Monday, 22 December 2014

Seventies TV: Dick Emery (with specific reference to the film Ooh You Are Awful... But I Like You)

Yes, I know this is supposed to be about TV, but I happen to have the Dick Emery film, which includes his trademark characters & humour, & not the TV version, which I've tried to watch in the past & found hard-going. The DVD has recently come back into my possession when a friend had a clearout of her flat & pointed out that it was full of my stuff, as she cleared out her handbag of some random weird stuff, which I was delighted to see again.
The show actually ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, therefore including my target decade here. Emery came from a theatrical family, & the fact that this show can be described as vaudeville places it in a different era of entertainment:
'The show, which ran irregularly from 1963 to 1981, involved Emery dressing up as various characters, "a flamboyant cast of comic grotesques". These included the buck-toothed Church of England vicar, sex-starved, menopausal, man-eating spinster Hetty, and Clarence, an outrageously camp man who coined the catchphrase "Hello Honky Tonks". Other roles were gormless denim-clad bovver boy Screwsby (in a double act with his long suffering father, played by several actors including Roy Kinnear) where, each week, he would mess up and utter the catchphrase "Dad, I fink I got it wrong again", the crusty pensioner James Maynard Kitchener Lampwick, College (a genteel tramp whose real name was Lancelot Orpington Penrose) and Mandy, a busty peroxide blonde whose catchphrase, "Ooh, you are awful ... but I like you!" (given in response to a seemingly innocent remark made by her interviewer, played by Gordon Clyde, but perceived by her as ribald double entendre), preceded a hefty shove on the shoulder of the interviewer, and a prompt about-turn walk-off with a leg trip. "It was clever, pure vaudeville, in a television form." (Michael Grade).' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Emery)
I'm fascinated to discover that Emery had five wives, almost as many children, & many affairs & long-term partnerships. He also suffered from chronic low self-esteem & stage fright, which gave him real problems in his work. His close relationship with his mother caused problems in his marriages. To me these random facts suggest the traditional comic's complex character, with tears always just under the surface.
This combination of complex personality & a now-dated humour unfortunately combined with a rather patchy writing for the TV series. For that reason I actually prefer this film, which I approach as a window into a different world - I mean, none of the things mentioned in this crit would get on the TV these days:
'But is it funny? The sketches are very mixed. There were marvellous writers on the show – Barry Cryer, Harold Pinter, David Nobbs (the creator of Reginald Perrin), Mel Brooks, Marty Feldman and Dick Clement all had spells – who came up with some vintage comedy. But some of the scripts were awful. Watching now, you can see the punchlines coming and the canned laughter is irritating. The jokes about women's boobs, gay 'queens' and sex-starved housewives all seem musty. And for all the strong characters, there are others such as the exaggeratedly camp Quentin Crisp-alike Clarence and the Bovver Boy (Seventies Skinheads were actually scary this parody is pathetic rather than funny) that make you cringe.' (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10590018/Dick-Emery-the-neglected-superstar-of-TV-comedy.html)
Clearly the main difference between Emery & the other Seventies shows I've profiled is a totally different approach to the troubling events of the time. I do remember bovver boys being scary - that was the point. However Emery's humour nowadays seems to hit exactly the wrong note. The reason is, of course, that the world has changed. We have changed. We live differently & see things differently. It also seems to me that Emery's characters are so unreal that this show has to be approached almost as if it were fantasy.
So perhaps Emery is better approached as a romp down memory lane - to a world where all sorts of things happened that no longer do. Emery is seen on a building site. The tattooist doesn't wear gloves. Can you imagine? And these are just the start. The way of reminiscence keeps Emery firmly in the lens of history, which means his contemporary offensiveness can be seen in context & what is good in his work can be valued.
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Friday, 12 December 2014

Seventies TV: The Sweeney, with particular reference to Taste of Fear as an excuse for some local reflections

(Pub Bombings memorial picture credit: http://www.robertcjones.co.uk/Birmingham%20Cathedral%20Churchyard,%20UK.html)
I went to the Dental Hospital yesterday. I didn't need any work done - just my dentist fussing unnecessarily - & as it turns out I can relate that fact to the subject matter of this blog quite easily. For a start the present soon-to-be replaced building is a gem of 1960s architecture if you like that sort of thing, very much out of the same stable as the building in the opening scenes of Danger Man:
'The late Professor Alexander MacGregor, the then Director of Dental Studies and Mr H. Locksley Hare, the architect, visited many of the newer and outstanding schools in Europe. The design of the building incorporates many ideas acquired during these visits. The new building was opened in 1965 at a site next to the General Hospital (now Children's Hospital). This building was the sixth home of the Hospital and School.' (http://www.dentistry.bham.ac.uk/admissions/schoolhistory.asp)
For a fan of this sort of rapidly-disappearing architecture, it's a real treat because it's had relatively little done to it. Many of the original wall & ceiling finishes are still in situ, & the building gives an idea of how light & space were intended to work in it originally: it actually doesn't feel like it's shoehorned into an odd corner next to the STI clinic. This element of originality will of course also be its doom - it's simply filthy for a start. It can't be that difficult to put a safe system in place to clean to the top of the windows. The original finishes are plainly going to be the doom of this building, in addition to the unfashionable architecture. Removing the asbestos alone would be an incredibly expensive matter.
While I was there a Black woman came into the waiting room. She chatted about how cold it was & when I was called, wished me luck & called me Bab. That word will set a lot of people's teeth on edge, but is a Birmingham dialect term of endearment, which is one of the things that makes me think of home. (If you want to learn the gorgeous & sexy Brummie accent I would recommend <http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A496352>. If you've never heard it, most videos on youtube are few too Black Country, but for the real thing I would suggest <http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lEyYaLFm3Xc>). This relates to this blog in the way a Black person can also be a Brummie, be at home here & be settled, without fear of people referring to 'you people' or whatever. Quite different from the approach of It Ain't Half Hot Mum.
The Sweeney is out of a very different, gritty as a cat's litter tray, stable. I think one of the things that is influencing me most about these 1970s shows is the troubled history of the decade in which they were made. Continual labour disputes brought whole areas of the country to their economic knees & it was impossible to rely on mains power at the time. The Sweeney, unlike It Ain't Half Hot Mum, is set contemporaneously against this troubled time, but manages to portray a cleaned-up image of one of the areas of scandal at the time:
'The series aired during a dark period for the real-life Flying Squad, which in the late 1970s had been publicly censured for being involved in bribery, police corruption and excessively close links with the criminal fraternity. Unlike the unwavering high standards seen in the fictional Sweeney, the actual commander of the Flying Squad, Detective Chief Superintendent Kenneth Drury was convicted of five counts of corruption and jailed for eight years on 7 July 1977. An internal investigation, called Operation Countryman, was then launched to stamp out more corruption. A further 12 officers were convicted and many others resigned.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sweeney)
Taste of Fear references another painful feature of the 1970s - the conflict in Northern Ireland & terror attacks by the IRA. In the case of this episode, what appear to be IRA attacks are actually by an army deserter, made sick & twisted by his experiences in Ulster. Apart from the blithe ignoring of the likely effect of the trauma of serving somewhere like that, this also references another local (to me) connection, because this year is the fortieth anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_pub_bombings). It is once again striking how, in complete contrast to the unreality of The Avengers these 1970s series refer straight to some very difficult subjects. The Birmingham pub bombings have been a continual source of disgust for four decades. Men have been unjustly jailed for them. There was a strong backlash against the local Irish community at the time. It remains unestablished who was responsible for the three bombs - one didn't go off - & the whole matter is one which has shown West Midlands Police up in a very poor light (for the ongoing effects locally see http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/birmingham-pub-bombings-victims-remembered-8154396).
So the engagement with sheer gritty realism is what strikes me most in these 1970s shows. Jimmy Perry even states that It Ain't Half Hot Mum was a realistic portrayal of his own army life. The portrayal of reality remains - even though I think nowadays a realistic portrayal of an army unit's life would either have bits cut out or definitely be after the water shed.
The Sweeney, I'm finding, has another effect on me. I only have an odd disc with two episodes, so can't speak for the whole show, but I'm finding the way the plot is shaped gives a feeling of trudging through police work. The only real cliffhangers are where I imagine commercial breaks would have been originally, & the effect is one of -almost - eventlessness & pointlessness. I like the combination of Denis Waterman (better than I liked him in Minder) & John Thaw (better than I liked him in Morse). The relationship works to bring out aspeccts of the (?actors') characters I wouldn't have expected.
My neighbour's comment, when she told me her other half likes to watch The Sweeney, was how dated it is. And so it is. But the main effect for me personally is the relentless realism: in the division un/real, I definitely prefer unreal.

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Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Seventies TV: It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Racism, and the Male Chest

It is a feature of this blog that the majority of the shows I write about were broadcast before I was born. I have recently come across DVDs of some later TV shows, some of which
I remember watching with my parents, so I'm going to have a series of posts on Seventies TV. I'm proposing that it will take the form of a single post on each of the series: It Ain't Half Hot Mum, The Sweeney, Rising Damp, & Yes, Minister. The last one is cheating a bit because I see the first series was actually broadcast in 1980, but it feels very seventies to me. I may also do a post on The Professionals, even though I've already written about a couple of episodes here.
In characteristic mode for this blog I leap straight in with the most controversial. You will not see this show broadcast on the BBC nowadays (there are episodes on youtube); they have decided it will never be broadcast again, for its offensive racial stereotyping. This revolves around the use of Caucasian actors in make-up to represent Indians. This is usually referred to the phenomenon of theatrical blacking-up (I do not agree with the limited role accorded this act in spreading African-American culture on the wikipedia page Source). To me the theatrical phenomenon is just wrong because it is the appropriation of one culture by another. Limited depictions of Black history (by both Black & White people) are at the root of a restriction of Black people - for example I was unimpressed by a display in Black History Week which was intended to show the contributions of Black people to history. In all seriousness it was limited to musicians & athletes. This is completely to ignore the sophisticated cultures which pertained in Africa before White people got there. A similar focus on only one aspect of history creates the over-simplified history where slave traders took Africans into slavery & destroyed African culture. This is to ignore the Western African culture of slavery, & much further south Shaka Zulu took many slaves.
My real point here, similar to what I made about apartheid's legacy in South Africa, is that a comples history involving human pain & oppression, is not best served by the kind of portrayal you get in a sitcom. Ever. Unless it is handled very carefully in a way that clearly makes a particular point, or references other aspects of a complicated history. Therefore, for me, whether in The Avengers, Doctor Who, or It Ain't Half Hot Mum, the portrayal of one race by another is just plain not OK. 'Blacking up' is always offensive. I would personally make one exception for the offensiveness of blacking the face, which would be the tradition of black-faced, or completely black-clad, morris sides. It is highly unlikely that the people who originated it would have had any idea that there were people in the world who look any different from our indigenoue dark Britons, or the blondish, reddish colouring brought by subsequent invaders:
'Blacking-up in rural England is a fascinating subject whose origins go back at least to the middle ages. There is a medieval record in Kent of a group of blacked-up woodland people who said they were servants of the Queen of the Fairies. There is a 1485 law of Henry VII's era that makes having a painted face in the countryside a felony. But this rural blacking was mostly about self-protection. Disguise was the poacher's first defence against identification.' (Source, which see for further history of that sort of blacking-up)
This is even without the context in Britain at the time of increasing racial tension, culminating in the riots of 1981 onwards (Source for context). I am just watching an episode which also stereotypes 'Chinamen'. It is also not even to touch on the painful history of Britain's Colonial occupation of all sorts of places, the perception of homosexuals. It Ain't Half Hot Mum is a series which has been left behind by history & changing perceptions. Certainly I'm finding that any element of plot or character is overpowered for me by the dated perceptions: as a sitcom it's failing to make an impression on me.
Jimmy Perry, who with David Croft wrote this & many other series of the time, thinks is it ridiculous not to show this programme again (Source). I'm afraid that since this show brings me into my own personal history I have contemporaneous memories of their shows (usually, I can only remember repeats in the 1980s of the shows I write about here). I'm afraid the memories that most of their shows bring for me are of being forced to watch them because it was a Sunday afternoon or whenever, & there was nothing else on the TV. I certainly wouldn't otherwise have watched Hi-de-Hi or You Rang, Me Lord. I have slightly happier memories of Allo Allo, although that hasn't worn well either. Even at the time our (French) French teacher was grievously offended by the show. It seems Perry & Croft's shows have had their day.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Avengers: Esprit de Corps

I have commented before that I don't have a favourite Avengers girl, nor a favourite series of the show. My interest in all things comes in fads & I'll concentrate on series 6 for a bit, for example. At the moment my interest is being caught by series 2 & 3.
This post is not the one I wanted to write, which was a themed post on the subject of launderettes. This was sparked by the simple fact that the flat I'm renting doesn't have room for a washing machine. I've never objected to launderettes myself - the only previous time of my life I used to go to one regularly was when I lived in Leeds. That one was on the edge of a large council estate, where there was obviously a tradition of going to do your washing, & whole families would go. I was therefore surprised to walk into the one down the road to find it full of men, all of whom were obviously on their own & hopeless at anything domestic. I'm afraid I just dumped the lot for a service wash, since I don't have a batman to do it for me. This still isn't as posh as getting the laundry down the road to collect it & deliver it.
Nonetheless this has made me think of classic TV episodes with scenes set in launderettes. What prevented this becoming a themed post was that I simply cannot remember in which episode of Danger Man Drake is handed a lighter in a launderette. Pity.
There are several things which make this Avengers for me - I love all of the more domestic scenes between Steed & Mrs Gale. I love it that she is telling him off for washing leather when we first see her in this one. It seems to me that there is a very real sense in which Steed retained his original sidekick role up until the Tara King series - in ability, knowledge, intelligence, he will always really be second fiddle to Mrs Gale. Is there nothing this woman can't do? - understanding washing & able to do unarmed combat as well!
Of course this Avengers is very clearly out of the great & the good gone bad stable. In terms of insanity the plot to make Mrs Gale Queen rivals anything in later series.
I notice the opinions on the internet about this one are somewhat conflicting - it seems that most viewers feel a certain dissatisfaction with this episode, but disagree about the source of the dissatisfaction. For me I find the slow steady development & sudden ending rather unsatisfying. However that is more than outweighed by the wonderful details. The contents of the officers' mess kitchen, for example. The whole tension of his relationship with Mrs Gale. Steed's last meal. Mrs Gale's judo scene. This doesn't quite make it into my stonking good television category but it's still vintage Avengers.
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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Avengers: The Mauritius Penny

Picture credit: dissolute.com.au
I've moved house today - in great haste because my agent made a monumental balls up to the extent that I went round & took the keys off them until my belongings were removed! Anyway I'm set up in a nice flat in a nice part of the city where I can hear traffic (I can't sleep without traffic noise). Now if I could just suss out cooking electric life would be perfect & I'd only have to worry about selling my house rather than the truly present danger of starving to death!
The thought of cities & flats has led my thoughts to The Avengers, specifically the earlier series. The Mauritius Penny is actually one of my all-time favourite episodes, but I've been thinking of it in terms of its city setting. On reflection I think one of the errors the Avengers film made was to make the setting too rural & thereby downplay the citified interplay of people & interests that is actually essential to The Avengers. The reality in the 1960s & now is that the majority of British residents live in urban areas, & I think the film may have been drawing on the stately-home-and-village-fete stereotype too much.
The significance of the city setting to The Avengers cannot be overstated. For a start a city gives Steed & others the anonymity necessary to wander into criminal undertakings without being recognised. The city setting gives these earlier episodes a certain pace - I'll grant you that while I feel rural scenes increase as The Avengers wears on the pace remains the same & the characters are only ever really visitors to the country. The gentlemanly Steed is only ever really a city character - his trademark bowler & umbrella mark him out permanently as such. Steed's apartment in series 5 & 6 draws on a rural idyll, to my mind. His original apartment - as seen in this episode - & the middle one are uncompromisingly city settings. Of course Mrs Gale's apartment could only ever be found in a city. I mention these to underscore the native city setting of The avengers, until I've wrung perhaps every last drop from this whipping-horse.
This particular episode is one that could only take place in the city. The stamp shop is a real stroke of Avengers characterful scene-painting. I also love the Fascist dentist. I can fully sympathise with Steed's plight - the last time I went to the dentists myself I had to be sedated & at one point she actually told me I shouldn't be awake! I have a feeling that probably being actually killed with a dentist's drill would be a slow & messy business, although I love her continued use of dental jargon as she threatens Steed with it.
Nor is this episode short in other classic Avengers touches - the evil conspiracy is true Avengers, & places this episode clearly in the maniac-in-pursuit-of-world-domination (starting with compulsory dental inspections) category.
My one criticism of this episode is not the usual one - the face (& distinctive voice) most familiar to me personally is Alfred Burke. I'm delighted to say I saw him in this before I ever saw Public Eye, but while he is now associated with the latter role for me, I don't find his presence distracting. Rather my criticism would be that the show seems to have got lots of matters of historical fact about stamps completely wrong (see http://www.dissolute.com.au/the-avengers-tv-series/series-2/207-the-mauritius-penny.html). I don't notice this myself, not knowing about stamps, but I can see that watching this show would be a real irritation for a hard-core philatelist. These errors are surely of a sort which would be easily corrected by reference to public domain sources, & indicate a sloppiness about getting it right.
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Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Avengers: The Thirteenth Hole

It's been a while since I've posted on The Avengers & since I've got a man in taking apart my sideboard with a crowbar & taking away all the rubbish I don't want, I might as well post on this vintage episode. And vintage it really is. My introduction to The Avengers was the Tara King series & the colour Mrs Peel episodes, so I have a weakness for them, but whenever I return to series 4 I have to admit I can see why it's often thought the best.
I think probably the Avengers 'recipe' is at its best in these episodes. The episode is populated with a cast of characters who are overdrawn to exactly the right degree: they wouldn't seem real in the real world but aren't overdone. Steed is at his best playing his upper class buffoon role at the golf club. The scene immediately after the opening scenes, of the stocking-clad figure searching an agent's apartment, place this in the category of corruption in the Establishment. The visual language of traditional, solid, furniture & leather-bound books, are what indicate this in the language of The Avengers.
Incidentally some of the books in the bookcase, pictured just before they're overturned, look very much like volumes from Steed's library to me. That screenshot is the closest I've ever got to seeing the titles: it kills me that I can't quite read it. I realise this little obsession of mine is taking over my life & I should probably seek treatment for it. Clearly the intention is for the viewer merely to see generic leather-bound books, but I suppose I'm just not built that way. When I found them cropping up in ITC series as well (click the 'Steed's library' label on the web version of this blog to see all the places I've spotted them), but not so far in a BBC show, my curiosity was too piqued not to chase the rabbit.
My interest is also piqued by the gender roles in this Avengers. I've never noticed before that Mrs Peel is literally the only woman in the cast: admittedly it is set in the traditionally all-male environs of a golf club. I love the black & white furry outfit in which Mrs Peel turns up to play golf. It once again inverts the corruption-in-the-establishment motif by making Mrs Peel - representative of modernity & breaking convention - a major figure in ridding the episode's setting of the evil, thus suggesting that modernity props up & can be used to save, conservatism. Also in the scene where she disturbs the intruder in the flat, she gets an opportunity to fight him (surely to be on the receiving end of that beating would have been the fantasy of many a man in the 1960s!), but she doesn't win. Despite monumental intelligence & physical prowess she succumbs to the trick of being enclosed in a chair frame, relegating her almost to the role of 'the little woman'. I would read it that in this male-dominated episode she couldn't be allowed to win.
In fact that scene also creates the one thing that is monumentally wrong (to my mind) with this episode. Not only is Mrs Peel's first fight scene placed way too early, & her losing it apparently puts her in a subordinate position, but Steed's appearance is timed exactly wrongly. The stockinged-headed figure runs through the door, neatly closing it behind him, Mrs Peel extricates herself from the chair & runs to open the door, only to find Steed on the other side, who shows no sign of rush. He *should* have at least seen the intruder running away. This really is an incredible blunder, which could easily have been solved by having Mrs Peel chase the intruder & come back a little later to find Steed already in the flat. On the other hand, if you feel I'm making too much of this, it could be interpreted as an aspect of the unreality of The Avengers - the timing is almost slapstick, & may contribute also to the magical omniscience technique used so much in The Avengers.
Apart from that my only gripe would be with the large number of repeat Avengers faces (http://theavengers.tv/forever/peel1-18.htm lists no fewer than five actors), which tends to leave you wondering who people are. It took me a while to realise that Collins is Francis Matthews, who played Paul Temple in the series I recently reviewed. I don't really buy the criticisms I have read on the internet that this one's plot is ridiculously full of holes & patchy. It is saved by the excellent visuals. Some familiar locations are used which give the authentic Avengerland feeling. But for someone who would rather pull out my own fingernails than play golf I find the setting of a golf course unexpectedly atmospheric.
I'm not sure it's worthy of my Stonking Good Television category, but this is classic Avengers.
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Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Professionals: A Hiding to Nothing

I knew this would happen. I have a strange knack of falling on my feet. Within a week the house is on the market, all the necessary surveys have been done, I've appointed a solicitor, I've found a halfway-decent-looking flat (& even if it turns out not to be it's not forever) at a rent I'm prepared to pay in a halfway-decent area of the city, I've paid a retainer, the lettings agency are checking me out. When I get the bit between my teeth I'm like a little terrier. So I can afford to put my feet up in front of the fire (British Gas think I'm going to pay them £1000 to heat this house this winter, but I've got news for them) & watch some cult TV.
I see I have only posted on The Professionals once. This is a state of affairs which clearly needs to be addressed. I *just* remember watching on episode - the one with the creepy dummies - with my dad. In fact I'm not convinced it would necessarily qualify as 'cult' TV in most people's book - that is unless you define it as I do, whatever I take a shine to. I like to approach The Professionals as a headlong rush down memory lane, about as far as my memory will take me, to the 1970s. The hair is long, the trousers are flared, the shirts are open to show hairy chests, the men have unreconstructed attitudes, Cowley is an old-school boss, the cars are the sort of cars I salivated over in my youth. The Professionals is a time capsule, more than anything else, for me personally.
The episode I'm writing about gives a prominent role as detective & lover to Martin Shaw. I'm astonished to discover that he's a proponent of vegetarianism, but then Lewis Collins's personality was always closer to that of his on-screen character. It also took me a while to connect this Martin Shaw with the one who played Dalgliesh: interestingly versatile, & also interesting how a man can change. I literally didn't connect the two Martin Shaws.
This one begins with a wonderful display of the now-outmoded communications & video technology of the time, followed by a scene in one of the underpasses of the time, to add an aura of gritty reality. Interestingly, the glimpse of mews houses before the shoot-out in the underpass clearly places the location of this in Avengerland, which mixes my two types of TV: unreal & real. I love that this scene takes place in an underpass: even in big bad Birmingham, which was notorious for them, they're hard to come by nowadays, although they were everywhere at the time of this show.
This episode is also an interesting showcase of CI5's more sophisticated detecting. It involves an element of acting & duplicity in pursuit of a worthy cause. I think this episode would have been improved by not explaining this in so much detail to the viewer so early, so that we would have been forced to deal with the moral issues without knowing the justification.
It also more or less separates Bodie & Doyle for the earlier part of the show. Their normal chemistry was dependent on the simple fact that in reality they didn't get on. Interestingly they are seen more as individual personalities here: Bodie as the colder hunter, Doyle as the lover. Further moral issues are raised by the way they seem to 'use' the female characters, but the whole point of this episode is that those exact same tactics are being used by the other side as well.
Altogether a tautly-plotted Professionals episode, relying heavily on individual characterisation of Bodie & Doyle, & on the moral issues involved in their work. The only improvement would be to have played up those issues a bit.
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Sunday, 2 November 2014

Intermission

To my great sorrow, I had to have my poor old ginger tom cat put down on Thursday. It wasn't exactly unexpected but it may cause a hiatus on here, since I'm having my house (which has been a millstone round my neck for years) auctioned on 8th December & therefore have to find somewhere to rent pretty sharpish! This will either cause my absence here or cause a proliferation of posts as I try to escape from the stress of flat hunting into the world of old TV.
Incidentally I've been reading about the classic UK test card in an effort to find an illustration to this post (the illustration isn't it, & I would refer you to http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/shortcuts/2012/apr/22/the-test-card-girl-and-clown where bothe original can be found & this quote:
'In the mid-70s, there were only three TV channels and very few programmes during the day. For long periods there was nothing but trade test transmissions, largely to enable TV shops to get the best possible picture. These transmissions were made up of the test card, with its instrumental soundtrack, and the occasional test film – such as The Home Made Car, a 1963 Academy Award-nominated short. During the school holidays, or on Saturday mornings before your parents were up, there was little else for bored kids to do but watch the test card and transmitter information – the music and the images became as embedded in the minds of a generation as the Monkees and the Robinson Crusoe theme.
[...]
'The most iconic image, introduced in 1967 with the advent of colour TV, was called Test Card F. Its designer was a BBC engineer called George Hersee and, for a dummy run, he had included a picture of his eight-year-old daughter, Carole, at the centre of it. The BBC decided that replacing Carole's picture with an adult model was too risky – they needed something timeless, and 1967 fashions weren't exactly built to last. So Carole went into a photographer's studio: the result was the familiar image of a girl with an alice band, playing noughts and crosses with a rather terrifying toy clown, surrounded by mysterious test graphics. Hersee was, unsurprisingly, teased at school and, to her discomfort, the image was used on a daily basis until 1998. Now living in the New Forest with two daughters, she can claim to have had more screen time – around 70,000 hours – than anyone else in British TV history.'
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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four

...With Peter Cushing as Holmes, that is. I have been watching Sherlock Holmes a Game of Shadows while it has rained interminably today, & I can only call myself unimpressed. I have just realised how watching mainly or only classic TV sensitises one to CGI. The aura of unreality it imparts works in some films, but not for Holmes. It's also no use turning Holmes into an all-action figure: the whole point of turning to Holmes on the winter evenings is that it takes the reader or viewer to a Victorian London of hansom cabs & fog, a different pace. Holmes should go slow, & the all-action approach blunts his intellect. With my love for all things weird I did love the scene with the tarot cards.
This Holmes, however, has everything that is missing from the film. I feel Holmes is better filmed in a small-screen way, anyway. This one has the atmosphere, the feeling of stepping into a different world. It has been many decades since most English-speakers have read Holmes as a detective puzzle or been mystified at his methods, so I feel it is for this atmosphere people read Holmes.
And Holmes does a funny thing to people. Surely people can never have written letters to Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple? In many ways Holmes is as unreal as Poirot (Miss Marple will always be a more real character, to my mind), & I think his drug use should have made him dodgy to his Victorian audience, but people wrote to him endlessly, & I imagine still do. I have only recently read that when the Holmes craze started Baker Street didn't have a 221B, but that as soon as one was built the owner had to hire a secretary to deal with Holmes's correspondence!
There are marvellous touches in this one - Holmes's war of wits with Inspector Jones. I love Watson in love as well.
And to think that this was going to be a post on another Jason King!
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Monday, 27 October 2014

Allegory in the Prisoner: Fall Out

I notice when I watched through The Prisoner looking to identify Number 6 as John Drake, I identified Fall Out as a flawed episode. This time I would go further: when watched from the point of view of allegorical interpretation Fall Out is the episode that makes The Prisoner fall apart.
Bearing in mind that the key allegorical interpretation of The Prisoner is of The Village as society, with reference to the various institutions etc, & their ability to harm us, it is capable of incredibly countercultural interpretations, as I think has been apparent in previous posts in this series. Fall Out makes this allegory unsustainable by turning it round to the pursuit of the individual's self-actualisation, or whatever you want to call it. 'We thought you would feel happier as yourself' are the words at which it becomes apparent we're in completely different territory here.
It is still open to allegorical interpretation, just differently: here The Village becomes the means to the individual's pursuit of himself - it's as if it has been testing for the one thing it has said it doesn't want. The juke boxes in the caverns under the village, pouring out All You Need is Love, represent the Village authorities' use of the mass hippie media to promote their message of integrity. I find this reversal of the allegory here very unsatisfying. Contrary to the impression given through the series it is actually all about Number 6. He's the point of the whole thing. This can't be how this show was meant to end, it's unconventional in the extreme but makes an unsatisfying resolution of the situation set up.
I suppose a key interpretation here could be of the need to overcome something as a means to the realisation of oneself as an individual. This is the falling apart or rebirth I referred to in the last post, & would fit with the initiatory/baptismal themes of the show. This begs the question of who or what Number 2 represents - it's possible to see the various Number 2s as aspects of the self that need to be overcome, or even as outside interference. This actually fits better with my hypothesised allegory of The Village as representative of Number 6's dreamed-of escape from his humdrum spying life.
Nor does the episode hang together well allegorically on its own. Number 48 is painted as symbolic of youth yet sings a Gospel song, surely in Prisoner terms symbolic of the power of the Church, especially when contrasted to the Beatles song. The episode ends in the seat of British power - Westminster - & in Number 6's own home. We're back where we began & it's profoundly dissatisfying. The door opening at the butler's approach however gives a hint that just possibly the apparent acceptance of Number 6's individuality is a fake, the whole episode is yet another fake test, & actually The Village is still there at every step, watching & waiting for him to give his secret away.
I was initially going to say that I don't like the section where Number 48 initiates a 'revolt': it can seem another incongruous element. However in allegorical terms it is almost an attempt to reintroduce the main allegory of the series - of power, authority, conformity, & the lack thereof. It is spoiled in the programme's context by Number 6 sitting on a raised throne, which implies (as indeed he is) that he is the authority, but this revelation hasn't yet been made. The place in which he is told by the judge that he has (words to the effect of) revolted in the right way is fairly obviously a red herring & it is a relief to see Number 6 initiate another revolt after being invited to meet Number 1.
A further nonsense is made of the whole premise of the show by the rebirth of Number 2, since the whole point here is that Number 6 has overcome Number 2 & is so 'realised' as Number 1.
I feel the allegory of this episode, indeed of the whole series, may be best resolved by a more psychological reading. In this The Prisoner is about as sixties as it can get, although the themes of self, seeking, autonomy, death, & rebirth are usually subsumed in the business of The Village. My preferred psychological reading would be that the whole series represents Number 6's journey of self-discovery & self-actualisation. He has to fall apart to return to himself - his normal home & life. He has undertaken a pillgrim's journey, such as is undertaken in Pilgrim's Progress, Way of a Pilgrim, & other such classics. In this countercultural version, though, he is the end of his seeking. I notice that I got the impression before that the series almost went off its head as it went on, as if the production team got more & more stoned. This impression is interesting coming from the devoutly Catholic McGoohan. In fact I think this episode is best explained as either a hasty attempt to tie up the loose ends or a late-sixties psychedelic trip!
Or else, it could be a critique of the feel good movements of the time. Number 6 has apparently actualised himself, but nothing in the Village is real, & the opening of his house's door at the end suggests that it isn't real, also suggesting a possibly more nihilistic moral, that nothing is real, which would be much more in line with one of the underlying themes of the series.
The ending further reinforces another underlying theme (despite the Carmen Miranda soundtrack) - that of the Butler, of whom I remain suspicious.
As a resolution to the allegory of this series, this episode falls down badly by clouding the whole issue & reversing the existing allegory to put Number 6 in the throne. Since many allegories are only fully explained by their resolution, I would suggest that the whole series may actually not lend itself that well to an allegorical interpretation, & may be better interpreted in psychological terms, or simply 1960s 'trippy' terms. Nor does a single allegorical interpretation hold up well through the series, instead individual episodes perhaps lend themselves better to different allegorical interpretations.
Thus ends my series of posts on allegory in The Prisoner. For next year I am projecting some work on echoes of Apartheid in The Prisoner - although don't hold your breath, reading about about Apartheid makes me physically sick - & I'm still interested in The Butler!
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Monday, 20 October 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Once Upon A Time

You'll notice I've gone back to my original profile picture; it marks for me that I am no longer too shy to bare my chest. Also a friend tried to tell me nobody would believe it was really me. It is really me. So sorry.
The end of this look at allegory is nearing with this episode, & you would be forgiven for thinking that I've rather lost my relish for the subject as I've gone through. What I was expecting to find was that the series was susceptible to numerous different allegorical interpretations, which it is in certain places. However I'm expecting my conclusion to be that some episodes lend themselves to an allegorical interpretation better than others. Notoriously not even McGoohan knew how the series would end while it was being filmed, & additional conflict about the number of episodes/series shows in a certain lack of direction as the series progresses, in my opinion.
Additionally in my inner INFJ world of making connections I've been distracted by the similarities of The Villages to totalitarian regimes, specifically Apartheid-era South Africa. That is the one about which I know most: as a young theology student I wrote an essay on the theological underpinnings of aparthied. This is the point at which people are either surprised I have a degree in theology or even more surprised that apartheid had (& has among the far-right) a theology. It may be found in some of the more bizarre Calvinist ideas of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Anyway, there is a relevance of all this to this episode. If you read about South Africa as it is now, it is a society deeply scarred by its past. I was shocked when I found out what the famous quote from Winnie Mandela - 'with our boxes of matches & our necklaces we shall liberate this country' - actually means. It is a particularly brutal form of murder with specific cultural connotations (if you are of a sensitive disposition do not look at http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necklacing). I was surprised to find that my (white) friend in South Africa has met Winnie Mandela, & speaks of her with respect, affection, even awe. She told me that what Winnie went through - the imprisonments, banishings, disappearances, beatings - were enough to send anyone off their head.
The relevance to this episode of The Prisoner is that it is a wonder Number 6 didn't lose it completely (or perhaps he did, in a true 1960s psychedelic enlightenment, but that's yet another layer of possible meaning). The implication of 'degree absolute' (in a very Freudian slip I found I first wrote 'decree absolute'!) Is that there is nothing more The Village can do to him. This is the point beyond which there is nothing else, & in the true style of the totalitarian regime, it is all portrayed as Number 6's fault. He is the naughty schoolboy or criminal - & if he had done something socially unacceptable as a result of the trauma he suffered in the Village, it is sure that this would have been used as further evidence of his rebellious spirit.
The allegory here is a very painful one - to our society. There is no help in the institutions of education, law, church - they are all implicated in Degree Absolute. It is very plain also that it makes a painful point about the sickness of our society. You can't come back from Degree Absolute. There's no possibility of it being mended, healed, reconciled. The message of this episode is far from the usual unreality of the series - it's about as bleak as can be.
I would like to end this post by quoting from an interview with Minnie Mandela (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/how-nelson-mandela-betrayed-us-says-exwife-winnie-6734116.html), which I think from the point of view of this post may well be read bearung in mind that she is talking about the sort of regime this episode of The Prisoner refers to:
'She looked towards my chair. Her grey glasses focused on my face. "Yes, I was afraid in the beginning. But then there is only so much they can do to you. After that it is only death. They can only kill you, and as you see, I am still here."
'I knew that the apartheid enforcers had done everything in their power to break this woman. She had suffered every indignity a person could bear. They had picked her up in the night and placed her under house arrest in Brandfort, a border town in Orange Free State, 300 miles from Soweto. "It was exile," she said, "when everything else had failed."
'At this remote outpost, where she spent nine years, she had recruited young men for the party. "Right under their noses," she said to Vidia, laughing with the memory of it. "The only worry or pain I had was for my daughters. Never really knowing what was happening to them. I feel they have really suffered in all this. Not me or Mandela," she said.
[...]
'"Look at this Truth and Reconciliation charade. He [Mandela] should never have agreed to it." Again her anger was focused on Mandela. "What good does the truth do? How does it help anyone to know where and how their loved ones were killed or buried? That Bishop Tutu who turned it all into a religious circus came here," she said pointing to an empty chair in the distance.
'"He had the cheek to tell me to appear. I told him a few home truths. I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting here because of our struggle and ME. Because of the things I and people like me had done to get freedom."'
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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Paul Temple: First Impressions

An attentive reader of this blog recently called it 'my go-to blog for Brit shows' (you know who you are, thank you) & so when I noticed I'd left the discs for this post sitting on my laptop next to a cup of tea in a Harrods mug, I had to snap it as the illustration for this ultra-British post. Here's the secret to perfect tea: everyone has their own pet method. After a lifetime of being a tea-first fanatic I have recently converted to milk-first.  Incidentally I made the tea with a bag in the mug, don't take sugar, & superstition would have it that the almost complete absence of bubbles on top indicates that buying a lottery ticket this week would be a waste of money. As it happens the largest audience for this blog is in the Ukraine (hello there) followed by the US, but I like to think we English people are as much of a mystery to non-English speakers as we are to Anglophones. Anyway back to the matter in hand...
Surely there can be nobody interested in the sort of vintage media talked about in this blog who has not heard of Paul Temple? But just in case anyone hasn't...
'Paul Temple is a fictional character created by English writer Francis Durbridge (1912–1998) for the BBC radio serial Send for Paul Temple in 1938. Temple is an amateur private detective and author of crime fiction. Together with his journalist wife (Louise Temple, née Harvey, affectionately known as "Steve" after her pen name "Steve Trent"), he solves "whodunnit" crimes with subtle, humorous dialogue and rare "action". Always the gentleman, his use of the phrase "by Timothy" was the nearest he ever got to swearing. Since 1938, the Temples have featured in over 30 BBC radio dramas, 12 serials for German radio, a BBC television series, four British feature films and several novels. In the Netherlands several of the radio plays were recorded with Dutch actors and with the main character's name translated to 'Paul Vlaanderen '. In addition, a Paul Temple comic strip featured in the London Evening News from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Temple)
I have loved the radio serials for a long time. In fact I've developed my own countercultural theory that Steve is a lesbian (sometimes I think she's lovers with Charlie) who actually runs all sorts of dodgy operations without Temple knowing. Every time he gets to know of one he blames the wrong person & Steve gets away with it again. The series is wonderfully open to parody, for example when they come across yet another dead body & Steve says, 'Is...he...?', it is all too easy to envision Temple saying, 'Don't look, darling, he's working class.' An exhaustive account of Paul Temple's multimedia appearances can be found at http://www.thrillingdetective.com/temple.html
Anyway my own imaginative involvement with the radio serial has made me avoid the TV series so far. The reviews on the internet are distinctly mixed for a start. Also I've never seen any of the films, which I suspect might suit Temple's style better.
This suspicion of mine about transplanting Temple from a Boy's Own 1930s/40s milieu to a contemporary milieu in the 1970s, I now realise, has been awakened in part by the cover of the DVD box. It looks very much like any standard 1970s show, but now I know the reason:
'This was a co-production by the BBC and Taurus films of Munich, West Germany, and was shown internationally. According to star Matthews, both Paul and Steve Temple became fashion icons of sorts, creating a style that was to be imitated in ITV's The Persuaders!, while, in America, Ros Drinkwater's role was reportedly emulated by Susan Saint James in McMillan & Wife and Stefanie Powers in Hart to Hart. According to Matthews, Drinkwater chose her own "very expensive" designer clothes for the part.
'Paul Temple used overseas locations in France, Malta, Germany and elsewhere. The series was intended to last for five years, but despite its popularity especially in Germany, the BBC withdrew prematurely.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Temple_(TV_series))
The visual similarity to the style of The Persuaders is especially apparent. I'm inclined to say I don't like the updating of the Temples to the 1970s, but I'm not completely sure about that. What are missing are the elements of the novels & radio shows that made Paul Temple what it was: the upper-class attitudes, attitudes to the servants & criminal classes, & a plethora of cliffhangers in every episode. Given those essential ingredients there were clearly only two routes available - update using the characters or make it a period drama. Had it been the latter I really don't think I would have liked it, because I feel it would have stepped over a borderline into parody (certainly using this approach with Dick Barton was a complete disaster in my opinion - I'm referring to the series here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/B001PQQVS8/ref=mp_s_a_1_2?qid=1413488813&sr=8-2&pi=SL75).
So Paul Temple therefore ends up a rather different series from the original. It is perhaps more inspired by the original. If you accept this fact, Temple actually translates rather well to the 1970s as one of the jet set.
The plots are less generic Paul Temple & more generic 1970s action mystery series. It aims for sophistication very clearly, yet also manages at times to get real suspense & emotion from the viewer.
Watch this if you like the things I mention above: avoid it if you're in love with the radio series & can't envisage Paul Temple any other way. I have never seen any of the films myself, but now want to so I can see how he was translated to the silver screen.
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Monday, 13 October 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: The Girl Who Was Death

Since the focus of this series of posts is allegory, I'm quite keen to make everything in the episodes refer to something else if I possibly can. The Girl Who Was Death is another of those episodes which apparently take us out of the claustrophobic world of The Village. It is certainly one of my favourite episodes & seems to be beloved of the fans.
But I must start by demolishing the way this episode is normally approached. If you actually watch the opening few minutes, it is apparent that Number 6 has woken up in The Village again. This episode is therefore set in The Village. Similarly the scenes with the story book are so brief as to be easily missed - or at least overlooked if you're not paying attention - & clearly indicate the point made so often in The Prisoner, that nothing is real, & the show is entirely focussed on The Village when it comes down to it. In a sense, it's a reverse allegory, where everything outside of it refers in some way to The Village itself. The unreality of this episode explains some of the stranger things that happen, such as the car chase scene. I have read the strange twistings & turnings of that scene explained by rationalising that the woman is a witch! Much simpler for the whole thing to be a story - a Village-storybook-induced story. The unreality is reinforced by the use of back projection & sets which either just feel unreal or are parodies.
Here the references to things apparently outside the Village are clear enough - cricket, sauna, pub, numerous sexual references of a peculiarly sado-masochistic kind. All of these are everyday situations turned insidiously dangerous. Once again the power of The Village is everywhere, & they'll get you if they feel like it. I can only guess that advantage was taken of the strait-laced televisual mores of the time to use numerous sophisticated Freudian phallic or vaginal symbols. The vaginal symbols of course are included in the dangerous ones. It may also have been that the staunchly Catholic McGoohan wanted the sexual symbols to be disguised, or open to different interpretations. You can fall to your death in a pit, but the femme fatale who leads you there is the real trap! Far from being the straight comedy it is sometimes portrayed as, this episode is a warning to be on your guard.
Of course it can't be neglected that this episode sends up every staple of the spy-fi genre ever: reference is usually made to James Bond's amorous exploits. McGoohan was critical of the promiscuity & disinterestedness of spies in the genre: his Number 6 is the exact opposite of the spy who would work for any power as long as the martinis & pretty girls kept coming. Not only Bond but also Holmes, The Avengers (this episode just *feels* so Avengers) & all manner of other shows are criticised here.
There is a further allegorical twist. It's not mentioned, which is what makes it all the more painful when you think about it. There's a realisation to be undergone here: if you bear in mind who is Number 1 as you watch this, this apparently comical show becomes a harrowing exercise in self-knowledge for Number 6. Everything in this show is actually his creation, he is Number 1, he literally only has himself to blame.
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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Jason King: Flamingoes Only Fly on Tuesdays

Image: Female fans being held back from Peter Wyngarde as he opens the Woolworths shop in Luton in 1973 (credit: http://m.lutontoday.co.uk/news/nostalgia/when-tv-star-peter-wyngarde-aka-jason-king-opened-luton-s-woolies-store-1-5552393)
Things have been a bit fraught recently, but I've now started a much-needed week of annual leave, & intend to prove my superficiality by starting with a post on the confection that is Jason King, rather than any more serious cult TV show. I'm sure I wrote in my general post about this show that my interest in this show was partly aroused by my godmother telling me - some shamefacedly - that she had a raging crush on Peter Wyngarde in the 1970s. And how much of the 1970s Jason King is!
I have to give it full marks for the tropical establishing shots in the opening scenes. I have read criticism that this stock footage has not worn as well as the film used for the actual series, but my recollection of seventies TV's use of stock footage was that little effort was made to hide the different colour register & film. This was the time before CGI! The seventies were also an incredibly troubled time in all sorts of ways. I only recently realised that I keep candles in the house in case of power cuts, & that this is an expectation I developed as a result of many candlelit hours in my childhood, even though I can't remember a major power cut here for over thirty years & younger people don't seem to keep candles in that way. Anyway, the troubled elements of the 1970s are brought firmly into focus in this show by the sight of a journalist imprisoned unjustly: there is the suggestion of torture in the flashing light & the warder's cane.
Into the middle of this strides Jason King, looking about as unreal as you could wish for. I love the way the torture for King consists of tearing up pieces of his wardrobe. The title of this episode also comes across as unreal. The apparent criminal conspiracy with its emphasis on flamingoes is bizarre. In my real/unreal television divide, we've long left Kansas behind.
On the other hand there remains a very real sense in which the brutal reality of the 1970s - in this case a revolution on a Caribbean island - is knit together with the unreality of Jason King, with the added unreality of Mark Cain, his fictional creator. It is precisely this mixture I like about Jason King - he meanders through a world of revolutions & car bombs, wearing a caftan & having champagne & strawberries for breakfast. It is obviously not to everybody's taste, but I like this outlandish combination enormously.
Of course King's allocated minder has to be a woman, giving him full opportunity to display his misogyny, even mentioning rape as a means of 'persuasion' for a woman at one point. King really is an odious character in so many ways.
On the other hand, given some of the troubled relationships between black & white people at the time (I'm specifically thinking of the then Rhodesia under Ian Smith & the apartheid regime in South Africa) relations are unstrained & natural here. For the time these easy relations strike me as surprising for a British TV series - my impression is that you'd be more likely to find them in a contemporary US show. It gives a positive impression of the black people shown - none of the derogatory references to Vodou or superstition that you find in The Champions, yet this portrait itself also manages to be unreal, with a complete lack of poverty. This Caribbean island looks & feels like a first world country of the time transported elsewhere. It's strange.
Of course the sketchy scene setting is explained by this episode as a vehicle for King's detective ability, pure & simple. Well, & also to allow his colourful personality to lift a rather pedestrian plot into a world of fantasy. Pedestrian plot elements include a mysterious release from prison & the sudden appearance of a CIA man. I feel that given the base elements of the plot here, Mission Impossible or The Man From UNCLE would have done it much better as a spy/action/adventure show, but Jason King takes it into unique territory. Another wonder, of course, is the ease with which King walks into this volatile situation & sorts it. In reality, at the point at which the police chief is thinking of deporting him, you'd really be begging to be put on the next flight back to London.
All in all, I like this episode enormously. The only thing stopping it being stonking good television is the corny script, with huge credibility gaps. This is perhaps one of the shows that is best not looked at too closely, since these faults would otherwise be overshadowed by the larger-than-life character of Jason King.
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Sunday, 5 October 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Living in Harmony

Usually, when I start my dissection of a defenceless classic TV programme, I have a read round on the internet to see what other people have to say about it. In terms of the shows I've talked about so far, this is particularly easy in the case of The Avengers & The Prisoner, but seemingly not when it comes to Living in Harmony.
I ended my piece on Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling by saying that I had no idea what I would do when I got to this episode. One of the things I'm finding useful about going through The Prisoner thematically, is I'm finding I watch the episodes in different ways - I would like to say the episodes lend themselves to different interpretations - & Living in Harmony is one that doesn't seem to attract much in the way of allegory. So let me invent the phrase argumentum a silentio for how I must start here: either this episode doesn't lend itself to allegory or the idea of an allegory of an allegory in an already allegorical show is just too much for most commentators. At any rate, its standing among the fans seems to be that it's seen as an odd episode out - almost outside the 'canon' - & tends to be neglected.
After tying myself up in knots trying to do something inventive with an allegorical approach to this episode, & repeatedly falling flat on my face, I'm forced back to the conventional allegorical interpretation of The Prisoner: the Village represents our world & the Villagers people or powers within it. I feel the extension of that principle to this episode which best holds water, is that Harmony is an allegory of the Village. The fact that it is another 'Village' makes the message all the more depressing - the Village authorities are everywhere, every medium we see is infiltrated. There is truly no escape.
I see when I wrote about this in my series of posts examining the identification of John Drake with Number 6, I commented on this episode as a commentary on the Vietnam war & also gave a personal opinion that the Kid represents the Butler (http://culttvblog.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-prisoner-living-in-harmony.html). I like the latter idea enormously, since I still like the idea, which unfortunately I don't think will hold up under scrutiny, that the Butler is Number 1. In addition to the Vietnam War reference, references to apartheid-era South Africa have been seen in this episode. All of these events are now firmly in the past for those of us uninfluenced by them, & in my usual principle of trying to read these shows from a contemporary perspective I think there may be much more ground in treating this one as a reference to High Noon, & in turn to American anti-Communist witch hunts.
High Noon was already referenced in the title of the last episode, & thus also in the setting for this one. There are echoes in the plot also. Of course as usual in The Prisoner, no final identification is possible, but it is as if McGoohan is very subtly saying here, 'The Prisoner is about what High Noon is about'. I had no idea it was so controversial until I started reading it up for this episode. Remember the Number 2 here is apparently American, & the setting is an archetypally American one:
'In the Soviet Union the film was criticized as "a glorification of the individual."[7] The American Left appreciated the film for what they believed was an allegory of people (Hollywood people, in particular) who were afraid to stand up to HUAC. However, the film eventually gained the respect of people with conservative/anti-communist views. Ronald Reagan, a conservative and fervent anti-Communist, said he appreciated the film because the main character had a strong dedication to duty, law, and the well-being of the town despite the refusal of the townspeople to help. Dwight Eisenhower loved the film and frequently screened it in the White House, as did many other American presidents.
[...]
'Actor John Wayne disliked the film because he felt it was an allegory for blacklisting, which he actively supported. In his Playboy interview from May 1971, Wayne stated he considered High Noon "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life"[16] and went on to say he would never regret having helped blacklist liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman from Hollywood. Ironically, Gary Cooper himself had conservative political views and was a "friendly witness" before HUAC several years earlier, although he did not name names and later strongly opposed blacklisting.
[...]
'Zinnemann later said in a 1973 interview: "I'm told that Howard Hawks has said on various occasions that he made Rio Bravo as a kind of answer to High Noon, because he didn't believe that a good sheriff would go running around town asking for other people's help to do his job. I'm rather surprised at this kind of thinking. Sheriffs are people and no two people are alike. The story of High Noon takes place in the Old West but it is really a story about a man's conflict of conscience. In this sense it is a cousin to A Man for All Seasons. In any event, respect for the Western Hero has not been diminished by High Noon."' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_noon#undefined)
In just such a way as High Noon *may* refer to the House Unamerican Activities Committee (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Un-American_Activities_Committee), does Living in Harmony refer to The Village & the world. Interestingly, in this it turns another recurring theme almost on its head, that is that of the internationalism of The Village. In an age when it was supposed to be abundantly clear on the world stage who were us & them, The Prisoner normally muddies that picture, yet here references a time in history where the threat was considered very real & abundantly subversive. As usual, & as is the case with all other apparent threats in The Prisoner, the whole point of it is that nothing is real. Whether or not Harmony is a drug-induced hallucination, the whole point is that nothing is real. The Communist threat isn't real. The Iron Curtain isn't real. The First World is a fantasy. In reality you don't know who is who, nothing is real, & anybody could be anything. Heavy, man.
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Monday, 29 September 2014

Man in a Suitcase: First Impressions

I have had the box set of Man in a Suitcase for some time: I bought them on spec from ebay, because it's one of the series that's always mentioned in the same breath with all the other TV series that you'll read about here. I have been watching the episodes in a rather desultory fashion on & off, but this series has come up in the cult TV blogosphere recently, & I thought I'd stick my neck out.
There's one thing that I'm finding repeated all over the internet about Richard Bradford, that he is a method actor (for example it comes up on the wikipedia, tv.com & amazon.co.uk pages referring to the show rather than Bradford himself). This is where my problem with this show begins. Method acting refers to a collection of inward techniques, pioneered by Stanislavski, where the actor creates the part within himself, as opposed to the purely external techniques used in classical drama training. And here's the nub: I get suspicious when an actor's technique is talked about too much. The whole point of acting is that the *part* is the thing the viewer sees, & all the great actors can project a part in such a way that you don't notice the acting. I am not sure whether I am referring to Bradford's actual acting or the hype around the show.
Because there is something wrong with Bradford's performance, for me. After much thought, I've concluded that he's not pissed off enough. For a man who is supposed to be scraping a living from his wits after a great injustice by his own country, he is remarkably equable. If you want to think your way into his part you've got to have elements of a grieving process - including anger, & so on.
For some reason Man in a Suitcase reminds me of The Persuaders! I feel this may be the...I suppose it would have been called Pan-Continental at the time - setting of the show (incidentally I remember my mother getting terribly excited about us going over to what she called 'continental quilts' - it is only afterwards I've discovered Terence Conran is credited with the introduction of the duvet to France).
The plots also strike me as somewhat generic. I have watched most of the series now. I'm afraid it has failed to grab me. Many of the TV shows I talk about here grabbed me on first viewing. I'm ashamed to say I can't remember the plots of the episodes I've watched. I have also recently watched through Jason King in the same manner & pace (usually while eating or doing something else), but I can remember the plots of Jason King episodes. The more colourful figure of King has made more of an impression.
None of this manages to square my impression with the rave reviews this series gets on amazon.co.uk. And they really are rave reviews. However I would note that many of them are by people who either watched Man in a Suitcase at the time or would have liked to. I wonder whether it hasn't travelled as well as some of the more outlandish TV series of the time.
Or it may just be me. I certainly *ought* to like it, but I have a feeling this box set will be in the next bag of stuff, along with Hazell, that I sell to Cex.
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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling

Right. This is where I really get to go to town on my own theories with allegory in The Prisoner. Of course this is the odd episode out. Of course McGoohan is barely seen, & the wole episode isn't very 'McGoohan' at all. The majority of the episode even takes place outside of The Village. These are all the things that make this episode...I can only use the phrase 'stand out' from the rest, & it is the aspects that make people dislike this episode that must be grasped onto for the meaning here.
The episode opens with a unique opener of men looking at transparencies. Much is made of slide Number 6. I'm not going to labour the wholly obvious point there. The presence of the great & the good & photography introduce the allegorical themes of this episode. It is about intelligence/technology (I suppose what we would now call information technology), & it is about power.
The key intelligence here is the knowledge Selzmann has developed of transferring the psyche from one person to another. The main power play here is that the great & the good are desperate to get the intelligence, & the power that would go with it.
But the nub of that is that the unconsidered discoverer of this intelligence trumps the powerful to win at the end. In a true allegorical way, this story warns against the misuse of power. It is like the hare & the tortoise.
The fact that Number 6 is not 'himself' for much of the episode merely recalls the process in Schizoid Man where Number 6 becomes 'whole' by becoming Number 12. It makes this episode truly the odd one out, but Number 6 is apparently a 'Village man' here. He has actually arrived at what he could be in The Village.
Similarly the fact that the action of the episode deliberately takes place outside The Village reinforces the importance of The Village to the series, the authorities, & Number 6 himself. Remember my personal theory that The Village represents Number 6's dream escape from his workaday life as a secret agent, but one he is at best ambivalent or sometimes doesn't want at all? In this episode his ambivalence swings, causing the other side of his dream world to come to life. He leaves The Village, his supposed dream, to do a work of national importance. His dream escape, which he has himself created & is a reflection of all his own foibles & faults, gives way to the reality. He doesn't really want his dream - it is too painful because it is his own. It is with this episode that I feel the allegory of Village-as-Number-6's-Dream fits better than Village-as-allegory-for-society. The latter view falls down here because of the journey out from the Village, whereas this episode can be explained in the terms of my own theory. Having sung the praises of my theory, I'd have to say I'm not at all sure what I'll do when I get to Living in Harmony!
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Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Avengers: The Outside-In Man

More duvet TV, this time going back to Mrs Gale, & with a version of The Avengers that fits more into the 'real' end of my real/unreal TV spectrum. Only two days ago I posted that I didn't have a favourite Avengers girl - well today I'm prepared to scrub that & declare myself for Mrs Gale.
Here's the thing about Mrs Gale - for the time, when people didn't wear leather in the way you can now, it was incredibly sexy. She was going around in fetish gear, well before Mrs Peel was dressed up in A Touch of Brimstone. The show must have been incredibly racy for 1964 - the implication that Steed & Mrs Gale are sleeping together is very clearly there, read with post-sexual revolution eyes. Also the raciness has hit me afresh coming from Tara King-era Avengers - although the only topless women that could be shown on TV are on the wall of the garage.
This is a true precursor of the eccentricity of the later Avengers - I love that Steed's boss works in a butcher's as a cover, a cover worthy of Mother's offices in the final series. The interiors speak the true Avengers language - here PANSAC is the embodiment of tradition. The relentlessly modern, split-level sets of both Steed's apartment & Mrs Rayner's cottage are the kind of 1960s interior designer fantasies that few can actually have lived in. Charters ironically is another embodiment of Tradition, by virtue of belonging to a gentlemen's club, while Steed is the embodiment of modernity. So this Avengers is actually setting Steed's modern grasp of things over Charters's obsessional resolve to follow orders he received years before.
The plot is a straightforward spy-fi au base. I can't criticise it at all. It is decorated - I can't think of a better word - by Avengers touches such as the familiarity Mrs Gale feels with Steed's apartment & his insistence on reading a Tintin book over answering the phone!
These older Avengers *feel* very different to the later ones, more like a more orthodox television play. Visually, however, it remains superb. Butchers, garage, city apartment, it spells sophistication & city living. I can only make my customary complaint of there being too many familiar faces. It is also slightly obvious that there must be a plot twist because of Steed's extraordinary behaviour.
Ultimately, though, this Avengers is a vehicle for Mrs Gale. She gets the majority of scenes requiring any depth of emotion or understanding. Her comment that she does know what it is to be made a widow is particularly effective. In fact, on a deeper level this episode covers the same kind of ground covered by later episodes of Danger Man: how far do you go for your job, country, values? How far do you compromise for the ultimate end? What does it mean to 'bury the hatchet' & is that a viable option? Do we identify with the state, our own views or a campaign?
All in all an excellent early Avengers episode, which manages to hit with its sexiness while also having a deeper meaning under the surface.
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Friday, 19 September 2014

The Avengers: Wish You Were Here

I'm presently suffering from another episode of the depression that has plagued me for the past few years. This time not only am I on fluoxetine (Prozac), which I'm liking better than the antidepressant I've been on before, but I'm trying to work through it. I have, however, hit the point at which you suddenly feel much worse before you feel better so have given myself a duvet day. I get very blokey, irritable depression, & my normal renowned forbearance goes out of the window - not the time to be facing the workplace. I'm interested that I've fallen on The Avengers as duvet television - in my real/unreal dichotomy unreal is definitely better for comfort, I've always loved the Tara King season, & this is one of my favourites.
I say unreal, but I think this episode is only unreal so far as the Avengers characters go - certainly introducing Mother's nephew who is forbidden to call Mother Uncle at work is a genius touch - & the plot is actually worthy of a classic thriller in Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh vein. The hotel is of course a staple of the genre as a setting for the group of people who may include a murderer - here changed to be the setting of imprisonment in an apparently ordinary hotel. The apparent ally who turns out to be an enemy is also a staple of the genre.
The programme is not without characteristic Avengers touches. In The Avengers' visual language, it presents an interesting contrast between the modern (the firm for which Tara's uncle works) & the apparently traditional (The Elizabethan Hotel). The fact that the rot has set in at the hotel makes this an Avengers where the enemy is posited as the Establishment gone bad. I see that that would probably chime better with the idea that this show is a send-up of The Prisoner, than the cosy golden age mystery approach I'm taking.
A further Avengers touch is tha apart from the relatively serious subject matter, this one is a lot of fun all the way. It is almost slapstick in the attempts to keep the 'prisoners' imprisoned, & in the prisoners' acts to bring down the facade of a regular hotel at the end.
Visually it's superb. The hotel set is spot on for the British cosy murder milieu. The set for Mother's office, with its cardboard cutouts of suspects, is so visually effective it will stay with the viewer long-term.
It is probably one of the highest accolades I personally can pay a TV programme that even with repeated viewings, at no point have I ever thought there was anything wrong with this. Of course you could pick holes in the plot if you wanted to, but it hangs together remarkably well. My only criticism would be the incredible number of Avengers regulars who can be distracting.
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Saturday, 13 September 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: A Change of Mind

Image credit: http://v4valentine.tripod.com/SPP/MA0102_Index.htm It's a Soviet propaganda poster about fearing enemies of the people.
I was astonished when I came to watch this episode again, to find I not only had no recollection of my blog post about it earlier this year, but I even had the impression it was the episode borrowed from the projected Series 2, where Number 6 becomes someone else in a job outside of the village. I'm intrigued that I focussed on the sheer pretence of everything that happens in the Village (http://culttvblog.blogspot.de/2014/01/the-prisoner-change-of-mind.html?m=1). I had already started this post with the lengthy quote below, not realising that I'd already used a shorter version of it in my previous post:
'A lot of The Prisoner is about the individual versus the collective. This episode was probably the most Orwellian. Prisoners can't just suffer their imprisonment. They cannot be depressed or in any other way unhappy. They must participate with the activities of the collective, smile and be content, socialize with others, and exercise in the Village gymnasium instead of alone in the woods. (This is starting to sound like high school.)
By refusing to be part of the Village community, our hero became "public enemy Number Six". He was shunned by the pod-people-like Villagers who marched about chanting "unmutual" and "disharmonious." He was bombarded with attempts by the "Appeals Subcommittee" to bully him into submission, and bashed with striped umbrellas. And finally, Six was subjected to "instant social conversion."
'The Committee, with their top hats and striped shirts, looked exactly like the Council in "Free For All." For that matter, the Village bullies who attacked Six were wearing the same type of striped shirt, but instead of black pants, they wore blue jeans (so you'd know they were bullies). Bystanders in the Village were wearing khaki pants with *their* striped shirts. Clones everywhere.
'Denunciation, re-education, and re-integration are something that have been with humans for a very long time (see: Inquisition, Spanish), but they took on whole new meaning in the 20th century with the rise of Communist states. This episode very much mirrored the kind of public conformity exercises typical of the Stalinist era show-trials (where one hoped very much merely to be placed in the Gulag for a few years).
'The thing was that "actually existing Communism" (to use the term of art) was defined by a lot of things, but one of the key ones was that it focused on the creation of a radiant future for which people as they are today were completely unsuitable. When Number Six is declared "unmutual," it means he isn't even trying to be suitable for that sort of future. His fellow citizens who confess and conform to both the letter and spirit of the thing aren't any more ready, but they are worthy to keep building it. In Stalin's day, many Russians released from the Gulag (despite incredible hardship, disease, and psychological torment) desperately wanted to rejoin the Communist party and demonstrate that they might still be ready to work for that future. It's this kind of thinking that allows weak people do some very hard and terrible things, and its fingerprints can be found at the sites of horrendous violence throughout the century.' (http://www.douxreviews.com/2012/06/prisoner-change-of-mind.html?m=1 I've missed out chunks of that post to get the bits I want)
One of the things I'm always banging on about in this blog is how different the world was in the time in which most of the series I talk about here, were made. Europe was firmly divided across the middle & it was relatively simple to decide who the 'others' were. I think the Communism reference is therefore the obvious Occam's razor-style reference for the allegory of this episode.
Given that I'd already referenced the above quote but managed to forget about it completely (perhaps 'they' have taken me by night & made me malleable - anyone who knows me in person would laugh hollowly at that) it therefore comes as a shock to me that I've actually already written about the allegory in this episode, although I wasn't focussing on it then in the way it is now. Yes, this episode is allegorical for the perennial subjects of paternalism, social engineering & peer pressure, but the most obvious allegory is of The Village representing a communist state, & functioning as a warning for us in the West of what could happen if our states became like the ones on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
A warning indeed: most of society's institutions are brought into play here. I commented before on the religious (or moral) overtones of this, of the extraction of confessions. The act of telling the Villagers what to confess & therefore how they have 'sinned' would reference for McGoohan the 'educated conscience' talked about in Scholastic Catholic theology. I talked also before about how The Village functions like a cult - in fact in my personal opinion the majority of even respectable mainstream religions can & do function like cults. The obvious example would be the obsessive secrecy with which Catholic clergy have cheerfully covered up the criminal acts of other clergy.
Nor is psychiatry neglected & this episode functions (in the heady anti-psychiatry milieu of the 1960s) as a terrible warning of what happens when medical psychiatry becomes a tool of social control. The council warns about Government & the way the rules of mutualism are applied warns about the Law.
A relatively simple allegory here, but nonetheless making this one of the more countercultural episodes.
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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: It's Your Funeral

Not a favourite of the fans, this one, although it is one of my own, except when it comes to trying to be creative about the allegory here! I keep trying to get away from the standard allegorical interpretation of The Prisoner, that The Village is an allegory for what is (or was in the 1960s) becoming of our world, particularly trying to escape into my own cherished theory that The Village is both Number 6's own creation & represents his dream of escape from the high-pressure world of his intelligence or espionage job.
This is also one of the Prisoner episodes which have been rather overtaken by technology, & their warning has become more frightening in the process. The activity prognosis on Number 6 represents an omniscient knowledge of all variants in The Village, to the extent that an unexpected variation can be predicted. This was of course decades before the advertisements on the internet were tailored to our individual shopping habits & everywhere we go online can be tracked. For example, the statistics of this blog will tell me how many hits a particular post has had & where the viewers of the blog come from. The US is always top, followed by the Ukraine for some reason (hello, there, do leave a comment if you wish). But I don't doubt that somebody somewhere has the details of which computers have been here, how often at what time. What The Prisoner warned about has actually come to pass.
There is another, probably more postmodern, approach to this episode that also makes it frightening. If you take The Village as either Number 6's creation (going with the theory that he was John Drake & invented a retirement village for dangerous people) or else that it is his dream of escape from his own world, this puts that blame for what happens in The Village fairly & squarely on Number 6's shoulders. This actually also fits well with the resolution that Number 1 is Number 6 himself, since it makes the series completely reflexive & about Number 6 himself. The Village *is* Number 6 & everything that happens there is his doing: a view which leaves Number 6 not looking very good.
This would actually explain Number 6's act of helping a Number 2. It is an internal conflict - whether in his creation or at a deeper level in Number 6's psyche - & after Number 6 is Number 1!
I both hugely agree & violently disagree with Howard Foy's appraisal of this episode:
'If Appreciation Day itself is nonsensical, so too is the assassination plot itself on which the whole structure of the story is based. Why should No.2 be so concerned - as has been suggested - to gain a public excuse to crack down on Village dissidents? Surely if the Village authorities want to be rid of irksome Villagers they can simply be eliminated? As prisoners, they are already as good as dead as far as the outside world is concerned. Even if they are too valuable to be killed off, couldn't they be transferred to a more conventional prison where such dissident activities would not be tolerated? Why hasn't the Village got its own prison where troublemakers could be incarcerated, perhaps in solitary confinement? It seems strange that a Village with all the appearance of a real-life community - shops, newspaper, town council, graveyard - should lack something so glaringly necessary as a police station with a few cells for people who break the "law". The inconsistencies of "It's Your Funeral" can largely be attributed to the fact that writer Cramoy was given either too much licence, or not enough information, when creating his image of the Village. Nevertheless, it is interesting to speculate on where he got the idea for Appreciation Day, the ceremonial transfer of power between Village leaders, and the assassination plot with which it is inextricably linked.' (http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/article4.htm)
I agree enormously, because of course it is nonsensical. On the other hand nonsensical acts are the bread & butter of totalitarian society (for a slightly later parallel, there is footage of a Pioneers' Day ceremony in Rhodesia in the 1970s on Youtube). Once nonsense is presented as sense, it takes a brave Number to be the one to admit it is nonsensical. Allegorically this can be a warning about society or even a psychological failing in Number 6. I also like Foy's parallels between this episode & the kind of ritual killing of kings described by James Frazer.
There is a further layer of meaning in almost a return to the death-rebirth motif of Dance of the Dead, except that here The Village is the source of death rather than life. So it's closer to the 'I am your world' spoken by Number 2 in that episode.
So all in all a multi-layered episode, which may simply lend itself best to the traditional allegorical meaning, but nonetheless is capable of being explored in different ways.
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