Friday, 14 March 2014

Public Eye: The Morning Wasn't So Hot

I have commented recently on the unreality vs reality dichotomy of sixties TV. For some reason Callan didn't do it for me, but Public Eye does, & so this post will mark a rare trip into realism TV on this blog. In fact this approach was intentional:
'Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriott were the creators of Public Eye.�Roger told The Daily Express (1.8.69) "I got fed up with series like The Avengers, sick to death of the camp and the champagne. The series was created as an antidote to that kind of phoney material. I felt it was time to get down to reality." He had�an idea for a show about an enquiry agent but found TV producers struggling to believe that such individuals existed, wedded to the traditional idea of the tough private eye fighting serious crime. However Anthony Marriott found such a real-life agent in Brighton and this helped to convince them. It does seem that this agent's experiences helped to inspire some of the stories, particularly the early ones.' (http://www.contquots.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/)
In fact I've deliberately chosen this episode to start with because it's one of the early ones not set in my native Birmingham - no matter how long the actors devoted to learning accents at drama school, they *never* get Birmingham right, so I've chosen a London one where I won't get distracted. Incidentally nobody from London ever understands the Midlands - I love the way Bridgenorth is calmly situated in the Black Country! I have the 'The ABC Years' two-disc box, although I have read that if you have all the other Public Eye boxed sets you don't need it because all the episodes are included elsewhere.
The theme of this episode is perennial: the runaway girl & the dangers & 'protection' she finds herself exposed to in the big city. There is also an interesting account of the lives led by the 1960s demi-monde. There is no way on earth anyone would have watched this as comforting escapist viewing after work - gritty doesn't begin to describe it.
Strangely, though, its realism makes this show much more dated than any of the 'unreality' shows I've blogged about before here. For a start it opens with a shot of a steam train - if a steam train appears on The Avengers it doesn't matter because we all take it as a shorthand way of referring to either British tradition or eccentricity. In Public Eye the appearance of the steam train merely serves to underline the *huge* gap in time between then & now - of course I mean in terms of development & technology. The realism bring this into sharper focus, for example the few possessions the runaway has, & Marker is paid �6/-/- (see, I can do old money) plus expenses. That wouldn't get him lunch now.
Similarly the time gap accentuates the difference in production values - here the sets look like sets & remind me of the way 1960s television treated its productions as if they were stage plays. I loooove the cafe - my dad would probably have called it a Milk Bar - & in fittings reminds me very much of the little old Druckers in Birmingham. The wonder here is that the frankly desperate world depicted here is actually created with a remarkable economy of actors in the scenes in the cafe, & an economy of sets. Any attempt to depict this sort of milieu nowadays would necessarily be accompanied by crowd scenes in clubs & bars, or street scenes requiring extras by the dozen. The approach here makes it *feel* as if you are actually listening in on a private conversation, because the focus is entirely on the key characters, without any further distractions. This is one of the things I like best about old telly, that it can do the kind of intimate scenes that you get in good theatre. Additionally, in this & subsequent episodes of Public Eye, sound effects are used to remarkable effect, at one point creating the image of Marker being taken off in a car, although being beaten up is implied.
I'm afraid I have a criticism which, depending on how it's taken, could be quite major, & which I've only just noticed despite having watched through a couple of series of Private Eye now. It is Alfred Burke's accent - I feel the accent is slightly too far back, I almost want to say too theatrical, for the character. I genuinely feel this was probably trained into him at drama school - he was born in Peckham & had jobs in railways & clubs after leaving school at 14, so probably wasn't as far back in accent originally. I also feel this may not be part of the conceptualisation of the character, but a convention of the time for how actors spoke. I have a feeling the accent flattened a little as the series progressed; I'll have to keep an ear out for this.
Another thing that I'm finding difficult to envision in this show is how people would have watched it at the time. I'm finding it very difficult to put it in the 1960s context of the fear of the changing society that drove people like Mary Whitehouse. Would people have watched this show & felt fear of the tide of depravity which funded the apparent prosperity of city life? Or would it have been seen as the perennial tale of country mouse & city mouse? This is about me rather than the show, but I'm really finding that difficult. It is further complicated by the relative ambivalence of Marker's character, saying to a pimp, 'We're professional men, aren't we?' I feel this may be an indicator of this show's quality as drama - that it is capable of being understood on different levels. It would doubtless have pressed buttons in people. What parent watching this who had a daughter away in London would not have got on the phone? I also have the feeling that if a prostitute were watching it between clients it would either have elicited scorn or amusement, at the sanitised view of the game. There is probably also more agonising about things than would really have been entertained by its subjects. In fact the audience is clear - an at least fairly comfortable audience looking to lose themselves in a gritty drama. Despite what I said earlier, I suppose it may lend itself to one form of therapeutic television - that of seeing how the other half (supposedly) live & in this case coming away thinking that your life could be much worse! This was of course the era when the unskilled could still work, you could still get a council flat & things were both better & much worse. This is also seen in the shoe shine man with a string of medals: he is the 'moral' counterpart of the girl: she earns megabucks by selling herself, he has a respectable trade, carried out in all weathers, which means he has retained his respectability but earns a pittance.
There is an interesting reference to the approach to prostitution in the classical Greek world in this show - there it was the only way for a woman to gain independence & power over her own life, by capitalising on her, ahem, assets.
A familiar face to me - although not a distracting one - is Roland Curram. He brings to his role here exactly the sort of chilling calmness he brought to his role in The Avengers episode Honey for the Prince. In fact it's just struck me that the cold calculating remorseless killer should seem out of place in The Avengers, but perhaps he comes across as more deranged there.
My favourite line:
'Mr Marker, last week I earned �300. Did you?'
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