Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Man from UNCLE: The Gazebo in the Maze Affair

I like this episode lots. It's no use pretending to myself, my first love will always be the later episodes of The Avengers, but this Man from UNCLE can play The Avengers very closely at its own game. It has literally everything you could want, a diabolical mastermind, enough eccentricity to make the later psychedelic sixties look sane, & a contrived atmosphere of phony Britishness.
Visually, what's not to love about a red London bus driving down an American street? Very difficult to fail with that one, really. I particularly love the black policeman's double take when he sees it. And of course atmospherically, an old mansion & a maze can't really fail.
The main failure of this episode is one I notice particularly as a Brit: obviously I have no idea how it would strike an American. There is something subtly wrong about Partridge's Britishness. That is of course only if you take this episode at face value & not the camp feast it really is: Partridge is really as much of a cardboard cut-out unreal character as any in The Avengers. The Nottingham Guards? Really? This apparent failure is therefore only a failure if you miss that this show is a hilarious send-up of both Brits & a certain sort of American. I say this because I feel this show can also be understood on a different level, of satirising the American millionaires who come over here, buy a mansion, & transport it back to the States. Of course it is overdone, the wish to be British is as ridiculous as buying a genuine mansion & transporting it across the Atlantic. This is a similar reference to the uber-Britishness of The Avengers series 6, surely pointed at the American market.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that this *is* an Avengers episode. Strange village. Diabolical masterming. Cunning (but strangely insane) plot. Eccentric commoners. Emblems of British culture. 'Bondage' scene - although with a less sexual dynamic than it would have in The Avengers. The scene in the pub feels like The Town of No Return. Protagonist who solves the situation by remaining the only sane character in the cast... I mean, the similarities are endless. Interestingly the actor who stabs Kuryakin with his umbrella on the bus later played a spoof of John Steed (http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0641096/reviews?ref_=m_tt_urv#showAll)
I can only agree that for sheer deranged acting ability Partidge's wife takes the prize ('I haven't been the same since that awful rain forest business.'), especially laying herself down on the rack. George Sanders, who plays Partridge, was of course British. I had no idea he had been married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, nor that his death was by suicide.
Of course much of Partridge's point is that his wife who is dangerous in her mumsyness ('Come along, get on the rack.') Is the power behind the throne. She actually reminds me of someone I used to work with - 'Let me know when you're ready to comply, dear'. I wouldn't really describe it as having a moral, but this show illustrates very well how dangerous people do dangerous things - by attracting other people with dangerous ideas, or else making those ideas so normative that other people get drawn in. The quality of Jeanette Nolan as an actress comes across in her chilling acquaintance with torture methods.
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Sunday, 23 February 2014

Callan: The Little Bits & Pieces of Love

I have now watched all through the Monochrome Years box set of Callan, & have mixed feelings about it. I bought it when I saw it in a shop & it seemed bang up my street. Yet it is somehow different from the other series I blog about here - the tags appearing in larger letters indicate more posts, & therefore a greater liking. Callan is definitely different from what I normally like, it's heavier, more serious, hangs completely on the drama, to the extent that at times the sets are minimal. What I don't like are the really early ones where Ronald Radd plays Hunter: I'll grant he's a superb actor, but how many 60s series can one actor appear in before you see him as Ronald Radd rather than his character? He's also cast slightly out of character, I feel, he's too tubby - the pawn role in The Prisoner suits him down to the ground - the role is better for Michael Goodliffe's lean nervous look. I prefer the ones without Radd for this reason.
I'm also finding the sort of attention that this series demands difficult, coming straight from The Man From UNCLE. However I like this enormously - Callan speaks of a different age of TV drama. It's a play. You can see this show playing easily in a theatre with minimal sets. I don't dislike this, it's different, & also suggests that Callan was aimed squarely at a British audience, not like the shows also aimed at American audiences.
I have chosen this episode to start with because its plot presents a relatively straightforward problem, so it is solidly sui generis. It also speaks of the Cold War era, so now in some ways seems incredibly dated. Any remaining survivors of Nazi concentration camps would be fantastically elderly now. Now that people travel more easily all over Europe & there has been another influx of Poles here in recent years, it is difficult to think back to how these 'refugees' from oppressive regimes would have been seen during the cold war. This episode actually perfectly brings up perfectly that Mrs Rule would have been seen as an alien (I can almost hear how my aunt refers to 'continentals'). This show also brings to life perfectly how damaged these people were & their fragility. This is the strength of Callan as TV drama.
The great drawback to this episode is a whacking great plot flaw. The plot depends completely on the difficult situation of making a damaged concentration camp survivor do something difficult for her to persuade her ex-husband to do something that will prevent a far greater evil, in this case a bomb. For a start this doesn't present an ethical problem at all, from the perspective of knowing the whole story, so the whole plot essentially falls down. Callan knows what is going on & makes the most of his tortured hero role in this episode. In reality the only difficulty here is for Mrs Rule, however polygamy makes her a compromised character, effectually losing our sympathy. Granted Callan's role here is a nasty job but frankly there isn't that much of a quandary & if he can't cope with this kind of situation perhaps he should retrain as a chef! The idea in this episode is that an already compromised character is manipulated by Callan in a very underhand way, but this is over-egged, making the main premise of this episode fall apart.
A further weakness (at least from this distance in time) is again in the Cold War spy milieu: it now seems hackneyed. The scene of Callan turning away in the street so Mrs Rule doesn't see him looks ridiculous. Callan's extreme disquiet when he finds out the KGB are on to what is going on betrays a lack of sang froid, strange in so competent a killer. In the 1960s I would have thought that meddling in East-West relations automatically meant the KGB were involved.
There is something else I like a lot about Callan. I have a feeling he could not exist nowadays. He is totally unqualified, in a way unregulated, involves his mate Lonely at the drop of a hat. The government agency he works for is at best shady, & apparently answerable to no-one. Post 1974 Health & Safety at Work Act Callan would have to be trained, have his competence assured, passed by occupational health, have a written contract of employment & be perpetually buried under risk assessments & method statements. I seriously doubt that any government body employs a talented amateur along the lines of Callan nowadays, making this an evocative trip into a world where such things were at least vaguely credible, even if they never did actually happen. At the end Callan addresses Hunter with a pause before adding 'Sir': this is what places Callan not quite in the gentleman adventurer school - Snowy would never have paused before calling Dick Barton sir - there is a definite employer & employee relationship here, & surely the point is that it is an unwilling one.
All in all I would classify Callan as a change for me - it's out of my normal run of viewing. I like the dilemma set up in this one, although as a dilemma it ultimately fails.
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Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Man from UNCLE: The Bow-Wow Affair

If this were an Avengers episode, its subtitle would be In which we discover Mr Waverley has an identical cousin (with a moustache) & Illya becomes a diversity champion.
Actually, no, take that back. This episode has more weirdness than you can shake a stick at, right from the start where a man steretypically dressed as a vampire (Andre Delgardo) stabs some pyjamas in the heart. It is also reminiscent of films taking off the detective genre such as Clue & Murder by Death. It certainly has everything you could want: manor house, gypsy fortune teller. This is combined with the sort of fear & big dog you normally only find in a Hammer film. I do love the way the 'gypsies' live in one of those wonderful Sixties houses where the sitting room has everything on lots of different levels. I like this episode enormously, & I think what I like best about it is actually the way it's so overdone, including that there is scarcely a film genre it does not parody.
Of course the plot of this merry romp is more full of holes than Swiss cheese: in reality if the set-up for this show happened, you'd simply ring the local police & tell them you know full well who has it in for your nightwear. Where Illya Kuryakin gets his knowledge of his 'friends' the gypsies, for another thing - perhaps it is seen as something to do with being Russian. The 'gypsies' themselves don't fit in with stereotypes of travellers - they don't look like them, they live in a permanent house, & the aim of this show cannot possibly to give a non-stereotypical view of Roma. They are, however, painted as frauds right from the start, although ironically Kuryakin resorts to a breeder's trick to turn the dogs against their master.
This first series episode sees an interesting development of the characters. I can't believe I hadn't noticed until I just read it that there are some series 1 episodes where Kuryakin doesn't appear at all; in this one, however, Solo's poorly leg allows Kuryakin to carry the show. Napoleon Solo obviously later developed into the ladies' man of the show, but in this episode the characters are still feeling their way to their defined roles:
'Female viewers had definite ideas of just what sort of person Illya Kuryakin must be, and they let the producers know in no uncertain terms what behavior was acceptable and what was not. In "The Bow-Wow Affair," the first episode in which Illya carries the show, he becomes involved with a relative of Waverly's, Alice Baldwin. In one scene, she asks him to kiss her, and he replies, "If you insist," whereupon she kisses him. A few minutes later, he kisses her back. This one scene drew a firestorm of angry fan mail. Illya, it seemed, was not supposed to kiss girls--at least, that's what his fans said. Perhaps it was this particular girl they objected to.' (http://www.manfromuncle.org/kcretro5.htm)
It's rather sad to see the abrupt end of Kuryakin's putative romantic career!
My favourite line:
Kuryakin (when Solo asks him if he's free):No man is free who has to work for a living.'
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Saturday, 15 February 2014

Doctor Who: The War Machines

It's not happened so far that I've written the title of a blog post & changed my mind about doing it at all, with nothing written. But for the first time I nearly didn't post. I'm actually writing these words on my first time of watching through The War Machines, having turned off when I tried before. I actually am not sure I really have anything to say about this series, since I essentially agree with the iffy reviews elsewhere on the internet, but I realise I respect this serial enough for trying, that I don't want to leave it unblogged.
The plot & its main preoccupation is the classic sixties one of the fear of the machine taking over. I do love it that WOTAN is credited in the end credits, but sadly that rather sweet touch won't save this one. It was the first of the more scientific ones made after Dr Kit Pedler was taken on as unofficial science advisor. The result is a preoccupation with the computer technology of the time & with the GPO Tower (where my parents ate, by the way). I always find myself thinking about how different the BBC was from the ITV shows I normally watch. The didactic tone, both of The War Machines & the 1965 episode of Blue Peter included as an extra, is unmistakable (I feel it may be a BBC thing that the scenes of Swinging London aren't, as Mrs Peel would put it, very swinging). I do like that this hard science is misxed here with hypnotism & mind control over the phone.
Of course the one thing that is wrong with this series is the, er, War Machines themselves. Our parents or even grandparents may talk about how frightening the Cybermen & the Daleks were, but nobody talks about how frightening the War Machines were. This is because they are not. It is unfortunate, but in the post-fax machine era they remind me of nothing more than fax machines on wheels. Not frightening.
It's not a complete dud: I like Hartnell's doctor a lot. Michael Craze is not memorable for me, unfortunately.
So why am I bothering to blog about this dud at all? Well, sad to say it's worth having for the special feature about the finding of different 'redactions' of the series & its restoration. This is fascinating, a real boy's own fascinating detective story. The moral of course is that I retain a very slim hope that series 1 of The Avengers may be found somewhere. There's no evidence that it was exported, but who knows. It also holds out the hope that other vintage TV shows may be hidden away in a 'developing' country. Then of course starts the painstaking work of restoration, which is also fascinating.
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Friday, 14 February 2014

The Avengers: The Morning After

The beginning of this episode is deceptive: I always think, when I see the archetypal Thorson-era Avengers image of the clowns in the military base, that I've put on Stop Me If You've Heard This One by mistake! I suppose it's natural to fix on that episode as the one most likely to have clowns in it.
One of the things I like best about this episode is the 60s street scenes - the town is actually St Alban's (with a bit of Watford, & Old Hatfield). I've never been to any of these places & now don't want to go because the modern reality would never compare to the 60s Aveng-ified version we have here. The empty streets are such an icon of the approach the Avengers took to creating an unreal world, that that was a major visual device used in the Avengers film. Of course it took much less effort to create this effect in the 1990s than it did in the 1960s, when I believe it involved merging many repeated shots of the same scene, if it couldn't actually just be emptied (St Alban's was actually evacuated to film this). So I feel there is a very postmodern sense in which this episode is set in an archetypal Avengerland, one however which has been infiltrated by the baddies (masquerading as establishment figures as they do so often in The Avengers), who have emptied the Avengerland of goodies. This makes this one of The Avengers episodes where the 'rot' is placed within the establishment, planted by one of 'them'.
Personally I like the Linda Thorson season episodes a lot, & although I realise she's not really a hit with the die-hard fans I can't think why this episode gets the critical hammering it does. For example http://theavengers.tv/forever/king-17.htm comments that this one shows how the show can manage perfectly well without her, although I'm indebted to that page for the insight that this episode has references to The Avengers' chief American rival, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. I feel this episode comes close atmospherically to The Town of No Return. The sequence where Steed & Merlyn are going through the abandoned town handcuffed is cinematically excellent, & I would personally rate it with the kind of tension achieved by Hitchcock. An incredible sense of creepiness is obtained by the use of different camera angles, some shot from high as if from windows, which gives the impression there is someone there watching them. The scenes chosen for this sequence incorporate two things to create atmosphere. One is children's toys, a pram & a teddy bear, incredibly sinister just abandoned. The other is the use of some archetypally British things, foregrounded in the scene, so they are isolated against the background of Steed & Merlyn's journey. They include a policemen's helmet, & milk bottles. the location was also cleverly chosen to give the atmospheric Avengerland vista, in this case a pub, small terraced cottages, & a church, presumably St Alban's Cathedral. If you wanted to be cynical you could say these things were chosen to appeal to members of the American audience, nostalgic for the old country. I think another reason may simply be that those are the kinds of things that compose Avengerland. Think of Little Storping in Murdersville: what that is to a rural Avengerland, St Alban's is to a town Avengerland that yet isn't quite London.
I wouldn't want you to think that I think this episode is invulnerable to criticism. A frequent criticism is that the continuity is all over the place - coming from my position that these shows were intended to be seen once without pausing, this is allowable as those kind of things become more obvious with repeated, detailed viewings. Also things such as driving into a dead end street then driving out of it are noticed more either by people playing very close attention or people who live in the place in question. The footage of the evacuation is World War -II-era stock footage, which again I'm sure was used to give the right impression of an emergency situation with no expectation that it would be too closely analysed. Of course there are some familiar faces - Brian Blessed for one, & an actor who returned to the series several times: Peter Barkworth, who plays Merlyn, appears in three other Avengers episodes. He is recognisable as having been in other Avengers, but not distractingly so, he comes across quite different as a quadruple agent.
A further possible criticism is the plot - the plot to plant a bomb in the town, knowing that it cannot easily be evacuated again, is over-elaborate. I think to criticise the plot of this episode is to miss much of the point, namely that The Avengers is not real. These Thorson-era episodes really sum up for me the spirit of The Avengers, where the whole point is that (caricatured) agents of a Great Great Britain (which never existed) fight (overdrawn) diabolical masterminds of some (unspecified) enemy power, who have a (frankly ludicrous) plan to take over the world. Our heroes fight them using the (unlikely) weapons of umbrellas, teapots, etc. There is never any blood, & when the enemies are defeated we can go into the tag scene. The whole point of this is that it isn't real, & to criticise this episode's unreality is to miss the point entirely. I think even the continuity blunders, visible booms, & totally obvious transitions from locations to sets have a purpose in reinforcing the unreality. For me this is definitely an episode in the Stonking Good Television bracket.
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Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Man from UNCLE: The Shark Affair

I see I have somehow managed not to post about the Man from UNCLE yet: I suspect this is actually because I'll tend to watch one show a lot for a bit then move on to something else (I mean, despite raving about it, I haven't rushed in with a post on Private Eye). The Man from UNCLE was one of my TV first loves, I remember watching repeats of it & Mission Impossible before I was ten, which was definitely before I watched repeats of The Avengers on Channel 4. I think at the time I fancied myself as an UNCLE agent, & certainly having seen some episodes of Mission Impossible recently, I much prefer The Man From UNCLE. It's not apparently that popular here, it's not even available on region 2 DVD, so I took the gamble of buying the entire set from amazon.ca in region 1 - it was cheaper than amazon.com & arrived an incredible two days after I ordered it, despite the delivery estimate being six weeks.
I think I prefer TMFU because it seems more international than the all-American (to me) Mission Impossible. I'm quite surprised how well TMFU has worn, although even in the sixties it was critically savaged, largely when it became more campy & slapstick in the third series. My personal opinion is that these qualities were there right from the start, & are certainly not lacking in this rollicking tale of modern-day piracy. Surely thrush was a nasty infection in the sixties as well as now? I mean how camp can it be to take over a ship & ask the passengers:
'I pledge my word no harm will come to anyone who makes a truthful reply. Are there any amongst you who can tune a piano?'
The matter of the piano tuner keeps being repeated - just the right amount, not overdone. Of course Solo & Kuryakin can see the pattern in the apparently random ship-takings & disappearances, as a spy story this one is a fairly simple example of the sort where the baddy is covering what he is doing, in this case with a wonderfully byzantine plot, almost guaranteed by the apparent simplicity of the advertisements & disappearances. This show is rather a vehicle for the Men from UNCLE, & the cast of extremely colourful characters that inhabit it. TMFU didn't apparently consciously follow the unreality premise of shows such as The Avengers, but I do feel there is a genuine element where the characters in this series are so overblown that they reach the unreality proportions of characters in The Avengers. Interestingly for a series 1 show, the agents' characters come across surprisingly fully-formed here. The extremeness of Captain Shark's insanity also makes him worthy of being an Avengers anti-hero: his preoccupation with a coming war plays on 1960s fears of nuclear annihilation, & some of the cults that arose at the time. Of course the point for the escapees is that they are all actually running away from their own everyday lives: an ultimately pointless task, since the point of 'the ark' is to be able to recreate the world as we know after the anticipated war, even as far as tuned pianos & thatched roofs!
My favourite scenes in this show: Illya Kuryakin picking up a subject for interrogation in a taxi that UNCLE keep for the purpose (not parodying the spy genre in the slightest). The two men being abandoned on a raft at sea so that they can be casually picked up by the ship (it is wonderful & so ridiculous).
There is a lot of movement - of scene, dialogue & plot - in this episode, so it doesn't come across as old fashioned at all. When the speaking device is commented on, it almost comes as a shock to be reminded that that would have been revolutionary technology for the time. The sparkling dialogue only slows down for Mr Waverley's slower speaking style, which gives the right impression of grand old man. The episode has even passed one of my more difficult tests for a TV programme - I have watched it several times while thinking about this blog post, & it has taken reputation very well: something that, say, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) doesn't. Its weakness, of course, is if you expect it to be a serious spy story, or even much more than an entertaining - albeit not totally air-headed - romp.
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Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 2 Episode 8

This is the famous episode where the thing happens with Sapphire's eyes. I don't do eyes myself & can hardly bear to look.
Steel remains in his priest/magician/intermediary role, & here the process is genuinely ancient. It wasn't their intention but 'it' enters into Sapphire's body & speaks to Steel through her, reminiscent of how a god or spirit would be called into a boy in the Greek Magical Papyri (I did say I had a thing for weird shit). In the great tradition Steel then makes a deal with 'it'. Steel shows his full cunning here, as he has a plan to trick the darkness. He also makes plain to Pearce that the darkness has deceived him, making him swap sides.
I want to side-step discussions of ethics but there is a sacrifice of Tully's life to 'it', to prevent the problem at the station. This is somewhat contradictory given that the point of this assignment is to prevent 'it' keeping on using the resentful dead who are feeding it. Of course this may not be the point because it is never fully explained who 'it' is. I also frankly don't like this as a resolution of the story, but this may simply be because it completely messes up the allegorical roles I've been arranging for the characters! Of course those roles could be understood as being set up, at least in part, by 'it', such as Steel being 'crucified' by 'it', & the resolution could be seen as Sapphire & Steel restoring the 'correct' order of things.
If I were to get rid of one episode from this assignment it would actually be this one, since I feel the resolution actually comes as something of an anticlimax. I think the assignment could have been ended in the last episode when 'it' was in Sapphire & the after-images gathered, if Steel had spoken to the after-images & turned them against 'it'.
My criticism of this assignment, as of all of Sapphire & Steel is that it is never clear enough what the enemy is. Some clues are given that 'it' is time, but usually it is just referred to as 'it'. This is of course almost a defining characteristic of Sapphire & Steel, but I think it contributes to its cult status of being relatively unknown. While full explanation stops further questions being asked, the fact remains that people like at least to know what is being talked about. This relative lack of explanation is both Sapphire & Steel's strength & a major weakness. Try to explain what the show is about to someone who has never seen it, & you soon run into difficulties.
However this assignment's strengths are enormous in terms of atmosphere, visuals, & sheer quality of story & acting. This assignment has to go, despite my quibbles about it, permanently into my stonking good television category.
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Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 2 Episode 7

I've commented before about how it's important not to expect television of thirty or forty years ago to work in the same way as television now. I like to think that my personal expectations of television are formed by what I like to consider great shows of the sixties & seventies, & in fact rarely see much modern television. Given this view, I'm in a dilemma about this episode. I wanted to say that if there was an episode of this assignment that could be abandoned it would be this one, returning to my original opinion that eight episodes is too long for this assignment's story. On the other hand I'm trying to visualise what a less prolix Sapphire & Steel would be like, & it just wouldn't work. Plot-wise, all that really happens in this episode is: Sapphire & Steel wake up, realise the darkness is up to its old tricks, & attempt to contact the darkness. Perhaps it comes down to your taste in how the narrative unfolds, although obviously I think this story can be understood on many different levels. So I think this episode may be better understood in terms of recapitulating the various themes & levels of meanings established through the preceding episodes.
The isolation & dualism themes continue: Steel is alone after we hear Pearce saying that it's alright now, & the darkness has apparently won. sapphire is still sitting in the waiting room, but Steel is naturally suspicious of her, after the darkness presented an image of her to him the night before. Fortunately he tests her out & she seems to be the real thing. It is also clear that Time is at play here, since the fall of dust means they have about twelve days missing, & the darkness & the after-images have gone.
Tully speaks to them but is initially invisible, continuing his essential role, since here he is the only way Sapphire & Steel are going to find out what has happened. He can't wait to get out, & Sapphire & Steel even have to orientate him to the time lapse by showing him his mouldy sandwiches. He tells them that 'others' have arrived.
The episode then draws on the salvation theme: Tully has made a deal with the darkness & it has given him his 'freedom'. Sapphire & Steel make it plain that real freedom is not available from the darkness & even use magical/divine methods (I.e. Miracles to prove their divine status, continuing the Christian imagery) to keep him there. In human terms he's really not up to the challenge, continuing the theme that he doesn't like what he has sought out, & just wants a quiet old age. The dualistic theme is continued in that Sapphire & Steel equate to reality, the darkness equates to untruth (Tully even makes the identification of the darkness with the Devil explicit). Steel continues his intercessory role by wanting now to communicate with the darkness itself & make a deal with it. He knows that this is dangerous & nothing here can be relied on. Sapphire reprises her medium role, but there is nothing of Madam Arcati here, it is totally serious & frightening.
What we do know is that they have successfully contacted the darkness, by the assembly of its agents, the after-images, at the end of the episode.
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Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 2 Episode 6

At the beginning of this episode Steel remains to all intents & purposes alone - something has happened to Sapphire, & Tully is obviously never going to be on a par with Steel. That said, the important human element in this assignment is maintained by Steel asking questions of Tully about the human consciousness. Tully is dramatically a necessary counterpoint to Steel here, & his humanity is a necessary counterpoint to Steel's, well, steeliness, such as when he tells Steel he realises how he feels about Sapphire. I do love the scene where he is chattering away to Sapphire's inanimate body about brass-rubbing!
The darkness is really on the offensive in this episode, taking Sapphire on board & using all the tricks it can against Steel, including an, as it were, hologram of Sapphire, whom Steel knows full well is sitting in the next room. She is so obviously working for the darkness when she tries to persuade Steel that the after-images are harmless & should be left alone.
I remember the darkness spreading as being relentlessly frightening when I was a child. It is so visually effective, in the background of both Sapphire & Tully chattering on in a reassuring, normal manner, to the foreground of Steel's questioning mind knowing there is something very wrong with this. It allows the suspense to build up to the shocking & iconic scene of Steel caught in the barbed wire. I like this dramatic memory effect better than I do the previous ones, since it forms part of the action here, it is a visual way of the darkness trapping Steel, & not merely a memory. The drakness then cleverly separates Tully from Sapphire.
This is where the real fear, & almost real point, of this episode come in, as does the real point of Tully. It now his turn to be isolated, helpless despite that he keeps talking about getting help. The darkness is clearly moving  him up to the bridge, the centre of the haunting, where of course he meets the soldier. The irony here is that he has actually got exactly what he wants: he can speak to the soldier face to face, he has actually met the entity that is inhabiting the railway station, & of course it is not at all what he wants.
The motif of be-careful-what-you-wish-for is continued in the soldier's short conversation with Steel right at the end: Steel has been trying to get in touch with him & has now done so. I like that the format of this assignment showcases one character at a time: even the soldier gets something of a spot here, he comments that he's sat & talked on his terms instead of Steel's. Of course that isn't completely true, since the terms are actually the darkness's terms, who is using the soldier. Here there is a use of more conventional Christian imagery than the dualistic dark-lightness imagery used up until now. Steel has actually come to the station to 'save' the soldier from the darkness, but the darkness has hung up Steel (in an almost crucifixion position) where he cannot do this, & the soldier's disgruntlement (his sin) makes him not see that actually Steel is on his side & the darkness is merely using him. This could be extended to see Tully as a prophetic figure who has been banished to stop him speaking out against what is happening. The fact that he was at the station before Sapphire & Steel means that he could also be interpreted as a John the Baptist figure, admittedly announcing that there is something going on at the station rather than that Sapphire & Steel are coming. I feel this assignment could also be interpreted in terms of a Freudian Oedipus complex, in this case co-opting mother rather than marrying her, & killing father.
So all in all I'm maintaining my changed opinion that this assignment is not over-long, since new depths of possible understanding are opening up as I watch through its episodes paying greater attention than I normally do.
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Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 2 Episode 5

This episode begins with the continuation of the sitting from episode 4, & despite Steel's saying it's gone wrong, it let's us into the soldier's world. And rightly, this is done without special effects, purely Joanna Lumley's acting ability, making it to my mind very effective because simple. I have a feeling that the technique used, trance mediumship, would make this seance very disreputable in the world of psychic investigation today, since it really is so vulnerable to cheating caused by the medium's acting ability.
Nonetheless as far as Sapphire & Steel's investigation goes, it does get them into touch with the soldier. What comes across for me is how young he is: the actor (Tom Kelly) manages to look about twelve years old with tears running down his face. The contrast of his happy country upbringing with his unjustifiable death highlights that what he has experienced is so traumatic, & he was so young when it happened. Once again this shows what an effective drama Sapphire & Steel is, capable of depths of meaning & heart-wrenching emotion that I am sure I missed, watching this as a child.
The Gnostic theme of light & darkness is maintained by the darkness coming 'to help' when Sapphire & Steel get the soldier's name. I find it interesting that they are willing to contact the dead - that doesn't seem to be a problem - yet it is Time that remains the ultimate enemy. It is contradictory, really, because you would think that death would be the ultimate time boundary to be maintained! This is clearly a misjudgement on Sapphire & Steel's part, since Steel says that he has never seen darkness like that & it is capable of bringing back the dead, so their desperate attempt to contact the dead has only further disrupted time. They are clearly beyond their resources here & are therefore experiencing unintended consequences of their actions. The sense of desperation in this assignment allows Sapphire & Steel's compassion for each other to be showcased, since they repeatedly have to save each other from things.
The strange co-option of Sapphire for the disgruntled dead - surely Sapphire & Steel are not humanan & as an element she shouldn't be able to die? - showcases Steel alone again. He resorts to dealing with the situation in his own way by playing to his strengths of assertion & needling the soldier (I sound like I'm doing his appraisal). This part of the episode is genuinely suspenseful, it genuinely feels like Sapphire will not be coming back again, it is genuinely frightening.
A criticism often levelled at this assignment - I have myself - is that it really doesn't need eight episodes to tell the available story, & it is too prolix. However this episode is causing me to review that since I don't feel this episode is simply about a terminally aggrieved dead person being used by 'it' for its own purposes. It's actually about the value of life - hence the unusually prominent role given to Tully, a human - & how that life can be ended by people who don't care or even simply a mistake. It's about human relationships, how we deal with trauma, & how the resulting sense of grievance can really screw you up, in this sense even beyond the grave. I like it enormously that the dead in this assignment maintain their own personality - although their personality is only ever awkward cuss or embittered victim in this assignment - after death & that it is used by the darkness. I also like that Sapphire & Steel are clearly at least somewhat out of their depth: this allows their attempts to investigate & rectify the problem to vary & have a back-to-the-wall quality about them.
All in all it is very clear why this assignment is a favourite with the fans!
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Sunday, 9 February 2014

Sapphire & Steel: Assignment 2 Episode 4

Some of the questions raised in episode 3 are (sort of) answered in this episode, at least in terms of what the hell is going on.
Once again the episode is a superb vehicle for Steel - although I feel Sapphire gets more of a look in than she did in episode 3. The function of his rational hard-nosed personality in Sapphire & Steel's work is revealed: he is there to have the wit to reject dodgy appeals from dead people! I've actually just realised that Sapphire & Steel are both wearing evening dress - perhaps the powers that be in their world don't get the wardrobe quite right, in the way Steel is usually out of synch with mores & customs. Sapphire is almost accusing when she says to him, 'You're enjoying this, aren't you,' & of course he responds that he is.
What I like most about this episode is that it reaches an almost farcical level, parodying humans' attempts at contacting the dead. The seance is the point at which this reaches it's peak: it is reminiscent of the film Blithe Spirit, where an author thinks he will get a medium to provide material for his book, & pokes endless fun at her. In this context Steel just does not stop making fun of Tully & his methods. I particularly love this exchange:
Steel [watching Tully putting on a cross]: 'What's that supposed to do?'
Tully: 'Make me feel better... Hands on the tabletop please... Now we join hands.'
Steel: 'Is this important?'
Tully: 'It's vital.'
Steel: 'And how did you manage when you had a one-man sitting?'
Tully: 'Well, I just held my own hand.'
Steel: 'Ah.'
It is interesting therefore that Steel wants to try doing this Tully's way (& against his better judgement): I don't think it is necessarily contradictory, since it is plain that they have to find out what the craic is for the ghosts, & their methods so far have failed. What is clear is that it is Sapphire's 'mediumship' that attains contact, & that while Steel holds no credence in Tully's human religion & psychical investigation, these methods seem to work here. An unusual streak of humility in Steel here, although it could just be using the necessary methods to reach the desired end. Perhaps it is even that these are the methods the ghosts need to speak through.
The 'seance' scene also allows the narrative to return to Sapphire's narration, with just music to accompany it. This, to my mind is much more effective than the scenes in the last episode of thrusting the characters into the historical incidents. It's so effective in fact, it even makes a ghost go 'No!'
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Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 2 Episode 3

I've managed to get distracted from Sapphire & Steel, but you'd noticed that, hadn't you? - & I didn't want to blog about the television-related things that have distracted me in case I ended up leaving this Sapphire & Steel adventure hanging in the air. First The Avengers Lost Episodes from Big Finish distracted me: I've now listened to them further & see no reason to change my initial reaction, that not enough was done to change television scripts for audio. Then I got distracted by two new (to me) series: I've watched a few episodes of Callan (not sure about that one yet, I'll have to come back to it), & then got distracted by Public Eye. I never thought I would like that series, but I saw the box set in Cex (I agree with the reviews, the box set looks so flimsy you might as well buy the separate sets), bought some & have gone out of my mind for more Public Eye, to the extent that that show will definitely get picked apart within an inch of its life on this blog.
But I do want to discipline myself to finish the Sapphire & Steel assignment I started before moving on to anything else. The bottom line for this episode is that Sapphire, Steel, & Tully experience something of why the (now) crowd of dead people are so resentful. There is something new here: the time really gets mixed up, & it is evident that the ghosts are actually out to get Sapphire & Steel if they can. My main criticism of this episode is that I don't like the way these things are experienced. Don't like it, rather than making out it doesn't work, this is purely personal. I feel the tape recordings of what the ghosts experienced/are experiencing work better, although I do like the scene where Steel puts his jacket through the time boundary & it changes in front of our eyes.
Steel shows his lack of understanding of human emotions when he says that it is accepted that young men will die in war, to rule out why the ghosts could be so resentful. Of course in the context of the drama it makes sense but it also provides an interesting illustration that Steel does not understand that for a young man to be sent away to die in a war is more that anough reason to be resentful. His acerbic personality is to the front when, against Sapphire's protest, he sets out to irritate the ghost. He also provides me with two of my favourite lines in this episode:
Steel: 'You should know about obsolescence, Mr Tully.'
And
Tully: 'What about all the other lamps?'
Steel: 'They're waiting to be lit.'
Of course I missed it as a child, but an interesting insight into Sapphire & Steel's philosophy is given in the Gnostic use of light to counter the darkness that envelops the station. The station incidentally remains a superb setting for this story, not just for the romantic & other associations we have with railways, but also because it allows for different time 'scenes' to be introduced, & provides a relatively stable 'background' to the narrative. The narrative as a narrative continues to ask more questions than it answers: it is actually difficult to remember that Sapphire & Steel started out life as a children's series, with the depth of narrative here & complexity of possible understandings.
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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 1 (First Impressions)

This post is first impressions only of Big Finish's new release, since I haven't listened all the way through. Of course I was awaiting these recordings with baited breath, since I'm very curious about the Series 1 Avengers episodes that were junked. I like very much the idea that the dynamic with Steed could be completely different so that he's sidekick instead of the boss, a slippery, shady character, aspects of which are reflected in the way he can sometimes come across as something of a dirty old man in Series 2 & 3.
I think it is important to remember how challenging these particular serials would be to reconstruct, not least because of the ephemeral medium television was in those days. These episodes would have been seen as plays, to be performed once. If you wanted to see them again, you couldn't - in fact in video days of television, repeat broadcasts were often achieved by acting the whole thing in front of a live camera over again. In many ways television & the world were different then. One of the ways in which it was different was that TV scores were often recorded by an actual orchestra. Unfortunately the absolute first impression of this set for me were very bad, as the theme sounds played on a keyboard, which gives a cheap effect. Big Finish! If you can't use the actual original recording, hire a band of music students to record the theme for the next ones, real instruments sound so much better & don't give such a cheap impression.
The main difficulty that Avengers fans have with these (that I completely disagree with) is that they can't engage with it without Patrick Macnee playing John Steed. It sounds like a heresy as I say it but I don't mind other people in this role - in fact it is not true to say nobody but Macnee has played Steed. He was played by Donald Monat in the South African radio serial in the seventies (http://declassified.theavengers.tv/radio_main.htm), of course Ralph Fiennes played him in the film, & I would even draw readers' attention to the parody by Lily Savage in which a convincing Steed addresses her as Prs Meel (http://www.new-gallery-of-art.com/goodies_serendipity.htm) to make my point that other people have been Steed. I don't want to detract from the extent to which Macnee aligns with the Steed character, but we really need to get over it: if fans are too attached to Steed = Macnee they will stop themselves seeing the role any other way & prevent any future remakes. I don't object at all to Julian Wadham's Steed or Anthony Howell's Keel: in fact Wadham manages to give a better impression of the two sides of Steed, the shady side, yet a gentleman with breeding. I feel he does this better than Monat, who could make Steed feel a little lightweight.
I've touched on the nub of this for me here, since for me what these recordings have to compete with are more the South African radio plays than the TV series, although obviously they do invite comparison with the TV series.
As audio plays I have mixed feelings, which is why I'm only calling this review first impressions. For me The Avengers works in all media: TV, film, books, radio, comics, fan fiction, all have a place. I even have audio recordings of the TV series on my mp3 player that I listen to, some work better than others (Thirteenth Hole is the only one that really doesn't). So I've tried to identify what I think for me works in other adaptations, which is where the South African radio shows come in) that isn't working for me here.
There must be a reason I can listen to audio recordings of 1960s TV shows & understand what's going on: I think it is precisely the approach of treating them like plays as if in a theatre, with lots of speech explaining things for the cheap seats & relatively little action without dialogue. If there is it usually involves gunshots so you know what's happening. The reason the South African radio adaptations work is they use a narrator who covers the visuals. Big Finish's adaptations are trying to follow the way audio plays work now, with much more speech & little or no narration, & this is where it goes wrong, because they're ending up with conversations where you can lose track of who is talking. I'm finding these plays are demanding work on my part rather than inviting me into a fictional world which I could analyse more deeply if I had a mind to.
On the other hand... I listened half way through Brought to Book & had to stop since I realised I had no idea what was happening & had actually 'switched off' from it. I listened to One for the Mortuary next which I found I could follow better, although still with the lack of narration. I think another thing that (should) work in transferring The Avengers to audio, that Springbok Radio got right is that the larger than life characters should leap out at you. Admittedly they were working with later scripts. The best of the three I've listened to so far is Square Root of Evil. Aside from my criticism that I still found myself confusing characters, this one got some genuine suspense going, I felt the forgers' characters came to life, this was much closer to what I was hoping for.
So top marks for trying, do something about the music, introduce some narration or at least work on the script to get more description in, & ham up the characters so they leap out. Oh, & get actors with more clearly differentiated voices. Another criticism I've read, about the actors' cockney accents, wasn't a problem for me. People don't want real criminals in a fictional show, we want to be sure they're actors. Is it just me or is much of the point of The Avengers that it's not real?
These aren't the only foray I've made into Series 1 this week. Richard McGinley's book on the missing Avengers episodes is now available electronically (it's on lulu.com ). The price is actually £5.99 (after VAT is added at checkout), & I've been wanting this book for ages, but didn't want to buy it because I'd never seen it to know whether I would like it. I do. Lots. I'm also watching the episode reconstructions on the dvds with enjoyment. I'm just not sure about the Big Finish adaptations, but I'll carry on listening & see what effect repeat listenings have.
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Saturday, 1 February 2014

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 2 Episode 2

You thought I hadn't noticed what happened right at the end of episode 1, didn't you? I mean, that the soldier - the main soldier that is, amongst the mass of resentful deceased humanity - did make an appearance on the platform, to us while Sapphire was aware of something happening. I do feel the resentment almost passed through her, since despite the change in her clothing & the reappearance of the phantom flowers on the platform, she looks in pain, & describes the hatred. Tully can hear the band, & Steel instructs her to leave the platform. This forms the recap in episode two (it is at this point the titles start), & I deliberately didn't mention it in my last post, in which I focussed more on Tully, wanting to bring the soldier up as a new subject in this post.
The sequence in which Sapphire describes the day she is experiencing is incredibly effective, more so given that the effect is largely created by Sapphire's narration & sound effects, with no other special effects. It is here that the soldier actually appears in the booking hall to Sapphire. From this point the effect I feel becomes less effective since archive footage of the First World War is used, which reduces the narrative to mere ordinary television.
Steel has his first run-in with the soldier, who isn't even a ghost but described as an 'after-image'. The soldier also shows his true nature as an awkward cuss. Sapphire & Steel actually do a good hard cop/soft cop here, I don't need to say which is which. The need for Tully is also apparent in this scene, since his sympathy for the poor lad, whom Steel tells him is evil, is a nice foil for Sapphire & Steel's more disinterested investigation of the station. Tully's world view seems to be alternative enough, since he volunteers the opinion that Sapphire & Steel communicate by thought transference, but Sapphire delineates their even more alternative view to him - this is plainly background for the audience - & he just wants to know more. I feel this scene doesn't work that well, I'm not convinced a relatively lengthy explanation works at this point. It would have been better after the recordings Steel finds on Tully's tape recorder, once again creating atmosphere with almost no special effects at all.
One of the criticisms directed at this assignment is that the issues of time are all over the place: references to both First & Second World Wars occur in this episode alone, & Steel uses Tully's circa 1980 vintage equipment, which he has already described as out of the ark, as part of his investigation into what is happening at the station. Personally I feel the point being made here is that the leak means that events of different time frames are re-enacting themselves all at once, & that is itself the problem. There, I've done it. I've claimed to understand Sapphire & Steel (& soon after The Prisoner, too). I'd better go & have a lie down. Incidentally I love the names given to the tropes used in Sapphire & Steel on the TV Tropes webpage (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Series/SapphireAndSteel). They include Good Is Not Nice, Glowing Eyes, My Significance Sense is Tingling, No Social Skills, Reality Bleed, & Suspiciously Similar Substitute!
This assignment has significance for me personally as it was the first I watched when they were originally broadcast (the other was the final assignment). Imagine how scary Sapphire & Steel was to a child! I think my mother probably made some attempts to stop me watching it, but this was the child who took Harry Price's books on Borley Rectory out of the library, & I persisted. For this reason I tend not to see these two assignments at all objectively, although I think assignment 6 has aged much less well than this one. In fact I'm finding it very difficult to think of any criticism at all for this turning point of my childhood. It was certainly just the thing for an imaginative child destined to explore the worlds of all sorts of weird stuff.
I suppose the criticism has to remain that this assignment's story moves at the pace of a very elderly debilitated snail, & in fact consists of a story that certainly doesn't need to be stretched out over eight episodes, I think it could even be a single hour-long drama. I actually don't even want that to be a criticism, really. I want to say that seventies television was different from the even shorter attention spans we have now. I want to say that the pacing is essential to the nature of the drama. I want to say that the slowness of this assignment reflects the painstaking nature of a ghost investigation, & the way in which the restless resentful dead cannot be rushed. I even want to say that the pacing would seem different when watched on a one-episode-per-week (or day) basis, without pausing or seeing it again, as it would have been watched originally.  But this would be disingenuous: the reality is that the main valid criticism here is that this assignment is stretched out for too many episodes.
And yet this drama has quality written all over it. The characterisation alone - the brief introduction to what is up with the soldier creates incredible suspense & really tugs at the heart-strings about him. Once again this is done with minimal special effects. The entire effect of this episode is to make the viewer want to know what's going on, prompted by the hints that the soldier wants 'us' (the viewer is cleverly included here, it doesn't give the impression at all that he only wants to talk to Sapphire & Steel) to know something, which in turn makes us want to know what it is. Towards the end of the episode the differing clues given about times, & the changing hints given about places, increase the viewer's curiosity. If this isn't stonking good television, I don't know what is!
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