Monday, 15 August 2016

Man At The Top

It is rather strange that this programme has never drifted into my orbit before, since there was what we would now call a whole franchise around the 'at the top' series of films, book and TV programme. The top part of the title is actually a metaphor for the protagonist's ambitions to better himself:
' Joe Lampton, recently demobilised from the armed forces of late 1940s Britain, is starting in a new job with the Municipal Treasury in the town of Warley. He was a">POW who spent his captivity studying to pass his">accountancy examinations. He is an">orphanwhose parents were killed in an">air raidagainst his home town. He is determined to make something of himself, targeting a high-paid job with a thousand a year salary. He notices, shortly after arriving, a young man with an expensive car and a pretty girl friend and he realises that this lifestyle and appearance is what he aspires to. The book centres on Joe's efforts to secure a future he can take pride in.
'In Warley, he takes lodgings with the Thompsons, a middle-class couple living in the better part of town, known locally as "T'top". Lampton is delighted to find himself already socially advantaged by taking, quite literally, a "Room at the top", and this serves as a metaphor for his ambition to better himself and to leave behind any vestige of his former life and acquaintances, many of whom he characterises as "zombies", lacking any trace of genuine life and character. Everything about Warley is an improvement on his former life in Dufton.' (
The 'at the top' franchise is of course very much of its time, part of the movement towards realism in theatre and other media (my preference for unreal TV is probably the reason this series has never grabbed me before), and depicting the tension brought by the upward mobility of the post-war years. And here, right at the start of my own actualy writing in this post, I've already fallen out with this show in a big way.
The phrase 'Northern anti-hero' has kept popping into my head while I have been watching it. It's nothing to me, after all in the great division between the North and the South of England, I'm from the Midlands, and both sides of the great divide place the Midlands in the other camp anyway, but I feel that this show's target audience can only really be Southerners. In addition to the ambition element, there is also an element in which this show is about the interaction of the North and the South. Don't ask me how I know, it just comes across as clear as a bell with the accents of the characters. Lampton, the protagonist, is in a sense alienated from both sides of the divide: his accent alienates him from one and his aspirations from the other. What I'm trying to say is that I feel he may be a character calculated to attract a lack of sympathy in his audience, although I'm consciously trying to avoid prejudging both sides' reactions to him. If I have to come down on one side or the other, since this was produced by Thames Television, I would think that this was calculated to be seen by Southern eyes. Just for the record, speaking as a Brummie, Haigh's accent goes through me, and the posh people's reactions to him also go through me.
On the other hand, I suppose this programme is about human aspirations in the broader sense, things such as relationships, money, identity, and security. More to the point they are about these things in a very specific moment in time, which is where this series makes a much better impression on me. If ever there was a person for whom the word aspirations was invented, it must be Lampton. I suppose it is important to remember my own repeated point that we must at least make an attempt to view these TV shows with the eyes of the time, to enable the issues to be put into their true context. Since this is a 1970s TV series, it must be seen against the back drop of unrest, conflict and crisis, accompanied by great luxury for some. These were of course the events which led up to the values of Thatcher's Britain, which embodied an aspirational value system. I feel that Lampton's relative prosperity would be seen as completely alien by many of this show's original viewers, and of course there is the uneasy tension that his aspirations would alienate him from his working-class roots. If I have to give my jaundiced opinion on this tension, I feel that Man At The Top actually holds this tension very well, and this show is genuinely one which deserves thinking about. It is not an easy evening view after work.
For the modern viewer, especially one of - ahem - my age, one of the greatest things about this show is its perfect 1970s setting. The wardrobe Lampton wears is so similar to that worn by my dad in the 1970s as to be uncanny. The contrast between the rich people and the poorer people when Lampton briefly goes home, is perfectly done and since this show is not trying to be anything other than contemporary, once again rushes me back to the scenes of my youth. My usual advisory notes to anyone who may prefer the faster pace of modern television apply: expect to have to pay closer attention to this show than modern ones. This is before the age of the sound bite. The show's production values are of the time. There are occasionally times when a set is a little too obviously a set, or you catch a glimpse of studio lighting, but I don't personally mind that. Another prominent way in which this show is of its time is in Lampton's attitude to women, and perhaps there is a subtext in which the show's title of *Man* At The Top is very suitable.
I would recommend this show to anyone wanting a challenging sociological view. I would just warn that there is an uneasy tension at its heart built on the famous British North/South divide and post-War aspirations, which tends to militate against this show being relaxing viewing.
Image credit:

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Dixon of Dock Green: First Impressions

In case anyone had spotted that I have ground to a halt with my posts on Avengers Series 1 episodes (and in fact the ones I have done are amongst the most popular posts on this blog), have no fear. I retain a sense that I want to approach Series 1 slowly and with respect, because I know for a fact that at the end of that series of posts there simply won't ever be any more. Another worry of the cult tv fan which I have written about at length here, is that one day the supply of quality TV to be found or published will simply run out, and at that point my library of DVDs will be it for the rest of my life. This fear has once again been assuaged by my discovering a couple of series which I have never seen.
One is Dixon of Dock Green. Obviously I'm not that great an old TV aficionado, since I have never yet seen a single episode of it, until today I saw one of Acorn's anthology sets for sale and thought I would give it a go. Dixon is so woven into the British imagination (surely no real policeman ever has actually said 'Evening, all' except as a joke) that I can't think how I've managed to miss it. It also has a local connection to me personally, since theseries creator went to school at George Dixon School here in the second city, which provided the inspiration for Dixon's name.
Let's get the nitty gritty over first, before I get distracted into one of my little wanderings around a subject. The episodes I've got are in colour. By that I mean the characteristic 1970s palette of muted colours. The restoration is mainly superb, with just the odd spot where the picture betrays the fact that it is forty years old. The plots move at the pace one would expect of the era: given that these late episodes were in the same era as The Sweeney, Dixon of Dock Green comes across as a bit of an anachronism, frankly. As is usually the case with seventies TV, the cars are major stars for me. I love that the police always seem to be in a Rover and I've just spotted a woman driving an Austin Maxi. Can't remember the last time I saw one of those in reality.
A few criticisms, most of which won't come as any surprise to regular visitors here. One is that far too many of the actors are familiar faces, to the extent that they distract from the show. My real complaint here though, is that they are tending to make me think how young these jobbing actors are, which is terribly ageing. I think probably in purely technical terms my main ciriticism is that Jack Warner is visibly far too old to be a working policeman. He was in his seventies at the time these episodes were made, well beyond retirement age, and was looking visibly elderly. Unfortunately his presence prevents the show having any real credence at all.
What I am about to say is more in the nature of a comment than a criticism, but Dixon of Dock Green portrays a very interesting view of policing and of Britain. For a start, I haven't seen a single ethnic minority person yet. The closest it's got is that the baddie in the one I am watching at the moment is Italian! For me this puts Dixon of Dock Green into my 'unreal' category of TV (as opposed to the gritty 'realism' of many other 1970s shows. The unreality is maximised in the portrayal of the police, and I would repeat that this isn't really a criticism, since there's nothing wrong to my mind with escapist television. I have a feeling that that was a hangover from the view of public servants which pertained when the show started in the 1950s. To illustrate this post I have deliberately chosen some parodies of a Ladybird book about 'The Policeman' in the series 'People at Work'. To my twenty-first-century mind it is so obvious that if you are a corrupt wheeler and dealer, the police is the obvious profession to go into. If you are a paedophile you'll tend to become a clergyman, teacher, or social worker, and if you like inflicting death or suffering, then medicine or nursing is the way to go. If not your actual dentistry. At the time the episodes I am watching were made, the sheer extent of police corruption was coming to public attention in some very high-profile ways, and any sense of that is completely missing from Dixon of Dock Green. The figure of the policeman is very much the solid figure of respectability featured in the real Ladybird book about the police, rather than the parody which illustrates this post.
I would certainly recommend you to watch Dixon of Dock Green if you want escapist television with a police theme. I have a feeling it would especially appeal to Anglophiles as an image of an Britain which didn't really exist even then. It is the sort of show which reminds me how exotic my own choice in television really is, though. A diet of The Avengers, The Prisoner, and The X-Files have left me somewhat unsatisfied by such an unpretentious, solid series. But if that's what you're looking for, go for it.
Images credit:

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Seventies TV: Are You Being Served?

This post will mark something of a departure from a tradition I have unintentionally started on this blog. The tradition is that when I am writing about 1970s TV, I start by reflecting on the circumstances under which I first watched it, comment on how the humour and attitudes haven't work well with time, and then either decide it is rubbish or express my horror at how many of the cast have been posthumously convicted of child abuse. This pattern developed in a series of posts I did wome time ago on seventies TV.
Are You Being Served, however, will buck that trend completely. This post is actually occasioned by my finding the DVDs of Grace and Favour (the 1990s resuscitation of the show set in a country house hotel) and also the DVDs of Are You Being Served Series 1 in very close succession.
I actually have almost no recollection of the episodes in series 1 at all, despite the fact that Are You Being Served has rather been repeated to death over the decades. Almost no recollection, that is, except for the episode featuring Joanna Lumley as the representative of a unisex perfume sold in Grace Brothers. The vowels alone make her appearance worth the cost of the disc! It is funny to think that she was doing this before she became Purdey.
Naturally, being an icon of the 1970s, Are You Being Served is often remembered as one of the more regrettable relics of that tasteless time. Mrs Slocombe's pussy alone could be enough to label this show as a dated relic of a forgotten past. Personally I was relieved to find how well the show has worn. I recently watched the film and didn't find it half as amusing as the first series, so I suspect that Are You Being Served is one of those things which wore well for one series and then the same formula wore out through over-repetition.
The jokes are certainly of their age. I have a feeling that if you roll your eyes at the idea of a Carry On film, you wouldn't like this show. The large sexual element to the humour is also very much of its time. For me it recalls an adolescent prurient interest in sex, although with also the adult insight that actually everybody is interested in sex really.
Even in the first series the characters appear fully-formed. I love that Captain Peacock has an element of the bounder about him. I did not recall him as such a dirty old man as he actually is. I love the way that Mr Lucas is always trying to get Miss Brahms to go out with him and yet never succeeds in it, and of course Mr Humphries (who is obviously very close to his mother, although his actual predilection is never actually stated) is a figure of a type which probably doesn't exist in any walk of life any more.My favourite character, though, was and always will be Mrs Slocombe. A national institution, that's what she is. The plots are rather predictable, as is the behaviour of the characters, but that is what makes this comfort TV: you're not going to get any great surprises, and the characters inhabit a contained world. The characters are also more than strong enough to carry the somewhat insipid plots.
Perhaps the way in which the show is most dated, though, is the rigid hierarchy of the shop. I worked in a shop briefly myself a long time ago and don't recall it being half as hidebound as Grace Brothers. The staff's places in the pecking order are rigidly defined right down to where they stand on the shop floor and in which order they deal with customers. The number of pens you carry, what you do withe your tape measure, which lavatory you use, where and when you eat your lunch, are all set in absolute stone. I'm no businessman but I suspect any business of the time which was that petrified has long ceased to exist as being completely unable to adapt.
Unfortunately I don't have anything so good to say about Grace and Favour. It is as if someone took a collection of running gags from Are You Being Served, strung them together in a country house hotel, and let it loose on the world. These gags are also overused: whenever someone gets into a lift you just know that it will either stick or stop slightly short of the desired floor. The original series didn't overdo the running gags like that. To be frank, I just didn't find it funny, while the original series can still make me laugh out loud. Each episode of Are You Being Served feels like a mini masterpiece on its own, but with Grace and Favour, it doesn't even really get into its stride through the first series, it has a stronger patch at the beginning of the second series, before seeming to run out of steam again. Also the reality is that what was considered suitable in the 1970s should have been rethought for the 1990s. While the Are You Being Served formula is a winning one, trying to stretch it that far was just too much.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

How I Spent My Summer

Apologies for the lack of TV-based posts here recently. It has been the weather for getting out and about, and when indoors, the picture which illustrates this post will show where I have been! The pub is actually the Gunmaker's Arms in Birmingham's Gun Quarter, which sells proper beer, much of it made by the local Two Towers Brewery. 

Friday, 1 July 2016

Survivors: First Impressions

It is my day orff, I have done the little jobs I have to do and it is looking like rain, so instead of me sitting in the park reading Philip Heselton's new biography of Doreen Valiente (weird is my life), you lucky people get a blog post about Survivors. Survivors is a series which I have rather avoided so far, despite having looked at it in shops and on line multiple times, I have always metaphorically put it back and in fact am writing this post on my first viewing of the first series. It is having an interesting effect on me, in that it is making me question why I like the television that I do. In fact considering from watching The War Machines (see my last post) I got a warm comforting feeling that IT failings would almost certainly prevent the takeover of the world by computer-based machines, Survivors gives me the warm, fluffy feeling that the holocaust imminently-expected in the 1970s didn't actually happen.
You see if War Machines taps into a major fear of the modern era (namely, what if the computers actually take over?), then Survivors taps into another one, namely, What would it be like after the disaster we're expecting? I suspect that that is what has actually put me off the show for so long, because I was expecting it to be very much out of the Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm stable. We know full well how badly humans can behave in a crisis, and particularly how the said crisis magnifies some of people's more irritating traits, such as a tendency to order or dictatorship, or just being not bothered, but I personally don't find that trope of human behaviour after the disaster very entertaining. Naturally there is an element of observing the human behaviour in Survivors, but that isn't all there is to it at all.
Survivors manages to put a very subtle twist on the plot device of how humans would behave after a disaster, and also manages to avoid the 1970s fantasy of a return to the dark ages, by theorising a world in which the majority of the population is wiped out by illness, but the resources and technology of the modern world are left intact to provide a large but limited resource for the survivors. I like this very much, because while it also taps into another major trope of the 1970s - the fear of what would happen if the oil runs out - it avoids the sudden ending of the modern world while requiring the characters to be resourceful in adapting to the world they are left with.
I have a feeling that at the time this would have been one of the things which made Survivors so popular. While I find myself commenting here repeatedly on the naked fear which characterised much of the dialectic of the 1970s, Survivors is actually relatively comforting. The fact that a virus is chosen as the way to wipe out most of the population provides a less-frightening scenario than the much-mooted one of the nuclear winter. Strange that a show in which the majority of the world's population could be wiped out is nonetheless more reassuring than a major environmental concern of the time.
Yet this less-threatening scenario is haunted by the spectre of human behaviour. It is self-evident that in the scenario we have described, some humans will behave indescribably badly, some from mixed motives, and some will attempt to create a new community where the precious remaining resources are stewarded. Even though I have tried to paint Survivors as a less-threatening alternative to the major contemporary fear of nuclear holocaust, it is haunted by this simple uncontrollable fact, which gives it a whole layer of fearfulness. And of course Survivors is spot on to use human behaviour rather than the actual disaster as the source of fear, since disasters are frequently caused by human behaviour. Well after this show of course, the Chernobyl disaster showed this fear to be well-grounded: I mean sitting in the control room of a nuclear reactor and deciding to have a go at something which the instruction manual specifically says not to do, is never a good idea, is it?
Survivors counters this fear of disaster and the unpredictability of human behaviour with an undercurrent of pagan ideas, again plugging into a prevalent idea of the time. 'How far back in time can we go?' is the question asked repeatedly in this series, and a return to paganism is one of the ways in which this question is answered. And it is here that I find a personal criticism, which I also feel may be me being somewhat unreasonable. Overall the show does an absolutely superb job of showing a Britain where the majority of the population is dead. Particularly in the 1970s, without CGI, it must have required endless labour to remove people for external shooting, and I actually only have praise for that. But this is also a criticism, because what is shown is a 1970s landscape frozen in aspic. In reality there wouldn't have been enough people to maintain the landscape in its agricultural-era state, and of course greenery only takes a season to start growing back with a vengeance. I feel that that is a failing on the part of the show: while it draws on pagan ideas, it fails to draw on the reality that when you are competely dependant on the land for sustenance you gain an extra sense of vulnerability to the land's own power over you and this major fear is completely absent. Of course you may feel that the show concentrates more on human response to the disaster, but I feel that there is a real sense in which the survivors are too sheltered from the arbitrary nature of living on the land.
Otherwise the show is in my opinion a masterpiece of writing and production. It is one of the few shows which gets into my personal category of Stonking Good Television. The more-leisurely pace of 1970s TV exactly suits the unfolding disaster at the beginning, and gives a ruminative feel to the dilemmas faced by the survivors as time goes on.
It may be somewhat superficial of me, but major stars in this show are the cars. The Land Rover which appears at one point is exactly like one my uncle in Kenya had. There is a magnificent mark 3 Ford Cortina estate, and I particularly like a vintage Volvo. As the series goes on these icons of 1970s motoring accede to more utilitarian vehicles, but they are still wonderfully evocative of the 1970s for me. Naturally the scenes in cars would nowadays be seen as disasters waiting to happen - people blithely smoke in cars, even with children there, and of course there isn't a single seat belt in use. Anyone would think they weren't frightened of dying!
Another criticism I do have is the usual completely personal one that there are too many familiar faces among the actors. Even if they are not always big names like Peter Bowles, familiar actors always detract for me from the show I am watching. I want to be watching the show not the actors. For some reason, familiar models among the cars don't strike me as such a distraction!
My conclusion on Survivors (even before I have watched all the way through the first series) is that it is a thought-provoking show which ruminates over some of the predominant fears of my era of television. My quibbles are probably completely personal ones, since I would wish that just a few things could have been done differently, but nonetheless for 21st century viewers, it will provoke discussion while also providing a reassuring sense that things haven't turned out half as badly as the milieu of the 1970s believed they would be.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Doctor Who: The War Machines (revisited)

Since the majority of hits to this blog are from places other than the UK perhaps I had better begin this post by apologising for my compatriots. It is #notinmyname that we are leaving Europe, in fact it's nothing but an embarrassment.
Which is almost true of my last post on this First Doctor adventure ( ), which I'm slightly ashamed of on re-reading it. I suddenly found a new, sealed, DVD of this show amongst my library (can't think where it came from, obviously by rogue computer technology) and decided to give it another go. Much of what I wrote about it the first time still stands, in terms of the dead sixties fear of encroaching technology. Ironically of course, it is only the connection of computers all over the world which means you are reading this, which would have seemed like an impossible dream of the future at the time.
On rewatching this show I am finding the mixture of technology and non-science quite interesting. I love it that the feared take over by computer is in part achieved by mind control, by a mechanism which isn't explained, but must have been fairly frightening at the time. The sixties were of course a time of explosion of interest in the paranormal, magic and paganism, as part of the larger questioning of received authority and values. The name of the computer of course recalls an ancient European pagan god, and thus the show presses historical buttons for Europeans. In a more sinister vein of course, Wotan, Odin or Woden was in the European pantheon hijacked by the Nazis and hijacked from respectable heathens by neo-Nazis ever since. This leads to a distinctly complicated collection of associations woven for the viewer by this adventure. In an interesting opposition to the contemporary  fear of the computer, it was actually quite usual at the time to give computers names - that is bearing in mind that they would usually take up a whole room at the time. A local example to me was the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell, whose acronym was WITCH ( ). If you happen to be at Bletchley Park you can see that one in operation to this day ( ). Of course this personification of the computer is wonderfully parodied in the Avengers episode Who Killed George XR/40? Ironically the Doctor falls into this language as well, when he speaks of paralysing the war machine's 'nervous system'.
I stand by my original criticism that the actual war machines themselves are a let-down because they are nowhere near scary enough. They don't elicit any sumpathy, simply being machines, either. On rewatching this show I feel that its great redeeming feature is the 1960s milieu. The scenes of Swinging London are wonderfully evocative. Unfortunately the actual story hasn't aged well, largely because it is based on a contemporary imagination of impossibly futuristic technology, always a risky thing. Another difficult thing to pull off is that the adventure is set in our own world yet the technology is not real, so that it creates an unfortunate dissonance in the mind of the viewer. Of course it was probably not be anticipated that this show would be subjected to my cynicism fifty years later.
I suspect that probably the idea that the war machines attack failed because of incomplete programing would have been seen at the time as the merciful intervention of the still-necessary agency of the human. Of course that scene sounds differently to our ears now, where we are used to software conflicts and the everyday ridiculousness which is living with IT.
My conclusion on this one on a second viewing, is that it is an atmospheric first Doctor adventure. Its best asset and also worst failing is the contemporary setting of it. I feel this one may be best watched with at least a sympathetic eye to how people saw technology in the 1960s, or at best a view to reminiscing about the London of the time. The plot is a straightforward conflict and resolution one. The print is very well restored both vision and audio-wise. The adventure is also exactly right at four episodes long. I would certainly not say not to watch this, but you will have to suspend disbelief when you do.
Image credit:

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Brought to Book

This is, of course, one of the series 1 Avengers episodes which have been recorded in audio form by Big Finish. SInce I bought that first release I do have that audio version to listen to as well as the synopsis in The Strange Case of The Missing Episodes. Let my initial criticisms of the Big Finish versions be considered as read at the start of this - I maintain that the TV scripts needed more adaptation to audio form - since I want to concentrate on the actual show in this series of posts. Suffice to say that I am finding the Big Finish audio much more understandable combined with the descriptions of events and scenes in the book.
This episode, only the second in the first series, brings to the fore Dr Keel's pain and feeling of mission to be an avenger after the murder of his fiancee. In a very real sense, the rest of The Avengers makes no sense without the events of these first two episodes, even if the series progressed beyond Dr Keel's very personal trauma. In Brought to Book we see the demimondaine London I posted about in my last post, and also how this relates to Keel's personal interest, which is surely a very small part of the jigsaw. I feel that this is an element which is genuinely different from later series of The Avengers, where the matter to be avenged became subsumed into a world of English eccentrics but within a Cold War context.
There is no hiding the simple fact that in this episode Steed once again uses Keel, pressing his buttons as it were, to involve him in this gang warfare. Naturally there are always risks involved in Steed's line of work, and no doubt Steed's superiors would have been in a position to pull strings if anything had gone wrong for Keel, but nonetheless it seems to me that Keel has a lot more to lose than Steed. Naturally this reflection merely serves to highlight that Keel probably felt he had already lost just about everything that mattered and had to focus on the one thing necessary to avenge the situation. Nonetheless this seems an extraordinarily insensitive time to make use of Keel; tactically it also feel like it wouldn't be a good idea to make use of someone with such a personal involvement in the matter at hand. Not only was the 1960s still the age of the amateur, but it seems to me that it was the age of the over-involved amateur!
Once again I love the impression of Steed as dirty old man, appreciatively eyeing up Carol the receptionist and making a lascivious comment on how he can now see she is not plain because his eyesight is improved! My own feeling is that he continues to give this impression through series 2 at times, but probably the closest he gets to Steed as dirty old man in the later series is when he smacks a nurse's bottom in Split! Naturally as he moved into the more fatherly figure to Tara King it would have been incongruous. Nonethless in contrast to the focussed figure of Keel, I feel there are intimations of the later Steed in the lightness of his tone and the way he is almost flippant.
I have been rewatching (for the first time in many years) the Charlie Chan movies, and while they were considered a counterblast to the 'yellow peril' thinking of the time, nowadays listening to them in Chinatown seems like an incredible faux pas, as does the phone call in this piece from the very obviously 'Oliental' woman. Still, O tempora, o mores. This is, however, probably the thing which most gives an old-fashioned impression about this episode; the rest of the episode is probably easily translatable into the present day.
My conclusion about this series 1 Avengers episode is that it is certainly not a dud, as rumour had it for many years the series 1 episodes were. It develops much of the point for the original Avengers, in Dr Keel's personal bereavement and subsequent need to be avenged. It also shows Steed in his earliest form. It therefore provides a good grounding in the origins of the series and the direction it was originally intended to take.
Image credit (which see for more information on Chinese nightclubs):