Monday, 3 March 2014

Department S: A Cellar Full of Silence

In my own rather constrained world-view there are two opposing tendencies in the television of the 1960s & 70s, realism (Callan & Public Eye: this tendency came to the fore in the 1970s in The Professionals & The Sweeney) on the one hand, & on the other hand unreality (The Avengers & most of the shows I really like). Normally Department S would be in the unreality side of the divide, but for the first 11 minutes of this episode it has a creditable go at being a gritty tale of shady dealings in London's underworld.
The episode gets off to an excellent Avengers-esque start with the image of the masked men arriving at the building site. I mean, this is so Avengers it is almost a pastiche. In fact it feels very much like the show is a pastiche of first The Avengers & then the gritty detective genre before coming to as a Department S episode. Fabiani does an excellent hard man/Bond role: it starts off Bond in an exotic location before becoming hard-man-using-his-fists in a Londond street market. It is also evident that he is well known to the set-up he's dealing with. The room full of Nazi memorabilia also ensures we have no sympathy for Kyle.
This gritty approach ends abruptly the first time we see Petunia Winegum lolling around a mortuary doing a crossword. Sorry, I meant to say Peter Wyngarde, but his acting profession nickname just suits him so much better. Forgive me if I've already talked about this, but after Department S Wyngarde got his own spin-off series, playing Jason King as the lead. I don't personally like it as much as Department S - it lacks the strangeness & comes across as being a vehicle for Wyngarde's flamboyance. In the bleak 1970s Jason King must have constituted escapaist viewing, with his flamboyant clothes, luxury diet, women swooning over him, in (for the time) exotic locations. In retrospect it is extraordinary that the Jason King character kicked off a phase of Wyngarde's life when he was a sex symbol, actually mobbed by female fans at the time. Wyngarde was homosexual himself - what brought this dizzy phase to an end was his two arrests for cottaging: he attributed the first to a misunderstanding & the second to a 'mental aberration', although you can't keep on alleging that these things just happen to you. Despite Jason King's continual womanising it is blatantly obvious to me that he is also gay: what I find particularly interesting in this episode is his comment when dressed up in the outfit pictured here, that he can't understand what 'leather queens' see in it. Not only is his motorcyclist's outfit a kind of fantasy motorcyclist's outfit rather than the real thing, but how explicit does King's homosexuality have to be made? I find that an interesting occurrence in a series where the heterosexual role is otherwise reinforced, although I still feel any woman with any sense would detect that there was something wrong there. Later in the episode King gets to reprise the hard man role when he goes round to get the baton: do I need to say that he does it in his own particular style, even commenting that carrying a weapon would spoil his clothes?
This Department S episode has at least two references to the technology of the time. The wire from the baton which turns out to be recording tape is the obvious one. The other one actually appears behind King in the illustration to this post: the all-figure telephone numbers were a 1960s innovation, replacing an earlier system of letters & numbers (the telephones of the time had both letters & numbers round the dial. These vanished in the 1970s before reappearing in the 1990s).
Some familiar faces appear in this one. Paul Whitsun-Jones must be familiar to anyone who watches sixties British television. I didn't realise he played a journalist in The Quatermass Experiment, nor that he played Colonel Dedshott in a now-lost television version of Norman Hunter's Professor Branestorm books, which I loved as a child. In fact it seems he was a much more versatile actor than the dodgy characters I normally associate him with - the Nazi memorabilia-collecting character he plays here being a perfect example. I also didn't realise that Edward Brayshaw was in Rentaghost - am I dating myself down to at least the decade here?
I have one major criticism of this show: the plot is wildly confusing. Of course this may be at least partly deliberate, but the connections between the different plot elements are anything but clear. It may just be me but I'm writing this watching it for the third time in the past few days & finding it very dense. In fact at times it feels like this episode is deliberately caricaturing the conventions of the spy genre, far more than other Department S episodes do. No bad thing in itself, but it may have bitten off more than it could chew. This does not sit well with the banter of Department S, & let's face it, any show featuring Jason King has to be very careful what background he is put against, & an unreal one is better than anything approaching realism.
And I think it is the realism of this episode that means it doesn't work for me. It is still enjoyable as a Department S episode, but the contrast between the attempt at gritty realism & the odd vision of Jason King is just too much. It also prevents the sort of uncritical viewing based on getting into the atmosphere of a show, that I talked about in my last post. That's the real problem with this one: it isn't a Bond, it isn't a pastiche of spy films & Britishness, it isn't a last sixties psychedelic romp, it tries to be all of these things & because of that fails.
------------------

No comments: