Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Nightmare

True to form, I am starting my consideration of the lost series 1 Avengers episodes with the one of which least remains. There doesn’t seem even to remain a script for this one, so I am very indebted to the reconstruction in Richard Mcginlay, Alan Hayes & Alys Hayes The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes (Electronic Edition: Hidden Tiger, 2014.), a synopsis based on published synopses ‘and other sources’. I do not know whether it has made it into a Big Finish audio version, but doubt it, because their format seems to be recording the remaining script. I am obviously not intending to take issue with any elements of the synopsis, since I was not there 55 years ago to have memories of this episode, and the authors have clearly taken a great deal of care over considering the likely elements of the plot, in their heavily-footnoted text.
Right from the start, we are clearly in a very different Avengers world than most of the episodes I write about here, since Ian Hendry receives top billing for Dr Keel and Steed seems to be the usual shadowy, rather dodgy character he plays throughout this series. I would be wary about projecting anything from later Avengers series onto the fledgling series seen in series 1, but I have always been on the opinion that the elements of the Avengerland we see in later series are already present from the start, at least based on the series 1 and series 2 episodes I have seen, and I would be interested to see whether this pet theory of mine will hold water through this closer examination of series 1 episodes. In the visual language of The Avengers, the fact that this episode begins in a laboratory spells in a rather obvious visual way that the episode is set in a world of knowledge, of learning, and with an undertone of futurism, at least as seen in the available screen cap I have found on the internet (credit to dissolute.com.au for the image). This is contrasted with the rather more sedate and respectable surroundings of Dr Keel’s surgery, which in all the pictures I have seen is very clearly shown as an adapted house decorated in a fairly traditional style and spelling out respectability, solidity and security. Further contrasted again is the shadowy figure of Steed, who doesn’t seem to have a setting at all! He just appears out of nowhere, and to my knowledge it is never made clear at all what authority or position he has, at least until later series. To my mind, the setting, the visual language, and the ‘feel’ of later Avengers series are already present here, just with the exception that they are rather more subdued that than the heavy-handed treatment they would get in the Tara King series. In fact the show’s individuality is also commented on by Cornell et al (I realise that their book is very much criticised by a lot of fans, but I continue to find it valuable as including more analysis than the description which dominates a lot of other books about The Avengers):
‘Early signs that the series was a little different from those around it emerge in this story, with its complex plot concerning a fake MI5 agent and a deadly anaesthetist.’ (Paul Cornell, Martin Day, and Keith Topping: The Avengers Dossier. Virgin Books, London, 1998, p.21)
MI5: the (supposed) setting places this episode automatically in the classic Avengers world of the great and the good, who have an unfortunate habit of either not being whom they seem, or else (as in the case of the anaesthetist) going off the rails completely. It is also not for nothing that the futuristic/domestic settings mentioned above then segue to a chase through seedy Soho. Visually this spells the sort of corruption frequently depicted as infesting the world of the great and the good, in The Avengers.
What comes next in the story is to my mind one of the more extraordinary elements of it. I find it very interesting that Keel telephones Steed for help in the first place, rather than Steed just tending to turn up as he frequently does. While Keel is the lead in this episode, I feel that this reflects the real relationship between them, influenced by the ongoing impact on Keel of having his fiancé murdered in front of him (in Hot Snow) and the way Steed was the only person who would actually help him there. I am reminded of the way Venus Smith greets Steed in later episodes (‘Oh no, not you,’ or words to that effect) since Steed is rather cavalier with Keel’s safety in this episode, to say the least. The plan for Keel to act as the vanished professor is Steed’s and, amazingly, Keel agrees to it. This results in him getting shot, and frankly I would have to say it is his own silly fault for agreeing to Steed’s hare-brained plan, since he clearly should already know that Steed is involved in the seedy underworld, and a much more sensible response to seeing Steed would by Venus Smith’s! Notwithstanding his foolhardiness in getting involved in any plan of Steed’s, this does cast an interesting light on Keel’s character – the fact that a respectable GP is willing just to ditch his practice to follow a shady character into an undercover operation, and also in the process endanger his own life, could be seen as a major plot failure here. However, I would prefer to see it in the light of the sort of unreality seen in many of the Avengers’ plots, and also as an insight into Keel’s character. His personal experience of having his fiancée murdered has clearly made such a difference to his life that it has turned him, literally, into an ‘avenger’, who is prepared to ditch his normal life and safety in defence of the defenceless.
The fact that the ‘baddies’ manage to infiltrate their man into the hospital to pose as an anaesthetist to kill Keel is the material of conspiracy theories through the ages, and once again suggests that this episode poses the problem of corruption among the great and the good. I find unsatisfying, though, the resolution of the story in Professor Braintree having disappeared with amnesia (always a too-easy plot device) brought on by overwork. Once again this brings in the Security elements of the later Avengers series, and obviously Steed was after Professor Braintree because of the importance of his knowledge. The weakness here, of course, is that if he was really that important, surely a better eye should have been kept on him in the first place, however as usual I would maintain the reservation that I am (over-)analysing a TV programme intended to be viewed once only.
So how can I conclude this criticism of a TV show I will never see (and I must just give myself a pat on the back for managing to write a blog post about a TV programme which no longer exists)? I am tantalised by the fact that the synopsis raises more questions than it answers for me. In particular it seems as though the plot *could* be seen as being full of holes if you were looking for them, even while bearing in mind that in the early 60s TV was seen as an ephemeral medium and ITV was always seen as lower-brow than BBC. Once again, an old TV show seems not to stand up well to over-analysis. I am fascinated, however, by the echoes of the later world of the Avengers found in this episode. Such characteristic things as the contrast between different worlds, corruption in high or respectable circles, and a sense of unreality, are already present, although writ small in comparison to later series. Perhaps the most interesting element of this show, though, is the different slant it casts on the early Steed character, who while he is portrayed as some kind of agent of the authorities, behaves in a way which seems to be incredibly irresponsible!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Coming next: The Avengers Series 1!

Having got to the end of the posts I projected on railways in cult TV I have decided that I am going to give my own opinionated view on series 1 of The Avengers. I hope nobody has come to this blog post eagerly expecting that I have visited some local TV station in some out of the way part of the world and found that they happen to have the remaining reels of series 1 on their dusty shelves, which they haven't cleared out since c. 1961. Sadly I don't think that is ever going to happen, since it seems The Avengers was not exported in the way Doctor Who was, at least until later series.
This is rather something I have been meaning to do for some time, which is to watch through the reconstructed series 1 episodes I have on my DVD box sets, read about them on the internet and with the help of the book, The Curious Case of the Missing Episodes, and try to enter the world of missing Avengers episodes.
One of the reasons it has taken me so long to get round to doing this is simply fear. When I posted about Hot Snow some time ago, I realised that I had avoided doing so because I would never really be able to post about any new Avengers episodes ever. And similarly, I have never actually watched all of the reconstructed series 1 episodes in any detail, because I know that this will be my last opportunity ever to view any 'new' Avengers stories. I think this sense a putting off a final treat and a fear of disappointment may also have been behind my major disappointment at the Big Finish treatment of the missing series 1 episodes: I am finding I would rather read about them, read snippets of scripts, and let Steed's voice come through to me as if he is still alive. Let nobody say that television destroys human relationships: I've only just realised that I am describing a bereavement experience.
Of course watching these episodes are not the absolutely last possible Avengers experiences one could have. There are the novels, which to varying degrees reconstruct the authentic Avengers atmosphere. There are also many later Avengers fan fiction stories on t'internet. But I must express a personal reservation here: some are very good, and as if the canon were continuing and the 1960s had never ended. Some others are also very good writing and authentic except in one major detail: I don't like the 'slash' fiction where Steed and Mrs Peel are a couple. To me the whole point of The Avengers is they might get it together, one can argue for and against them having been an item in the past, but the actual confirmation that that will ever happen will never be forthcoming.
Anyway, there's no danger of that in series 1. And I'm looking forward to the earliest slant on The Avengers, where Steed is a rather different, and definitely dodgy, character.
I am going to do this, I am going to make myself watch those reconstructions and write about them. And of course that is really the purpose of this introductory post: I watched The Springers last night and found myself shying away from actually evaluating it and writing about it, and this post is to make me do just that.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Tomorrow People: Second Impression

The Tomorrow People is one of the series which I have seen before and consciously not written about here, because I did not take to it at all. It is only on reading round on the internet that I have discovered my instant dislike of this series is a result of patchy writing from one series to another. I have discovered that many of the show’s greatest fans are quite upfront about their opinion that certain series of the show (it seems that the general opinion is that it had a slump in the series in the middle) were almost complete duds which badly let down an otherwise good show. Yesterday when I saw the DVDs of series 6, 7, and 8 in a charity shop I thought I would give it another go. I have been also confused by the way the series is released in two separate runs, one with series numbers, and the other with the titles of adventures, and obviously you don’t need both of them if you want the whole series. Unbeknown ot me, it was series 6 I have seen before and taken a dislike to, which I always thought a great pity, since it is the sort of thing I ought to like and has a cracking theme tune. I started watching through it yesterday, giving it a good go to prove itself although I realised it was familiar, but eventually turned it off when I fell asleep. When I discovered that the first episode of series 7 was based on a haunted castle, I put the disc in, pressed play and was hooked.
The premise of the show is absolute genius for a children’s TV programme. What child could possibly not watch this and not be taken into a fantasy that he could be a tomorrow person? What a fantastic dream for anyone. This premise and the show itself are well within the ongoing theme of the future, science, and the relationship between the two, which are so often the theme of the TV shows of this time. In this case, it is not really very surprising that the show lost direction from time to time, because once you have established that the next step of evolution is happening, where do you go from there?
The Tomorrow People is often criticised for the cheapness of its special effects. Personally I don’t have a problem with this, and given that I find I keep banging on about the beige colour palette often used in this era of TV, it is interesting to see that this show actually escapes from that colour scheme to indicate futuristic technology, such as the strange suits which take you over. The only thing which can be a problem is that the cheapness of the scenery and costumes can actually make it funny; for example at one point some things which look like huge pepper grinders are wheeled out as aliens. One thing which appears derivative to the aficionado of the cult TV of the past, is that some kind of balloons or balls are used to indicate extra-terrestrial life forms (there is even a lava lamp in the tomorrow people’s den thingy. Despite the fact that one white balloon alone is studiously ignored, to the cult TV fan this can only reference The Prisoner, of course.
Many of the reviews on Amazon suggest that modern youngsters would like this show. I think they would as long as they are prepared to swallow that this is a futuristic vision of the past – I have tried and failed to find episodes of Tomorrow’s World, since I feel that they would be hilarious. The difficulty is always that if you try to predict what the future could be like, you are OK at the time, but your prediction will automatically be very dated very quickly. This is the first of the two drawbacks I would identify about this show – it isn’t a fault, it is the nature of the medium. However, it means you have to approach this show with that in mind. The other drawback is also, I suppose, inevitable, that this show is famous for the big name actors it features, usually in a very early role. Personally I find it distracting, and that remains one of the things which I do find off-putting about this show.
One of the best features of this release is the commentaries (as an alternative audio track) by the cast of the show. You will be disappointed if you expect a serious dissection of the show, but I guarantee that you will be amused, since what you get on the commentary is the actors making fun of themselves and each other. I particularly love the anecdote about the fibreglass Loch Ness Monster being sunk without trace after one take only.
A darker element in the story of this show, is that in going back to the BBC of the 1970s we are of course returning to a cess pit of dodgy people and child abuse, which has thoroughly ruined my memories of the personalities of my youth. If you read round on the internet, you will discover stories of child actors whose lives turned out tragic, and the usual conspiracy theories of people being murdered, and so on. The pressure of being a child actor alone is probably enough to make anyone go off the roles, and the fact that we are now more aware of the effect these ‘opportunities’ have on children, leaves something of a shadow over the television of the past. Naturally this is not unique to this show, but is a shadow I found cast over many of the 1970s shows I wrote about some time ago.
I am pleased that my second impressions of The Tomorrow People are much more favourable than the first, because I was actually beginning to wonder what was wrong with me! I would say, though, that it is particularly important to remember the TV norms of the time when watching this one, because while if you don’t forget modern TV, you will be bitterly disappointed.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Stone Tape: First Impressions

Still in the seventies, and still dominated by the twin contemporary questions of Science and the Supernatural, I come to one of the highest-rated ghost stories ever. I’m actually rather surprised that I have never seen The Stone Tape before, in fact I am writing this on my first viewing.
This is the Christmas ghost story which famously gave its name to one of the major theories of modern quackery, which I’m glad to see was actually first published in 1961 by C.T. Lethbridge, always a good source for pseudo-science and quackery:
' The Stone Tape theory is the speculation thathttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghosts">ghosts
 and https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haunting">hauntings are analogous to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tape_recorder">tape recordings, and that electrical mental impressions released during emotional or traumatic events can somehow be "stored" in moist rocks and other items and "replayed" under certain conditions. The idea was first proposed by British https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeology">archaeologist turnedhttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parapsychology">parapsychologist https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Charles_Lethbridge">Thomas Charles Lethbridgein 1961. Lethbridge believed that ghosts were not https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit">spirits of the deceased, but were simply non-interactive recordings similar to a https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film">movie. The idea was popularized in 1972 in a Christmas ghost story called https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stone_Tape">The Stone Tape, produced by the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC">BBC.
' In their book How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, authorshttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Schick">Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn dismissed the idea as an irrational claim, stating, "The problem is that we know of no mechanism that could record such information in a stone or play it back. Chunks of stone just do not have the same properties as reels of tape."https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_Tape#cite_note-SchickVaughn2013-2">[2]
'https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wiseman">Richard Wiseman has also written there is no scientific evidence for the stone tape theory of ghosts. According to Wiseman the idea is "completely implausible – as far as we know, there is no way that information about events can be stored in the fabric of a building."https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_Tape#cite_note-3">[3] ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_Tape)
Once again the ambivalent attitude of the times towards the shibboleth of Science is demonstrated to the full in this show. Hard empirical science means proof, experimentation, repetition, control. Of course the stone tape theory is pseudo-science, and on one level this show is about what happens when hard science loses its way and messes about in the uncontrollable world of human emotions and history. It is almost as if the dangerous emotional world which the censors in the Doomwatch episode Sex and Violence sought to control, is here let loose in the world of science as a result of not sticking to the controlled, measured empirical world.
Yet the stone tape theory is not solely what is going on in this story, and the quality of the writing is shown by the fact that it can be understood on several different levels. Nigel Kneale’s writing is, in my humble opinion, dominated by what it pleases me to call the theme of the one sane person in a world full of lunatics/imbeciles/etc. This is of course a major theme in all literature throughout the ages, and makes for white knuckle viewing or a level of irritation unknown elsewhere, depending on your orientation. Personally, I love the only sane person in a mad world mythos, despite its one drawback that it is incredibly predictable. And I’m afraid my one big criticism of this show is that it how it is going to end is incredibly predictable right from the start. Science and the supernatural, futurity and tradition, are pitted against each other right from the word go, and it is obvious what is going to happen. It is a completely personal reaction, but I find Jane Asher unconvincing as the ‘only sane person’ figure in this story. This is purely based on my association of her with cooking, and in fact here she plays a somewhat delicate, traditionally feminine, character, contrasted with multiple intelligent male scientists. That said, I have revised my perspective of Asher herself in reading around for this post, because I had no idea she had publicly dumped Paul McCartney after he made unacceptable demands of her and two-timed her, on the BBC in the 1960s. Atta girl.
Visually I wasn’t impressed with this show to start off with. The sets are again in that sludgy 1970s colour scheme dominated by browns, peaches, and greys, which makes it look tremendously old-fashioned initially. However the quality of the writing is not dominated by the paucity of the sets, and in fact there is a very clear visual language used to delineate modernity vs traditionalism in this show, restored building vs unrestored building, scientists in white coats vs villagers in tweed, you get the idea.
I am delighted to discover that an inspiration for the house itself was actually a real house which belonged to the BBC:
' Kingswood Warren in Surrey, south west of London, is a Gothic mansion completed in 1837, which until early 2010 housed the BBC's technical research department.
'The history of Kingswood Warren can be traced back to the Domesday Book. The grounds were acquired by Thomas St Leger Alcock in 1835 and over the years the mansion was also the home of Henry Orme Bonsor MP and Joseph Rank, who had founded the milling empire bearing his name.
'It later served as a finishing school and insurance company offices before being acquired by the BBC in 1948 to house its research and development activities. The broadcasting industry and its audiences owe a debt to the many research engineers who have worked there over the years. The staff at Kingswood Warren led the world in pioneering broadcasting and their innovative work was rewarded with three Queen's Awards for Industry. ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc/buildings/kingswood-warren)
And so once again, I find that my appreciation of a TV show is improved by reading around the subject, in addition to my existing interest in anything weird. This is another of those shows which keep one foot in reality (although in this case it is the real world of the parapsychology of the time) and thus manages to convince the viewer that the events depicted could actually happen. It is an excellent, very classic, ghost story. Its only drawbacks are the poor sets and what I perceive as some over-acting at points, such as the team’s excitement at taking over their new building, and the angst when they all hear or see things for the first time.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Doomwatch: Sex and Violence

I wanted to devote a separate point to this episode of Doomwatch alone, being probably the best-known purely for the fact of having never been seen on television before. That story is one which is well told HERE and I don’t propose to revisit it except to comment that I find it hilarious that pornographers of the 1970s were shocked at the idea of soft porn being broadcast on television and so a mock-up porn film had to be made.
The wonder is that I don’t think the subject matter of this episode has really come up in this blog before, at least in any great length. I was amused to read recently that despite a drumming by the critics Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the highest-grossing UK film of its year. The account I was reading described it as ‘low-brow’, but the contemporary concern for the effect of the media on people’s morals and the simple fact that a smutty film could be both highly-criticised and extremely popular, indicates a certain ambivalent attitude.
The root of the question here is what is pornographic and what is indecent? Well, my own answer would have to be that both of those things are in the eye, or the mind, of the beholder. To me the human sexual impulse is so strong that society actually becomes frightened of it (rightly at times) and tries to limit it to certain safe parameters. Then what happens is that the things people are frightened of become demonised and tend to go underground. The link in many people’s minds between sex and dirt is very clearly brought out in this episode, albeit in a rather simplistic way where the censors see sex as dirty and the libertarians don’t. There is a strange irony that the censor may always be onto a losing game: I am writing about an episode of a show which was banned at the time, but the DVD set now has a 15 certificate. As so often Doomwatch does a very good job of laying out the issues and expanding the conflicting arguments, then leaving the viewer to make up his own mind.
The wonder for me personally is that I am aware of the sheer sexiness of much of the television I write about here. The early Avengers were incredibly sexy, full of innuendo between Mrs Gale and Steed, and some of the most popular posts on this blog are ones about the kinkier episodes of The Avengers. Most of the TV I write about is placed firmly after the sexual revolution and yet displays an ambivalent attitude similar to that displayed to science. Sex is both the fascinating lovely thing that we are now free to obsess about, but is also something that is in danger of engulfing society. I can only think that the contemporary concern about the perceived negative effect of the depiction of sex in the media is largely absent from the TV of the time, is that the argument was completely polarised and there is always a tendency to egg on the opposition by pushing things as far as you can.
Doomwatch muddies the waters and in fact explodes the dichotomy completely, by making one of the anti-filth protesters assault a member of the public, thereby making a m the ‘good’ side do something wrong. ‘Morals are not a question of mathematics’ is a quote from this episode which very clearly sums up its conclusions, that while the science-types of the Doomwatch team are used to dealing with hard evidence and statistics, when it comes to morals matters are much less clear. It is significant from an empirical point of view that what the moral crusaders largely have to support their arguments are their own opinions only. This makes this an odd one out in Doomwatch terms, because it is dealing with things which were already happening rather than the show’s usual knack of prophetically broadcasting about something which subsequently happens. An aura of scientific respectability is given to the discussion by the use of Freud’s now- (and surely already then-) discredited theories, which remain far from the normal statistical solidity represented by Doomwatch’s research. That said, I suspect that probably more weight would have been given to the psychologists’ ideas at the time as cold facts, than would be the case now.
The mocked-up porn film made in a hotel near Heathrow is absolutely hilarious, to my mind, and this is also the reaction of the pop star on the committee. This is the heart of the issue that you could see that either as filthy or hilarious. In fact it is one of the best bits of this episode, because to my eyes it gives exactly the right impression of what would now be considered the very soft porn of the past. To me personally the footage of an execution is much more shocking.
This is something which has genuinely come as a surprise to me. Perhaps I’m getting old but I’m not really surprised at the prurient interest in seeing someone killed. The last public execution just up the road from where I am writing this was as recently as 1806. I’m rather more surprised at the notion of making a violent film and sitting children in front of it to see their response! The execution footage is very cleverly preceded by June Brown’s character saying how terrible blacks are, producing a contrast with the sympathy felt for the executed men.
Normally I would criticise the way there are some very familiar faces in the cast, however in this case I am so amused by the anti-smut protester being played by my beloved June Brown, best known for playing Dot Cotton in Eastenders, who makes a suitably hysterical character. She is in clear contrast with Dr Quist’s inability to decide what the point of all this is, or what Doomwatch’s function should be. In fact this is an exercise in contrasts across the board, leaders and followers, the privileged and poor, and at every step knocks down the stark contrasts it has set up to install a nuanced view of the issues involved, and as such I would commend it as intelligent television, well worthy of its banning at the time of production.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Paul Temple Again

I have been watching Jason King again. He is probably an acquired taste, but how I love that show. I have been reflecting on what makes it appeal to me, and I think it is its setting, which I will refer to as ‘seventies opulent’. He is actually in a great tradition of people, frequently writers, who have a day job and yet seem to spend all their time either reclining in the most luxurious settings of the time or else doing the real purpose of the show, frequently investigating crimes. To me there is little point criticising the seventies opulent school for rubbing people’s noses in it when the world was going through a bad time, since nobody can live on gritty realism all the time.
It’s my own silly fault, since it is always a mistake to judge different ‘takes’ on a story in the same light (for example I like to approach The New Avengers as if I am watching The Professionals rather than as if I am approaching The Avengers), and I realise that I did Paul Temple’s TV incarnation a disservice when I roundly slagged it off in my last post about it. I was comparing it to the stiff-upper-lipped hero (ironically in the writer who lives a luxury life class, although he seems to do quite a lot of actual writing) of the radio series. This is actually a 1970s take on Paul Temple and I should have been comparing it to the other shows of the time. For this reason I bought the boxed set again when I saw it for sale today and am giving it another go.
This Paul Temple is so very much of the seventies. I have just noticed that the lettering on the DVD box is in an art deco-style font, which makes me wonder whether this was a deliberate reference to the era of the older radio series. This TV series is one where you just have to sit back and let it happen: the collars are huge, the carpets are deep, the cars are petrol guzzling monsters, and the chests are hairy. I didn’t take to this series when I watched it for the first time, I think for the reason that I didn’t allow myself to forget about the radio series. As I commented above, it is much better to watch it the way you would watch any implausible seventies luxury series. If you had watched this series in the actual seventies, you would have been exposed to the multiple levels of understanding of the time. You may have thought the clothes desirable, for example.
Time, and our distance from events or fashions, has a remarkable effect on how comfortable we feel with things. Now, you may still think the clothes portrayed in this TV show desirable, or you may think them ridiculous. I have a feeling you would find them more appealing if you weren’t alive in the seventies to remember them. It’s like that with eighties retro: it makes me embarrassed because I  can see how much of the fashion of the times was awful. However early 1960s TV, such as The Avengers, leaves me unembarrassed because it has no immediate relevance to my life and memories. This adaptation of Paul Temple directly accesses my memories and shows up some of the things I thought very sophisticated at the time, as very embarrassing in retrospect! This once again invites a comparison to Jason King, which does not have this embarrassing memories effect on me, and I have a feeling that that may be because even if I had been a wealthy adult of the time I still wouldn’t have gone around dressed like Jason King, in fact a colleague couldn’t understand recently why I had hysterics when she told me she wears a kaftan around the house, until I showed her the image in my head, which was nothing like the image in her head!
Of the three series I have been thinking about mostly this week – the others being Domwatch and Jason King – I think Paul Temple is the most sedate and worthy. What it boils down to is a fairly straightforward detective series. I think it is possibly more open to the criticism I expected to make of Doomwatch (although I found I was wrong factually) – that you can expect a series with multiple writers to have patchy plots. Here I am finding the plots much more variable, and yet I believe that Francis Durbridge actually wrote all of them, so I can’t really account for that unless he was approaching it as jobbing writing and not perhaps being as attentive to quality as he could be. I believe him to be a writer with a devoted following to this day, and have read a few of his books myself, so I would be surprised to find any great degree of variability in his writing.
I would identify as a greater criticism that Temple himself seems to have lost much of the character he had on the radio. Not long after this was made, Dick Barton made it onto the TV in an adaptation which was less divorced from the radio series than this one is, so it is unfortunate that the things which make Paul Temple himself have largely been removed. He is more of a generic rich man of the time than he is in the radio series. If my theory about the length of time before memories become embarrassing, is correct, then it is certainly possible that the original radio series of Dick Barton had become embarrassing by this stage, so it was considered best to branch out afresh.
I find the character of Steve even more mystifying. In the first episode of the box set I am watching, Games People Play, she is portrayed very much in contrast to Temple himself, as if she is very much younger and in fact quite in with the young crowd. They are both portrayed as very na├»ve to let this crowd get their hands on her alone, since it is plainly obvious that they are playing some dangerous games and you can see what is coming. I am also rather surprised at the contrast her crop top makes with Temple’s relatively dowdy clothing throughout the episode. It is conceivable that she is deliberately portrayed as much younger, perhaps to provide a bridge into the youth culture which Francis Matthews was certainly too old readily to move in, but this makes them an awkward couple together.
Similarly, this is definitely comfort viewing, in a Jason King vein. Yes, there are baddies, but you know they are never going to win really. None of the great traumas of the time is referenced in any meaning way which would make them threatening – perhaps it is a mistake to watch Jason King and Paul Temple in too close proximity to Doomwatch! I get the feeling that the comfortable world of Paul Temple shows no sign of ever being at risk or coming to an end.
These criticisms aside, re-watching this series has forced me to re-evaluate my original rather harsh opinion of it. I still prefer the films for a visual presentation of Paul Temple, followed by the radio series for the classic adaptation. However, this series is not without quality if it is watched as 1970s luxurious escapism, rather than a direct ancestor of the other adaptations of Paul Temple.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Doomwatch: boxed set

Today I have taken delivery of the newly-released boxed set of the remaining episodes of Doomwatch. I seem to remember a rather ambivalent attitude towards this show, based on the only two episodes I have seen before, which coincidentally form the first two remaining episodes of the first series. Suffice to say that I am glad I ordered this series, and I have paused in rewatching Paul Temple and in watching The Stone Tape for the first time, in order to post some second thoughts on Doomwatch.
For a start, I must congratulate Simply Media on a wonderful restoration and presentation job. There is the odd jump in the picture only, it has really been incredibly well restored. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my oft-expressed opinion that if you want modern-standard TV, you should watch modern TV. Archival footage of forty or fifty years ago cannot reasonably be expected to keep up with it, and there is just the odd jump in the picture now and then.
That said, watching back-to-back episodes is causing me to reach another conclusion as to how aged the show looks. Doomwatch is dominated by that palette of beiges, browns, and greys which I often remark on in 1970s TV. I am still at a loss to account for this. The 1960s TV shows I write about here, while being only the tip of the iceberg of what was produced, are frequently a riot of psychedelic colours (perhaps reflecting the mental state of the production team) and of course I remember the 1970s, and remember it as a happy time full of bright colours. Allowing for the influence of the additives in the processed food we were brought up on, I cannot account for the very muted colours which dominate so much of the TV of the time. The choice of colours marks this series out as very much of its time, and makes it look disproportionately dated.
Otherwise the production values are very much of the time. Slightly slower than, say, Jason King or The Professionals. The series is also disproportionately safe in comparison to many of the other 1970s shows I have on my shelf: I haven’t got to the episode about sex and violence included in this box set, which was considered too much to be broadcast at the time (although bizarrely in the 1970s there were always violent news stories and the fear was very real of a truer disaster), but so far have seen no sex or violence of any sort.
The Doomwatch team is what interests me particularly at the moment. I wonder whether it would be possible nowadays for a para-governmental agency to be constructed entirely around one person? A person who is then allowed to model this agency in his own image with the power of life or death over it, completely able to select his own staff, and so on? While not being privy to the higher secrets of government, I have a feeling that probably the day of the maverick hero is over and that probably characters such as Dr Qvist are sidelined and otherwise constrained nowadays. That said, even in the 1970s the work of his agency is hampered and sabotaged by the powers of government, who as always are concerned about the competing interests of government, economics, and so on.
Dr Qvist (at least in the episodes I have seen so far) wins out as the figure of scientific integrity, whose strength as well as weakness is his single-minded focus on his Science. I just feel Science must have a capital S in this series, since that is the sort of aura of respect with which it is endowed. I return over and again in this blog to the ambivalent attitude towards science, which grows throughout the 1960s (where science is a saviour for humanity yet has to be contained and definitely in the hands of the Right People) to the all-out fear of science’s dangers when it is in the hands of dangerous clowns or even fallible humans. I would place the Chernobyl disaster as the apogee of this fear, and I would place its roots probably in the Windscale fire of 1957, which was handled in a way much more calculated to avert fear by keeping the incident as quiet as possible. I am deliberately using neutral language to describe that way of handling a nuclear accident, because that was genuinely the standard way of handling incidents at the time.
Doomwatch comes right between those two incidents and so embodies the greatest fear of the dangers of science with the most complicated attitude towards what we would now call transparency and publicity. There is a very real sense in which every episode of Doomwatch addresses the nightmare question of weighing up how we can envisage with scientific future with the need for research to underpin the decisions and the supremely tricky question of what to do with this knowledge. There is a very real sense in which the subject of Doomwatch is therefore an ethical one, as well as the stark background of the 1970s fear of the impending disaster.
I cannot help placing this against the real background of the time. All of we 1970s babies have lived to see many of our childhood heroes convicted of paedophilia (if you want Rolf Harris to give oyu art classes, you just have to get yourself incarcerated in Stafford prison). There is therefore also another disaster unexamined by Doomwatch but which is now very much of Doomwatch’s time: the age of the hero is now pretty much over. The age of the person above suspicion is over. The age of the maverick allowed his own head over everyone else must be over, because those people have a habit of proving on examination to be paper tigers. This is the real doom completely unexamined by the show, and which may be seen as the end of an age of naivete and innocence. Personally I am glad that that age is over, because it was an age of unreasoning trust and unfairly inflated reputations. The cost of that will of course be that we will find ourselves in an age of safety where people are more reluctant to take risks and so we can miss out on discoveries, developments, experiments. Personally l find this preferable, and Doomwatch is a reminder that the age it portrays was actually mired in a real and present danger which was unexamined.
I have further good things to say about the show: you can always tell a TV programme is going to be good when you immediately recognise the name of the writer as a familiar friend, very much the case with this show. I haven’t watched all of the remaining episodes yet, but I would normally expect a series with multiple writers to be patchy in quality, however I haven’t really noticed that yet. There are points at which the show achieves certain qualities of The Avengers (I commented on its visual language in may previous post just after Christmas), including the references to The Minister. Nor are Avengers-esque eccentricities missing, hence the famous scene of the Minister dictating to his secretary in a sauna. If I have to place Doomwatch in a historical succession, I would consider it a parent of the X-Files, since its plots are believable and could conceivably happen. My one criticism is that the show uses a lot of familiar actors, who can tend to distract from the plot. Overall, however, if you like the sort of TV I do, I can highly recommend Doomwatch to you.