Sunday, 31 August 2014

Hazell: First Impressions

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