Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Prisoner: Fall Out

Fortunately I've found a single disc with this episode, so can now finish my blog posts on this viewing through The Prisoner, which are based on examining the thesis that Number 6 is John Drake of Danger Man. The thesis is of course that he invented The Village himself, as a security of home for agents who were a risk themselves or presented a risk to security, was horrified at what he heard of it, & resigned so that he would be taken there & could investigate. It has been some time since I have watched The Prisoner, & I was expecting that this episode would provide no support for this theory, which was created jointly by McGoohan & George Markstein, & the received wisdom is that McGoohan changed the series markedly in a different direction - some change was also imposed by changes in episode numbers & the lack of the projected second series - after his conflict with Markstein became such that Markstein left the programme.
There are two huge problems with this episode for me. The first is that it is blatantly obvious, from the point at which Number 2 dies, who is Number 1. Number 6 is treated in a deferential manner that can only mean he is Number 1.
The other thing wrong here for me is that this episode is too much of a disjoint from the episodes that have come before. The theme changes so much that this episode fails to tie up the threads from the rest of the series, in fact Fall Out seems to turn much of the theme of the rest of the series on its head.
I've also never really understood why this episode is so controversial, since the main message for it - basically to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs - is to me quite obvious. Perhaps this is something lacking in me, perhaps this episode has a quite different effect on those less egotistical than me. To me it is self-evident that I personally am the ultimate authority for myself (I'm not even that tongue-in-cheek as I say this), but there are a lot of people who don't feel like they should trust themselves. For religious reasons, or reasons of upbringing, a lot of people think it better to put others' opinions above their own at all times, to be subservient, & what have you. I can see that this episode would have a quite different effect on them than on someone like me. On the other hand this episode has an important message for both sorts of people: the importance of coming face to face with yourself. If nothing else The Prisoner is about the inescapable self, that has been sought in every episode, most of them with heavy psychological underpinnings. Frankly it makes me wonder the sort of people these 'risky' agents, & indeed Number 6, were, if for example Number 6 was so disconnected from himself that he couldn't see that the whole point is him. The Village, The Prisoner, is all about him, there is ultimately nothing else. It is interesting that if you google this episode, amongst the related searches you get searches for explanations for this episode. That is, to my mind, to miss the point, to ask somebody else what it means, & to lose the opportunity to be faced with your own self. Work it out!
This is not completely different, in fact is only a slight recasting, of the theory that the point of The Prisoner is about society's expectations, that it is society that makes us prisoners. In making an ending that so angered viewers, the theory goes, McGoohan actually promoted the rejection of society's imprisonment, in refusing that he idolised as the super-spy. In isolating this theory I'm not denying that all episodes can be understood on many different levels, & there will be multiple possible explanations for Fall Out.
I even think I can make this episode fit into the constraints of the Markstein theory. Drake invents The Village, resigns, goes there, investigates. The fact is, at the end, Drake merely finds out that he is himself the point. QED!
One of the things I like about this episode is that it is classic surreal late-sixties television. I know that McGoohan was terribly straight-laced, but it would tend to confirm the impression I voiced in a previous post that the production team got more & more stoned as the seried went on! My absolutely favourite bit is the bit where McGoohan is running with the butler, it's so different from the butler's normal staid gait.

And so my romp through The Prisoner ends for this time round. I've been wanting to watch the series from the Markstein point of view for ages. My prediction was that the Drake/Number 6 identification would only be sustainable in the earlier episodes, so it's come as a pleasant surprise to find how possible it is to twist the show to suit the theory!
My conclusion has to be that yes, it is possible to view The Prisoner retaining the assumption that Number 6 is John Drake. I believe it credible that The Village was his brainchild, & he resigned, intending to investigate, & only to find that since the baby was his brainchild, he himself was the source of all he hated about The Village as a microcosm of society.
I don't doubt for an instant that I'll be returning to The Prisoner on this blog (I like a gap between viewings though). I'm becoming keen on the idea of watching through it with the understanding that actually the butler is Number 1...I mean he goes home with Drake, doesn't he? And even the door opens in the way they do in The Village!
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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 2 Episode 1

I like to say that the repeats of The Avengers on Channel 4 in the eighties started my interest for sixties TV, & it's true. But this is the Sapphire & Steel assignment that started my interest in cult TV, & quite probably my interest in all sorts of weird things.
As a child I was both terrified & fascinated by this assignment. I'd already got an interest in ghosts from somewhere & the 'scientific' methods Tully used in this fascinated me. How atmospheric can you make the beginning of a TV programme? There's simply everything here, the railway station itself, the wind-swept platform, the fact that it's twilight if not dark. The fact that Tully approaches from the platform implies that he's there without the owner's permission. In fact I've just realised that this assignment begins with classic magical omniscience: there is no attempt made to delineate why Tully is at the station or what its reputation is among the ghost hunting mob. He just arrives. Of course from Sapphire & Steel's point of view that's probably something to do with Time drawing him in at that moment.
Of course what he gets isn't a ghost at all (at first), it's Steel. I love his joke about being from 'the other side' meaning the down platform, & his complete disregard for Tully.
I'm interested in Tully's approach to his work, & how he sets up his equipment. He is actually the second 'thing' (after the moon) seen in this episode, & the first 'person' - or perhaps the only one, emphasised by the fact that immediately after he draws up his collar we see a lit lamp in the refreshment room, bringing our attention to the fact that he genuinely is not alone at the station. Then we see him lighting the same type of lamp, but a different colour, with a match. This either introduces an ambiguity as to whether he lit the first lamp himself or delineates that there are two parallel universes happening here. It is immediately shown to be the first one, because he closes the door of the lit refreshment room behind him - I am actually realising the full extent to which this show suggests possibilities merely by atmosphere & a shot through a window. With one lamp in each hand he walks down the platform with the wind blowing fallen leaves around. I have read somewhere that all the booking hall scenes were shot first, then the set was dismantled, & the hotel or upstairs scenes shot all together: to me it has always clearly been a set, but again full marks for effect if people xcan be asking what station it was filmed at. He shuts the booking hall door behind him & places a lamp on either side of the room, at which the studio lights are raised. To me this indicates the date of this series, the fact that it was 'real-world' effects being used: I feel probably a darker & spookier effect could be achieved now. Tully then lights two candles, places one at the door of the booking hall, & the other on the staircase. Coming to this for the first time we wouldn't know where it goes. These candles are clearly unnecessary for light, because of the lamps, & I find it interesting that they are placed at 'entrances' to the room he is in. Perhaps the intention is to show if 'something' passes through them: as a ghost researcher it would be somewhat illogical to use them as a ritual guard. He takes a third candle, places it in a darkened corner of the room, lights it, & when the lights come on we see it is another door, so this one fulfils the same purpose as the other two. He walks across the room, puts the matches down on a bench, as he does his overcoat & scarf. He sits down on the bench next to a reel-to-reel tape recorder, he bends a coat hanger as a microphone stand, places the microphone in it, starts the tape recorder, taps the microphone as a test, & says, 'In the name of God, please tell me who you are... Because I know you're here... I'm a friend... And I want to help you... So will you let me help you?... Please... You can trust in me.' The camera pans round the booking hall as he does this, & the sound indicator on the (doubtlessly expensive German) tape recorder moves when he is not speaking. There is then the sound of a pigeon flapping against the outside of the building. He picks up the tape recorder & puts it on the stairs, picks up the candle & walks up the stairs, carefully avoiding a thread he has placed across the stairs. He repeats that he wishes to help, & there is now the sound of a footstep. This is where Steel appears from the other side of the station & the theme music begins.
I've gone into such detail because this sequence both shows us who Tully is, & in doing so sets up his role for the whole programme. His equipment is an interesting mixture of the - for the time - very expensive & a home-made microphone stand. Clearly a one-man-band: no hope of the Most Haunted team turning up here with EMF meters, & what have you. His use of candles in a sort of ritual is interesting, as is his invocation of God, as an indicator of his approach to ghosts. Tully is additionally obviously a true believer, he is starting the show with the conviction that there is something there & it also needs help.
He is clearly a kindly soul, & in this his function here is as a foil for Sapphire & Steel: Steel is firmly convinced that whatever is there doesn't need help. On another level Tully represents humanity, our limited understanding, compared to the differing natures of Sapphire & Steel.
Right from the start in this assignment Sapphire & Steel's different approaches are to the fore: Steel is convinced 'it' must be malevolent. Sapphire, who manages to be sexy even on an abandoned railway platform, is more open to the possibility it isn't. Sometimes it's as if their roles (sort of) reverse, meaning that Steel does the talking with Tully, badly of course. Something that always strikes me about this assignment is that Sapphire is the knowledgable one, the one with abilities. It is she who does a complete profile of Tully while holding his hand, who knows the different dates it is at different parts of the station. This leaves Steel in a role of - almost - narrator, explaining what's happening while Sapphire is doing the skilled bit. Notwithstanding Steel has to do some looking out for Sapphire right at the end of the episode.
Sound & visuals are both excellent on this one: the sound effects create genuine suspense. The semi-darkened station (darkness is about the oldest trick in the book to create a sense of mystery) is so atmospheric, & its grey-scale colours are a perfect foil for the actors. Patches of colour, such as when flowers appear or Sapphire's clothing changes, create a completely different mood. These comparatively simple tricks are used to such good effect here. Even the setting of a disused railway station can hardly fail as a winner in the atmosphere stakes. And all of this achieved on a low budget: few actors (so far) few effects, even 'it' starts off as merely a dark shadow.
This Sapphire & Steel assignment has to go into my category of stonking good television, if only for the reason that in thinking about it, I'm aware that I can't answer all the questions it raises, & that some things may be seen differently by other people. This sign of really good television - obviously shared by The Prisoner - is in contrast to the relatively lightweight but still enjoyable series such as The Champions, where it's easy to feel you've wrung everything out of an episode. It also takes repetition & manages to remain suspenseful, which can only be a sign of quality television.
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Monday, 27 January 2014

The Champions: The Fanatics

It's difficult to see how you could fail, when you open a show with an external of the house used for The Avengers' episode The House That Jack Built! On the other hand, this one shows how truly incestuous 1960s TV was by using Gerald Harper as a totally convincing & chillingly calm villain, who nonetheless makes me wonder what Adam Adamant is doing in The Champions! It's not really a TV star as such, but Steed's library turns up here with some good shots, sadly not good enough to be able to read the titles on the books.
I like the plot of this Champions very much: this may be because it is essentially a straightforward detective story (with a supernormal twist of course, in terms of knowing who the fanatics' next victim is. I feel this makes it much more believable: the swap of an agent for a convicted criminal is a simple espionage trick that would be believable in the real world, which contrasts favourably with the sheer fantasy of some Champions scripts. One of the effects this show could be intended to have on the viewer is that of fear, by which I mean fear that a criminal organisation with the wealth & sophistication (paralleled by Intercrime in The Avengers) could actually exist & be jeopardising the safety of us all. This is of course where the relative realness of this plot help in creating this real fear.
Another thing I like hugely is Gerald Harper as the villain. His distinctive voice, & the almost languid way in which he speaks actually makes me think he is more suited to this sort of role than the Adam Adamant role. He comes across as a cool customer, who at times can be quite chilling.
There are two things that let this programme down for me. He's a minor character but the actor who plays Richard Carson comes across as trying to hard to be working class & failing. The other is the ease with which he just turns up at the fanatics' base - surely that shouldn't happen in reality?
That said this is an excellent Champions episode, with real suspense & emotion. The high point has to be Harper's performance though.
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Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Champions: Nutcracker

I've neglected to comment so far on how much I love the very obviously hand-dran maps that announce the location of each adventure. You wouldn't catch that happening nowadays! Shades of The Man from UNCLE in this episode, with a tailor's shop (admittedly not a cleaner's) providing a cover for a secret vault, accessed through the changing room. I feel the sheer complexity & quaintness of the security system suggests the consultant who devised it was a very elderly lady! There are also shades of The Avengers episodes The Mauritius Penny & The Hour that Never Was in the use of a dentist, which is bound to cause a sensation of at least discomfort if not fear, in any number of people.
I feel this Champions episode is unusual in its all-out use of technology, which is needless to say trumped by the Champions' super powers. It is unusual to find such technology in this show. If the language of props is to be understood, Steed's books are displayed to best effect ever, establishing an educated, establishment background. In the scene in which the books appear Sharron sits in an armchair that also appears in The Avengers (don't tempt me to start a 1960s Independent Television Props blog...).
This episode's strength would be a weakness in any other show. I don't think it's overstating it to describe the point of The Champions being its ridiculousness. In this series everything is overdone to dramatic (or comic) effect, & this one is no exception. The basic premise for the show - the security system for the F-File is so excessively complicated, & in the wrong way, that it can easily be broken. A system complicated in other ways, such as needing multiple people to access the vault, could be simpler yet stronger. The system here allows for wonderful visuals, an amusing security system, & the opportunity for a showdown in the dentist's chair.
There's relatively little in the way of super powers on display here. I don't like the incongruousness of the change of scene for the post-titles example. I'm also trying hard to find fault with the fact that Richard memorises the F file & so doesn't have to take it. That's cheating on what they're actually supposed to be doing, which is trying out the security system. The system is actually for normal people, if you don't take the file (or photograph it, or whatever) you haven't finished the test. Of course this could be interpreted as The Champions knowing better & so deliberately *not* doing what they've been asked to, in which case the memorising of the file could be seen as safeguarding its contents if it's at risk. Hmmmm. I don't like this, the complexity of this episode prevents it hanging together properly.
There are familiar faces - at least to other people - in this one. The one best known to me is the shop assistant, Robert Mill, who plays the wonderfully sinister character Brown in The Avengers episode Killer Whale.
My few gripes about the plot (& I only feel as if it ought to be wrong) aside, this is a very strong Champions episode if you don't subject it to the sort of attention I do!
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The Champions: Project Zero

Another great favourite Champions episode of mine, this one, & once again one that gets very close to The Avengers' formula of diabolical masterminds infiltrating the Establishment. It also draws on the feel of the real history underlying The Prisoner. The reason the research establishment feels so real is that we know there were secret government establishments based in Scotland after World War II, & the inmates were often there because they were a risk or were at risk, so could not leave.
The pre-titles prologue is strongly Prisoner-influenced. It must be possible to think of a village post-Prisoner without The Village's influence, but this sequence clearly draws on & parodies it, since the man wants to ring the authorities urgently. The fact he goes into the village shop is a Prisoner reference, & the fact the shopkeeper is a law unto himself is, too. The Prisoner is further drawn on in the sequences where a sound torture technique is used to get information out of people: if you don't die in the process you are killed anyway.
After the titles, the sequence where one member of the team shows their superhuman powers parodies The Avengers, Sharron wine-tasting at a vineyard with superhuman perfection. The exactness of the year parodies The Avengers, which is already a parody of the upper-class world of wine tasting, etc. The Avengers is normally considered the domain of postmodernism, but parodying the parody has got to take The Champions there as well. This sequence is slightly different from most of them, where often something is done to save a child in danger, for example, something worthy. Here the super power is just plain fun!
A further show drawn on is Danger Man, with its use of gadgets. Here a microphone in a ruler fails, so is trumped by the super abilities of The Champions, using a dog whistle.
However these echoes of other shows are given a very Champions slant by the use of recurring motif of science as both something with endless possibilities & great vulnerability to abuse by the aforementioned diabolical masterminds. It is also an archetypally Cold War story, of the great & the good just vanishing. Of course it is also the fact that these people, being scientists, are capable of using chemistry to their own purposes, turns the whole thing round on their captors.
A plot weakness is the way the dead body that sparks Nemesis's involvement turns up in London, having been shot in Scotland. That seems to me very bad management: when I set up my secret research station aimed at taking over the world I will ensure the agents I kill remain well hidden, rather than advertising the fact. As far as the plot is concerned this is an unnecessary flourish: it would have been enough to have the scientists vanishing. I realise the whole establishment is bugged, but it also seems frankly incredible that the microphone on Barratt's collar would pick up his voice & nobody else's.
Of necessity this Champions is mostly confined to sets: this does not in any detract from the story, in fact the windowless sets of the research station exactly give the enclosed feeling necessary to the story. When the collar is removed from Barrett's neck, it also feels genuinely suspenseful. I think my favourite moment in this episode is where Nicholas Smith is pinioned on the floor: it is nice to see him in a relatively sinister role rather than Are You Being Served.
This is a strong Champions contender. It does, however, also have a clear moral, demonstrated by the ease with which The Champions get the scientists to revolt: holding people to the grindstone generates resentment. Clearly the criminals here were not our sort of people at all.
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Friday, 24 January 2014

The Champions: The Mission

I think this may be one of my favourite episodes of The Champions, not least because of the feat of speed displayed at the beginning catching up with a van.
There is some seriously strong acting ability here - I wonder whether 'alcoholic homeless person' is a stock character at drama school, but some actors get the feeling of fragility just right, as Harry Towb does here. There are some of the sixties recurring faces here as well, unfortunately I did find it distracting here, working out just which episodes of which shows I've seen them in. Anthony Bate is superb as the doctor, just chilling enough. It would be dangerously easy to spoil the role by giving even the slightest hint that it is not serious, but Bate plays it completely straight. I just wonder whether Steed resents him going off with his books from Stable Mews. I feel the role of the nurse doesn't suite Patricia Haine as well as the role she played in The Avengers' Who's Who - she seemed to relish the role there, but seems a little wooden in this one.
In fact, what this programme is, is a farce based on gangster movies, played straight, which is what moves it into the stonking good television category for me. It borrow literally all of the stereotypes I gangster films, even the idea of changing identity with plastic surgery. I love Stirling pretending to be a New York gangster.
The story is of course ridiculous. Don't misunderstand me, this isn't a criticism, it's a statement of fact. Most of the television I watch is based on the ridiculous, & gritty realism this ain't. It is in episodes like this I feel that The Champions begins to approach The Avengers in stonking good telly stakes. What ensures it could never get there is the lack of the strong leads, & the way it tries to make unreality real by strange powers. Other than that this show gets close to the winning Avengers formula. This is extremely high praise coming from me.
The farcical element is rightly played straight, since it is apparent that the doctor is so skilled as a result of the experiments he carried out in Dachau. This ought to be absolutely chilling, the idea of a Nazi war criminal hiding here providing an escape route for other criminals. Even the fact that he alters people's faces to look like himself is chilling rather than humorous, if it is remembered that his face must be wanted be an awful lot of Nazi hunters.
I'll have to bring myself back down to earth by reflecting on a couple of shortcomings. The pace slows significantly after the discovery of The Champions' blood group. The role of the homeless men is rather unclear, although this may actually be a strength, if it makes the viewer reflect on the possibilities given Dr Peterson's predilection for experiments.
All in all a Champions episode with strong plot & acting, putting it in the stonking good television class.
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The Champions: Shadow of the Panther

I was all prepared not to like this Champions, since it draws heavily on the (usually misunderstood) African diasporic tradition of Vodou. In fact - to get this out of the way - it's not really about it at all, it's all a cover. The only thing it gets really wrong is to refer to the Spirits as gods - they're not, it's actually monotheistic. Rant over.
Actually the vodou thing is handled with an incredible sureness, that means it isn't overdone in an attempt to instil fear. I think it's the fact that the lift is involved, that you see people going into the lift & emerging apparently zombies, gives it a lightness it wouldn't otherwise have. I suppose technically the whole vodou element is a red herring, because even that's a front. Everything is a front in this one, & vodou makes a good one because people will either dismiss it or be frightened of it. The effect on the people is caused by plain hypnotism: in most series this would seem a bit exotic, but in The Champions it's relatively vanilla! The secret powers they have (the fact they are secret is announced in each episode over a scene of them showing them off in public) are mainly limited to the psychic stuff, which seems more believable than the speed typing & what have you in the past few episodes.
I find the plot of this episode very strong. The multiple cover stories are not too much. I'm torn by the vodou aspect: it is either essential here or this show could be any sixties espionage show with an extra layer on top. For me the people who have been hypnotised behave strangely enough that any attempt at a cover story is insufficient. On the other hand as a cover story it is so woven in that I feel it serves a real function in this episode. I just feel that if you went through the script you could do this one in a hotel anywhere.
So all in all a strong Champions episode, atmospheric, with strong guest actors. I'm just ambivalent about the need for a major layer in the plot!
There are some serious quality actors in this one, both early in the careers who thus don't dominate. Donald Sutherland has a cover as a journalist, & does a good zombie. His distinctive voice & accent are perfect for his role, giving the right effect of a drawl when he's chatting Sharron up. Zia Mohyeddin is the hotel manager, he's - to me - surprisingly good at it, but I know him best in his regal role in The Avengers' Honey for the Prince.
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Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Champions: The Night People

Some may disagree with me about this (I wouldn't go to the stake for this opinion) but I would like to call this a Champions show set in Avengerland. I don't literally mean the countryside round the Borhamwood studios, but even though its location is Cornwall it's actually set in an England of decayed gentry, frightening locals & megalomaniac plans hidden under the - naturally completely unconvincing - cover of Cornish witchcraft. This is exactly the sort of cast found in later Avengers episodes! There are even shades of the Avengers in the false replacement for Sharron McReady.
Several 60s regular actors in this episode: my favourite is Trennick, played by Terence Alexander. It isn't so overdone here, but I love him in ex-RAF mode in the Avengers episode The Town of No Return. I previously associated him too much with Charlie Hungerford in Bergerac, a character with whom I had no naturally affinity. I had no idea the poor man died of Parkinsons's Disease, & am especially intrigued to discover from his obituary that he was preoccupied with numerology:
'Even at the time of his first stage appearance - on 23 December 1939 in Harrogate, as the young journalist in JB Priestley's The Good Companions - he was forming the view that 23 was, for him, a mystical number. As time went on this hardened into certainty. His school number at Ratcliffe college, he would point out at the dinner parties he loved giving, was 23. His first important part, with John Gielgud in Macbeth, opened on 23 December 1941. He joined the army on 23 April 1943 and was wounded, his leg damaged and his foot half blown off by shrapnel, on 23 April the following year. He was demobilised at the age of 23. He married the 23-year-old Juno Stevas, idiosyncratic sister of the politician and barrister Norman St John-Stevas, on 14 January 1949 - he had intended to marry on the 23rd, but it was a Sunday.
'And it was 23 years later that the marriage ended in divorce and he married the actress Jane Downs - by which time he had not shed his numerological beliefs, though he was less keen on mentioning them.' (http://www.theguardian.com/media/2009/jun/03/terence-alexander-obituary)
Alexander was known for playing toffs & rogues, & he certainly manages to be a complete rogue in this programme. Of course the magic pose is a cover, but it seems he is also quite happy for his own wife to play along with this: she genuinely expects witches to come from all over for the ceremony.
The secret powers are better displayed in this episode than The Body Snatchers, with more emphasis on just knowing things. Unfortunately at times this can almost be a plot weakness because it allows the plot to move on without explanation, which is not the same as magical omniscience. The effects also don't always look so good on screen: Richard's speed typing is clearly speeded up, once again giving a slapstick effect: I feel it would have been better done as a close up on his hands speeded up. A further weakness is the place where The Champions communicate by banging on beams & fireplace: the sound effect implies that it is a psychic thing that can only be heard by them, but hammering on a main beam of a house should be audible even to non-psychics!
It's extraneous to the actual plot but one of the things I like best about 60s television is the contemporary street scenes, & this episode begins with a stonker. My favourite bit of this is the visit to the witchcraft museum, where the woman tells Sterling how she is a witch. The scene, while tongue-in-cheek, manages also to sew the seeds of fear in the mind. This is cleverly combined with an apparent break in the psychic communication between The Champions. To my mind any involvement of magic has to be handled very badly to fail televisually, so it has to be a winner, although the visual effect of the men in white combines this idea with a vision of the Ku Klux Klan. Oh, Steed's library is in Trennick's house - the distinctive red & black bands displayed to good effect.
However, the point at which The Night People lost me was the point at which the counterfeit White Paper was discovered: how ridiculous! The whole plan was incredibly unlikely to take anyone in. And come to think of it, the stock footage of a Caribbean carnival was frankly gratuitous.
So despite some major plot holes, I appreciate the atmosphere of this Avengers-esque episode, some majorly good acting by quality actors, & some genuinely spooky moments.
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The Champions: The Body Snatchers

The great & glad news is that I've ordered a single disc of the last episode of The Prisoner so will soon be able properly to finish my survey with an eye to whether John Drake is Number 6. Since my last post I've been watching mainly The Professionals, I think as a natural antidote to the weirdness of The Prisoner, but it's back without a pause into weird shit territory with this episode of The Champions. In fact, a friend originally recommended The Champions to me, saying I would like it because it's weird!
On the surface the plot of this one is fairly typical of 60s eccentric TV shows - megalomaniac wants to sell us out to 'the opposition' - but here with the added touch of General Patterson's body in suspended animation being held hostage. Definite shades of The Avengers episode Split! This was a definite 60s preoccupation, the process being new & famously used at the time to preserve Walt Disney. Another visual reminiscent of other 60s series would be that the baddy's henchmen are dressed in flat caps (I must credit my paying more attention than usual to this to a review at http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0538471/reviews#showAll). I have a feeling there are lots of other shows of this era where this is the case, although the only one I can think of offhand is The Avengers episode The Rotters. The reviewer mentioned above wonders whether he fancied himself as a country squire. Clearly the flat cap makes a class reference at the time, although in The Rotters the baddies who wear them clearly fancy themselves as 'quality'. In fact it seems these are exactly the ambivalent class origins of the flat cap:
'In British popular culture, the flat cap is typically associated with older working class men, especially those in northern England, and the west country, as personified by Fred Dibnah and comic strip anti-hero Andy Capp. The flat cap's strong connection with the working class and the East End of London is illustrated by Jim Branning of the television programme EastEnders and Del-Boy Trotter of the programme, Only Fools and Horses. Taxicab and bus drivers are often depicted wearing a flat cap, as comedically portrayed by Norman Hale and Gareth Pace's (Hale and Pace) "London cabbies" television sketches. AC/DC vocalist Brian Johnson, a native of Newcastle, customarily wears a flat cap on stage and frequently off.
'However, the flat cap can also be taken to denote the upper class when affecting casualness. "A toff can be a bit of a chap as well without, as it were, losing face."' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_cap)
Another 60s preoccupation embodied in this episode is announced when Inga says 'I'm a scientist': in many ways the 60s saw a great love affair with 'science' as the way forward & yet a fear of what would happen if the 'science' got into the wrong (that is somebody other than ours') hands. Here the sides are clearly drawn, although interestingly the opposition is not based on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Deference to Inga the nonspecific 'scientist' is the rule here - of course it is juxtaposed with the completely unscientific strange powers of The Champions, so the ultimate message is actually that these magical powers win over cold modern science.
What made me go straight to this episode was that I was reading a website last night about 'Avengerland' locations around Britain. All of the locations used for this episode are classic Avengerland ones, although the story itself is actually set in Wales. This is notwithstanding that a lot of the episode is shot on set, so the locations are mainly used briefly or even for only establishing shots. That the sets are obviously sets does not spoil it for me - this was standard for the TV of the period. I particularly like Grim's Dyke Hotal in Harrow Weald, familiar from The Avengers episode Game.
Lots of reliable 60s reappearing actors in this one, although for me it just makes it that the baddy, Squires, is played by the actor who played M in the James Bond films!
My one criticism is that the super powers shown tend to be a bit samey, revolving around great strength (with some psychic abilities & control of body temperature to survive the freezing process). The scene where Sharron shows off the gamekeeper character is unfortunately speeded up, which makes it look a bit slapstick, in contrast to the rest of the show.
I like this episode of The Champions, as a strong plot (written by Terry Nation) with heavy 60s overtones, set in a (supposedly Welsh, but actually Avengerland) setting.
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Friday, 17 January 2014

The Prisoner: Once Upon A Time

This is another of my favourite episodes of The Prisoner: I love the long-drawn-out interrogation of Drake, which he turns on its head. Unfortunately it does little to confirm the identification of Number 6 with John Drake which is what I am (trying to) concentrate on in this run through The Prisoner, except in one aspect. During Drake's long conversation with Number 2 he says that he knows too much about Number 2. The point is that he is actually behind bars as he says it, indicating that he knows too much to be let out. This confirms to my mind tge principle that The Village was created to contain people who knew too much.
Significantly when Drake shuts Number 2 in a cage, the butler immediately switches sides. This is immediately preceded by an exchange where Drake tells Number 2 that he is not the boss, Number 1 is the boss. That he then locks up Number 2 & the butler defers to him indicates that he is himself Number 1. Yes, we all know this, but from a point of view of examining whether the series supports that Number 6 is Drake, it is helpful. There have been suggestions throughout the series that Drake/Number 6 is behind The Village, & also somehow its raison d'etre (I have tried to loud-pedal these when they've appeared). It is as if Drake didn't trust himself with the knowledge he has, creates The Village to contain himself & others like him.
Of course it had to be at this point the next disc in my box set decided not to work, so it looks like I won't be able to comment on the final episode in any detail for the present. (Grrrrrr). Suffice to say, as I remember it the episode confirms the idea I already have developed in this post, that Drake is the actual 'authority' behind The Village, its purpose, its goal.
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The Prisoner: The Girl Who Was Death

I commented in my last post on The Prisoner that from here on I thought the series would be less capable of being understood in terms of Number 6 as John Drake, the agent who resigned to investigate his brainchild Village. I especially thought that of this episode, but I've been obliged radically to reconsider that view; I knew blogging about TV would get me thinking about it. I've always thought that late 60s weirdness infiltrated The Prisoner towards the end of the series, & to be frank I think I've always assumed - as a result of not paying enough attention - that the production team got more & more off their heads as it went on, smoked too much weed, & set out to find themselves, resulting in the discovery of who Number 1 is.
How relieved, then, I am to find that this episode can be understood in terms of Number 6 = Drake. The bedtime story he is telling the children is plainly the story of some of his exploits on active service as Danger Man. In fact this episode is said to have recycled two unused Danger Man scripts. The argument against this may be that it contains too many surreal elements to be a flat description of a secret agent's mission, but of course it isn't. The report Drake would have given his superiors would have been radically different from the highly dramatised version it becomes as a children's story.
It is plainly also not a story in the same vein as Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, which is composed of what would now be called virtual reality, referring in an allegorical way to the whole plot of Danger Man. Rather here, it is plainly the account of one of Drake's exploits, turned into a somewhat disturbing bedtime story, & with an anarchistic twist, which is that this bedtime story is actually aimed at children everywhere. These two things mean that it plays with the viewers' minds very cleverly - following straight on from Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, the viewer would naturally assume it is another virtual reality plot.
What makes it clear this is not virtual reality, despite the oddness of it (inserted for the entertainment of the 'children'), is the point at which the words on the bottom of the beer glass appear, in The Village's characteristic typeface. The 'reality' of The Village never intruded on the virtual reality in Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, & the viewer who has been following up to this point will understand this to refer to the sinister hand of those who run The Village being behind the events of this episode. The surrealism of some of the things Sonia can do may either be seen as touches added to improve it as a children's story, or may refer to the way The Village authorities can twist reality to suit their purpose. That this is a story for children everywhere makes it a warning to us all that we cannot be sure what powers are running our governments & lives.
The people with Drake as he tells the children the story look like the baddies in the story he's telling & were hoping he would let out a clue of why he resigned. The significance of this of course is that implies that The Village were already involved in Drake's life in some way before he resigned. Perhaps that was the real reason he resigned, his brainchild Village, rather than being a place of safety for vulnerable/dangerous agents becomes this all-dominating web that takes over everything. He won't tell them why he resigned because he sees it as so obvious. It's as if he's cancelled his Google+ account because it takes over everything, then google ask him why (just kidding).
I'm not very taken with the view that this episode relates to Sadism. I mean, to me it is very plain that *all* Sonia wants to do with Drake is to kill him, not really to have sex with him. The commentary to me is just playing with his head. Not that this episode is in any way lacking in sexual imagery, it is literally everywhere, but personally I feel it is better understood as a parody/criticism of thrillers of the James Bond type:
'John Le Carre said back in 1966, "You felt he (Bond) would have gone through the same antics for any country really, if the girls had been so pretty and the Martinis so dry." I think for people like McGoohan and Le Carre, Bond represented an adolescent fantasy that was fundamentally suspect and emphasized all the wrong things. To them, and even in fiction, espionage and spies were a much more serious business. It was about people at the forefront of a nasty secret conflict between very different ways of life and which potentially could have terrible consequences, and not about martini preparation.' (http://www.douxreviews.com/2012/06/prisoner-girl-who-was-death.html?m=1)
The scene where Drake is poisoned is the comment on this - he goes on a bender of all the spirits they have, showing the ridiculousness of settling down to an orgy of drink or girls in the midst of a dangerous mission. Therefore by using an apparently 'filler' episode to make a point by spoofing spy films of that type, this episode actually makes a very serious point about the serious business of espionage, albeit with a twist here, referring to the masochistic nature of those who put their lives on the line for their country.
And it is not merely Bond that is parodied in this episode - it makes as many, if not more nods to The Avengers, including the somewhat kinky dynamic of The Avengers. The Merrie England references of the cricket match & the pub are so Avengers. It seems facile to say that the countryside looks like it does in The Avengers, but I think this show may well have used the same part of the country to film in. This Prisoner uses - in fact pointedly overuses - the technique of magical omniscience. Drake just keeps meeting his contacts, going to his rendez-vous, with no infilling or explanation of how this happens, making this show fast-paced at the beginning, slowing down where Sonia is trying to kill him, indicative of pain & a fight to the death. The Jaguar Sonia drives in their car chase is very Emma Peel. The place Drake arrives at at the end of the car chase has the makeshift feel - although not explicitly so - of the old set used in The Avengers episode Killer: as it happens this was broadcast the year after The Girl Who Was Death, so conceivably the influence could have been the other way round, The Avengers may have been carrying it one step further as usual, or it may just be a case of picking up on the crazy late sixties zeitgeist. The very themes - of megalomania, possibly masochism, insanity & attempts to take over the world - are so Avengers, just with the difference here that we don't put up the union jack & have tea at the end. Perhaps the most Avengers thing about this Prisoner episode, though, is the postmodern commentary on the genre itself, a spy show commenting on spy shows.
To be absolutely honest, I love this one so much I'm unable to criticise it - it definitely has to go into my stonking good television category. And I am so relieved to discover it can be interpreted to mean Drake is Number 6.
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Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Prisoner: Living in Harmony

This is going to be a brief post for two reasons. Firstly, this episode doesn't add anything at all to the debate whether Number 6 is John Drake or not. Secondly, I'm afraid I don't really have much of a take on this one that hasn't already been said endlessly by everyone. Except for this one thing - is it not obvious to everyone else, as it is to me, that The Kid is actually The Butler? The silence & the top hat convince me of this. Another reason for passing over this one so fast is I want to rush on to the next, which happens to be one of my all-time favourites.
This episode can be read as a commentary on the Vietnam war, of course. Kanner is absolutely superb, no really, superb as The Kid, chilling beyond belief.
Sadly for my conviction that Number 6 is John Drake, I feel for the rest of the series the identification will become unsupportable. With George Markstein gone, the series goes in the direction McGoohan wanted it to.
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The Prisoner: Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling

There is loads of meat on the bones of this episode, no wonder it it so extensively chewed over by the fans. In fact there might be more than I can deal with, so I'm forcing myself to stick to my intention in this run through The Prisoner, so shall try to at least cover whether Number 6 can be identified with John Drake in Danger Man. Of course I'll be wanting to talk about anything else that takes my fancy in this episode, but I think I shall try to avoid the substantial changes from the original script. Suffice to say this episode was originally intended to be placed in the aborted second series of The Prisoner, & is said to be a fairly good example of what the series would have been like. Hypothetically Drake/Number 6 would have been sent on missions outside The Village.
I can't make up my mind whether this would make the whole premise of the show fall apart. Whoever he is Number 6 is not kindly disposed towards The Village authorities, & is not open to being intimidated, coerced, or manipulated into working for them. To me this would make an attempt to make the series work outside of the custodial Village, a failure. That said, the premise confirms that Number 6 is Drake. Remember the idea is that The Village was his brainchild? The whole point is that he works for (one of) the organisation(s) that run The Village, is horrified at what he hears of how The Village has turned out, & resigns, knowing that he will be taken there & can find out what it happening for himself. In reality Drake can no more resign than the Queen can. The whole reason for The Village is the *people* kept there, & Drake is definitely one of them. His resignation is staged really, & he will no doubt continue working for the organisation. The real Drake doesn't really have a choice, except to tell them the truth about his resignation, & get back to work, with no doubt heavier security than before, since his card will be marked. Put this way the idea of missions outside The Village fits Drake/Number 6 perfectly.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that for most of this episode it feels much more like a Danger Man than The Prisoner. It's certainly an odd one out in terms of the prologue. Of course it also makes references to High Noon. You could go so far as to say that it may be the episode over which McGoohan had least control, being recorded in his absence.
When writing the post on the Avengers episode, Who's Who?, I wondered whether the idea of swapping minds was a common thing in the sixties: I'd have to suspect it was. Whether it was or not, it seems The Village finally have a way into Number 6's mind. It is clear that Drake/Number 6 knew about Seltzman's invention. It is as clear that Drake's superiors did not know of this, since nobody accepts the swapped Drake for who he is. For me this confirms the importance of Drake - & the importance of the *people* being the point of The Village. That Sir Charles has Drake followed once again leaves a lack of certainty about who knows what.
I was shocked to discover, when watching the Danger Man episode Fish on the Hook, that I had actually confused it with this episode. Seltzman does bear a passing resemblance to Martin Miller, but - I realise this is a commonplace espionage theme of the cold war era - the photograph theme reminds me inexorably of that Danger Man episode. I also realise that I can't push this too far, but I'm just saying the episodes have some plot similarities. Drake is, after all, an intelligence agent, & photography one of the tools of his trade. Incidentally one of the things that dates this show is that scene in the photography shop. Every element of the technology depicted has been superceded & the scene is replete with the Kodak shade of yellow, an apparently rock-solid business that through its intransigence couples with some bad decisions has also gone down the drain.
The Village authorities frankly don't look very good in this one. This may be seen as a plot weakness in comparison to the other episodes, but surely the information the authorities want from Number 6/Drake is the reason for his resignation. It may be that since this was intended to be a Series 2 episode, it pre-empts a change in plot direction, but the concern with Seltzman's invention is suddenly introduced here, with no mention at all of the previously all-important resignation. The authorities are also of course completely at Seltzman's mercy when it comes to his invention, allowing the switch at the end. Surely they could have found some way of stopping that: Seltzman gets more decades of physical life to build on his intellectual life. Surely anyone could guess that we all can think of another body we would rather have than our own!
I like the visuals of this episode a lot. I love the impression of solid tradition & dependence given by Sir Charles's office. That the journey to this office is in a paternoster lift suggests the forces of British conservatism being hidden under the veneer of modern technology, the technology at its service. The Village puts this the other way round: I know Portmeirion is a different vision, but there it is a whimsy, a dream-like, apparently foreign place, which nonetheless is undergirded by modernity, represented by the surveillance technology. The rooms in The Village where the technology resides are always windowless, implying it is underground, & is not referred to in a building above ground. Additionally the paternoster lift goes up to Sir Charles rather than down. The boss is always relatively higher in a building.
Interestingly the implications of the personality swap are relatively undeveloped. Nigel Stock was a quite different man from McGoohan, in shape & movement. The implications of being yourself in another body are not that much explored - for example at one point Stock jumps into the car in the way McGoohan would, but it looks awkward & forced. I feel this underscores this episode au fond as a bread-&-butter  espionage story with a veneer of weirdness. I suppose this is what it was meant to be, & it's all very well for me at this length of time, criticising what was put together to make up for McGoohan's absence.
All in all I like this episode lots as a TV programme, even as a -somewhat out of the normal run - Prisoner episode. I also feel it can be seen to confirm the identification of Number 6 with John Drake.
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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Avengers: Split!

This is the second Avengers episode I'm looking at in preparation for the next episode of The Prisoner, since it reminded me that Split uses the personality/mind swap technique, although in a quite different way to Who's Who. I'm sure I remember seeing this episode on VHS with the standard Series 6 titles, but instead on my DVDs it has some alternative titles, very sixties. Apparently, according to the commentary, made for the American market. This is also apparently a Mrs Peel script reused, although rumour has it it was filmed while the Mrs Peel series was still being filmed.
I think this is the first Linda Thorson Avengers I've written about. She seems to divide critics & fans very deeply. It's nothing to me, personally if I had to pick a favourite Avengers girl, Mrs Gale would be my choice. The irony is, of course that this series best exemplifies the Avengers 'thing': when you think of what the Avengers is, it's often a Linda Thorson episode you'll think of. Of course casting a younger woman as the side-kick changes the dynamic: Miss King is often visibly in awe of Steed. To my mind a sexual dynamic is completely missing between them in this series: while Mrs Peel was in many ways the sexiest of the women, but I feel the most sexual dynamic was actually between Steed & Mrs Gale. I also think in a sense this series of The Avengers is what The New Avengers should have been: filming the series over a decade, Steed was going to get older, & it was time for the sidekick to take over the action, similar to Steed starting off The Avengers as the sidekick. Incidentally another extra on the DVD is the Girl About Town promotional trailer about Linda Thorson, in which she is shown sitting in the set for Steed's apartment, 'smoking': the inverted commas are because she doesn't actually inhale from the cigarette, instead just holding it. She looks endearingly young not-smoking this cigarette.
Split is not short of acting talent, among them Julian Glover, the first 'quality' to appear on Doctor Who. Boris Kartovski is credited as Steven Scott. Unfortunately there is a younger actor called the same name so I have been unable to find out anything about him. Scott manages to perform his character so effectively, given that all he has to do is lie there in ice. He manages to create an aura of menace merely by moving his face, & gives this wonderful impression that Kartovski is such a dirty old man.
Split uses the mind-swap theme differently from Who's Who: it isn't a complete & permanent swap, instead a dormant thing that is reactivated by the word 'Boris', but to the same end, compromising Blighty's security. I wonder how many schoolboys kept muttering 'Boris' to people the day after this was first broadcast, to see what would happen!
One of the things I like best about series 6 is the incredible use of colour. I mean, who would decorate their home like Tara King's apartment if they were not on drugs? Of course here Lord Barnes's drawing room, with its purple walls, plum drapes & green highlights in the antique furniture, provides the headache-causing colour clash. Interestingly, in the DVD commentary on this episode, Brian Clemens describes The Avengers as a pantomime, & what can be more pantomimic than Tara King's apartment interior designed by Widow Twanky?
In fact I think that is the fault with this episode: it overdoes the pantomime aspects, such as the way the baddies *look* like baddies, the handwriting expert is ridiculous, the plot is just plain incredible. When The Avengers film came out I saw it five times, three in Oxford & two in Birmingham. The audience in Oxford laughed their heads off at it. You could tell that in Birmingham it had attracted a different crowd, of Avengers enthusiasts who a) were taking it very seriously, & b) weren't impressed. You don't need to be told which crowd I identified more with, do you? It does seem that you can only approach The Avengers in one of these two ways & Split is best approached in the expectation that it will be a pantomime. If you approach The Avengers without that particular sense of humour, the pantomimic elements of this episode would be better played down. This is again because of the ridiculousness of the plot, as in Who's Who. Perhaps this is a fault in me, rather than a fault with screenplay or production.
That said, I can't find this episode otherwise. The pacing is perfect for the plot. The quality actors play their roles without their normal selves intruding on them. The score builds up the tension perfectly. The reference to Dial M for Murder in a fight scene works well. Miss King is perfect as damsel in distress at the end. Steed is perfect as gentleman hero. He's also perfect when somewhat lecherously he pushes the nurse into the cupboard by smacking her on the bottom. The car scenes work well. The men taken over by another personality do a very good job on the pain & confusion this would cause.
All in all a classic Avengers episode, just perhaps it needs to be approached with the expectation that it's going to be funny!
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Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Avengers: Who's Who?

Can you detect a pattern emerging here, that before I do another episode of The Prisoner I do some other things that are related, at least in the strange way my brain relates things, to the next Prisoner episode? In this case my brain isn't half as strange as the ones in this Avengers episode, where personalities are swapped so that agents of a foreign power can kill their way through our security network, with nobody suspecting them, since they look like Steed & Mrs Peel.
Reading around this Avengers episode I realise that I've never fully appreciated it, probably because it is definitely one of the more light-hearted ones. But I'll have to add it to my list of episodes that reference feature films, in this case The Ipcress File (1965). I didn't spot this because I haven't watched it (derp), but it references visuals & plot elements:
'A top scientist called Radcliffe is kidnapped and his security escort killed. Harry Palmer, a British Army sergeant with a criminal past now working for a Ministry of Defence organisation, is summoned by his boss, Colonel Ross, and told that he is being transferred to a section of the organisation headed by Major Dalby.
'Ross suspects that Radcliffe's disappearance is part of a deliberate plot: sixteen top British scientists have inexplicably ceased to function, leaving their jobs at the peak of their careers. He tells Dalby that his position is precarious, and that Dalby's organisation will go if it can't get Radcliffe back. Palmer is then introduced as a replacement for the dead security escort.
'At his first departmental meeting, Palmer befriends Jock Carswell. Dalby briefs his agents on the Radcliffe kidnapping, saying that they suspect Eric Ashley Grantby, codenamed "Bluejay", and his chief of staff, codenamed "Housemartin".' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ipcress_File_(film))
It is so Avengers to turn this setup into a secret department called Floral, in which all the agents are named after flowers & represented by the relevant flower in a vase on the chief's desk!  I also didn't realise that this is the last to use the Avengers subtitle officially, so that all the others are unofficial, & also the set-up of the gun with a rose is an in-joke: the reason that if that doesn't bring The Avengers nothing else will, was it was the logo for the show at the time (http://www.dissolute.com.au/the-avengers-tv-series/series-5/516-whos-who-other.html). And surely I don't need to comment that Steed's library is where it should be here, namely in 3 Stable Mews?
This episode is actually a superb bit of television, it drew me in to the extent that I actually started googling when the technology needed to perform the swap shown here became available! - I think I may possibly be spending too much time in Avengerland. And this one is classic Avengers, touches in addition to the flowers theme include the use of a stilts factory as a setting, the opportunity to see Patrick Macnee (*biting* the end off a cigar, can you believe it?) & Diana Rigg behaving completely out of character, & the public service announcement-type explanations of who is who. The episode also embodies Avengerland to perfection: there are no other people around at all, it is plain that the set is just that, it is so obviously a set it could never be mistaken for a real place, which is the essence of The Avengers's world, it is not real.
It also epitomises the use of the magical omniscience in The Avengers. After Hooper is shot, we cut straight to Mrs Peel's flat, with no explanation of how Steed got in or how he knows about Hooper. This lack of explanation makes a teleplay move much faster, without waiting for these things to be explained.
The plotline, of course, is ridiculous, almost a parody of all those B-movies with mad scientists who plot to take over the world. There is, though, a sinister touch in the (German?) Doctor's comment that he experimented in the war on unlimited guineau pigs, but this makes this an Avengers episode where the enemy is safely posited somewhere far away.
I'd have to give a special mention to Patricia Haynes playing Lola: she's an actress capable of playing divergent roles, even in this episode moving from German spy to jazz fiend, even talking like Mrs Peel when she is in that role. She has appeared in other Avengers episodes, but it may be an indicator of her quality that she hasn't noticeably so. You don't think, oh that's so-and-so. In fact she was an ITC regular:
'Not many people know that Patricia Haines was Michael Caine's first wife, during his years of struggle through bit parts and touring rep productions in the 50's. They parted before he attained superstardom, and most of her career was in TV guest roles, especially in ITC's filmed series. Examples include The Baron, "Epitaph for a Hero" (1966), The Saint, "The World Beater" (1969, the last episode ever in some Saint running orders) and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), "Somebody Just Walked Over My Grave" (1970). She also turned up as a bitchy, fur-clad inmate in Within These Walls, a popular 70's women's prison series. Guest spots on the lighter side included Steptoe and Son, "Is That Your Horse Outside?" (1965) as a wealthy housewife with an eye for rag-and-bone men, and Up Pompeii!, "Jamus Bondus" (1970), as Pussus Galoria (yes, really!). In his autobiography What's It All About?, Caine blamed himself completely for the marriage break-up, stating he was too immature; he also gave a vivid account of being arrested for non-payment of child maintenance, when still broke, and Haines turning up in court expensively dressed, by contrast. He then added that, "I never saw Pat again. I am sorry to say that she died of cancer in 1977."' (http://theavengers.tv/forever/pnote-haines.htm)
I'm actually finding it quite difficult to find major fault with this episode, *if* it is approached as a typical Avengers jape. Someone approaching it with a more serious mentality will of course recognise that the major plot element is that the whole set-up of Floral is plainly not terribly secure. On the basis of 'Steed' appearing, he's let in. I'll grant you this is nit-picking, on account of the baddies looking like the goodies, but I've had to resort to it in this case! There is also one glaring continuity error with the bowl of flowers, which change in different shots, held by the fake Mrs Peel.
All in all, stonking good television. I can't determine whether this idea of swapping minds was a 1960s sci-fi preoccupation, but it certainly appears at least twice in The Avengers, as well as in The Prisoner.
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Monday, 13 January 2014

Columbo: Dagger of the Mind

I bought two series of Columbo (from a charity shop, they didn't cost much), wanting to see the episodes in which Patrick McGoohan plays the baddie, in the certain knowledge that the episodes in question were in the first & second series. Of course they're not but I've been watching them anyway. I am perhaps unfairly biased against Columbo, having been forced to watch it as a child because my mother had a pash for Peter Falk. Friends were forbidden to watch Tiswas but I had to because my father had a thing for Sally James, & similarly the Dukes of Hazzard because of Daisy Dukes in the quicksand. I liked Grange Hill, myself, & to this date associate a London accent with everything sophisticated, rebellious & grown up.
All of this is by the by, of course. I've been watching the Columbo episodes though, & on the whole I don't really take to them, but this one catches my eye for two reasons: the first is it has my beloved Honor Blackman playing a wonderfully unlikely murderer, & the other for its interest as an American production set in England. I'll probably regret saying this, but I loooove the way Americans see England & the English.
Blackman cuts an interesting figure in this Columbo episode. When she was first cast in The Avengers somebody - I think a member of the production team, but I've searched & failed to find the source of this comment - cast doubt on her ability to play the role, since he considered her to be a typical Rank-trained starlet, saying everything with a smile. There is more depth to her than that, although the typecasting does seem to have plagued her at various times:
'Signed up with the Rank Organization, Blackman joined several other starlet hopefuls who were being groomed for greater fame. She was initially cast as demure, pleasant young things or "English Rose" types and received dependable but unmemorable co-star billing in films. [...]
'The stress and struggles of advancing her career coupled with a divorce from her first husband, Bill Sankey, and Blackman suffered a nervous collapse in the mid-1950s. After a brief time recovering in a hospital, she regained her health and began rebuilding her career with rather obligatory "B" level fare, at first. This re-entry culminated with a co-starring role in one of the more famous re-tellings of the tragic "Titanic" tale, A Night to Remember. [...]
'[After leaving The Avengers & playing Pussy Galore] This resurgence of popularity should have lead to better film opportunities but did not. Blackman toiled for the most part in low-level melodramas and routine adventures. She earned raves on stage, however, as the blind heroine of the thriller, "Wait Until Dark", as well as for her dual roles in "Mr. and Mrs.", a production based on two of Noel Coward's plays.' (http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0000303/bio)
If you look at videos of her even now it is very evident that she does talk with a smile. To me this is evidently Blackman playing to her good features - she has very good teeth, & there's nothing wrong with accentuating ones good features. Also surely anyone in their right mind would want to avoid the miserable old person syndrome?
Blackman's depths as an actress are actually displayed rather well in this. She gets to play an actress playing a different role, & the role of someone who has committed...well, I suppose technically it would be manslaughter (& who would have been better confessing in reality & taking her chances on the judge's discretionary sentencing for manslaughter in English law), with all of the attendant emotions that go with these different roles. She is particularly good in the role of temperamental thespian at the beginning, having a go at the director. In a sense her role is a gift for any actor, since it asks to be overdone, which she does, but not too much (I knew what I meant when I started this sentence): I particularly love the obviously well-rehearsed account of the night of the murder, told my two characters. I note that Columbo refers to 'that performance you both just gave'! Plot-wise, an actor as a character is also a gift, since if anyone can present a completely false front, & even feel things at will, actors should be able to.
This episode plays on every stereotypical element of England & the English & pumps them for all they're worth. I love the bit where the inspector is explaining to Columbo that the new Scotland Yard building is Scotland Yard & not New Scotland Yard. I love the music. I love Columbo sightseeing. I love Columbo in a gentleman's club saying 'My father was an elk once 'till my mother stopped him'. I love the so-Avengers huge vintage cars. The scenes at the mansion were filmed in California: I assume they couldn't find a stately home so steretypically palatial in Britain.
Now for the things that are so wrong in this episode's depiction of England & the English. The butler criticising Columbo for drinking Irish whiskey before lunch, he'd've kept his opinion to himself. The coffin on a stage (what the hell?). The scene in the pub is just too Eliza Doolittle to bear any resemblance to reality. I actually don't think of these things as faults, they're more in the category of us-as-seen-or-imagined-by-others; I suspect the Englishness was deliberately overdone as befits this so dramatic episode. The cult of celebrity indicated by the crowds at the waxworks. Columbo interviewing the man in the street: the man is too gaw blimey salt of the earth to be true. The audible doorbell on the mansion: if you can afford a house that size you can afford somebody to listen for your doorbell.
I'm aware I'm being contrary in writing about a detective story without writing about the story, but this may indicate the extent to which I don't take to it! I don't like the device where we as the audience know whodunnit & watch the detective working it out. We know what's happened, & it requires nothing to watch the detective veering to & from the correct solution. As it happens it is far from simple in this one, & the majority of the detective work is caused by attempts to cover up the crime. This makes the plot at times way too convoluted.
I think this episode of Columbo may best be enjoyed for its portrayal of a completely unreal England, & its theatrical milieu, which is of course supposed to be unreal. Fans of Blackman will like her in this role, since it allows for real emotional depth & complexity, while also allowing for a completely overblown thespian performance!
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Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Prisoner: A Change of Mind

This episode comes as a welcome relief to me after It's Your Funeral. Things actually happen in this one to develop our understanding of The Village & Drake: it's just a pity very little happens (at least superficially) a propos the Drake/Number 6 identification that is the main point of this run-through of The Prisoner.
For me the first point of this episode remains (perhaps as a hangover from It's Your Funeral) that nothing in The Village is real. The course of 'unmutualism' treatment to which Drake is subjected, then the 'social conversion' to which he is supposed to be subjected, is plainly set up & Drake knows it. His demeanour throughout is one of a man who knows that the threatened action is not actually going to happen. The only real dangers he faces - & acts as if he is facing real dangers - are the three occasions in this episode where Villagers subject him to physical violence. Since the ultimate threat (lobotomy) is not real, the significance of the Villagers inflicting the real danger on him & then dragging him to the hospital where everyone, presumably, thinks he is going to have a lobotomy, is to indicate that the danger's location is The Village, the artifical contrived environment, rather than the authorities.
This tells us something about Drake. It is unavoidable, but it seems to me that this episode still confirms that he set up The Village, & knows full well how it works. This is the deeper theme of this episode. He knows the set-up well enough to know he's not really going to have a lobotomy. He knows that's not the point. He must therefore know the real point of The Village already, since he set it up. Drake himself is therefore the source of the evils that go on in The Village. It is supposed to be that he didn't like what he heard about The Village. To me this means he doesn't like that part of himself. The message of The Prisoner is therefore more related to psychology than intelligence, it is about the shadowy parts of ourselves that horrify even ourselves when we actually investigate them. Seen like this The Village may actually be a more therapeutic thing than it's normally given credit for: by reducing the resigned agents to such painful passivity & forgetfulness, in addition to protecting their knowledge, it protects them from the things they have done. This is the point of the 'confession' scene as related to social engineering:
'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.' (http://www.douxreviews.com/2012/06/prisoner-change-of-mind.html?m=1)
So in a sense, what Drake is subjected to in this episode is intended to change him, but not in the way it is made out. I feel it is intended to extract a confession from him, or admission that he has done some sort of wrong, such as actually being behing The Village set-up. In a sense I feel this is actually one of the episodes that can be most easily interpreted in Christian terms, with Number 6 representing the fallen man, who yet refuses to accept the salvation through conversion offered by Number 2. In non-religious terms, Drake comes across as a flawed character: his arrogance is incredible, especially assuming he is the mind behind The Village. In fact the way he turns the whole situation round on Number 2 is exactly the sort of thing Number 2 would do!
A question this episode brings up often is just why the Villagers are so amenable to the ridiculousness that goes on around them, being willing to march around, cheer, shout, get up an art exhibition, etc, all without warning. This is actually simple: The Village is run like a cult, with a leader who is ultimately invisible. The point for everyone being there is that - to return to Christian imagery - they have looked into themselves & realised they are sinners. The way this usually goes wrong for Christians is either to continue to think of themselves as such terrible sinners theybecome too sympathetic for others' sin & can't blow the whistle on some terrible things such as child abuse, or else they see themselves a redeemed & incapable of sin. In The Village, you are encouraged to focus on your own 'sin', confess it to the authorities & then carry out the 'penance' - a bunch of pointless things to do - the authorities give you.
In conclusion I feel that this episode is actually capable of interpretation in the light of the Drake/Number 6 identification, & in fact gets close to the nub of that theory, because it reveals that actually Drake is behind the evils of The Village. His quest to investigate The Village has become an inescapable journey into himself, in which he can't avoid the part he himself has played in creating the evil.
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The Prisoner: It's Your Funeral

It may seem as if I've taken a lengthy break from this run-through of The Prisoner, which is based on the approach that Number 2 is actually John Drake, the star of Danger Man. I examined a couple of episodes of Danger Man, because they featured the actor Martin Miller, who also features in this episode of The Prisoner. My thesis was that his use & reuse was deliberate (as was that of Peter Bowles in A, B, & C), since The Prisoner is not one of those 1960s series where the same actors keep reappearing in different roles, & his reuse was intended to signify the same person, appearing in different guises. My theory is that he could well be an agent of possibly another Nato power, who also ends up in The Village.
My pet theory aside, The Village authorities have clearly decided they've got to get the information out of Drake, so set him up big time. Time scales are mentioned, & the powers behind The Village are clearly impatient for his information, as part of a bigger experiment. Number 2 describes how they had to pick the difficult lab rat of Number 6, to show how the experiment will work on anyone. Need this detract from the Drake-investigating-his-brainchild-Village theory? My pet identification for Miller's character apart, I feel it does in this episode.
The 'Jammers' story would seem to be the perfect element to develop if Drake's investigation is to be developed, but it remains undeveloped. Instead in this episode it really is more a case of The Village investigating Drake. At least as far as Drake himself is concerned: the broader message of this episode is that nobody is safe in this organisation, & Number 2 is as vulnerable to danger as anyone else. A secondary message (which we already knew really) is that nothing in The Village is true, nothing is left to chance, everything is very carefully set up in the controlled experiment that is The Village, & no eventuality is unaccounted for. Even fake films of Drake warning various Number 2s can be produced at will.
I can see no reason to think that Miller's character is the same person as appears in the relevant Danger Man episodes, in fact when he first meets Drake in this episode he almost visibly recognises Drake. Naturally he doesn't say anything: these are secret agents, & The Village is not a social club. He is clearly on the side of The Village in part of the manufactured plot to assassinate Number 2, so my elaborate explanations of his presence in The Village weren't necessary!
This The Prisoner episode formed a turning point in the production:
'It was around this time that McGoohan's behaviour on set was reportedly becoming increasingly erratic, and George Markstein was to eventually leave the series in a dispute which still goes unresolved. Patrick's assumption of a multitude of jobs, as well as often sacking workers, was causing production costs to escalate and ITC to panic. As a result It's Your Funeral was said to be a very tense shoot, with original director Asher sacked by McGoohan in the middle of production. It's not known how much work on the serial Asher did, though the uncredited McGoohan was the chief director from then on, a star director that Annette Andre said she found extremely difficult to work with.' (http://www.anorakzone.com/prisoner/funeral.html)
This shows in the plot, because it veers away from the Number 6/Drake theory, which is how McGoohan wanted it to be, over Markstein. My prediction is that the Drake/Number 2 identification will become more & more difficult to sustain from here on, & impossible in the episodes after Markstein left & McGoohan took over his job as well as everything else.
The high points of this episode are the activity prognosis on Drake, & Derren Nesbitt as Number 2. Otherwise I personally feel this episode is a disaster. The Village authorities either don't really want to know why Number 6 resigned, since that quest vanishes completely in this episode, or it may just have been another fake from the start. The plot to assassinate the new Number 2 is ridiculous, & would actually gain nothing. The attempt to tell him so that he doesn't believe it will happen is overly-complicated. The pomp & ceremony of the installation of the new Number 2 has appeared out of nowhere. This episode moves the plot on not one jot. Personally I prefer some of the more surreal episodes that come later (nothing wrong with surrealism). From here on, I'm predicting that the Number 2 as Drake theory will have less & less support in the following episodes, reflecting the change of direction that took place as the series progressed. Unfortunately I feel this means it hangs together less well as a series, having lost sight of its original raison d'etre, but I'll examine the coming episodes in the light of the Drake/Number 6 theory, & see what I find.
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