Sunday, 29 December 2013

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

(If this post were to have an Avengers-style subtitle, it would be, In which we discover what the team who created Adam Adamant Lives did before they created Adam Adamant Lives.) Blogging is a funny thing: once you start a blog it seems to take on a life & direction of its own, dragging its author behind it. It can also be very therapeutic, because the blog can show the blogger what he's actually thinking: if you keep it with any regularity there is no real hiding! The point of this is that when I started this blog I said to myself that I would not blog about The Prisoner (way over-analysed on the internet already), or about Doctor Who (far too much competition). I've already found myself breaking one of these decisions: this post marks my breaking the other one. Don't get me wrong, the tags list at the top of the page will show that I'm hardly the sort of person who would *not* watch Doctor Who, & indeed I do, in fits & starts. My favourite Doctor is Christopher Eccleston, & the one I grew up with was Tom Baker. Sadly my associations for this adventure are almost completely negative: it was broadcast when I was a child, it must have been around the time of The Five Doctors, & I can remember a friend, who was much more into sci fi than I've ever been, talking excitedly with his mother about this broadcast.
I, however, was bitterly disappointed when I first saw the first episode of the first Doctor Who adventure. To me it creaked like an old gate: coming to it 30 years later it obviously still creaks like an even older gate, but I suppose my tastes have matured somewhat in this time. It is a little surprising that I could not take to it, since it was with that family (possibly a few years later) I first saw The Prisoner, & around that time I was watching repeats of The Avengers, which changed my outlook on the world forever. I have only just discovered that Doctor Who was intended to have a serious educational purpose, in the field of history, obviously. This BBC milieu is what differentiates this ( &, to a lesser extent, Adam Adamant) from the other series I will typically write about in this blog: Doctor Who is BBC, the others will always only ever be ITV. At this time there was an intellectual, almost class, division between BBC & ITV viewers: the BBC boradcast worthy, intellectual things, you got more plain entertainment on ITV. It was exactly the same divide as a generation before, between theatre & music hall.
Coming back to it, I don't dislike Unearthly Child in the way I did when I was one myself. I do think it surprising that it birthed a series which is still going fifty years later. Unearthly Child is frankly something of a dog's dinner of a plot. The majority of it was supposed to be the second episode, but when the production of the first episode fell through parts of that were bolted onto the second episode & Unearthly Child is the love child that resulted.
Around this time Cathy Gale-era Avengers episodes were being broadcast on ITV: in Avengers terms it is usual to think (in the absence of the rest of Series 1) of those as being the earliest production values. I would venture to say that this comes across as earlier. It seems much less sophisticated, it feels much more like a stage play. The cave people are frankly unconvincing. The production moves at the pace of a very elderly debilitated snail.
William Hartnell is for me the high point of this adventure: I'm only surprised to find he was only 55 when this was made: I have commented before on how often people in old telly shows look older than a lot of people that age do now, & have been forced to put it down to more smoking. He died at only 67 of heart failure. His character is supposed to be old, he is placed as a grandfather, he refers to himself as old, but is one of the liveliest things in this adventure, so lively. He brings a remarkable vividness to the character. The reason he was cast as a grandfather was to avoid any suggestion of sexual impropriety in him having a female travelling companion: no fear of that now! I am pleased with the changes made in Susan's personality between the unaired & final first episodes: in the original version she comes across as most peculiar. Her teachers make out that she's like 'other' humans, but she's not really!
If I had to compare this to something, in production terms (obviously not plot) it feels like Quatermass. I'm sure I'll review tham at some point. It's a pity: the issues of escape, evasion, culture shock, & co-operation that are very well raised in this adventure leave me relatively cold, largely because I just don't take to the caveman setting. Of course what I'm really writing about here is the historic moment at which the world first heard the Tardis sound effect, produced in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with a piano & a key. This is of course another historical thing, now closed for nearly 20 years, which is also soo old-fashioned in the way sound effects would have been produced in the 50s & 60s. As a child I wanted to work in the Radiophonic Workshop particularly, or I would have settled for anything in television I suppose. Not Blue Peter though, don't be silly.
It is only looking at it now I'm struck by the interesting role played by the TARDIS. When I first saw Doctor Who, police boxes were already long-gone. The received wisdom, as we know, was that the TARDIS would morph into a shape to fit in, but got stuck in police box mode. This is obviously true, but doesn't describe the appearance of the TARDIS in this episode: a police box would not have been in a scrap yard, it would not have fitted in at all. What the TARDIS's appearance really indicates, is that the Doctor, or the technology, has got it slightly wrong. This is a recurring theme here, the Doctor ought to fit in but there's always something slightly wrong. His Edwardian clothes in the 1960s are another example.
So all in all, coming back to this adventure, it's pretty much what I expected it to be. It has some fairly major weaknesses of writing - especially being two episodes bolted together - & generally gives little suggestion of surviving to be the cult season it later became, aided of course by the useful get-out that it helps to have different actors play the Doctor. I don't feel I'll be rushing to watch it again, but it's not bad for a moment in history.
------------------

Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Prisoner: Dance of the Dead

I am in danger of being completely side-tracked from my aim in this run-through of The Prisoner, namely to examine the series in the light of the theory that Number 6 is John Drake, by this multi-faceted episode. So to start off with I will resolutely stick to that plan & allow myself to be deflected later in this post.
The biggest issue, it seems to me, with this episode, is one of placement in the series. It was made & broadcast eighth, but many viewing orders recommend watching it second: placing it so early in the series is based on the fact that this is one of the episodes where Drake says, 'I'm new here'. I feel this issue is inescapable in explaining Drake's role & the progress of his investigation in this episode, so I will fearlessly weigh in & express the opinion that this episode should *not* be placed early, that Drake is *not* new in The Village when he says these words, & that at least one of the things he says in the sequence where he says that he is new, is not literally true.
For some reason it seems to be largely ignored that when Drake tells his new maid that he is new, he also tells her that she looks different from the others (plural), & that 'they' come & go. If this is taken literally this episode cannot possibly be second, since up to that point Drake has only had one maid. On the other hand, this could be taken as a figure of speech, 'Oh, maids come & go', very much like Saki's, 'As good cooks go, she went'. If you don't take his plural maids reference literally, there is also no need to take his statement of 'I'm new here' literally either.
And this is the nub: Drake here is resolutely the outsider, he is damn well determined to remain 'new', that is not indoctrinated with the ways of The Village, until he gets out of there. I feel there is another indicator of the relative lateness of this episode: the policy of The Village is to extract information from you nicely at first, & this episode starts by showing the failure of sophisticated scientific methods to extract information. There is *nothing* nice about what is done to Drake, nor what he discovers in this episode. Part of Markstein's conceptualisation of the series was that Drake was so horrified at what had become of his brainchild Village, he had to investigate himself. In this episode he has his worst fears confirmed: The Village, far from being a safe place for the vulnerable/risky/dangerous receptacles of knowledge who are retired agents, will not only expect them to hand over their knowledge, but once they've done that will not be satisfied & will continue to wring people for knowledge, even to the point of death. This, to me, means that this episode can be 'read' in accordance with Markstein's theory of The Prisoner. The subjects of conformity, crowd psychology & peer pressure, that are on the surface in this episode, are the relatively sophisticated ways The Village uses in its totalitarian pursuit of the destruction of the individual.
It is ironic that I think the present ending works better with the Number 6/John Drake identification than the original, unfilmed, ending:
'Confronting Number 6 in the telex room, Number 2 says: �A man can only die once. And you�re already dead, aren�t you? In our little room�. Led to the girl observer, Number 6 says: �i�ll never give in� Being dead does have its advantages�. He then smashes the telex. The script reads: �Turning to the girl he asks: �Shall we dance?� They leave Number 2 surrounded by the broken parts of the telex. They return to the ballroom where a hectic formation dance is in full swing. They join in. They dance as if the devil is playing. Continuing the music faster and faster. The Village is brightly illuminated. No-one about. Pull back so the sea comes between us and it, until the Village is only a glow in the darkness of the night. END CREDITS.� (http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/article15.htm)
That ending would have made it very difficult to continue the series, since Drake would apparently have capitulated to his former masters & become a Villager. The outsider theme brings up another question for me, Drake's nationality. In the earlier series of Danger Man his accent varied so that he could be Irish or American: for me there is something about his insistence that he is a free man that sounds un-British, by which I mean there is more emphasis in the American constitution, & therefore American psyche, on rights & freedoms. In the Britain of the 1960s I think the idea of liberty would perhaps have been seen as more foreign, & I feel the question of rights is one that has arisen since we went into Europe. I have no doubt that this argument can be  contradicted at length, I'm just painting it in broad strokes to make my point here. For me this is another aspect that solidifies the identification of Number 6 with Drake, in fact an early Drake, since for me Number 6 is not British. It is also interesting that the radio speaks of freedom being 'restored': it is not clear where this broadcast is coming from, but it implies that there are allies outside The Village who can see what is going on.
One of the things I like about this episode is the many ways it can be understood, for example:
'If "Dance of the Dead" is about anything, it is about the need for the Prisoner to be �won over� to the Village. The opening scene shows how the methods of scientific violence are ineffective against deeply ingrained resistance. Number 2 must wage a psychological war against the Prisoner�s identity. She must put him to death � a theme signposted by the corpse, the demise of Dutton, the scenes at night, the black cat, the long black pause before the final credits, and (in the original script) a chilling burial scene.' (http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/article15.htm)
I absolutely wouldn't contradict any of this, but for me if this episode is about anything it is about relationships, human relationships of all sorts. Sex has been mentioned before I think, in that some of the Villagers have actually started children, but here relationships in a broader sense are meant. In this view the pivotal thing is The Village using Drake's relationships & trying to manipulate him into a different relationship with The Village by treating him in a particular way.
For a start an old friend & colleague of his is placed to tell him that there is no point, The Village will continue to squeeze you after you've given them everything. His significance is indicated by the fact that, at least behind the scenes of The Village, he is referred to by a name not a number.
There is a relational element to the way in which Drake is treated as the odd one out at the fancy dress ball, almost cold-shouldered as being the one who remains himself when everyone else (in The Village, that is) has taken on a different identity.
The photo in the wallet is also indicative of relationships, in this case a romantic or sexual one, since this is clearly a picture of a couplle taken in The Village. It is significant, seen from this angle, that this is the only episode where Number 2 is overtly a woman (rather than being revealed to be one of the female characters, as she is in Many Happy Returns) throughout the episode. This allows for a sexual dynamic to develope between Drake & Number 2. Yes I know he didn't want to be seen kissing a woman on screen, but I must insist that the dynamic is a sexual one, it's that of one of those relationships where there's a funny power play between the two people. It isn't quite sado-masochistic, but it feels to me like Number 2 is going to get the upper hand & Drake is almost unwillingly drawn into this dynamic by his resolution not to go along with what The Village expects of him.
Mary Morris is certainly among my favourite Number 2s. Much is made of the high proportion of homosexual (in real life) actors who played Number 2, & the sexual dynamic with the butler, including Patrick Cargill saying to Number 6, 'You have come between us'. Mary Morris is usually casually numbered amongst this number. I can't think why. In real life she wouldn't have wanted a relationship with McGoohan. In the series, I feel this is the most sexual dynamic between Number 2 & Drake, for the reason that Number 2 is a woman! The illustration is a Ronald Searle cartoon of Mary Morris.
I realise I haven't done this episode justice, but it does not give me any cause to think that Number 6 could not be John Drake, which is my main intent in this run through the series.
------------------

Friday, 27 December 2013

Adam Adamant Lives!: Village of Evil

'The BBC's answer to The Avengers,' that's the received wisdom on Adam Adamant Lives!, to the extent that even the BBC themselves say so:

'Adam Adamant Lives! tells the story of an Edwardian adventurer who wakes up in the swinging Sixties, having been frozen in a block of ice by his nemesis, "The Face". The show is about how the dashing adventurer (Gerald Harper) thwarts evil, overcomes temptation, and buys a Mini.
'It's very much "What Doctor Who did next", as the timelord's creator Sydney Newman and his first producer Verity Lambert joined forces again to come up with a BBC version of The Avengers. Adam is a Reithian version of Steed - all the suits and gentility, but with all rakishness removed. Adam is a very proper hero, who belongs to all the right clubs, and even has a butler.
'The clash between Adam's terribly strict morals and the permissive society of the Sixties was the main source of humour in the series. This meant severely limited opportunities for sexual chemistry between Harper and his co-star Juliet Harmer, who played reluctant side-kick Miss Jones. A nicely brought-up modern woman, her role was mostly to mope around after Adam, flirting mournfully and getting into scrapes.
'The show ran for two seasons of incredibly Avengers-esque adventures, as Adam thwarts sinister ladies' charities, terribly well-brought-up satanists, killer dresses, and cigar-chomping female crimelords.' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/classic/adamant/intro.shtml)

You knew I was going to disagree violently with this analysis didn't you? For me Adam Adamant Lives! Is not the BBC's answer to The Avengers. Superficially it feels like it for a number of reasons: it draws on the zeitgeist of the time, this was the age when people were buying vintage clothes in Lord Kitchener's Valet! The impression of similarity is helped by the crossover of writers between The Avengers & Adam Adamant Lives! It is for me this crossover of personnel that indicates less of an intention to ape The Avengers's success, since these people would have been fully aware of the recipe for The Avengers. This is no secret, & the tricks can be seen by any observant viewer: the main key is that the world of The Avengers (in later series) is not real. There are no working class people, no black people, no blood, nobody on the streets of London, & so on. The premise of Adam Adamant Lives is rather the resuscitation of an Edwardian hero in the real world of 1960s London. Unfortunately this premise is solely responsible for the show's status as an also-ran:

'[...]It was intended that the conflict between the modern world and the Edwardian hero should be balanced, but finding such a balance proved to be hard. Despite the occasional zinging quote, the show ended up using this central premise as little more than a superficial level of camp rather than being something to drive the plot. By missing this opportunity the potential of the show was largely unfilled and instead the gulf between the eras looks to be shallow and of little consequence.
'This inability to quite get the balance and tone of the series affects the main character too. This is most notable when Adamant�s ruthless streak was ordered to be toned down in the second series, further reducing the distinguishing features of Adam as an Edwardian adventurer beyond the purely cosmetic. This works against the show as Adam looks so very out of place but never really feels that different. Interestingly care was taken by The�Avengers production team to make sure that Steed appeared as rarely as possibly with �normal� people because he was too odd to be considered realistic. Over at the BBC, the production team wanted Adamant to stick out, but the hollowness of his Edwardian characterisation only heightens the problematic realisation of the series' central concept.' (http://www.denofgeek.com/tv/adam-adamant-lives/27121/celebrating-adam-adamant-lives)

Notwithstanding the failure of the show's central premise, it can still be enjoyed - probably more so now - as a relic of sixties weirdness. Another inspiration for Adamant's character was Mary Whitehouse, that the campaigner against indecency was acting like an Edwardian, & it remains an interesting comment on the culture clash of that age. For myself I watch it as a sixties-era relic & adventure. I have to confess to missing the humour, I really don't find this series funny at all. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about the show!
The episode I've chosen to write about first is, in my humble opinion, the perfect illustration of the show's similarities to The Avengers, its dissimilarities to The Avengers, & particularly the things that make it an also-ran in sixties cult TV terms. For a start the episode opens with a very Avengers-feeling drive through an apparently abandoned village: this is Avengersland at its best. The villain of the piece is introduced right at the start: the mere fact that he's played by one of the 1960s' recurring actors, John Bailey, makes it visually like all the other sixties series that he featured in, including The Avengers. The theme of this episode is a kind of combination of two Avengers episodes, Warlock & Murdersville, managing to come across as more sinister than The Avengers ever does, with the use of the poppet & the mill wheels. In fact, Murdersville appeared a year after this one, & was additionally written by different people, so it is not impossible that this Adam Adamant episode inspired The Avengers. Of course it is also possible that both just drew on images floating around in the zeitgeist. Unfortunately the plot of Village of Evil makes it slightly too obvious who the villain is: it is not only a convention of detective fiction that the villain be introduced as a totally trustworthy character (such as butler, or in this case doctor) right at the beginning, but once the doctor asks the landlord to wash out the glass it is very obvious he is at least in on it. Given that he is such a community leader it places him as favourite to be the victim. Of course I realise I'm talking about this episode very differently from how I would talk about an Avengers episode, more like I would about a detective series. The reason, of course, is that the basis of Adam Adamant was much more in stories of gentleman adventurers such as Bulldog Drummond or Sexton Blake (unfortunately the BBC couldn't get permission from the copyright holders of Sexton Blake to revivify him). The roots of The Avengers are more in spy stories & even film noir, given a psychedelic twist as the series went on. The scene where Adamant is left in the hay to be harvested is pure gentleman adventurer, only ever parodied in The Avengers.
And of course this is where Adam Adamant both differs from The Avengers & falls flat on its face. Adamant is intended to be a somewhat unreal character, as I said above the problem is that he is usually placed in juxtaposition with real-seeming characters; the trouble with this episode is that the setting for Adamant is completely unreal. The Avengers episode Warlock, handled an occult theme much better, by making the occultists shady city sophisticates. This Adam Adamant episode mishandles the subject by making its Satanists the population of a village, where the main inhabitants have sold their souls. This mishandles both the unreality & the Satanism: The Avengers handled the unreality better by making it never threatening.
Adamant himself comes across as unconvincing in this episode, with some inconsistencies: he has to have the 'pull the other one' idiom explained to him, yet understands when the boy asks if Georgina Jones is his 'bird'. I have to confess to not liking the Satanism theme in this one: I find it unlikely that Adamant would have the knowledge of Satanic practices he claims to (in fact it is an amalgam of several things in the sixties zeitgeist, including popular ideas of Satanism & the popular notion of witchcraft as the old religion, already discredited in academic circles.
I don't want to give the impression that I don't like this episode at all, although I feel it doesn't take the repeated viewings I've subjected it to with a view to preparing this post. I return to Adam Adamant Lives only occasionally because of its inability to take repetition. I love the scene where Simms takes Georgina Jones to Evensong to keep her out of the way of Adamant's investigations, the interaction between them is classic & even Simms's singing, which is always slightly out of tempo with everyone else. I like the scene where the miller is trying to kill Adamant, & he just keeps on in his gentlemanly way looking for Master Jeremy Fletcher, while dodging the blade that comes at him. John Bailey really shows his acting ability in his final confrontation with Adamant. Once again I fail completely to laugh at this: I feel the picnic scene was intended to be funny, but culture clash fails with me completely.
My last criticism is another of the whole series, that the relationship between Georgina Jones & Adamant is all wrong, once again in stark contrast to The Avengers's will-they-or-won't-they chemistry, which failed in Series 6 because Linda Thorson was too young for this chemistry. We all know that Miss Jones's (I'm even starting to talk like Adamant) flirting with him will get nowhere. Another reason for the failure of this dynamic is that it is anachronistic for the 1960s: by that time most people would find Adamant's studied avoidance of all women as either suspicious, or indicative of homosexuality. This is the difficulty of trying to transplant a relationship from one era to another: in the opening years of the twentieth century Adamant's behaviour would have been correct & gentlemanly, but simply open to misinterpretation when transplanted sixty years later. For me, this is one of the ways in which this series fails: there is no real point to the clash of sexual mores, because there will never be an outcome.
So all in all, I don't want to overly-criticise Adam Adamant Lives! I do, however, want to puncture its undeserved reputation as an Avengers imitator. If you watch this series looking for that you are bound for disappointment. If you watch it looking for a sixties series building on pre-World War II boys' stories, with all the successes & failures inherent in that, you won't be disappointed.
------------------

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Avengers: Killer Whale

Oh dear, this series 2 Avengers episode doesn't half get a bashing, for example:
'A  very strange brew, combining the theme of the week�in this case, boxing�with a lesson in the evils of smuggling substances derived from endangered species. While it is reasonably well produced, the clash of topics is just plain odd. There is a lot of attention and screen time devoted to boxing fights, which might be interesting if you're into this sort of thing. Otherwise, there is little to recommend this episode, sorry to say. Sad way to close the season, considering the gem that just preceded this dud.' (http://theavengers.tv/forever/gale1-26.htm)
I *almost* completely disagree with this assessment of this episode. The Young Avenger's review on the same site (http://theavengers.tv/forever/gale1-26yav.htm) comments that the sheer strangeness of this episode's plot makes it one that the next season should be in envy of. Personally I would expand this to say that the strangeness & many of the cinematographic techniques used in this episode makes it more like a Series 4, 5, or even 6 episode.
For a start it begins with a classic use of the magical omniscience much used in later series: we see Steed at the boxing club, there is no explanation given of what he is doing there, why he has gone there, how he seems to know Pancho & be involved, nor how long he has been going there. Of course I can see it as part of Steed's persona that he is the sort of person who *would* know about boxing & have had a go at it himself at school. He fits in as if a fixture but there is no reason given. This is a device much used in later series, it's actually a fantastic way to make a smooth plot because it frees the plot of the need to explain.
This applies to the first scene with Mrs Gale. Steed has entered her empty flat without her permission & is helping himself from her drinks cabinet. She enters already with Joey. Again no explanation of how she knows him (star judo pupil), why he is with her, etc. This means that only two minutes in most of the main characters have been introduced! Less than three minutes in Steed has brought up the subject of whales - this really is a lightning introduction to the episode. It is clear that Steed knows what is going on at Driver's Gym.
It doesn't come under the heading of magical omniscience, but is there anything Mrs Gale doesn't know about? Joey is 'one of the best amateurs' she has seen at his weight. Even as a judo teacher taking on the management of a boxer is quite something. The multitude of skills & learning she has is quite astonishing. Of course it is quite possible Steed deliberately waited there in the hope she would bring Joey home.
This episode allows a development of Mrs Gale's character, while Steed tends to remain his normal, relatively shadowy, self. She adds boxing promoter to the strings to her bow, but what I find interesting is the protectiveness she feels for Joey, & how concerned she is to get him out of Pancho's gym once she realises that Steed has used him as a way in to the gym, exposing him to danger. She's not averse to a piece of the action, of course, presaged by appearing at the gym dressed in leather: the feminist Mrs Gale is the real hero of this episode.
I will grant you the particular combination of dress designer & boxing promoter may seem strange, but this is exactly the kind of seedy, underworld, finger-in-all-the-pies connection that The Avengers are fighting. A valid criticism is that the boxing club is unconvincing: my opinion is that the dress designer is also unconvincing. I would argue that this is because they are only drawn in with broad strokes - they are unreal while not quite having the unrealness of, say, PURRR, in later series. This also allows the marvellous scene of Steed ordering a wardrobe, sight unseen, for his niece: this is also not real, since I refuse to believe any uncle has that intimate a knowledge of his niece's measurements!
The somewhat underdeveloped setting does not detract from the genuine dangerousness of the set up here: Mrs Gale of course susses that Joey's fight to get into the gym has been rigged against him, & accuses Steed of trying to get him killed. The feeling of menace & immediate danger is palpable throughout this episode. I suppose we could call the men we are dealing with 'desperate men', & it is blatant from the word go that they are in it to the death.
There are some repeat Avengers guest actors in this one: for me chief among them is John Bailey as Fernand & looking much less grey than he does even a couple of hears later, & Fredric Abbott, who does a marvellous act as a hardman sailor, responsible for bringing the ambergris into the country. Ken Farrington is cast as Joey, & this casting seems to me to be one of failings of this episode. He was pushing 30 when he played this role: surely too old to be going to a youth club & have the time available immediately to take up full-time boxing training. He also plays it too eagerly, he's like a bouncy young puppy: even if you're not hard as nails when you enter a boxing club you at least would act it, rather than leaping up into the ring & bouncing off the ropes. I think Mrs Gale's motherliness towards him suggests a younger actor was envisaged for the part. Apart from this one (unfortunately very key) exception I find all the guest actors convincing.
My only other major criticism is that just over half way through, when Joey & Mrs Gale are locked up in the laboratory the plot slows down too much with what the gang are doing. Also the fight scenes (both on & off the ring) are too slow & often badly arranged.
Visually, considering this episode is completely studio-bound, it isn't at all bad. Some of the scenes feel more like theatre sets than television sets - I'm thinking of the dress studio, & the changing room at the gym is very obviously a one-sided set only. In many ways I personally prefer the music of series one to three: it sets the tone for The Avengers as the adventure series with noirish overtones it started out to be. The high point for me are all the scenes in Mrs Gale's modernist nightmare flat, where comfort has clearly been sacrificed on the altar of 1960s fashion. I do love the way Steed gives Mrs Gale a bottle of perfume that is a gift from the Treasury, that they don't know about. All in all not a bad Avengers episode: not my favourite of the Mrs Gale ones but not the dud it is made out to be.
------------------

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Prisoner: Many Happy Returns

How I love this episode! It is strange, because I love The Prisoner & this episode is one of my favourites, despite it being definitely the odd one out. For me what marks it out is the apparent absence of institutional behaviour on the part of Drake: by this I mean that most episodes are marked by at least some manoeuvring with the authorities in The Village, & while present here it is not apparent that that is what is happening until the end.
In fact institutional neurosis is present in this episode: a major aspect of institutional behaviour is the fear of reprisals if you do something wrong, twisted in this case to mean that the authorities create an environment where there is something wrong, presumably calculated to create discomfort. The natural question would be to ask yourself what has happened & where everyone has gone: the obvious answer is that something has happened that you don't know about! A further institutional element in this story is that by making the village appear abandoned the authorities make Drake do exactly what you would think he would do: go home, to his own address before he was abducted. The only purpose for this can be to say to him: 'we know *everything* about you, everything you can & will do'. The point here is that by changing what they are doing the authorities behind The Village have *made* Drake make what he thinks is a bid for freedom, but they have foreseen it & forestalled him. The main thing Drake learns in this one, I think, is the sheer power & extent of those who control the village. The allegory about the shower & the coffee percolator in Drake's cottage, which don't work before he leaves The Village but do when he returns, is often taken to mean he has no life outside The Village (http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/article24.htm), but I think could also refer to dependence on The Village authorities, a truly institutional point to make.
The home element in this episode is actually more important than it may seem. He manages to 'escape' from The Village (albeit unknowingly with his captors' blessing), & goes home, that is to that place that represents all that is most important for everyone, right? I can't believe I've missed it all the other times I've seen this, but the house is only Number 1! So the embodiment of all that is most important for Drake is the thing he has been looking for in The Village, in fact it is himself, another whacking great spoiler.
The globalisation I talked about in my last post (on the Danger Man episode I Can Only Offer You Sherry), & commented that it wasn't present in The Prisoner, is of course present in this episode in the North African location of the The Village (derp). Of course it is plain that The Village could not be in Morocco. I don't care who you are but if you are uprooted from Europe to Africa you will notice that light, sunset, etc, are different, in addition to temperature. I'm in two minds about this one, & I'm tempted to add it to my list of things wrong with the plot in this episode.  
For me there are two other major things wrong with the plot (which needless to say don't ruin it for me). The first is the sudden emptying of The Village. The whole point is that The Village contains people with valuable & dangerous knowledge. Where on earth would you put that number of people at such short notice? The logistics of the behavioural experiment make it just too difficult to do, & also, frankly, Drake *should* have been suspicious of this. The other thing wrong with it is that Drake should be more wary of Mrs Butterworth than he is. It is inconceivable that an innocent member of the public would rent a house from which a man just disappeared without knowing about it. You could explain this by saying that the powers that abducted him would have set up a suitable cover story for his disappearance - or even buried the story somehow - but nonetheless Drake (or even Number 6 if he isn't Drake) should have been instantly more wary of Mrs Butterworth: he managed to be wary of the road block he comes across, after all.
It is interesting the human way she gets round him. His sympathy when she talks about pretending that there is still a man about the house is an unusual instance of his ice calm being in suspension. Presumably a combination of exhaustion & her kindness leave him wide open to this trick. The birthday cake is as much as telling him he has a weakness & she has well & truly used it.
The guest actors in this episode. - Donald Sinden, Patrick Cargill, Georgina Cookson - would normally make me criticise overloading the cast with stars, but here they don't overly draw attraction to their star quality as opposed to their character. Patrick Cargill is one of my favourites of the actors who appear in many 60s series: I love the dryness of the characters he often plays, such as here, quite different from his real persona:
'Cargill was a private man, who quietly disliked his famous status. He would shun the awards ceremonies in favour of a quiet evening at home playing mahjong. He never made any public acknowledgment of his private life as he felt that to admit to being gay would damage his professional image. Notwithstanding his reluctance to come out in this respect, Cargill was happy being gay in his private life and his wit when not in the spotlight reflected that. Once, whilst lunching with Ray Cooney, the theatrical impresario, Cargill observed, when a particularly handsome waiter mistakenly removed his soup spoon Cargill responded, "aah look Ray, the dish has run away with the spoon."' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Cargill)
Visually this episode is wonderful: the multiple settings in addition to Portmeirion are all winners. The touch of him landing in the road when he jumps out of the lorry in London is very effective, & there is a fascinating touch of the Avengers episode 'The Hour That Never Was' with the milk float in the airfield. I wonder if that could conceivably have been deliberate?
So all considered a superb Prisoner episode, not marred by some major quibbles with the plot, & aided by superb scenery & actors. It subtly develops the story of The Prisoner, while quite rightly raising more questions.
------------------

Danger Man: I Can Only Offer You Sherry

Watching through The Prisoner, focussing on the hypothetical identification of John Drake with Number 6, has made me reflect that I haven't really seen McGoohan in anything other than The Prisoner & Danger Man. I thought I had better make an effort to to see what he is like in different roles, to get a feel as to the breadth of the characters he is capable of & the relative closeness of Drake & Number 6. Some actors play a relatively homogenous array of roles (Ross Kemp springs to mind, in fact it's odd to see him coming across as an affable chap in documentaries), while some actors can seemingly take on different personas at the drop of a hat (my vote is on Tom Hardy for this). In an attempt to become better-acquainted with McGoohan's acting ability I bought some Columbo DVDs today. Unfortunately I managed to miss the episodes in which he appears as the villain (derp!), but am looking forward to seeing Honor Blackman as a no-doubt seductive killer. All of this introduction was pure background to why I'm doing a Danger Man post in the meantime: I want to see how much Danger Man's Drake fits in with what - hypothetically - he would become in The Prisoner. You see, I just can't help feeling they're the same person! I've chosen a late episode, one of the fifty-minute ones, & I'm taking a slightly unfair advantage here as this is one which particularly feels to me like The Prisoner.
I'll grant you that many a 60s detective series employed ideas which got used in The Prisoner, what is of interest to me in this one is the brooding feeling of being watched, relentlessly, of being the object of scrutiny. It also uses the all important theme of knowledge, of its security & misuse: in this case a woman is the character isolated for the purposes of scrutiny, & Drake is trying to find out why, in the service of the bigger aim of finding out about a leak of information. Of course the theory is that Drake came up with the idea of a village as a sort of containing 'home' to ensure the safety of ex-agents' knowledge. The Drake in this episode is exactly the sort of person who would come up with that sort of idea, given that he clearly works for an incredibly diffuse & knowedgeable organisation. M9 clearly has world-wide connections, raising the question of globalisation underlying the perennial question of The Village's location. The 'organisation' running The Village in The Prisoner is at least only perceived as merely European: in this one a police chief in an Arabic-speaking, presumably Middle Eastern?, country knows who Drake is. Interestingly, coming back to Danger Man from The Prisoner, that is in the wrong chronological order, makes The Prisoner feel even more chilling, as if it is focussed on only the European part of a global conspiracy.
Drake in this episode looks like Number 6, he talks & acts like Number 6. This is why I need to see McGoohan in different roles, to see how he acts different roles. In later interviews, though, he comes across as quite different, albeit obviously older, than Drake or Number 6. His appearance as Number 6 is complete, & this episode is a major source in the Drake as Number 6 debate, since Drake dresses identically in this Danger Man to how Number 6 dresses in the title sequence of The Prisoner. Arguments aside, the person we see resigning in The Prisoner, is the Drake we see in this episode of Danger Man. It has been chewed over endlessly, but Drake in this episode is exactly the moral sort of person he is supposed to be, & the sort of moral person Number 6 was. He obviously pretends, of necessity, in this episode, but it is in the service of a greater cause. Drake's actions in this episode also strike me as the sort of things Number 6 does: finding existing allies, forcing the all-important character of Jean Smith on side,  & setting up a plot to capture his opponents in flagrante, as it were. He uses the advanced technology of the time, as Drake often does: I have only just realised that the surveillance equipment Drake uses in Danger Man is - as it were - used against him by his captors in The Prisoner, exactly the sort of cat & mouse reversal motif that reoccurs over & over again in The Prisoner, used as one single monumental reversal between Danger Man & The Prisoner.
I like Danger Man, purely as first-class television, enormously, preferring the fifty-minute later episodes over the thirty-minute episodes. In this one I particularly like the use of stock footage mixed with the otherwise completely studio-bound production. Some of it may seem slightly corny from this length of time, such as the spy film old faithful of the wall safe behind a picture. My personal high point in this has to be Drake's receipt of intelligence from a fortune teller who is completely obviously a male agent in drag (played wonderfully by Warren Mitchell)! Wendy Craig, an actress who normally irritates the pants off me, does a really good ambivalent, compromised naivete act.
But can I think of any way in which this episode would contradict the Drake as Number 6 theory? Frankly, no I can't, even admitting that I was convinced of this identification to start off with. So this episode both confirms my hypothesis & is a stonking good bit of television in itself.
------------------

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Prisoner: The General

The general has of course been referred to before in The Prisoner. I have to confess at the outset that this is not one of my personal favourite episodes, largely because I don't take to the Speedlearn idea. However Drake, true to form, remains only interested in his professed task of getting away: of course in these posts I am taking the view that that is not his actual or only  aim, rather he wants to investigate his idea gone bad & getting away to report or publicise what is happening.
In reality the education pretense is another ploy by The Village authorities: those already broken go along with it enthusiastically, but it is another way to put pressure on Drake. It is as if The Village is a behavioural experiment: they've placed Drake in a pseudo-democratic environment to see how he responds, & now in a pseudo-academic environment. The wonder is that they bother: even seeing this series through for the first time in the sixties, by now you would have got Drake's response well sussed. The wonder, I suppose is that he goes through with - I guess in a spirit of continuing to find out what The Village authorities can do. You would think, though, that he would at least have some reasonable fear of 'programming' - a fashionable psychological fear of the sixties, influenced by the odd religions springing up at the time.
The fact is that it is plainly a pseudo-education. A degree that *everyone* has got is effectively worthless. The mere parroting of unexamined & unresearched 'facts' is not education, it is not teaching people to *think*. And this is the big weakness of this plot for me: anyone who has set foot into university level education (or into a grammar school, at the time this was broadcast) can see the falseness of the 'education'. The issues are rather around control & conformity, & this is so heavily-handedly obvious that the episode lacks subtlety on that basis alone. The General can even be interpreted as a figure of an old-man-in-the-sky all-knowing God, giving out instructions, even seen in the number of steps up to the General. There is nothing the General does not know!
Of *course* Number 12 is a plant. Of *course* Number 2 even defines the speed learn project as an experiment for himself. Of *course* the General is not a person. Of *course* the General was invented by the Professor, he's got regret written all over him.
I like Colin Gordon a lot as Number 2 - his intelligent, bespectacled looks suit the role in this episode to perfection, & John Castle as Number 12 is the perfect counterpoint to him, with his thicker features, & self-definition as 'a cog...in the machine'. I love the way the Professor has to be dragged in from the beach to do Speedlearn.  And a very gratifying thing is to spot some books from Steed's library in Stable Mews, when Drake goes to see the General. I will have to resist creating a conspiracy theory around that fact & The Avengers, & put it down to props from the same source - internals on The Prisoner were shot in sets, not at Portmeirion. That said there is a lot of Avengers in the scene where the General overheats.
You can't really criticise the visuals in this: the scene with the busts & then the pretend-Professor is particularly effective. The dialogue sparkles to the point where you simply do not find yourself turning off during this episode. Drake's character is perhaps more confrontational, acerbic in this episode: the simple fact is he comes across as intellectually the superior of everyone else. The irony is that if it were a school he would be the sort of pupil who is forever at loggerheads with his teachers, but then ends up coming top: his teachers have bored him & his questioning was actually purely intellectual enquiry. I think this episode (watched in this order) is the one where as the viewer the series begins to play with your head. Drake is the intelligent rebel schoolboy, being held in statu pupillari by his intellectual inferiors. Yet the whole point ultimately of the village he envisaged, which is where he is, was to provide a safe container for agents who were twoo dangerous or at risk to be let out among the public. His own creation is what has wrong-footed him: he's like a boy in chemistry who moves onto the advanced stuff without knowing the basics & blows his eyebrows off! Although judging by the question he beats the General with, porbably philosophy would be more his bag.
So as I say, an episode whose premise doesn't really grab me, but with a lot of food for thought nonetheless, redeemed by its dialogue & visuals. It also doesn't really develop the idea of Drake investigating The Village, but instead manages to tell us as viewers a lot about The Village & about Drake himself.
------------------

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Professionals: Hunter Hunted

'Guard it, Doyle, guard it with you life. In the wrong hands this could create an instant disaster area,' says Cowley, handing Doyle an experimental rifle to take home to experiment with. And that is where things start to go wrong.
A strong contender, this, for the first episode of the second season of The Professionals. It is strong visually, especially, which almost covers the basic flaw in the plot I shall outline below.
What is really good about this plot is the way it shows up a weakness in Cowley's character: he is still his normal brusque self, but in fact every death & disaster in this episode is his fault alone. Cowley is often content to carry total responsibility for CI5, but here he blames Bodie & Doyle for his own ill-advised loan of the rifle to Doyle, telling them they'll be out of CI5 if they don't find it when it gets stolen. Frankly, we all know there are public organisations where the personnel are authorised to carry firearms. I've never worked in one, but you would think a very careful track of where those arms are, is kept at all times. Randomly giving an operative an arm to take home - where the only security is hiding it in a cupboard - is at best irresponsible. This is quite different from his normal strict-but-fair approach.
The Professionals had such good effective locations. In this episode the derelict Palace of Engineering from the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, now demolished, provides a wonderful setting for the opening scenes. Boating scenes & touches of old London provide a marvellously atmospheric touch. This series is of course also known for its cars, & its unfortunate that the only decent one driven by Bodie or Doyle in this series, Doyle's own white E-type Jaguar, gets blown up. The baddy of course drives a very sexy black Porsche. Other than that the cars are the unremarkable Fords favoured in this series.
The flaw in the plot I mentioned, is that there is no real...detective work is the wrong phrase... I'm trying to say that it is too simple for Doyle to rack his brain & fail to think of anyone he's put in jail that would fit the profile of this killer, & then just be presented with the solution by Cowley. The tension is built up well to this point, & it is an anticlimax. It also doesn't ring true to the nature of CI5 & the men it employs. You would think CI5 would keep files on their men with careful links to the criminals who could form threats to them, but it seems not. A missed opportunity to show off 1970s computer technology!
I think perhaps the nature of The Professionals doesn't lend itself to the kind of over-analysis I put a TV show through. It's interesting, writing this blog, which shows will take this & which won't. The show that will, of course, is The Prisoner, it can be understood on so many levels. The Avengers does, & I was quite gratified to see how Department S & Spyder's Web stood up to my over-scrutiny. All of the shows I've blogged about so far predate widely-available domestic videos, so would have been intended to be watched just once, with no pause & no return - often literally, given how much has been wiped. I think The Professionals should be approached as an adventure series: I should sit back, admire Bodie & Doyle's glamorous lives of women, danger, & fast cars. Given that these things are what they are about, I may be expecting too much when I look at plot or motivation too deeply, & find chasms open up in the episode.
That said, The Professionals often handles very sensitive issues, morally complex issues, such as one where corruption in a building firm comes under scrutiny. Here there is the - underexamined in the show - aspect of Cowley's wreckless irresponsibility with an experimental weapon. There is also the psychology of an obviously very dangerous criminal who *could have* killed Bodie & Doyle so many times in this episode, even using wildly complicated methods. This is messing with their heads pure & simple, & I don't doubt how screwy this would be when you know the person doing it is a killer. It is not often commented on in the series, but Bodie & Doyle's work is the sort of work that gives you PTSD.
It was only when looking up the Palace of Engineering that I discovered Lewis Collins has just died, of cancer, at the age of only 67. I also didn't know he auditioned to be James Bond in the 1980s but went into computers instead.
------------------

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased): That's How Murder Snowballs

I realise I'm finding it difficult to write about Randall & Hopkirk, because I've just realised I watch them for all the wrong reasons, for the sixties atmosphere rather than the actual story. It is therefore strange that I like this one a lot, since its milieu is theatrical rather than swinging sixties. On the other hand this one's got to be good, it was written by Ray Austin! And apart from the quibble that it's slightly obvious from the beginning, that it is.
It's interesting in terms of Randall's character, especially as I'm coming straight to this one from Just for the Record: in both of these Randall comes across as a rather sleazy character, or possibly just at his financial wits' end. The ethics of selling his story to the papers are rightly slightly underdeveloped, since it is clear in the context of the series that Randall's business & private coffers are chronically underfinanced. He is painted as - almost - a rogue here, but a loveable one, doing his best to fulfill his obligations, specifically here to Marty Hopkirk's widow as his employee. He is more ambivalent than this though: when apart from dramatic effect, another reason he could be the first person up on the stage to look at that body when the first murder happens, is that, in contrast to the rest of the sudience who are pictured running out in disarray, he is the only one to keep his head. His role as 'only sensible person' continues to the extent of explaining about gunshot blasts to the policeman, who either would have known that or had ways of finding out, & to explaining sleight-of-hand to him, another commonplace.
There's a lot of human interest here, specifically the recurring theme of people being at their wits' ends, & what that will drive them to. I love the description of the episode having something of Scooby Doo about it (http://www.randallandhopkirk.org.uk/programmes_11_thats_how_murder_snowballs.htm), but I feel it is much deeper than that, with a better & more complex of human nature & motivation.
This, to me, is unusual for a Randall & Hopkirk episode, because I feel it actually makes the most of Hopkirk's ghostliness, to make Randall the most convincing mind-reading act in history. There are just a couple of occasions when people don't move as smoothly around Hopkins as they should do, such as one where a man moves seat a little too obviously to allow him to sit down in the auditorium. I do love the bit where he describes not being able to break the habit of sitting at the dinner table, having been to the Savoy & dined with the Prime Minister. Of course it gives Jeannie less scope than later episodes, but the advantage of this approach is that without the ghost hopping about this is a completely straightforward detective story in a closed community, without the Randall & Hopkirk 'thing', even down to the reconstruction of the crime on-stage.
The rest of the cast are a random mixture of conflicting human emotions & motivations: unfortunately it is so obvious, since the murderer is so obviously a woman in drag, that when you consider the male cast, bearing build in mind, it all falls into place. The drag aspect helps the theatrical setting along, of course, & in terms of visuals it's hard to go wrong with setting something backstage in a theatre.
I also like that the episode leaves an apparent unexplained mystery: in the counterpoint of the police & the press, both of whom Randall has dealings with, the reporter is the one who queries how Randall does it, while the policeman is all set on explaining how it was done. I like this Randall & Hopkirk a lot, despite the few failings mentioned above, which are largely compensated for by setting & characterisation, despite being out of the run of Randall & Hopkirk episodes.
------------------

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased): Just for the Record

This episode isn't a favourite among Randall & Hopkirk fans; needless to say I've chosen it to be the first to blog about because it is one of my personal favourites! For me it encapsulates much of what I like about sixties TV: it has elements of intrigue in the plot to take over the throne, the bizarre in having a dead person an active member of a private detective agency, & totally sixties elements, both in the visuals and in the fact of the beauty pageant being completely accepted!
Visually I think Randall & Hopkirk is always a winner: much thought has clearly been put into how it will look on the screen, for example in sixties street scenes, & this one starts on a visual high note with the experiment in the warehouse. The picture here is intended to show what I mean about the sixties visuals: get that already-migrainous sofa against that dead sixties wall art! Did nobody get through the sixties without wanting to crawl into a darkened room & die quietly?
I don't think it is a plot weakness myself but the complexity & ridiculousness of the plot to seize the throne both places this in a completely sixties detective genre, but frankly also gives it an aura of complete unreality. The sheer expense involved in putting together the experiment with which the episode begins would make it prohibitive for most people. Ronald Radd, who plays Pargiter, is of course one of those staple sixties TV actors: his beard in this one gives him a marvellously regal aspect. Who would have thoiught it? - to me he looks like Edward VII. If he was forty here, he was only just forty, but the beard makes him look much older. Also what is not to love in the characters of My Lord Dorking & Surrey? - especially as one is played by Nosher Powell.
I think this one is misunderstood: it would be a mistake to expect this lightweight confection to bear more weight as a piece of serious drama than it can. Understood as a relatively tongue-in-cheek almost-spoof of the detective genre it carries its weight much better.
Similarly the monumental distraction (for Randall) of the beauty contest is way overdone. I think that may be the point. Nowhere else in the series does Randall come across as quite as much a dirty old man as he does here - he's almost visibly gagging to get Miss Moscow back to his flat! I see this as a spoof of the whole James Bond thing.
Another element is that it allows Hopkirk (deceased) to take a much more prominent role in this one than he normally does. It's a classic plot device of one partner being distracted so the other has to run the show. Of course the distraction is also the point of the plot: Miss London is part of the plot, & it is sheer chance the Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) are involved at all, as a result of a lack of suitable escorts.
Don't get me wrong: this episode isn't completely invulnerable to criticism. Its strength - the campy way everything is overdone - is also its weakness. The element of Randall trying to seduce Miss Moscow is over-lengthy & becomes wearisome. The plot to become King is slightly too ridiculous, & would perhaps have benefited from slightly subtler handling: I feel this would have made a wonderful Spyder's Web episode, for example. All in all, though, a jolly romp which is best understood as such.
------------------

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Avengers: Dial A Deadly Number

This has got to be one of the most popular Avengers episodes of all time, & with good reason. Personally some of the Series 4 episodes are my favourites: I like Steed greatly in this series, he comes across as rather louche, having not completely lost his original dodginess before becoming the Grand Old Man of Series 6.
This episode has quite seriously been chewed over almost to death. Highlights of the commentary, I feel, include its difference in feel from some of the Avengers: the London street scenes are definitely real, & Steed carries & uses a gun, a very rare occurrence for him. Other than that there is a full house of variously eccentric & sinister characters, a coffin maker, & the show down is in a wine cellar. How more Avengers could you get?
It also strikes me that this is a very classic Avengers in terms of placing the baddies, mainly Establishment respectable figures gone wrong here, but also someone embittered by Second World War experiences. This manages to combine the classic Avengers formula of hobnobbing with the great & the good, with a uncharacteristically working class person as a key character, in Fitch (the coffin maker, while working class, is more characteristically Avengers since eccentric & blatantly not real).
I find the characters of the Boardmans interesting, since they're plainly Not Our Sort Of Person, despite him being on the board of a bank. Apart from their obvious corruption & criminality (their butler tries to run over Steed after a dinner party, & Steed performs bull fight moves with the motor bike), they're simply rather nouveau. It is very effective visually that their dinner table is actually a huge coin, but can you imagine a member of an old family, or even any board member of a bank, having such a garish table? Mrs Boardman is painted quite negatively for her sexual morals, but this gives Steed the bounder scope to hope that her past may repeat itself. He expresses his satisfaction, when she comments that his apartment is just as she imagined it, that she had imagined it at all!
I'm pleased, though to be able to have one thing to say about it that hasn't been said by everyone else: the books that appear in 3 Stable Mews make two appearances in this episode: first in the bank (second picture) then in Yuill's office (third picture), where they look better. I think those books may be becoming an obsession of mine. I wonder where they are now! Incidentally do many stockbrokers have wardrobes in their offices?
The beeper technology is interesting. I love the description of it as a personal secretary: I might start referring to my Blackberry as that! I stand to be corrected on this but I believe the first transistorised pager was invented only in 1960 so at this time it was still cutting-edge technology. That said, the size of the beepers in this episode was more than a little science fiction for this time. I do love, though, the way the dials of an old-fashioned exchange are seen turning when the beeper's number is dialled.
The pros of this episode are: plot, characterisation, effective visuals, sparkling dialogue, music (I love the theme played slowly as muzak at the dinner party). I particularly love the bar & Mrs Peel's outfits, those apart from the catsuit. I love the way Steed looks in the cupboards to find Mrs Peel, finding her in the second he looks in. I love the way, when ordering coffee, Steed asks for Keeenya! And I think what I love most of all is that Steed & Mrs Peel are pictured wine tasting in a taxi. I just have one criticism, which is that for me it is overloaded with recognisable actors. It is surprising in retrospect that so relatively few actors appear over & over again in independent television's output in the 1960s: turn to a different series & you can rely on seeing a few familiar faces among the supporting cast. Here, though, for me it constitutes something of a distraction from the excellent plot, there is too much, 'Oh, isn't that...'.
A comparison with the 1970s South African radio series is interesting: the radio series performs poorly in comparison to this sparkling offering. So all in all a top-notch episode of The Avengers, from my favourite series.
------------------

The Prisoner: The Schizoid Man

One thing has become blatantly clear from Drake's investigation of The Village - their attempt to get the reason for his resignation from Drake has seriously derailed. The technique used in this episode seems almost designed to persuade him to identify as Number 6, which plainly is not going to happen with genuine feeling anytime soon, & is anyway not what they really want.
Nonethless it is an interesting conceit, to make someone else be him & thus force him into the character they want. The whole question of identity & self here covers up the simple fact of the institutionalisation of The Village's authority leading them down this blind alley. Because they are conditioned to behave in a particular way, they focus on bringing Number 2 into line: in fact they are so lackadaisical Drake is able to sneak out of his cottage at night & go missing. In this, this episode references the very behavioural psychology fashionable in the sixties.
Another sixties fashion reflected in this episode is the fashion for all things 'alternative', including extra-sensory perception, demonstrated for the credulous by the flawed experiments with Zener cards conducted by botanist J.B. Rhine. It is interesting that the scene with Number 24 & Drake using Zener cards, shows the classic set-up that is so open to fraud it isn't true. I find it interesting that Drake is doing this, since I feel it indicates a new aspect to his personality, since I would have thought he would have little patience for Zener card experiments. It's also amazing, since the results they get are statistically impossible, way over the 20% norm. I can only assume that Drake goes along on this pseudo-scientific experiment with Number 24, knowing it can only be a fake, to see why it is being done. The inversion motif comes in when he turns this against the system by using it as proof that he is the person who has the 'mental link' with Number 24. The fact that they can't possibly have a mental link - even Number 24 describes it as a mind-reading act - shows his captors up for having fallen down on their research. Of course logic is also the way in which Drake remains orientated to time: his bruised finger nail growing out cannot be disguised, so there is an underlying theme of logic as anchor & source of safety in a confusing & dangerous world.
On a pure trivia note, in the setup of Number 12's cottage I spotted both a curved bookcase that appears in many an Avengers episode & many ITC series, & also the leather-bound books that feature a lot in The Avengers, including in 3 Stable Mews. Here, as seen in the second picture, they are mixed among other leather-bound books, but the distinctive red & black bands on their spines are visible. Leather-bound books all look alike, you may say, but it would be difficult to see two such similar & distinctive sets of volumes in two theatrical prop agencies! Also I feel Rover looks less convincing at times in this one, the angles must be slightly wrong but it looks like a weather balloon rather than the strange entity it normally does.
Once again this episode can be seen as a whacking great spoiler: it references the fact that what is behind The Village, ones captor, ones enemy, is oneself. True to form Drake manages to turn this on its head in this episode: the image of him is his competitor but ultimately what allows him to pull the wool over Number 2's eyes, only to fail at the final hurdle. Of course the denial theme operates here: what is really keeping Drake in The Village is himself, his knowledge, his life, but he seeks to investigate what happens in The Village, his brainchild, but is not ready to see that what he investigating is therefore himself.
This is one of my favourite episodes, but I have one major gripe about it, that it would have been better if McGoohan hadn't also played the person pretending to be Number 6/Drake. It is unnecessary for the plot, since Number 24 is in on it, it is unconvincing visually & factually. The reality is The Village authorities would have been able to find a man who looked only very like Drake, even assuming they could find such a man who could be persuaded, bribed, or threatened into playing the role convincingly. In fact it is unnecessary: the pretend Number 6 actually would only have to pretend to be him, since all that is necessary is the pretence that he is Drake. Divergences from the real one could be explained by pointing out that since the imposter is Number 6, obviously the real one is a fake. Similarly, the idea of aversion therapy artifically to make Drake left-handed is overly complex, & can only be to make him conform to the 'prototype' of the false Number 6. Once again, 'But I am Number 6, & I am left-handed because Number 6 is left-handed,' said by the false one, would be enough to deal with this. It is this kind of thing that makes me think The Village authorities have become derailed: the plot is frankly ridiculous, & a simple plot would have been better to try to unhinge Drake.
I like Anton Rodgers as Number 2 a lot: a much more avuncular, headmasterly character than I think any of the others.
In conclusion, despite the flawed plot, I like this episode a lot. As to whether it helps Drake's investigation of his brainchild village at all, well that's doubtful. The Village authorities, while being derailed from their own aim, are presenting Drake with challenge after challenge. I think also this episode loses its effect seen with the knowledge of how the series continues. (Sigh). Oh! To have seen The Prisoner when it was first broadcast!
------------------

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Prisoner: Free for All

Drake's investigation of what has become of his brainchild, a home for security personnel holding secrets, is increasingly becoming a game of cat & mouse, only with the roles of cat & mouse alternating. Perhaps the recurring chess game motif in the series reflects this better, though.
I think perhaps this episode is the one so far where the powers that run The Village are treating Drake most like a cat treats a captive mouse. He is of course right to be very suspicious of the purported democracy in The Village. I love this exchange:
Number 2: 'Are you going to run?'
Drake: 'Like blazes, the first chance I get.'
Of course we know that Drake knows that the democracy is a sham. The power behind The Village would be very naïve if they didn't know that Drake knew that. Drake would also be very naïve if he allowed himself to forget even for a moment that The Village knows this.  They actually - apparently - give him an opportunity to subvert the status quo.
Of course Drake has to go through with it, his only real alternative is to announce he will have nothing to do with it & stay in his cottage - if he did that he would lose an opportunity to learn further about the workings of The Village. In fact it is hard to see how this charade can be intended to get the reason for Drake's resignation from him!
Rather, it seems The Village's motivation for herding him into standing for election is to alter his behaviour, to make him one of the villagers. This is almost stated explicitly when Number 2 tells him off for his behaviour in front of the council. Where he turns this on its head is in his apparent going along with the election process when he comes out of the labour exchange.
Overtones of Bond in his escape attempt: the music sounds like Bond, it looks for a moment like a Bond film with the struggle on the boat. Don't forget I'm reading this on the principle that The Village is actually Drake's brain child gone bad, & he is the distressed parent who is forever an outsider. The Village allows him a moment to act like an outsider - another spy in this case - but the fact his escape attempt is foiled by Rover, an archetypal image of The Village, shows that The Village will bring him back to heel.
There's just one thing terribly wrong with this episode: the mass hysteria for democracy that suddenly springs up one morning. It would have to be planned carefully, although I suppose it could be explained that the villagers are mostly so passive they'll cheer anything. Another apparent weakness is the obvious suspiciousness of Number 58 right from the start. However since she isn't apparently a key figure at the beginning, the fact Drake doesn't kick her out of the house could be put down to the monumental distraction of the 'election'.
I love where Drake is interviewed for the Tally Ho, where he's rude to the reporter, who translates his rudeness into platitudes! I also love that the members of The Village council all wear top hats. And you've got to love that the personal assistant he I'd given for the election doesn't speak a word of English!
This episode is frequently described as being about the vacuity of the democratic process, but in my opinion it has a major undercurrent of group mind, society's expectations & the effect of groups & society on human behaviour. This is reflected in the encounter between Drake & Number 2 in the cave, at least on the surface; of course it is really another new technique to try to get Drake to open up.
It is also about the ways society makes us behave in a particular way & the penalties for not conforming. This could mean making a person Number 2 & then making his life a living hell. When it comes down to it, this episode is all about power & its various expressions. Once again it may seem like Drake is no nearer to concluding his investigation, but the cat & mouse game The Village plays with him allows him a developing understanding of what The Village is capable of. It is almost as if he has to do it: 'Won't you ever learn? This is just the beginning,' says the new Number 2 to him, before assuring the old Number 2 that it will be alright 'eventually'. This is definitely going to be a long haul...
------------------

The Avengers: Girl on a Trapeze

I was astonished, on coming to watch this episode recently, to find I had no recollection of it at all, even though I am sure I have watched all the way through the Studio Canal box set of the remaining episodes of Series 1 & the whole of Series 2. I suspect this may be because it shares a disc with the other remaining complete episode, The Frighteners, which is an excellent episode & may have distracted me from this when playing the disc. Of course the reason The Frighteners was treated as the 'only' series 1 episode in existence is that it was, until Girl on the Trapeze was rediscovered in 2001, being seen for the first time at the Missing Believed Wiped event in 2002.
Of course I put it on in anticipation of Big Finish's release of the missing first series episodes as audio recordings, staring January. Girl on a Trapeze suffers in two other ways in comparison to The Frighteners. Up until recently there has been a received wisdom among Avengers-philes that The Frighteners was the best of a mediocre lot, & the almost complete wiping of the rest of the series was no great loss. This is plainly not the case, even going by the episode reconstructions on the box set.
Rather the other way Girl on a Trapeze misses out may be more valid for some fans: there is no Steed in it (although he appears in the credits), & these first series episodes are *very* different from, say, those with Mrs Peel. I don't mind the absence of Steed myself, since it accentuates that this episode is in a different class of television: much darker, more gritty, full of almost film noir visuals. It feels like being a traitor to say this, but I don't even mind Steed being played by someone other than Patrick Macnee, as he is in the South African radio serials.
To me this serves to emphasise the differing role of Steed over the years, also mirrored by the relative organisation & Establishment position of The Avengers as the series progress. The Avengers start off with a completely amateur doctor as the key figure, with the shadowy & vaguely disreputable figure of Steed as a sidekick, to the organised role of Steed the father figure to Miss King in series 6 (& almost to Grand Old Man status in The New Avengers).
I think the major difference between these series 1 episodes & the later ones is actually that they are set in the real world: I feel the Avengers truism that Avengersland was self-consciously unreal may only be true of later series. In this episode the real world of a circus - of the time - is an excellent visual setting for this episode. Of course this real-world setting makes the episode creak like an old gate, fifty years later. In fact it feels different from most later Avengers episodes, at least in the beginning, much more like a police procedural.
Dr Keel's accidental status as an Avenger is critical here, that he gets caught up in the aftermath of a suicide, while on his way out for the evening. His professional involvement is what fortuitously draws him in. It is also apparently pure nosiness that makes him pursue the trail of the dead woman to the circus, since the police are pursuing their investigation at the same time.
My conclusion on this episode is that I don't mind it at all, despite it having virtually none of the characteristic eccentric Avengers touches. As a TV play, it is superb, paced exactly right, with good characterisation & wonderful visuals courtesy of the circus. I can't wait for the Big Finish audio remakes to come out!
------------------

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Prisoner: A, B, and C

I ended my post on The Chimes of Big Ben by saying that Drake came across as naïve to think he could walk into The Village, investigate, & leave. Here The Village turns the attention on him, & ups its play in finding out what it wants from him, the creation - or rather brainchild - turning its attention on its creator.
There is however also a sense of desperation in using an untried 'treatment', & Number 2 (Colin Gordon, one of my favourites) comments on the phone on the importance of getting the information from Drake.
Despite an effective Number 2, I don't really like this episode. Couldn't they find a better name for the hostess than Madam Engadine? - she sounds like a fortune - teller. I also don't really take to the plot - no real criticism, it just doesn't do anything for me.
In terms of reading The Prisoner through the eyes of George Markstein's conceptualisation of the reason for The Village & Drake's role in this, even though Markstein was script editor on this one, it doesn't really contribute that much. However in terms of Drake's personality there are hints: it is plain that the personality seen in the dreams can only be Drake's heavily honourable personality, so that this episode does confirm the identification between Drake & Number 6 in that way. It is interesting also to see Drake in a slightly different milieu than in either Danger Man or The Prisoner, where he was very much the lone wolf. This episode feels more like other 60s spy genre programmes such as The Saint. Also the fact that Drake gains - I can't avoid the use of this hackneyed phrase - the high moral ground over Number 2 indicates the sort of moral person Drake is.
Drake's understanding of the workings of The Village has already developed: his previous experiences have clearly taught him that there are captors masquerading among the prisoners in The Village. He refers to Number 14 as 'one of them'.
This episode doesn't work for me in two ways: the instant Madame Engadine starts asking Drake questions she is suspicious in the roles played out in The Prisoner - the inversion motif that a still tongue may make a quiet life, yet the authority figures expect you to talk, & asking questions is suspicious. This is to my mind merely a plot weakness.
The other, which I think is a larger failing, although perhaps unavoidable given the era when The Prisoner was made, is a plot failure in the use of drugs & inserting narrative into his dreams. Many of the science fiction things in The Prisoner have by now come to be possible, such as cordless phones. The reason they continue to work in The Prisoner - if you observe them, rather than just let them happen without questioning - is that they look very sixties but were actually still in the future *at that time*. The drugs plot doesn't work so well now because it was something that was - more or less - actually happening at that time. The sixties were a time of experimentation in medicine, & such things as abreaction & LSD therapy were tried on the still largely captive populations in psychiatric hospitals. The notion that a doctor could chemically get into your head & wander around was not completely alien then. For me, this fails because instead of the relative unreality of The Prisoner, it anchors this episode in the series's actual time too much.
Less major plot failures for me are that I can't believe the laxness of security on the clinic, & Drake ought really to have been observed on CCTV there & when he pours his cocoa down the drain.
Not to be totally negative, a plot strength is the repetition of the reversal motif, since Drake gains the upper hand over Number 2 again. I also like very much that the third contact turns out to be Number 2 himself: an early appearance of the final solution to The Prisoner. Ironic that Number 2 is being ordered by Number 1 (& we all know who that is) to find out whom Drake is meeting & it turns out to be himself!
So actually I have to reverse the hasty statements I've made above slightly: the solution to The Village in Markstein's eyes is that it is actually what is in the resigned agent that keeps him a prisoner, the kind of things they know & have done leave them marked for life. So in fact this episode is a whacking great spoiler that Drake's captor is within: this is the entire point & completely fits with Markstein's conception.
------------------

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Prisoner: The Chimes of Big Ben

I'm watching the episodes through in the order they come in on my boxed set - I'm sure I shall return to The Prisoner & consider other possible orders in the future, but for the moment I'm purely considering the series in the light of George Markstein's envisioning of the reason for Drake's resignation & the existence of the village.
I have only just wondered whether the lengthy title sequence repeated ineach episode is like that deliberately to disorientate the viewer: up to over 3 minutes into the programme you actually don't know which episode you are seeing.
The new Number 2's comment that Drake can make even putting on a dressing gown seem like an act of defiance, points attention to Drake's actions rather than their effect on his captors, which is surely to see what they will do, his continued investigation of how his creation has worked out. If this is so it inverts the whole way the plot is portrayed: Drake is trying to get information out of The Village authorities, by holding his resignation as a carrot in front of them & observing their responses. He even at one point tells Number 2 that he is as much of a prisoner as Drake is - Number 2 is unconcerned by this, he hopes for a day when the whole earth will be The Village.
Of course everything he does is aimed at doing this: he is in a total institution & subverts institutional behaviours to his own ends, once again appearing to make some efforts to settle in in this episode, all of which are aimed at making his captors react & seeing what happens. I particularly love the interaction with Number 2 - who almost tries to jolly him along - over coffee.
He is surprisingly open about his intent to escape, come back & wipe The Village off the face of the earth. He certainly wipes the jolliness off Number 2's face, although not as effectively in Hammer or Anvil. Number 2 even tries to take him onto the 'other side of the counter' by showing him the newly-arrived Number 8 waking up in her cottage. He then tries to do a deal, which Drake is unresponsive to, to Number 2's frustration, which he turns into a joke. Drake already has this Number 2 eating out of his hand.
Drake's experiment continues when he speaks to Number 8 just as any other Villager would. Of course he's right to be suspicious of a person whom Number 2 has even brought to his attention, speaking to her as if she knows who Number 1 is, & refusing to answer her questions. Ultimately Number 8 tells him her name.
Number 2 treats Drake as a trusted member of the community, after the capture of Number 8 after an escape attempt. From Drake's point of view this must be an excellent opportunity to observe the psychological techniques used in The Village at first hand. Drake is clearly disgusted by what he sees, tells Number 2 to let her go & says he will then collaborate. He defines this as joining in, not telling him anything. Here the impression is that the tables are turned on Drake, because actually Number 2 has instead made him behave in a particular way, however Number 2 is naïve to be taken in : he comments that things couldn't be going better.
Drake's purpose for his alliance is clear: he thinks she knows where The Village is - he hasn't lost sight of his initial aim. She tells him The Village is in Lithuania, & she has friends in a nearby village, & Drake is already making escape plans.
Of course the fact that all the images in the art exhibition are of Number 2 except that by Drake, is one of the inversions. It's actually completely obvious that Drake is the only one seeing outside of The Village. The others - blinded by tunnel vision focus only on Number 2, Drake focuses on the outside. Of course this is once again inverted later in the series, since they are *all* missing the point!
I suppose the - frankly terrifying - point of this episode is that while Drake thinks he can investigate what is going on in The Village, in reality the organisation he is investigating is so far entrenched in society that it is virtually inevitable. What I think is really clever is that it is not apparent (until the end)  exactly who are friends & enemies, or at exactly what point they are being double-crossed. He tried to investigate this organisation but in reality it is still investigating him, & will not hesitate to trick him to do so.
In this the programme also tricks us. On our first sight of Richard Wattis (as Fotheringay) we get the impression that he has received the message & is looking forward to seeing Drake, giving no indication of what will happen. Wattis was such an archetypal 'civil servant' type of actor, that his casting here was an excellent choice to make us think of solid Establishment figures - in this case not actually on Drake's side!
I feel Drake comes across as quite naïve in this one - he thinks that he can know who is who. 'It is, isn't it - isn't it different?' It's not different - figures he thinks he can trust are still interrogating him. Drake's aim here, of investigating what is happening at his brainchild Village, goes horribly wrong. Perhaps he is actually too arrogant, to think that he can keep control of his brainchild. It's out there, & is no longer his.
------------------

The Avengers: Brief for Murder

It turns out, reading round on the internet about this episode, that not only is it one of my favourite Avengers episodes, it also seems to be everyone else's, to the extent that I'm going to find it difficult to say anything that hasn't already been said repeatedly! I had already spotted the bloopers, & my favourite line is everyone ese's favourite line as well.
Brian Clemens wrote the script, & it shows, because actually this episode - to me at least - does feel like a later episode rather than a standard Series 2 episode. It has the characteristic Avengers theme of corruption & greed among the great & the good, in this case the Lakin brothers. I have read criticisms that the act is slightly overdone - I agree that they are fabulously over the top considering they are supposed to be solicitors, but that is exactly the later Avengers feel I mean. I even love the way that after Steed & Mrs Gale double cross them, they still look for legal precedents to try to get themselves off the hook. There is even the comedy of Steed putting on a bowler, supposedly his, but far too big in the Old Bailey.
It would be difficult to break the Lakins' seemingly faultless scheme any other way than it is broken in this episode, but the resolution seems to me a little more straightforward than it could be. This is my only criticism of this episode.
What I didn't know was that this episode was featured in the TV Times: this article forms the illustration for this post. I looove the fictional background given to Steed in that article, it makes him seem much more of a mountebank than he usually comes across. It demonstrates the development of Steed's personality through the sixties, starting off as a well dodgy character & ending up the respectable gentleman whom Tara King looks up to. It also suggests shady origins for his money, although it is hard to see how he could ever be anything other than a younger son! I suspect in series 1 he wasn't really the son of anybody, if you see what I mean.
The biography of Mrs Gale brings into sharp relief her multifaceted personality - adventurer as well as academic. I had somehow managed to miss that she fought with Castro, but have added that to my mental list of her achievements!
------------------