Friday, 30 May 2014

Danger Man: The Battle of the Cameras

You'll notice I've side-stepped Colony Three. I will probably write about it at some point, but at this point I want to write about Danger Man as Danger Man, despite the unavoidable Prisoner overtones, caused in large part by my coming to that series first, & also my explicitly writing about Number 6 as John Drake. At some point I will also write about The Prisoner coming from a different viewpoint. Also, this is not a systematic commentary on Danger Man - I'm feeling free to select the episodes I like. The Battle of the Cameras feels quite different, for me, from the episodes where Drake is more-or-less obviously winding up (or being wound up) to resigning. It feels lighter, less spy-like. Perhaps it draws more on the sixties milieu of fascination with all things foreign, just then being opened up affordably to the unwashed masses. This Danger Man - perhaps, I watched them avidly as a child but have found them impossible to watch as an adult - feels more like a Saint?
Let this Danger Man also stand as the evidence that I don't *always* dislike familiar faces, in this case Patrick Newell, in a quite different role from Mother. He is plainly only ever going to be Patrick Newell & doesn't irritate me at all! I like Newell in a subordinate, almost buffoon, role: it shows the breadth of his acting ability that he can do that kind of role as well as Mother. Drake's role in this one again evokes the way the spy segues into the actor: he actually plays several different roles under the guise of the same character, in this episode.
This one also evinces surprisingly modern concerns - the cameras of the title refer to a pitched media battle between Drake & the opposition. That said, despite displaying some of the mechanics of the spying game, I remain adamant that this Danger Man isn't really about spying. This Danger Man could be watched purely as a insight into the lives of the idle globe-trotting rich of the sixties. I realise that that would be to miss out much of the plot, but this still strikes me as an episode that changes the balance slightly towards the atmosphere-driven, rather than the plot-driven drama. Not that there's anything wrong with the plot: it's a straightforward spy drama. Perhaps this atmospheric bias is what makes me keep thinking of The Avengers, even though superficially it's nothing like any era of The Avengers - it's the time taken to swill champagne in exotic locales. I suppose the natural successor of this type of drama would probably be Jason King, so Drake-as-playboy allows a new insight into what he was capable of. In fact for the whole hour of this show Drake is hardly tortured or angry at all!
In fact - I'm halfway through my successive viewing of this show - a suspicion is dawning on me that it is not coincidental that this one was chosen to kick off the renewed Danger Man series in the US, after the first series bombed. This would be a good choice, post-Bond, because it draws on so many Bond elements which are normally played quite differently in Danger Man. *Normally* Drake would distance himself from a femme fatale & approach the problem differently. Here, Drake gets to be about as Bond as he ever does.
I have a further suspicion - there is an element of parody in this show. I think that's why it feels so much like an Avengers to me. If it was intended to be parody it is (rightly) played so deadpan that parody can only ever be a suspicion.
Visually it's superb. While not obviously shot on location, establishing shots are used to very good effect, so this one succeeds where Yesterday's Enemies failed. A possible criticism is the abruptness & counter-climactic nature of the ending, but I don't personally have a beef with that, preferring not to take this episode as a 'straight' spy story.
So all in all, an excellent, if slightly different, Danger Man. It shows signs of the new series getting into its stride in terms of visuals. Perhaps slightly risky to broadcast as the first of an otherwise very different series, though.
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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Danger Man: Yesterday's Enemies

If Don't Nail Him Yet relied heavily on an unspoken subtext of the agent's personal matters coming into play, this one hinges overtly on the workings of institutions - governments & even the spying game. Specifically, it's about what happens when an individual in an organisation is put out to grass for years & what happens when he becomes his own little outpost.
In this episode the tension between Drake & his boss is explicit - he tells him he often overrates his abilities, after asking for a reassurance that a proper team to support him would be in place. This revisits the theme of Drake working in conditions that would lead anyone to get fairly terminally pissed off. It is also evident that Drake isn't the only one in that position - his contact in Beirut describes the difficulty of getting anything she needs, & this is contrasted with sledgehammer subtlety with the resources of the local police. There is a rather obvious moral here - you can only expect agents to go off the rails if you treat them so badly!
Drake gets the chance to be wonderfully urbane in this one, hanging out with the colonial set. Obviously he missed his vocation as an actor! - he really is an expert at adapting his presence to the audience at the time.
This Danger Man has a host of familiar faces - here I'm afraid I find them distracting. From the moment Joan Hickson appeared I was working out where I had heard that voice before. Of course it is a good thing that she was able to come across as a completely different character from Miss Marple, but this was distracting. I appreciate that when this came out, Margaret Rutherford would have been better known for playing Miss Marple, but this is my blog & I'll allow myself an anachronism if I feel like it. Aubrey Morris is of course an actor who appeared in several of the 1960s series that I like, but his presence is subtle enough not to distract me. Anton Rodgers, while a first-class actor, only ever looks like Anton Rodgers. Would the right word for his features be 'aquiline'?
The other major thing I realise only now I don't like about these Danger Man episodes set in exotic locations, is that there is nothing to indicate the location. Buy this I mean that the wholly London-based ones are clearly filmed in London, whereas this episode was obviously completely studio-based. There aren't even any establishing shots from stock footage - a decade later Jason King managed to give a much better impression by means of stock footage. Apart from anything else, what would John Steed's library (pictured in the book case behind Drake) be doing in Beirut?
That said, what I like very much about this is the wonderful evocation of an outpost of Empire. Perhaps this is what this episode does best - the portrait of a closed bureaucratic world which is almost completely self-referential, & exactly the sort of environment where people are overly open to other people's lies about what is actually going on, & get drawn into strange schemes. This small, contained community, where you can't really afford to be ostracised, combined with a lack of interest from above, is a recipe for disaster. I also like the depiction of the paraphernalia associated with spying at the time, some of it now appearing terribly old-fashioned, such as the copying machine.
In conclusion, if this story were intended to set up the correct circumstances for the events of The Prisoner, I can't think of a better way to do it. The recurring theme from The Prisoner, that you can't really be sure who is on which side, or even which side is which, appears here in a genuinely surprising way, calculated to pull the rug out from under Drake & the viewer. It is an excellent story, filled with colourful characters & suspenseful plot-twists, leading up to a genuinely shocking end. The only thing stopping it from being stonking good television is the cast of actors who are too recognisable from other roles.
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Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Danger Man: Don't Nail Him Yet

I like this episode a lot, for its scenes & for the inside scoop on what Drake's life as an agent is actually like.
Rationally, I know that the lives of secret agents must involve a high degree of acting. Stanislavski has nothing on agents' needs to think themselves into a role, & that is what we see Drake doing here. I find this strange connection between the worlds & espionage & the theatre, fascinating. Yet how much more difficult for a spy to maintain a role, often alone, & in circumstances far more threatening than those where the only opposition consists of the public & the critics.
The circumstances that give rise to suspicion of Rawson are oddly exactly the same as the question I raised about Drake himself in my last post: the relative opulence of Drake's lifestyle would probably be more easily explained in reality by a lush salary, & presumably covered by some cover story. Rawson's cover story - that he has friends in antiques - is much more flimsy. To buy or rent that mews house even at the beginning of the 1960s would certainly not be cheap - they are in some of the plushest areas of London. For me the whole point of this episode is the way in which Drake enters Rawson's world, almost reflexively shaping himself to enter, yet the apparent parallels in Drake's own life remain unmentioned.
Drake is very clearly in conflict with the powers that be in this episode, not only with his own boss but a government minister. Yet he is clearly on 'our' side here - & this episode is an overtly Cold War episode once we find out what's happening - so Drake clearly believes in the cause.
This episode features a host of familiar acting faces, both of the sixties & later, including Wendy Richards as a hooligan, but not distractingly so. The actors remain their characters for me, & don't overly attract attention to themselves. Of these, probably the most colourful character off-screen is John Fraser, who plays Rawson. He discreetly lived a gay life at the time it was illegal, avoided the lure of the casting couch, thus never managing to sleep his way to the top, & has now published his memoirs of so many stars he knew.
I have read criticism of this Danger Man (there's a crit saying this on imdb, for example) that it starts off well then moves very slowly & is overly talky. I don't object to that myself - the relatively fast introduction gives the impression of being intended to allow time for the slow relentless game of cat & mouse, exactly as Drake intends it to be, of which the rest of the episode consists. So I see the pacing as fully intended, & not a fault. Drake, of course, gets to show his mettle in the abrupt ending, which again feels to me intended to provide as much space in the middle as possible. If you don't take the pacing as a fault, I'd actually have difficulty finding fault with this Danger Man myself. Well plotted, timed, genuinely suspenseful. An excellent Danger Man episode.
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Monday, 26 May 2014

Danger Man: Fair Exchange

I was prompted by a comment made by Mitchell on itsabouttv.com, when he was writing about the identity of the man in The Prisoner as actually being John Drake. He commented that for him Drake's resignation from the service was - words of the effect of - well on the cards for most of Danger Man as it approached its end. I hadn't thought of Danger Man like that before: it is only really when I worked through The Prisoner episodes recently, that I had made the connection between the two shows that explicit in my mind. I am aware that I have posted here on a few, carefully hand-picked to emphasise the John-Drake-as-Number-6 thing, but have largely ignored the numerous other episodes, so it's high time I got round to them. My posting here has actually worked out to be exactly the way I thought it would be - that it would come in spurts & that I would write multiple posts about one show before abruptly moving on to another show, usually without warning or conclusion. That is actually exactly how I watch television. In fact the thoughts about Danger Man above have been simmering in my mind for weeks or even months: the real reason I'm posting now on this Danger Man episode is I ran my finger along the line of DVDs on the shelf this evening thinking 'What shall I watch...' & this leapt out. So for this reason I don't intend to approach Danger Man as systematically as I did The Prisoner, nor even to keep a single 'approach' in mind - for example whether John Drake is Number 6. I want to watch the show & see how Drake strikes me cold, without reference to The Prisoner, because when this show was broadcast The Prisoner hadn't happened yet. I'm blithely writing this, secure in the knowledge that I will find myself writing about The Prisoner sooner or later!
But first I'm going to talk about The Avengers instead. The very first thing that strikes me about this Danger Man episode is that it is *so* set in Avengerland. I love the 1960s London scenes of the first scenes & especially that Drake lives in a mews house (he even has some of the books from Steed's library on his shelves). It is these things - & the succeeding scenes on the other side of the Iron Curtain - that differentiate Danger Man from The Avengers. Danger Man is the real world (as opposed to the unreal world) of Cold War spying. Drake is clearly intent on his job - he even gets through whole scenes without a single sip of champagne - there is no flirting, the whole thing is much more dour.
This Danger Man episode interests me in all sorts of ways, firstly because it helps illuminate the way of life of John Drake. Not least by showing what purports to be his home. I say 'purports' - it is clearly not actually a private address at all since Lisa knows where to find him, & I wonder whether Drake could  really have had a truly private address. As a secret agent his 'private' life would doubtlessly have been fairly continually scrutinised & not really private at all. His home is only his in the way Steed's apartment is his home - in reality he works from there, his colleagues know all about it (certainly Elizabeth Lanzing knows which door to bang on, although she clearly was not setting out to look for Drake). It interests me as being a then-trendy mews house, ironically Steed's apartment in Stable Mews was in a building out of the same - literally - stable. Those houses were then & are now very expensive. No doubt Drake would be well-paid in danger money for his role, but buying a mews house & furnishing it with a mixture of antiques & modern furniture would still be an undertaking. The house does not give the impression of being a 'bachelor pad' - ornaments, flowers, & window treatments are all carefully arranged. Nonetheless we get no indication of who is behind this. Given the almost showhome nature of the house I'm inclined to suspect it is actually an 'office' of sorts. If so, he was never really off duty when he was there. The personal effects in the drawers when Lanzing rifles them could conceivably be part of an elaborate scene-setting: live in a place to make it look lived in.
One of the things I like best about this episode is the atmospheric sixties London shown in the chase sequence. The fact the car is a Mini is perfect & the health food shop-refuge is a good touch. Am I imagining it or is Drake's accent still somewhat transatlantic at points in this show? - as does Lanzing's at points.
It's no use avoiding it - I have to ask myself whether Drake would be the sort of man to get so fed up with the system that he would resign. There are clear tensions with his boss, he is plainly not seen as that much of a team member, & is clearly something of a maverick. The Brigadier is very cavalier with Lanzing's freedom in terms of trying to keep her locked up in a hospital. While Drake criticises his handling of her to his face, this situation in this episode strikes me as exactly the sort of thing you would get burned at out, because of the repetitive, largely futile, nature of the work involved. The 'opposition' (in the shape of the man in the shop) invites sympathy because of his humanitarian motives, & obviously has resources similar to, or better than, those Drake's organisation can draw on.
How the reference to the East German Republic dates this show! When I was a child cheap & nasty imported goods came from East Germany or China. Quality imported goods came from the EU. This reference shows that actually the opposition is the mighty Red Menace, that for decades was seen as the ultimate evil. Lanzing is obviously a loose cannon, hobnobbing with this menace - such a loose cannon that she is ready to use a gun stolen from Drake. In this Drake becomes the authoritarian figure representing the West of Europe, & yet also the one vulnerable to blame for any killing she does. His trade of spying, however, comes to the fore, in the completely false story he tells, claiming that Lanzing is his wife.
I have one criticism of this episode, which may not really be a criticism. The overall effect it has on me is to make me think what a dangerous, complicated life Drake leads, where you never really know who is who, & live by your wits. This is why it may not be a valid criticism, because that's obviously the point of the series, & this is certainly one of the more meaty episodes. I may have missed it but I ended two successive watchings of this without knowing quite why Lisa Lanzing is so obsessed, far from convinced she was mentally unwell, & with no real idea who was on which side. The explanation in the car afterwards would explain it somewhat, without the element of Lanzing being considered mentally unwell. As the plot of a spy show it strikes me as unnecessarily fancy, but as I say this may just be me. There is, however, only one way in which this story can end - the way in which it does end.
So all in all, an illuminating episode of Danger Man, marred somewhat by an over-complicated plot.
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Monday, 19 May 2014

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased): Never Trust a Ghost

Somewhere - I didn't make a note of where & of course I now can't find a single instance of this criticism online - I have read a criticism that Randall & Hopkirk didn't really make full use of the basic premise that one member of the firm was deceased, & so not subject to the usual limitations that we humans tend to have. Walking through walls, for one. Being a fly on the wall at your boss's appraisal for another. Those kind of things. Of course I now have no way of knowing whether these were the sort of things the reviewer referred to. The point of this is that in this episode, a murder is witnessed by Hopkirk, the murderer is convinced nobody saw him, & Hopkirk imposes on Randall to do something about it, in the middle of a date.
This has set me thinking to what extent the show did actually use Hopkirk's deceased status, within the confines of the technology available at the time. I haven't watched the remake of R&H, but I feel that with today's CGI technology it would be much less realistic. Hopkirk is woefully easily stopped by a simple thing like a shut door - surely ghosts are supposed to be able to walk through things like that? It is interesting that the omniscience of the unseen Hopkirk is the reason for this show, yet Hopkirk's role is both limited by the technology of the time, & his very integrity questioned as part of the plot. I love the way when several people go through a door, Hopkirk casually goes through amongst them, & nobody notices the gap. There are other occasions in R&H (sounds like a brand of cigarettes) when Randall uses Hopkirk as an agent of the firm - there is one where they are investigating an allegedly haunted house, for example. You would think a dead member of staff would actually be an advantage to an enquiry agent. Or possibly a disadvantage, because of the inadmissibility of the evidence, which of course is the major problem here. If Hopkirk's abilities were actually used to their full extent the majority of the narrative would be rendered redundant, & certainly the detective work would go out of the window. So in fact, to my mind, it is the rather conservative use oh Hopkirk as a member of the firm that makes the series work.
So on the surface this episode draws on repeated themes in R&H about who you trust, who your friends are, fidelity, whether you can always believe the evidence of your eyes. These are the things that make it a classic - & one of the better - episodes. Like all episodes of R&H these themes overlay a fairly straightforward detective story. The basic premise here - that a murder is witnessed by a ghost alone - actually would not have to have a ghostly character to make it work. It could be done by having a witness who happens to overlook the murder, fading back into the shadows or behind their bedroom curtains so that the murderer does not know he has been observed. From there on in the plot becomes a classic one, of the witness to a murder whom nobody believes. The plot even draws on several other classic tropes such as the hatred of the police for private investigators, completely innocent colleague used to provide an alibi, & so on.
I like this episode a lot - I think it's the appealing sixties ambience. The cars, clothes, interiors are all so sixties - I mean who would be able to rest in an apartment decorated like Randall's now? Although I love the posters. There is another episode where Randall has to sell (or pawn) everything from his flat, right down to the carpet. I've always wondered how he could afford to have such an up-to-the-minute apartment, when Jeannie often didn't get her wages paid & the office is so threadbare.
I have quibbles apart from that - would Scotland Yard really have given Randall the inspector's home number or even put hin through? Would he really have turned out of bed himself on the basis of what he actually calls a 'vague' report of murder? Would a doppelganger really be able to get away with pretending to be someone else in the civil service? Is there ever such a thing as an identical double? Would this identical double be able to take in the original person's familars? Of course the answers to all these questions are 'No'. So despite my conviction that the main support for this episode is a completely bog-standard detective story, that is not how this one is best watched. The playing with identity takes us into familiar Avengers territory - some of those episodes have already been posted on here - & is even used in an episode of The Prisoner: admittedly in both of those shows the subjects' personae are actually swapped rather than a doppelganger being swapped for a muder victim. Perhaps it was a sixties preoccupation. Another Avengers touch - which actually comes up quite often in Randall & Hopkirk - is that the baddies are - apparently - the great & the good. Here Randall's modern decor is contrasted with the leather & solid tradition of the murder viictim's home(it actually looks rather like the furnishings of Steed's apartment in Stable Mews, but no, the books don't seem to be his in any number), suggesting that the Establishment itself is at risk from dangerous infiltrating forces. The Establishment of course protects & contains any number of eccentrics, such as a ghost expert who thinks they must never be trusted.
So this show may best be watched in an Avengers vein as a glorious sixties romp. It is also packed with sixties regulars - the only one who really sticks out as an intrusion for me personally is Philip Madoc: there is one scene where he rather unfortunately is stood next to Hopkirk wearing white & it looks like there are two ghosts! Although you have to admire Randall for getting a date with Egon Ronay's daughter, poverty obviously not precluding the sixties high life...
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Friday, 16 May 2014

The New Avengers: Angels of Death

Another episode in which the security of the establishment for which the Avengers work is shown up to be frankly non-existent. I didn't mean to but it seems I've unwittingly started this post by talking about the first major plot hole in this New Avengers episode (namely why nobody thought to keep tabs properly on these fifty agents to realise the pattern in these apparently natural deaths). I hope this doesn't give the impression that I don't like this episode, because I do, in fact I like it lots. This is not that unusual for this episode - lots of people do like it a lot, for all the things I like about it, but it seems a lot of people don't take to it at all. Reading those reviews, they tend not to like it for the very reasons I do!
The first reason would have to be that this one is so *very* seventies. I commented before that the New Avengers, in trying to be up to the minute, in some ways seems more dated than The Avengers, because the latter show aimed at its famous timeless unreality. A make-believe world can't age because it doesn't exist in a set time, but this New Avengers definitely does. One of the things that seems to annoy the critics is the incredibly seventies disco scenes. Personally I love them, I love the hanging foil stuff in the background - this disco is obviously created with minimal expense! I have a feeling at the time these disco scenes would have worked better with the grown ups than the youngsters - the music is plainly generic disco-type music & I think the disco-goers of the actual seventies may not have been impressed. I wonder, though, whether it was intended to have a hypnotic effect on the viewer - each disco scene has exactly the same music, it does become repetitive & hypnotic. The extent of smoking & drinking that goes on in the office is an incredibly alien thing now, though. Angels of Death is one of those New Avengers episodes that showcase the groovy information technology of the seventies - which would surely now be of interest mainly to a real IT anorak.
This show is also meant as a comment on a preoccupation of the seventies - how the pace of modern life inpinges on human health. The irony from this distance in time, is that we may now look back on the seventies as a slower time, well pre-dating the information overload we've all suffered since the internet & instant communication took over everything, for most people from the nineties onwards. The diagram of cells, which first appears as a model used to model stress in a rat, is then revealed to be used to cause stress in humans, triggered by seeing a diagram of the trap they are kept in. Nonetheless, the diagram functions as an emblem of the seventies preoccupation with the rat race & its impact on the human.
This ambivalence about technology is more expressed by Purdey than Gambit - calling the computer a mechanical prig. Purdey & Gambit are like young lovers in that scene - when he asks if she is with him, she says, 'Consider me a body stocking'. In fact it's quite incredible how sexy this show manages to be despite the apparently traumatic subject matter. Not only Gambit & Purdey flirting like nobody's business but the 'nurses' all actually look like porn stars. Their uniforms are a sort of porn-approximation of fantasy nurses. Yet they are actually intent on killing people. Their bimbo role is reinforced by the lengthy explanation of what's happening one of them is treated to in the middle of the episode, when given that fifty men had died through this means, she ought to have been able to suss it. Oh no, perhaps it us who are the bimbos here: the explanation could have been done very shortly & more simply.
That aside, the sexy-yet-vicious overtones give this New Avengers a kinky vibe I personally associate more with The Avengers: I particularly associate this vibe with Castle De'Ath, rather than A Touch of Brimstone, which tries to hard & has the kink all on the surface. Other elements of the visual 'shorthand' used to create the world of the Avengers, which make a reappearance here, include military uniforms & book-lined studies to indicate tradition & solidity. Come to think of it, perhaps the theme of this episode is as much culture clash as anything else, which puts it firmly in the classic Avengers stable, to my mind.
My usual proviso applies here: I kept wondering what Charlie Hungerford was doing in this! I think there is a very valid criticism to be made of the plot, which is a bit plodding & long-drawn-out, but I'm frankly finding it fairly difficult to make major criticism of this New Avengers. I feel this may be with the retro element gained with hindsight - I have no idea how it would have been reviewed at the time. I'm fairly sure that if you don't take to a 1970s milieu, this show would put you off.
So all in all, a solid New Avengers episode, which somehow divides the fans completely.
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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The New Avengers: Obsession

You would think the Avengers' lives would be dangerous enough without attracting obsession as well. My well-documented dislike of familiar actors comes into play here, so let's get it out of the way: I don't understand why Purdey is seeing Doyle out of the Professionals, & calling him Larry. It could provide a fictional background of how Doyle swapped sides after being mad as a box of frogs! Lewis Collins (who played Bodie in The Professionals also appears in this - they're both terrorists. Those who would try to see their casting in The Professionals somehow pre-empted in this episode of The New Avengers (for example in the comment about working together again) should resist the urge. They were not cast together originally on The Professionals, only one was, but his co-star was a friend & didn't have the necessary tension that Collins & Shaw's not-really-getting-on relationship gave.
This episode raises all sorts of questions. How did Purdey go from being a ballet dancer to being a secret agent? Why doesn't she *ever* have a first name, not even on the ballet bill we see? What possessed *anyone* to give her the perm (presumably a wig) that she starts the episode off with?
'Rules before friendship,' says Steed, & Steed remains firmly in solid-as-rock role throughout this one. Actually my feelings have been rather mixed, watching this for the umpteenth time. I was all ready to write a hatchet job on it. In some ways it's all wrong from beginning to end - it's the sheer soppiness in the middle of extreme violence that prevents this show hanging together as a coherent whole. The kind of painful, shall-we-shan't-we, painful relationship that Purdey has with Doomer would not have fitted in to an episode of the original Avengers. That kind of pain is too real for the unreal world of The Avengers.
Yet on consideration I have come to see this episode quite differently - this is exactly why I started this blog, to make me think differently about the TV programmes I watch. I only realised the extent to which this is a (rather flawed) shot at an episode of The Avengers when I realised what wearing a military uniform means in the language of The Avengers. It means either you're a jolly good sort or you're a diabolical mastermind who blows up the Houses of Parliament. The General of course is a jolly good sort - I love the way they literally pour whisky into his mouth to get him to talk, on the basis that pain would not work on him, being a soldier. Obsession actually uses so many Avengers tropes. Even the scene where Doomer abducts the General by feigning a breakdown is directly taken from The Curious Case of the Countless Clues.
The twist placed on it here is the point of obsession: Doomer's obsession is his undoing, but Purdey's obsession with scratching the itch he is in effect allows her unintentionally to distract him while Gambit comes close enough to shoot him. Gambit returns to the theme of following the rules - he had to kill Doomer because he had a gun pointed straight at Purdey.
It is at this point the most ridiculous lines ('She's Purdey' 'She's a woman') are spoken by Steed & Gambit. It is a facile summary for the complex and painful emotions she has plainly been experiencing all the way through this piece.
My favourite bit: the bit where Purdey & Doomer are walking out the plan of their dream house in the 1970 prologue.
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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The New Avengers: Hostage

I very nearly got distracted from my current orgy of New Avengers postings by the arrival of the box set of Man in a Suitcase. However I'm clearly going to have to internalise that series somewhat before I can post on it, especially as it seems to be the most neglected of sixties TV series. Instead, back to a very Avengers episode of the New Avengers, & the point at which I became convinced it was classic Avengers was the lines:
'Spellman...Where does he live?'
'North London...You won't believe it...It looks like a funfair.'
Not a favourite of the fans, this one, but I find it interesting because of several elements. Quite a lot of the inner workings of the Avengers' organisation is exposed to view, & as in other Avengers episodes where that happens, is shown up to have really fairly lax security. I assume the Purdey-tied-up motif was meant to be kinky at the time; her (to them) absence shows what she actually means to Steed & Gambit. Naturally Gambit is the one for whom the meeting with mother is posited, but Steed is quite plainly at his wits's end.
Visually this one works very well. I like the long corridor arrangement of the Ministry - even the seventies carpet tiles! The villains' setting can't be faulted for Avengers weirdness (it's comparable to the puppet shop in The £50,000 Breakfast). This is clearly intended to be totally differentiated from the wood panelling of Tommy's office at the Ministry, a very Avengers differentiation of the upper classes as the good guys & the lower orders as the criminals. The two groups are even clearly differentiated in appearance - witness the proliferation of facial hair in some very seventies styles versus the completely clean-shaven Ministry agents. All of this prevents this episode from becoming merely a routine espionage show, which it would be without the Avengers episodes. This one has genuine suspense & fear - the setting where Purdey's hair is cut, a coffin, creates real suspense & fear. This is even more clever when there isn't really that much of a point to Purdey's abduction, beyond showing it can be done. It also pushes Steed into a position where he has to break the rules - his line to Gambit at the beginning of the episode about which rules to break & which never actually indicates Steed's principle here. I agree with the view of 'Terylene' (http://theavengers.tv/forever/newave-23vr.htm) that while Steed may sometimes *appear* to play fast & loose with his loyalties, actually it is always to the end of catching the enemy that he does this. Steed's principle that the end - of loyalty to Queen & country - justifies the means, even if it sometimes appears like he's being a traitor. Here suspicion is cast on him, but he is actually the hub of the organisation, which couldn't carry on without him if he were to resign. Once again, a very badly planned security organisation, if it is so dependent on one operative. However the central philosophical concern of this show remains around loyalty, trust, & their opposites. This show does a good job of making the characters' trust keep changing sides, even at one point the abductors losing their 'trust' in Steed. In a context where there is doubtless treachery, the point here is to rely on what you know to be secure.
Shortcomings this episode has a-plenty. It *is* rather slow for one. It managed to lose my interest around twenty minutes in. Too much is made of the central plot theme of abduction & loyalty - Gambit's fancying Purdey or the visual interest of the funfair setting is not enough to lift it out of its rut. Interestingly it is at just about this point (where I lost interest) a car chase is inserted: the thing that is wrong with it is that surely it should be well-nigh impossible to shadow an agent of Steed's calibre at all!
In the course of writing this I have discovered it was one of the New Avengers novelisations that I had completely forgotten about. I tried some once but didn't get on well with them - perhaps now I'm more into the New Avengers I'll give them another go.
Not at all a bad stab at a classic Avengers story, this, let down by plot failings though.
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Sunday, 11 May 2014

The New Avengers: Sleeper

It is becoming apparent to me that some New Avengers are more classic Avengers than others. To Catch A Rat was on the less Avengers end of the scale - it would be difficult to think of anything more inspired by the original Avengers than this one. It's got everything - London cityscapes, deadly chemicals, empty cities, diabolical masterminds, terrible innuendo, a woman fighting, you name it. Episodes referenced would be The Hour That Never Was, & The Morning After.
An Avengers theme that is revisited here yet is not often commented on is the ambivalence towards yet idolisation of 'science' & 'scientists' - both undifferentiated from any other scientists yet also frequently the route by which things go wrong, a view I commented on in my posts on the cybernauts Avengers episodes. Here the chemical that causes the sleep, called S95, is posited as a wonderful weapon yet is misused within a matter of hours. In Sleepers, technology is seen as something to be controlled - presumably by the right people, & that would mean presumably us. Gambit doesn't mind having a flat that's bang up to the minute, so the ambivalence towards technology doesn't extend that far.  
I find the development to Gambit's character interesting here. His tale that he isn't into pyjamas himself but he has an aunt who thinks he ought to be & who gives him a pair every birthday, is so classically Steed. It reinforces my impression that Gambit is essentially the character that Steed originally was. This is further reinforced by Gambit's loucheness, an echo of the earlier Steed who can still be seen in the monochrome Mrs Peel series. Some of his innuendos are single- not double-entendre, definitely reflected in Gambit's character here. Gambit comments to Steed that his flat isn't palatial - while clearly being a bachelor pad, it is also very much up-to-the-minute in decor & appliances. It would clearly have been way beyond the means of most people in the 1970s, although in retrospect I'm sure Steed couldn't sleep in the spare room because of the decor, not because of his worry (for a full description of Gambit's & Purdey's flats, see http://luxhedera.livejournal.com/54997.html). Purdey remains the sex object - she simply has to get locked out of her flat in her pyjamas - surely the ultimate fantasy of many a man in the 1970s! There was a scene cut out from this episode in which Purdey speaks Spanish (see http://absolutelyjoannalumley.freeforums.org/lost-scene-sleeper-t680.html): I've been unable to find why it was cut out, but intentional or not, the effect is to reduce the occasions on which Purdey would have been seen as anything more than sex kitten & high-kicking fighting machine.
Steed is plainly not feeling himself this week - my take on his approach to Gambit is that he is inviting himself to stay the night - this is unSteed enough. I'm not convinced by Alex Wilcock's reading of a sexual dynamic into this sequence:
'And if you think that element of sexuality�s a bit off [Purdey running round in pyjamas], this is also the episode where you can catch a bizarre level of homoeroticism among men who you really wouldn�t want to. Not only does Steed inviting himself for a nightcap at Gambit�s flat frequently seem like he�s trying to chat Gambit up, but the villain�s apparently chatted up by Dr Graham early on, too (and do note that, while he and his group of hilariously over-tooled-up machine gun and bazooka-wielding macho thugs have no compunction about murder, he doesn�t kill the doctor to preserve his secret, but merely knocks him out� And throws him a single rose).' (http://loveandliberty.blogspot.com/2009/01/sleeper.html?m=1) I feel that if there were to be an element of homoeroticism it would be between Steed & Frank Hardy, purely based on Steed's frantic concern for him & the family photograph of them together by the phone.
The plot of this show is relatively thin - just be chance the Avengers are the only people for miles around innoculated against the chemical - but Sleeper nonetheless manages to beguile, purely by atmosphere. It is strangely compelling & incredibly successful.
Visually it's splendid, with its strange collection of locations (ell's Hill Shopping Centre, Stoke Poges (Buckinghamshire), the Brunel University in Uxbridge (Middlesex), Southall Water Tower (Middlesex � and last seen in Target!), Hammersmith (West London) and Camden Lock (North London); source - http://declassified.theavengers.tv/tna_172_sleeper.htm) working extraordinarily well together. Not only the visuals are great, but for a show which ought to be quiet, there are two occasions in which a car radio provides an amusing commentary on the action, so even sound-wise this is an effective show.
My absolutely favourite bit: Steed & Gambit moving closer up the bench & freezing whenever observed.
It's a rare accolade, but this New Avengers episode gets into the Stonking Good Television class.
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Saturday, 10 May 2014

The New Avengers: To Catch A Rat

This is one of the few appearances Ian Hendry, the protagonist of series 1 of The Avengers, will make a welcome appearance on this blog. In fact, I'm delighted to have found such a silly photo of him online, that no amount of screen caps could make up for missing that photo. The problem with this episode is, I so want to like this New Avengers,  it starts so atmospherically & the basic premise of its plot is so good.
The things I like a lot: you can't go wrong with a circus scene, of *course* Steed's code name of the new doberman is abbreviated to 'the new d', the Avengers-style titles Purdey gives to Gambit's amorous adventures, & the scene in the church contrasted with the seventies technology. What I like absolutely best about this episode is how seventies it is - the technology, clothes & interiors are all absolutely perfect. The Cold War touches of the opening scenes place this episode firmly in the past for us now, so it is only right that it should be dated, rather than attempting at timelessness. On the surface it is very much a standard Cold War espionage story, given some very Avengers touches. In this feeling I have - that it does have the distinctive Avengers feel - I'm probably alone in the whole internet.
There are just a few things wrong with this one. Unfortunately the major thing that is wrong with it is  commented on in every online review of this episode I've found - I've just read four in quick succession, & every review says that this episode works because it has Ian Hendry in it. Or else, this episode marks the welcome return to The Avengers of Ian Hendry. Or, Ian Hendry saves this episode. This is exactly the problem with returning actors that I go on & on about - they obscure the actual show from view, if they are well-known, & in this case hide the fact that the plot line is pedestrian, & this episode crawls along like a very elderly, debilitated snail. The main reason people watch this episode is to see Ian Hendry - the majority of his television work was ephemeral so it really is difficult to find a recording of him. He even manages to prevent most reviewers commenting that Purdey is about as minx-ish & seductive as she gets in this episode!
I was hoping to find some scurrilous gossip about Hendry - if I can't find a great deal to say about a TV programme I'm not above commenting on some eccentricity of the actors. There's not really that much to find out about Hendry - he is rumoured to have drunk, but that wasn't that unusual at the time. There is one point in this show where he acts to me like an alcoholic does. I find it interesting that the cause of his death wasn't disclosed, although something along the lines of throat cancer was rumoured. His early attraction to the circus is well known, I've commented on it before in this blog. I think probably what I find most interesting is that in his lifetime it was possible for a public figure not to be a celebrity in the way they would be now. Of course he gave a 'tell-all' interview to the press after he was declared bankrupt - that, followed by a record year of work, meant he was soon discharged as a bankrupt. The acting profession is such an insecure one, & seems to attract people with psychological weaknesses, or else people who manage their stress in some fairly dysfunctional ways, going off the rails in the process.
My favourite line:
'I came with the deliberate intention...'
'...of having your back broken in three places.'
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Friday, 9 May 2014

The New Avengers: Faces

Another New Avengers episode drawing heavily on ideas from one of the previous series, in this case the episode is They Keep Killing Steed, of series 6. Of course changes in appearance & persona are also experimented with in many other Avengers episodes - a summary & review of them may be found at http://theavengers.tv/forever/mvr02.htm.
The first thing to notice is...whoa, get those groovy seventies graphics. I was hoping to discover how/why the opening titles changed for this series 1 episode, only to find it was more complicated than I thought it was:
'This was first episode in production order to feature the new lion logo, animated title sequence and red background end credit 'lion' sequence. The new sequence was later edited on to most prints of the earlier episodes. However, the end credit sequences of these episodes would retain the old dark green logo against a lighter green background despite the substitution. There is a suggestion that all episodes originally went out with the animated sequence, the original one having been replaced with the new one before the first UK transmission, but it has not been possible to definitively confirm this. An even earlier live-action sequence featuring a graffiti style 'New' has also surfaced on some prints in the USA.' (http://declassified.theavengers.tv/tna_169_faces.htm)
I remain uninformed about the technology that would have been used to achieve the effects in the titles in the 1970s. However ii am indebted to the Avengers Declassified website for alerting me to the stunning similarities between this & a Champions episode (http://declassified.theavengers.tv/staytuned_tna_faces_mission.htm), which I hadn't clocked till just now.
There is something ironic in this episode for me - the one glaring thing that let's it down is also the best bit. Gareth Hunt & Joanna Lumley overact incredibly in their roles of bits of rough dragged out of the gutter. Hunt's comedic Irish accent could be excused as deliberate overacting but Lumley's vowels are still too posh. That said, the gusto with which they act these parts can excuse a lot, because they make it so much fun that you ignore the sheer ridiculousness of the plot. In fact impossibility would be more the word, however the gusto again excuses the lightweight plot.
Less lightweight is theme of loss running through the New Avengers - Steed keeps on losing old friends & Purdey keeps losing boyfriends. In this it is somehow a more serious representation of the impact of the Avengers' jobs on their characters than tended to come across in the original Avengers. The point of Steed was his anonymity - it was never clear where he came from & the aunts & upper crust background only developed as the series went on. Gale & Peel were reluctant amateurs & Miss King was the bright-eyed new recruit: I suspect the full human cost of their intelligence work wouldn't have hit her. The only real human impact I can find in the original series as a parallel to that in The New Avengers is the way the loss of his fiancee turned Dr Keel into an Avenger. That bereavement-as-spur-to-life-changing-action motif is rather inverted into The New Avengers, where the characters are professionals who yet have a personal mission to revenge the deaths of their friends, or rather perhaps, whose professional lives impinge on their private worlds to an excessive degree. I would even suspect that in the real world of intelligence the New Avengers would even be taken off many of their cases through being over-involved. This sense of loss running through the series establishes Steed as a much more sombre character than he has been previously - he has become the grand old man who has loved & lost, not in a romantic way though. This is a real development & deepening of Steed's character.
There is just one other thing I love about this episode: reading round on tinternet about this, people comment on the - interplay, flirting, tension - between Gambit & Purdey. What I love is I haven't yet found a single website that doesn't call this 'intercourse'. Of course this is the word that the doctor uses for what he wants them to establish - but it perfectly pushes this episode into Carry On film territory, not cheesily so. In fact the success of this episode lies in its ridiculousness.
My favourite bit: the simple fact that Purdey's character is called Lolita!
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The New Avengers: Target!

The New Avengers seems to divide the fans, & I'd hate anyone to think that since I've only posted here on - I think - one episode, I'm not keen myself. I used to think that The New Avengers was best watched as a standard seventies detective series - very much like The Professionals - without reference to the original Avengers series. I have revised this opinion on re-watching the series a few times. Just for one example, ho Avengers is it to have a neo-Nazi gang disguised as monks kidnapping a doctor played by Peter Cushing to revivify their frozen leader, who is never named? Or another episode where an army of schoolgirls beat the baddies into submission? It is very difficult, seen like this, to see The New Avengers as anything other than the direct descendant of The Avengers.
And I think Target is probably the episode that most makes me think of The Avengers, visually. It is very difficult to fail, using a disused hospital as a set, turned into an agents' training ground in this case. The location has the feel for me of the deserted airfield in The Hour That Never Was - in reality the setting is presumably empty, it certainly looks derelict, the difference being that that is not the whole point here as it is in The Hour That Never Was. I would have to disagree with Alex Wilcock's view that the point here is that it is a normal street that shoots back (http://loveandliberty.blogspot.com/2008/12/target.html): the setting is plainly not a normal street. I take his point about parallels with the opening scenes of The Avengers film - although there it has always seemed to me that the point is that it is plainly a normal village street, but it turns out to be a mock-up. I suppose a meta-view would suggest that in the Avengers 'family' of shows there are different layers of unreality going on: sometimes things are what they seem but are not being used the way they are expected to be, or else they are being used as something different from their original purpose but twisted by the baddies, or else they are visibly what they seem to be but turn out not to be. This would also apply in the case of Murdersville, where nearly the whole population of the village, despite its chocolate box appearance, has gone to the bad.
In this case the 'street' is clearly only intended to be a mock-up in some disused buildings (actually the location was Pinewood Sanatorium, see http://www.workhouses.org.uk/MAB-Pinewood/). The point here is again a firmly Avengers one, of corruption inside the organisation. The solution to it is also a firmly Avengers one, the (relatively) maverick Steed solving the problem. It is a great pity that the plot is so full of holes it simply isn't true - the tropical poisons bit is another Avengers reference. I think it is for this reason as much as any other I've have to revise my opinion of The New Avengers - this episode would be a perfect example of it being pointless to watch this one for the vacuous plot, you have to watch it for the characters, atmosphere & visuals.
And how Avengers is it in those aspects! Purdey is the most like Mrs Peel I've seen her in this one - not so overly sexy as she can sometimes be in the later New Avengers episodes. I love the bit where she does the assault course without her (kinky) boots, & dressed about as ridiculously as she could be for the occasion! These earlier New Avengers were replete with symbols of Britishness such as phone boxes, even the titles were different. Much is made of a police box being blown up in this episode - it was the actual model used a decade before for the two Doctor Who films (http://theavengers.tv/forever/newave-6.htm).
Just for the record, it is unfortunate that the holes in the plot are all related to the whole point of the plot - the varying way the poison works being the obvious one, the changing speed it works, the unnecessary touch of having the antidote hidden in Steed's hat, etc. What I love about this episode is related to the setting - it is such a good touch to have mannequins of Steed & Purdey amongst the enemies in the street mock-up. I love that the graffiti includes a reference to Purdey & the way the signs added to the old hospital both come in German & include references to Steed.
This episode is sometimes criticised - a criticism that is often extended to the whole of the New Avengers - for treating Purdey as (almost) purely ornamental. I genuinely don't get that impression from this episode, rather, what I do find a bit much is the way she is obliged to show as much leg as possible on every opportunity. She is clearly 'objectified' in a way that I feel a similar character in a similar show would not be nowadays.
My favourite bit (after much consideration) is when the archivist says, 'If you want to keep looking at files, you should get a set of your own.'
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Saturday, 3 May 2014

Peaky Blinders: My First Thoughts

I don't think I've properly defined the word 'cult' in the title of this blog - of course it really means 'whatever takes my fancy'. Recently Peaky Blinders has taken my fancy, although normally I don't do period dramas - as a complete pedant I'm always looking for faults. I so wanted to like this show, really I did, I've so tried to like it.
Let's get the good bit out of the way before I tell you the - totally subjective - reason I can't watch this show. It is a meticulously researched, largely historically accurate rendering, based on a real gang that terrorised Birmingham from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth. These were real people - the first picture is a picture of real peaky blinders, released by West Midlands Police.
The series has spawned an incredible cult locally - there are peaky blinders & tours going on like nobody's business. It has also been heavily criticised in equal measure. One is that it was not filmed in Birmingham - I don't have an issue with that, personally, I think the locations in Liverpool are just right for the old Birmingham feel. The reason they gave that there isn't enough of the old Birmingham left, is just wrong. The last two pictures are ones I took in the actual area round Park Street & Fazeley Street that was part of the gang's patch.
But there is one thing terribly wrong. I commented, when writing about Public Eye, that actors never seem to get the Birmingham accent right, at least to the ears of a local. Peaky Blinders has been criticised for using present day Birmingham accents for the 1920s, I have read interviews with the actors who are very proud of having listened to people talking in pubs here, & even to Ozzy Osbourne! I'm sorry, none of this will do. First impressions were very good - in the pub scene, the hubbub is definitely strong Birmingham. But there is an inconsistency with the accent among the characters & even in certain characters it keeps slipping into...a Liverpool accent. No this is just plain wrong. The Irish accents would have been an authentic presence in the city but Birmingham accents don't slip into Liverpool.
I think it's reminded me of why I don't do period dramas - it's just wrong. These characters were supposed to be poor. Poor. Really poor. Involved in crime. Desperate. The actors look too healthy & well fed for this - I'm reminded of how Tom Hardy lost two stone to play Stuart, & did it very convincingly. In any big city, even in the 'developed' world, today, the poor people look poor, criminals look shifty, the druggies look like, well, like they're on drugs. Even smoking, the scourge of the lower socio-economic classes, makes you thin & haggard. They don't look like the constant recipients of five portions of fruit & veg a day.
I haven't completely given up on it, but at this instant I have Kojak on, which I'm watching with much more interest, because it's not trying to be anything it isn't.
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