Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Hammer into Anvil

I was wondering how on earth I was going to get a convincing allegorical meaning out of this episode. I was making the mistake of thinking that the plot could be summarised as 'Number 6 sends Number 2 off his head. The End,' & thought that the only allegory I would be able to find was the 'messages' that Number 6 gives to Number 2 - blank paper, false message, cuckoo clock.
Then it struck me that the allegorical point of this episode can be found in what does not happen. Wikipedia characterises this episode as one of the few where Number 6 doesn't make an escape attempt & the authorities don't really try to get any information out of him. I realise that I haven't really been accepting that view & so have missed its significance.
In fact this realisation has made me recall my own pet theory that The Village is allegorical for Number 6's own fantasy escape from his everyday life. His actions in this episode are therefore allegorical for self-sabotaging behaviour, the resistance & sabotage of authority & even possibly 'daddy issues' - or perhaps 'mummy issues' if the successful attempt to get rid of the father figure is seen as akin to an Oedipus complex. Mother in this view would be the Village itself as his fantasy lover. Seen like this this episode is well in the countercultural vein of The Prisoner, & one of the ones with the heaviest, yet so subtle, psychological depth.
Right from the start the issues around sexual relationships & fidelity are reinforced in Number 2's taunting of Number 73 with her husband's supposed infidelity. Her first suicide attempt & subsequent successful one are allegorical of a divided psyche: the fight with father is started when Number 6 tells Number 2 he will pay for Number 73's suicide.
The fight with the roughs abducting Number 6 can be interpreting as defiance of the father figure's authority & position. The mention of sadism & Number 2's threatening of Number 6 with the sword blade develops the existing competitive dynamic while giving it a more kinky edge: from here on, this episode is capable of interpretation in incredibly sado-masochistic terms.
Yet I have some other questions about this that are usually raised for me by the later episodes of Danger Man. Number 2's breaking point - the fact that he will not brook interference or help - is plainly apparent in the scene with the sword. The additional fact that Number 6 breaks him with some very simple techniques to plant doubt - which frankly in a totalitarian regime like The Village should be easily dealt with - indicates that The Village authorities have put in a man who isn't up to the job. It's not really the point in this post that's supposed to focus on allegory, but surely the authorities should have rooted out this Number 2 as vulnerable to the type of simple psychological tricks played on him here.
The other usual allegorical approach to The Prisoner, of course, is that The Village represents society. This episode in that reading shows what one man can do if he puts his mind to upsetting the order of society. I've been tending to avoid this interpretation in this series of posts, since that's the allegory that always appears & I want to think about the series in a new way, but I think that may be the best allegorical approach for this episode.
So in conclusion, an episode that is as usual understandable in several different ways, even possibly as not presenting allegory at all, but which has unfortunately remained obdurate to my attempts to rethink its allegory.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Hazell: First Impressions

Yesterday I found in the Entertainment Exchange in Leamington Spa that someone with a wonderfully vintage taste in TV had obviously been forced to buy the DVDs, ripped them to a hard drive & then sold the discs on. Naughty! And also, to my mind, unwise - you can't have things backed up in too many places in my opinion. That was how I got the Jason King box set, also The Barron, that I have never seen, & the first series of a show I have never heard of, Hazell. I did turn up a box set of The Saint (because I have some single discs & haven't liked it half as much on coming back to it as I did as a child) & also a box set of Paul Temple in colour.
I suppose in reality the TV series I write about here can be divided into two genres: the real (Public Eye, Callan, The Professionals) & the unreal (The Avengers, Department S, The Prisoner, in fact the majority of the series I watch). In this dichotomy Hazell definitely fits into the Real category. It has the grittiness, without the bleakness, of Public Eye. It has all the sentimentality of Callan. Yet being the seventies it has the sex of Minder with the dress sense of Bergerac.
'James Hazell first appeared in the 1974 novel Hazell Plays Solomon, introducing himself as "The biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell-button." He was the creation of novelist and sports writer Gordon Williams and footballer-turned-manager Terry Venables, using the joint pseudonym 'P.B. Yuill'. In transferring his adventures to the small screen, producer June Roberts presented Hazell as a slightly tarnished East End version of Raymond Chandler's immortal detective Philip Marlowe.
'The series struggled at first to find the right balance of humour, action and 1940s pastiche, getting through three story editors before hitting its stride under experienced comedy and thriller writer Richard Harris. The original authors also had quite a lot of input, although Venables' involvement was curtailed when he became manager of Crystal Palace. Each episode features humorous voice-over narration in classic private eye fashion, while visually providing a 1970s equivalent to the distinctive film noir look of 1940s Hollywood thrillers. Beating out John Nettles for the title role, Nicholas Ball plays Hazell as a rueful but charming cockney lad who successfully picked himself up after being kicked off the police force (for turning to drink when his marriage broke up).
'Although perhaps a bit too young to suggest the slightly jaded world-weariness of the character in the books, Ball's humorous yet tough portrayal ensured that he was more than able to hold his own against a large cast of supporting characters, especially when facing the perpetually unimpressed Inspector 'Choc' Minty (Roddy MacMillan). Showcasing early performances by Michael Elphick and Pamela Stephenson (Nicholas Ball's wife at the time), the series is also remembered for Hazell's office landlady and occasional employer Dot Wilmington (Barbara Young), one of the first regular gay characters in British series television.' (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/975974/)
I am quite chuffed that it reminded me of Minder:
'Another of the later episodes was written by Leon Griffiths, who developed on the series' mixture of black humour, cockney charm and delinquency when devising Minder (1979-94), the hugely successful series that eventually replaced Hazell in the ITV schedules.' (Ibid)
I remember Minder but don't remember Hazell, so I miss out on some of the nostalgia that is a feature of this series for many of the reviewers on Amazon. I think my parents were probably too old to try to be too fashionable in the seventies, so the interiors are almost a caricature of the seventies to me. The exteriors - underpasses, concrete, & gritty streets, are probably a fair reflection of 1970s London, since they're certainly that of the Midlands in the 1970s. Everyone smokes, apart from anything else.
There is another way in which Hazell screams 1970s - the characters are almost caricatures. Hazell is *so* Cockney - the Glaswegian in the episode I'm watching now is *so* Glaswegian! The pacing of the show is exactly what you'd expect for the era - significantly slower than you'd expect today. It feels almost as if the actual plots are padded out with superfluous conversation, yet it is strangely easy to miss key events. This is not intended to be a criticism, it is merely a description. The visuals are also very seventies - this is something I don't like, because the look of the show is too grey for my liking, which can obviously tend to lack interest. The plots are standard gritty private eye-type plots of the seventies, perhaps more Sweeney or Minder than Professionals or Public Eye.
As a version, or perhaps pastiche, of Marlowe, it fails dramatically, unfortunately. Nicholas Ball is too young, it's too 1970s, he isn't hard-bitten enough. Perhaps it's best watched purely as a predecessor to Minder.
One other thing interests me - the amount of time Ball spends in each episode bare-chested, in swimwear, or even naked. I don't object - I'm a bit of a bare-chester myself - but I find it interesting in a show of this age that the flesh on display is entirely male. At least that's on the basis of what I've seen so far - some breasts have been shown, but they were on a pin-up, & while Hazell gets lots of sex, the women remain totally covered up. I wonder what this would have meant in the 1970s - I suspect nothing, if this was aimed at a heterosexual male audience, & presuming that the sexualisation of the male chest was really cemented with Marky Mark in the 1990s. A non-sexual meaning for this would be confirmed for me by the fact that Ball isn't one of those hairy medallion-wearing types (think Jason King) who epitomised male sexiness in the 1970s. On the other hand, the nudity & sexiness may have been intended to portray grittiness.
All in all, I quite like Hazell if it is approached as a 1970s drama, with everything that you'd expect. If you approach it as a modernisation of Chandler's stories I think you'd probably be disappointed.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Jason King: Second Impressions

Apologies for the recent hiatus on posts here: I have been, & remain, unwell, so have not been able to get my head round my usual acid interpretation of a defenceless TV programme. My recent watching of Department S, & conclusion that it had hidden depths, left me wanting more, so today I bought the box set of Jason King, its follow-on. In vain will you seek my first impressions of the series on this blog: they happened some time ago with an odd disc & I was not impressed, but I thought I'd give it another go.
'The series featured the further adventures of the title character who had first appeared in Department S (1969). In that series he was a dilettante dandy and author working as part of a team of investigators. In Jason King he had left that service and was concentrating on writing adventure novels following the adventures of the fictional Mark Caine, [which the Jason King character was also writing about in Department S] who closely resembled Jason King in looks, manner, style, and personality. None of the other regular characters from Department S appeared in this series.
'In the course of visiting international locations as part of his research, or through being summoned by people needing assistance, King would be frequently embroiled in adventure stories featuring glamorous women, exotic locations (for the era), menacing villains, political turmoil, or espionage intrigue.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_King_(TV_series) - the Wikipedia page also recounts the surprising cultural legacy that this relatively recherche TV series has left)
In fact, reading about Jason King has made me gain an even greater respect for Department S, since Jason King carries on the identification of King with his fictional creation, to the extent that it isn't always clear who is who:
'The show is cleverly postmodern, both in its allusions to other novels and films and in its self-referentiality. King, the author of Mark Caine novels, is often confused with his fictional creation: this is an ongoing aspect of the series. In the episode entitled 'Nadine', Nadine tells King that 'You change, Mark Caine has completely taken over […] The fantasy world becomes more real than the real one'; King's response is to assert that 'It's only because the real world is much more improbable, much more like fiction'. Likewise, in 'Flamingoes Only Fly on Tuesdays' the character of Pelli (Hugh McDermott) asserts that 'The worlds of Marc Caine and Jason King are extremely close together. I think you would run guns just to get the feel of them'. This aspect of the character of Jason King is usually taken as a direct nod towards Ian Fleming (see Chapman, 2002: 192), who some biographers tell us shared a similarly ambiguous relationship with his chief fictional creation, the character of James Bond (see Pearson, 2003; Cabell, 2008; MacIntyre, 2008).' (http://www.dvdcompare.net/review.php?rid=541 - this review also talks about the particular spy films parodied in Jason King: I'm probably not familiar enough with the spy genre myself to avoid missing references)
My impression is that you either love Jason King or you definitely don't. You think the man himself is worth the show - I have even read a review that says his moustache alone makes the show worth watching - or he'll irritate the hell out of you. You either think the flamboyant King needed the foil of the normal people in Department S & is too much on his own, or you don't. You either think this is wonderful seventies nostalgia TV (well, this isn't that bad a reason for watching a TV series), or you think it a waste of the 16mm film it was filmed on for economy.
My own second thoughts are more positive than my first - I really didn't take to this show the first time I saw it. So, perhaps it's best to address the common objections in order. Jason King is a very seventies-bound series: there is simply no escaping this, & if you find the taste of the 1970s nauseating, you will not like this show. Seventies style takes me back effortlessly to my childhood so I personally don't have a problem with that. What many people will find more difficult is King's attitude to women, again very much of its time. The series feels to me most like The Saint - perhaps in terms of exotic locales, luxury hotels & expensive cars. Jason King is definitely one of the series that would have been escapist viewing for a working-class populace.
Finally, it seems to me that Jason King has found his milieu in this show. I disagree with the criticism that he needs the foil of normal people in Department S: I feel that background made him stand out as more odd, but in Jason King, the fact that everything is camped up a bit makes him appear more normal.
Production values are of the time, of course. I don't object to the 16mm film, but the stock footage is rather obviously showing its age over the studio footage. If you're looking for detective plots this is probably not the show - it is plainly intended as a vehicle for Jason King himself.
So all in all, a pleasant surprise to come back to Jason King & find I like it more than I thought!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Checkmate

It's interesting, watching this Prisoner straight after Department S's Black Out, where I commented on the dodgy use of medicine in that show. It isn't actually half as dodgy as the use of medicine here. On the one hand, people are over-medicalised, & of course it's anything like nonconformity that is marked down as a disease. On the other hand the 'treatment' is clothed in a facade of kindness.
Also similarly to the last episode of Department S, when placed into its historical context in the heady 1960s, this episode becomes a terrible warning of the way in which society was perceived to be going. The chess game is a rather obvious allegory for the way society pushes people into ordered positions, & the Village is an allegory of how this is inescapable. Power, control, the use of emotion, the misuse of medicine & psychiatry are all servants to the theme here: society's control is inescapable.
I must confess to yet another Prisoner heresy here: I feel that in allegorical terms this episode almost completely defeats its own object. It does this by the excellent visual of the chess game, which is almost certainly the one thing everybody 'remembers' of the series, which unfortunately makes everything else pale into relative insignificance. The other aspects of the allegory here are really the servants to the main point, but things such as the contemporary wariness of technology can tend to go unnoticed. The fact that the Village masquerades as a holiday camp, with Number 2 asking people how they are on the beach, could reference a projected future world of no work, where all the jobs have been given to computers, leaving the humans ever more at the mercy of the all-controlling State. The recurring Prisoner theme of them-&-us/black-&-white is also used, all examples of what could happen if society gains the sort of control over us depicted in The Prisoner.
Finally there is an interesting element of what could be interpreted as magical thinking here: as Number 6 is returned to The Village, The Butler places a pawn back on a chess board. The implication is almost that that chess board is actually how the captives of The Village are manoeuvred! (It's reawakened my wish to write a Prisoner post (I doubt it would be more than one) on the subject of The Butler Did It In The Prisoner!) It's almost as if there is a sense in which everything else is subordinate to the chess game - despite having a number, the rook is referred to as the rook throughout the episode, & the 'players' in the piece are intentionally turned against each other, just with the variant that it's deliberately unclear who is on which side.
From a non-allegorical point of view, Peter Wyngarde, in a relatively subdued role for him, still makes a somewhat flamboyant Number 2 (is that mascara I see?). His...languid tones in the opening dialogue interestingly make Number 6 sound rather petulant & childish by contrast - the firmer tones of most Number 2s don't have this effect to my ear.
One niggle is that the voice commanding the rook in the water dispenser behaviour modification, is very clearly that of Patrick McGoohan! Another is the use of familiar face Ronald Radd as the rook.
So to sum up - clearly an intentionally allegorical episode of The Prisoner, unfortunately marred by the fact that the allegory is so obvious, almost laboured, & depicted so effectively, that all the subtexts of the episode can go unnoticed.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Department S: Black Out

This Department S first & foremost at this length of time, hits me as a real blast from the past. I've only ever seen a couple of episodes of Jason King, the successor to Department S, & for no reason I could fathom didn't take to it, but this episode of Department S actually seems to press some of the same buttons. It does this by accessing the same luxury zeitgeist that so many sixties series tapped into. I like to think of the show's contemporary viewers watching the show in a flat (already a decade old, though) in Park Hill in Sheffield, or the local example would be the Castle Bromwich estate in Birmingham. Before these developments went horribly wrong, there was a real sense that things would get better, & that slum living was over once & for all for the inhabitants of these palaces. They would also watch a film in the city centre of an evening, & could eat continental food - even I was taken to Gino's Omelette Bar in Birmingham as a child. All of these things seem so normal to us today that it is easy to forget the newness of the post-War jet-setting aspirations. This episode furthers the aspirations by including opera throughout, a restaurant critic, & foreign travel at the drop of a hat. This was, of course, the heyday of Fanny Cradock & Egon Ronay - am I imagining it or does Sinclair bear a passing resemblance to Egon Ronay?
If it taps into post-War British aspirations, & sensibilities, it also taps into the contemporary fears. Thalidomide had made the medical profession a fearful thing: given what it can do by mistake, imagine what it could do if it set out to make people, say, forget things! This is very much the impression of medicine also given in The Prisoner, ironically at an age when psychiatric medications were taken like water for any small anxiety. 'Get Bridget a capsule, Woolf,' was very much the order of the day.
There are some of the familiar faces that I normally dislike in this one, including Richard Caldicot (pictured, trying to explain something he's forgotten to Paul Stassino). However, David Sumner plays Dr. Wolf. I recognise him from two episodes of The Avengers, one in which he plays a scheming boyfriend, & another in which he plays the victim of a rogue interrogation. Neither could have prepared me for the way in which he manages to appear both incredibly young & terribly psychopathic in this one. He really does act an excellent, cold, killing, calculating, conscienceless, baddie here, to the extent that even I don't mind that I recognise him.
Otherwise we're almost, but not quite in Diabolical Masterminds territory here - the difference being that the location for the masterminds in question is somewhere exotic rather than a decayed stately home in Dear Old Blighty. Annabel requires the necessary kink. Plus Jason King is an interesting peacock-like variant on Steed appearing without warning at the crucial moment & deflecting disaster. All in all, an excellent spy show, drawing on many late sixties aspirations & fears, with Avengers overtones, & full marks to David Sumner.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Dance of the Dead

Picture credit: http://twistedpurplecow.blogspot.com/2011/02/plague-death-came-within-hours-spurred.html?m=1
You wouldn't believe the trouble this episode's giving me. I normally like at least to cast a glance around what other people on tinternet are saying when I write a post, if only to clarify what I'm thinking myself, but this episode of all others seems to have attracted so much commentary it's impossible to absorb. I'm therefore reduced to my own jaundiced view.
In fact this one ought to be perfectly simple to write about from an allegorical point of view, since in many ways it has the most obvious allegorical content of death & life. Even its title is inspired by a famous mediaeval allegory:
'dance of death, also called danse macabre,  medieval allegorical concept of the all-conquering and equalizing power of death, expressed in the drama, poetry, music, and visual arts of western Europe mainly in the late Middle Ages. Strictly speaking, it is a literary or pictorial representation of a procession or dance of both living and dead figures, the living arranged in order of their rank, from pope and emperor to child, clerk, and hermit, and the dead leading them to the grave. The dance of death had its origins in late 13th- or early 14th-century poems that combined the essential ideas of the inevitability and the impartiality of death. The concept probably gained momentum in the late Middle Ages as a result of the obsession with death inspired by an epidemic of the Black Death in the mid-14th century and the devastation of the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) between France and England. The mime dance and the morality play undoubtedly contributed to the development of its form.' (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/154473/dance-of-death)
The allegorical use of the idea here is a little too obvious for my case, so obvious in fact, that knowing McGoohan it arouses my suspicion. The allegory seems to be both that Number 6 can only live through the Village, the message expressed so often elsewhere in the series, & yet also it seems that the joke is on the dancers in the carnival. The whole point is that actually they are dead already. The point of the extermination order is the fact that only death will truly come through The Village. The significance of the telex machine coming back to life would be that life comes from the outside world, in this reading, the final reinforcement of the allegory of the radio.
Apart from this whacking great allegory there are a number of other things in the episode that interest me from an allegorical point of view. I'm having difficulty working all of these threads into a coherent theory which would encompass the whole episode, so this post will mainly consist of some thoughts about different things.
Dutton, for one. Dutton has a name. Dutton, Dutton, Dutton, Dutton. We know the character's name & can say it. He is the only character in The Village whose name we know. He is ordered for extermination in this episode. I wonder whether there's a connection between the name & death, here? Number 6 is always the great rebel in The Village, yet we never get to know his name. It isn't even as if Number 6 has no external identity: his fancy dress is his suit from the outside, while Dutton is dressed in Village stripes (at the start of the episode). I would theorise that Dutton's identity is given to indicate that his external status equates to death. The Village functions almost like a cult here, so that the only way to life is through the Village. The repeated stress that Number 6 is valuable & not to be destroyed both allows him a Village identity & is at odds with his projected destruction in this episode.
I want to know what the number is of the cat. That would be a very interesting thing to work out.
I like the rather playground way Number 6's observer says to him:
'You're not allowed animals, it's a rule.'
In fact the childish element here is the other thing that really piques my interest. It's a game, she says of the carnival, before Number 6 is hounded by the crowd after a kangaroo court. The sense of irresponsibility & childishness is first seen in the doctor's wrecklessly experimenting on Number 6. But it reaches its height in the fact that Number 2 has Peter Pan as her fancy dress costume. She evokes the theatrical tradition of cross-dressing, in a more gender-oriented reading of this episode, but from an allegorical point of view the message is clear: she represents the person who will not grow up.
Since I'm having difficulty uniting all these strands, what's the betting I'll return to Dance of the Dead at some point?

Monday, 18 August 2014

Department S: The Duplicated Man

(I will return to The Prisoner soon: I just need time to get my head round allegory in Dance of the Dead!)
Classic Avengers territory, here, as far as questions of identity, doubles, deception, & state secrets are concerned. Watching Department S this time has really made me re-evaluate it as a successor to The Avengers, in a rather Series 6 mould, in terms of bizarreness, eccentric, flamboyant characters, & an organisation behind the characters' odd lives.
Of course I have my usual gripe that the actors' faces are too familiar from sixties TV & have a tendency to make you wonder where else you've seen them - Basil Dignam & Robert Urquhart would be the ones that do that to me here. I'm intrigued by the impressive use of Steed's library - the books that appear in Stable Mews - that I can spot in no fewer than three locations in this episode. I don't always disapprove of repetition!
Of course this is a piece where momentous matters of state are covered in a rather frothy confection. It reminds me actually of the sort of questions of security raised by Danger Man - the security checks on Anthony Harvey clearly didn't exist or failed miserably to ensure his reliability here. He is described as one of the best agents of MI5 - but he not only planned a complete disappearance, but was ill-advised enough not to cover up his tracks enough. MI5 is clearly asleep on its laurels there. The other thing is it does not escape Department S that it is possible that the accident has been arranged as a test of security, in which case the pilot has been 'sacrificed'. Heavy stuff, indeed, & also the sort of stuff calling into question the integrity of our security services.
Further Avengers features are the mother, the home the mother is in, the silver snuff box, the fact the baddies are so stereotypically Cold War-era baddies, & the Tara King hair & car sported by Rosemary Nicols. A further similarity is that at one point Peter Wyngarde speaks American English when he says 'don't wait dinner' (that is American, isn't it? I'm sure it's only intransitive in British English) - a suggestion that this show was being made with an eye to the American market, just as the later Avengers were.
Of course it's a question of classic spying, double-dealing, & of course it all ends in tears. This is perhaps the most Avengers-esque part of it: going over to the other side will come to no good. *But* the double-dealing extends to the heights of MI5 - a more nuanced spin than The Avengers would ever have put on this plot. In fact the final message is quite nihilistic - there's no point to sticking to either side ultimately; they'll both have it in for you.
I wouldn't want you to think that my comparison of this episode to The Avengers is derogatory in any way: it's an excellent show, with real suspense, & perhaps a worthy descendant of The Avengers.