then cleverly goes on to complicate it by introducing the fact that Summers lost contact with his daughter after throwing her out of the house for getting pregnant. Of course it is at this point the viewer rather loses sympathy for him. It doesn't help that subsequently she is revealed to have also used drugs, and the distributor of Parson Knows implies that she could be on the game or even dead. We lose even more sympathy for Summers when discover that his wife knows where the daughter is but hasn't told her husband. Far from the straightforward grit-fest with the concomitant shocks and disgust at the world of porn, this show examines a complex and subtle moral issue.
It is also very apparent that however this one ends, it isn't going to be happy. Of course that is much of the point of this show, that Marker's business involves endless human misery, but it's a weakness in the plot of this one. Either the daughter is alive or she isn't, and if she isn't she has very obviously volitionally not contacted her father in five years. The nature of this is very apparent right from the start of the episode. Summers ends the episode in a worse place than he ended it because he has had his daughter tell him that she will not be forgiving him for what he has done. I have a feeling that this probbaly reflects many a fractured family, and Summers's attitude represents a common human attitude that we should seek forgiveness and try to fix things, but the message here is that some relationships are broken beyond fixing. We end the episode with our sympathies firmly in the daughter's benefit.
Despite its weakness of plot this is an excellent Public Eye episode, which revels in the kind of human misery which this show does so well. I know I normally tend to prefer unreality over reality, but the sympathetic nature of Marker's character and the interesting characters he investigates make this a show which fascinates me.

Monday, 1 January 2018

The Avengers: Killer

A pink and purple pass...that's what I have for this week. I worked the week after Christmas and it was flat out because so many people were given annual leave so I thought right I'm having some myself. So off I popped to Mother to ask for one and now there's nothing anyone can do to make me go in to work. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the bureaucracy of our own workplaces was like that in The Avengers? But the rather pedestrian procedure of making veiled threats to my manager until he gave me annual leave has anyway had the same effect.
Of course the effect for Tara King was that she vanished out of the show for a whole episode giving way to...a whole new Avengers girl whom I've never blogged about before. So let me count them now... we have Honor Blackman of course, Julie Stevens, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, I personally feel we should include Ingrid Hafner, Joanna Lumley if you include her, and this episode alone allows us to add Jennifer Croxton playing Lady Diana Forbes - Blakeney. That means seven. You could even include Elizabeth Shepherd as the Mrs Peel Who Never Was (although if you look closely in The Hour That Never Was you can see gloves appear on Mrs Peel in certain shots of her hands which were reused from the Elizabeth Shepherd shooting of the episode, so she does genuinely appear in an episode). Call it eight.
All naturally of very different personalities. I imagine Diana Rigg is the favourite with the fans, although my personal favourite is Honor Blackman. I do like the fact there is another Avengers girl in this one, and I think the reason is that I love Lady Diana. I feel there is a sense in whcih of all the Avengers gels she embodies the eccentric English spirit of the show best - she's titled and double-barrelled for a start. But she's not some titled bimbo - she is clearly a career spy who is very capable in her own right, and in fact even Steed underestimates her. One of the things I find interesting about this is that I personally would tend to think she is more like Joanna Lumley and certainly has a more simlar presence than she does to Diana Rigg, who to my mind has quite a different presence to the other two. On the other hand the comments by the fans on the internet almost unanimously compare her to Diana Rigg and in fact several fans comment that they like her because she is more like Diana Rigg than Linda Thorson. Hey ho...
Aside from the delights of a new Avengers girl this episode is one of my favourites, I think because in so many ways it takes the Avengers formula to its extreme end and yet manages not to overdo it. An example of this is the fact that the venue used for the murders is an old street mock-up. This is clearly only ever seen as a set, we even get to see the scaffolding holding it up. As everyone reading this will know the whole point of The Avengers is that it is not real. The mock up of the street is not real. The unreal show is now using an unreal set of a place which never existed as scene and not even pretending it's real. That makes it unreality to at least the power of four, and yet it doesn't seem overdone. Nowadays of course we would call it postmodern and make bright remarks about Derridan deconstructionism, but The Avengers, made in the age of modernism, got there first.
The other running theme of 1960s TV which is carried to an extreme is the idea of the machine. Over and again in TV of this era the machine is seen as both the tool of progress and a dangerous monster which can get out of hand, or be dangerous in the wrong hands. The quote which I believe comes from Herbert Read best encapsulates the suspicion of this takeover: 'The machine has rejected ornament and the machine has everywhere established itself. We are irrevocably committed to a machine age,' and suggests that there is no going back from the machine age. This Avengers episode shows that the fear of the machine is valid, since in this episode the machine is the killer and dangerous to all concerned. Of course the take-home message is the same one as elsewhere, that machines have no loyalty and will do whatever they are told - any random diabolical mastermind can use them.
There are two high point to this exceptional episode for me, and they are REMAK's multiple tidy methods of murdering agents and the role Richard Wattis plays as the man from the ministry. The methods of murder and their tidiness can be seen as another reflection on the machine age...they're also very funny indeed, in a completely inappropriate way. This is something The Avengers can get away with by being unreal. Of course it helps that the graveyard is also obviously unreal - do I recognise the set from Epic? Wattis's work on the repeated immaculately-packaged corpses is very entertaining. While I don't normally like the same old faces appearing over and agin on TV shows, in this episode there are a huge number of very familiar actors of the age, but for some reason I don't mind them here, in fact I find I quite like the way actors have been drawn from the familiar stable of Avengerland faces. This doesn't mean I've turned over a new leaf, and I expect my customary curmudgeonliness will return in no time.
The unreality which makes the murders entertaining is another aspect of this show which is carried to its absolute extreme to great effect. I love the way you can look out of the window of what is supposed to be a village pub and see what looks like a new office building which contains this fearful mechanised apparatus of death! That doesn't come across as a blooper, it comes across as part of the pretence. Otherwise the setting of this one is very plainly Avengerland, a world which never existed and sadly never will except in the hearts and minds of fans all over the world. In the usual language of The Avengers's sets it is interesting that the baddies inhabit a building which is modern and furnished in uncompromisingly modern taste, while virtually everyone else's setting is the usual classical furniture and leather armchairs one which is The Avengers indicates solidity, reliability and that Blighty will carry on. I am not sure I can identify the nature of the building Mother's office is in for this one. He is surrounded by barrels of booze and the room is furnished with rows of rocking chairs, set cinema-style, facing...well, something we never see. A village hall set up for a talk to the Women's Institute given by a home brewer? It could happen - the episode isn't short of amiable eccentrics in addition to diabolical masterminds - I particularly love the packaging man.
I suppose I should try to think of some criticisms, although they will be mainly stolen from the dissolute website which has really had to go into details on its trivia for this one. They rightly point out that when the coach leaves the factory gates you can see the camera crew reflected in the windscreen. I haven't spotted it but apparently there is a shot when the dummies in the coach are real people - as I say you really have to go into detail to find things wrong with this one. I suppose my own criticism would be an organisational one - what the hell is Mother playing at to let so many agents die? Some of this is because he just doesn't listen to his agents, and because his agents have a habit of going off on their own without running things past Mother first. You would think Mother would really have got on top of that. It's dangerous, apart from anything else. You would also think that the agents - especially, ahem, Steed - would be canny and cynical enough to check that a dead body who has just theatrically died in front of them is actually dead!
Production-wise, I don't really have any complaints. Plot-wise, this one's failing is that it can tend to be in the nature of repeated introductions of agents who abruptly get killed, and it can get a bit samey. Nonetheless it is absolutely superb, definitely one of my favourites and it would have to stand on its own for introducing a new Avengers girl.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Noah's Castle

Another Christmas has been and gone and I have once more resisted writing about Too Many Christmas Trees. I am sure I will write about it at some point, I'm just rather wary of not doing it justice - although I suppose I can always return to it in the future. Instead I'm going to write about Noah's Castle, although I'm not sure I can do that justice either.
Noah's Castle features an actor who appears in many of the TV series of the era I write about - Simon Gipps-Kent. There are a couple of reasons he hasn't appeared here yet: the first is that he was type-cast in the role of upper class youth in the sort of time-travelling period drama which has never really appealed to me. The other is that up until recently I had only come across him in The Tomorrow People. I haven't yet managed to sum up what I would want to say about that show in a blog post, because I'm rather ambivalent about it, both about the show itself and I'm not really sure what I think about it.
Then recently I say Gipps-Kent in the much-maligned Dr Who adventures The Horns of Nimon, which I will definitely be posting about here at some point because I think it's a good thing despite the strong criticism it gets on the internet. That caused me to google Gipps-Kent and read some of the more bizarre things written about him on the internet. The actualy provable facts of his death in the 1980s seem to be that he died of an overdose of the morphine he was prescribed for back pain and also was having difficulty finding work because by this time he was a grown man and had rather become typecast as a young actor. The coroner ruled that his death was caused by the overdose rather than suicide - this would be usual here as coroners don't usually rule suicide unless somebody leaves a note. None of this explains some of the more fantastic things about Gipps-Kent on the internet. Such as that he had been groomed for abuse by the large number of paedophiles working in TV in the 1970s. This could of course happened. There are even rumours that he was murdered and these things have all been 'investigated' including psychically. The more fanciful notions aside, Gipps-Kent's quality as an actor is apparent from early in his career and it is such a pity he died as young as he did.
Gipps-Kent's quality as an actor is shown by the fact that despite being typecast he could still appear in wildly different shows and give a convincing performance. Noah's Castle is the sort of difficult, complex TV set in a difficult setting and with complex moral issues which is the exact opposite of the sort of comforting escapist TV I tend to go for.
In fact Noah's Castle is so far from comforting escapist TV that I feel at the time the original book was released, 1975 (the show broadcasted in 1980) it would probably have been seen as yet another stark warning of what was on the horizon. I have written here over and again about the fear of society's imminent collapse which was so prevalent in the 1970s. My own mother (admittedly an extreme example) hoarded tinned food and had an escape plan actually written out. This may be seen as an over-reaction but the scenario embodied in Noah's Castle was the natural outcome of the 1960s optimistic dream turning sour. In Noah's Castle people respond in the ways you would expect them to. My own wonder is at the level of altruism shown. Some people want everyone to be fed and for food to be shared out fairly. Some other people just want to look after number one. My own opinion is that the more common human reaction would be to look after oneself.
And Gipps-Kent's character Barry (the elder son of the family at the heart of the show) is at the heart of the moral dilemna in Noah's Castle. The problem is that his father is what can only be described as an odious character. Odious. Awful. Horrible. At a time of national emergency he looks out solely for number one, including illegally hoarding food when people are starving, and Gipps-Kent's character is firmly on the opposite side from his father. In fact much of the point of this show is the fact that the family at the centre of the show is at war with itself. The conflict within the family mirrors the greater societal conflict and the ethical issues involved, and allows the issues to be depicted in as it were a microcosm. Do we side with the father's duty-driven tunnel vision of looking after his own family regardless or the son's more compassion-driven understanding that we need to consider the whole picture? Ironic that the son has the more nuanced vision here and the father's own position is what ultimately gets him into trouble.
This show has also revived the discussion I had with myself recently on here about the two sorts of literature meant for children. Noah's Castle was intended as a young adult novel but to my mind is so incredibly worthy that I certainly wouldn't have wanted to read it myself. I have also commented on here before that in my opinion I don't understand the more harrowing TV shows, which can hardly be described as entertaining. Documentaries are one thing but the more harrowing drama as a rule is something I don't understand.
Yet perhaps I do, as a result of watching Noah's Castle. I have realised that I have been considering these shows anachronistically, without considering the eyes of the time. Surely reading Noah's Castle in the 1970s would have resulted in further activism and - surely - a relief that even though the world was in a mess it still wasn't as bad as it is shown in Noah's Castle. I suppose Noah's Castle therefore really comes out of the same stable as the 1970s series Survivors - they are both chronicles of what could happen, both alerting current fears and also providing a reassurance that we are not there yet.
I'm a bit sorry actually that I've thought to complare Noah's Castle with Survivors because frankly it doesn't look that good in comparison. I feel in Survivors the likely consequences of a disaster have been accurately thought through to their natural conclusions. When you watch Survivors it has the painfulness of so much TV at the time but there is also a real feeling of adventure and hope about it. Survivors is harrowing because there is no escape from the situation, but there is a message of the triumph of the human spirit.
The comparison with Survivors has made me put my finger on what I think is wrong with Noah's Castle. The show is supposed to be set at a time of national emergency. But I'm frankly not seeing anyone starving. I know that sounds terrible, but there is a sense of unreality about what I'm seeing in Noah's Castle. We all know that through necessity often, many people live very close to the edge of their resources, and so people can end up literally homeless after just missing a couple of paydays. In reality the sort of inflation and conflict seen in Noah's Castle would result very quickly in riots (we see them), homelessness, poverty. These things are almost referred to rather than depicted. I don't see anyone looking hungry. I don't see the kind of desperation you see in people who really have no resources. Why do people still have petrol to run cars? Why are people wearing the latest 1980s fashions? In my humble opinion the show just looks way too prosperous for the situation it is depicting. Once you see it like that Noah's Castle loses all credibility.
On the other hand the show is wonderful atmospheric viewing for people of a certain age. The cars are of their age. There is a scene in which the police turn up at a riot in a Rover 3500. The joke would have been that that car alone was responsible for many a failed arrest because the police unwisely invested in a car which was notoriously unreliable. Right at the start of the first episode we see a mark 3 Ford Cortina and my dad had one of them.
In the manner of the time Noah's Castle alternates between location and rather-obviously location-bound filming. Pacing is of the time. Some actors are familiar faces from other shows - I know that nobody else seems to share my dislike of this and of course I'm being my usual contradictory self by starting this blog post about a familiar face. The show is well known for its haunting theme tune and incidental music.
On balance, perhaps Noah's Castle is best not seen as the record of a national emergency. In fact watching it in the wake of brexit in the UK is frankly rather frightening because it could well be that that is what happens next, as those of us who voted remain suspected would happen. The context for the show's telling of the story is one boy's adolescent conflict of identity and idealogy with his father. Perhaps this show is best seen as that so that the cracks in its surface don't show up so much.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Professionals: The Rack

I ventured over the sea to the US in my last post (and thank you to Mitchell Hadley for commenting on this and bringing it to the attention of the TV blogosphere) so of course I've come scurrying back to Blighty this time. The Professionals is a show which I have tended not to write about here, despite it being one of my favourites. For a start I remember watching it with my dad, which is enough reason for it to be favourite, and it is also redolent of the clothes, cars and life of my childhood. It seems like it does have a cult following on the internet - the following just doesn't seem to have passed over into the cult TV blogosphere.
I have a theory about its (relative) lack of popularity. Much 1970s TV suffers from being made in the 1970s. The times were awful. The fashions were laughable. The social mores of the time were ridiculous (many a time Bodie and Doyle begin a conversation with a woman with the words 'Look, love...'). As just one example, the four CI5 cars which take the personnel to their sting are all Fords. The only decent one is a Mark 1 Capri. My godmother's husband had one of those - it was a sexy car when it was going but tended to spend more time off the road than it did on it. If you look closely at the trousers in this one, everyone seems to be wearing ones which, if not actual flares, are rather flared.
Most important of all, another aspect of this show which places it firmly in the 1970s - allegations of police brutality - are a hallmark of 1970s detective/police shows. Do I even need to mention The Sweeney? The sense of discomfort that 1970s policing brings to any British person at this length of time is exactly the sense of discomfort this show instils in the viewer. The arrests at the beginning of this episode are based on one single tip-off, and it is interesting that Cowley says, 'We haven't found anything yet, but we will.' He just knows that these men are guilty already. This kind of thing is in my opinion the reason these shows get less attention - it's too close to the bone. We all know that in the 1970s our police had a habit of randomly arresting people they didn't like. If anyone's unaware of the history, a google search will show a real life example in the imprisonment of the Birmingham Six. The kind of questioning associated with the police of the age is very much what is alleged to have happened in this case.
And yet, in TV terms, The Professionals attracted some really big names. The subject who illustrates this post is actually none other than the actor Michael Billington who played in a Bond film once and screen tested as Bond numerous times. He will also be familiar to readers from the Gerry Anderson show UFO and several other films and TV shows. In the manner of the time, the chest hair as it is here, was frequently on show - and frankly how much hair can one man carry? Here he does a wonderful performance as the frankly deranged Coogan.
There is a painful question at the heart of this episode. How far is it OK to go when we 'know' we are right? It is made even more uncomfortable by the fact that both sides are not exactly playing according to the rules. Coogan Junior dies after being hit by Doyle - the fact that it was severely provoked is much of the point. The Coogans' solicitor is obviously corrupt. What is actually coming under the spotlight here - as if made clear when CI5 is described as part of the government - is the establishment and the fact it makes up its own rules. As do the baddies it patrols. This is not a recipe which inclines to easy viewing. Watching The Rack is hard work, and both sides are actually on the rack at various times in the show.
The uncomfortable premise of this episode is unfortunately also the cause of its shortcomings. Once there is a death it is very apparent how the episode is going to proceeed. With both sides operating 'outside the law' we are obviously in for an uncomfortable view, and given that this is episode three of series two we only have to look in next week's Radio Times to know that CI5 will come out OK. We just know that the Coogans are the baddies and there is a sense in which most of this episode is just stretching out the premise to the obvious end. The rather slick ending is another common criticism.
Visually this episode is superb. Settings and acting are all wonderful, and I literally cannot criticise it production-wise at all, and that isn't something I often say about a show. The dialogue sparkles, it is wonderful. My favourite line is when Cowley says to Miss Mather that if she wants a seat she could sit on her knee.
To summarise - this is a show which encapsulates the uncomfortable world of the 1970s which can make it uncomfortable viewing. It is superbly produced despite being let down by a frankly rather obvious ending, which Bodie just happens to guess during a car journey. Nonetheless superb viewing and a very good example of The Professionals.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Get Smart: Casablanca

weeks ago I posted here about a first-series episode of Get Smart, and the post seemed very popular, at least to judge by the comments. The way I discovered that the series was available was this: I saw the whole boxed set in the HMV shop round the corner from me and it stirred a memory of the show. I simply had to have seen it because it seemed so familiar, but I had little recollection of it, so I only bought the series 1 set online as a taster to see if I woud like it again. I did and as my Christmas present to myself have duly bought the whole series as a boxed set (in region 2 format, obviously). I also managed to get it on ebay for £20 less than the normal retail price which is around the £50 mark. The set includes all 138 episodes on 25 discs, with 8 hours of bonus footage and features. I see from the box that the run time is 3964 minutes, which is 66 hours of Get Smart. I've started early but I don't think I will have exhausted it by Christmas day!
Some of the online reviews of the whole series of Get Smart imply that the quality went downhill as the series progressed. I can't speak for that yet, but my own impression in series 2 is that the show feels much more reassured, as if it has found its feet. I am particularly delighted that some of the series 2 episodes parody films and other media.
This parody of other media is something repeatedly found in cult TV. The obvious example is the way The Avengers parodies famous films - while as it were Avengerifying them. The other obvious example, since this post is about Get Smart, is that Get Smart is itself a parody of The Man from UNCLE, which is itself a parody of the espionage/Bond genre of films and TV so popular in the 1960s. The parodying has come full circle with the ongoing series Archer parodying many of the set phrases of Get Smart...and loving it.
Of course this Get Smart episode isn't really a parody of Casablanca, at least as far as plot goes. Rather it contains the things that we all remember (or think we do) about Casablanca, thus giving material for the real film buffs to criticise it. But I think that's the point... In fact if you carry the fact that this episode of Get Smart is an imperfect parody of a famous film, you get the real point of it. Get Smart has Get Smartified Casablanca, by getting its parody subtly wrong. Let's face it, if it was spot on, it wouldn't be an episode of Get Smart, would it?
In fact the point of this one is rather the fact that Smart is hopeless and that hopelessness extends to everything he does. The mere fact that his boss is desperate to send him on holiday to Canada indicates that everyone can see he is hopeless. This mystery kicks off with a man he is supposed to be guarding getting murdered in front of his very eyes, and his hopelessness continues throughout the episode. The wonder is that he and 99 between them actually manage to work out who the Choker is. The wonder is that Smart manages not to recognise 99 in her blond incarnation...
Which brings me nicely to the high point of this episode, which is the way 99 is turned into a blond nightclub singer and wows the club with her singing. The next highest point is Smart talking like Bogart, making this episode more of a character impersonation than a parody. I love that while 99 suspects that the man who looks like Smart is actually Smart, Smart has no suspicion of who 99 really is at all.
One weak point is that I think the episode ends rather quickly with the easy plot trick that Smart had a neck protector thing on and pretended to be dead so that he could shoot the Choker while he is trying to choke 99. But then I don't think it's reasonable to expect Get Smart to work too well as a straight espionage show...as a Get Smartified parody of some half-remembered high points from a famous film, though, I love it.