Sunday, 27 December 2015

Doomwatch

Well that’s the annual Winterval over as far as I’m concerned. I’m slightly disorientated because nearly everyone in my apartment building has gone away for Christmas, leaving the place eerily quiet and dark. Additionally I had underestimated how warm a small modern flat could be, with the strange result that I’m sitting here in an unheated flat on the 27th December wearing a vest (undershirt to US readers) and feeling distinctly warm. These two things are putting me in mind of the end of the word and so my attention has naturally turned to the legendary series Doomwatch, which I see is due to be released in its remaining entirety in the spring. This post is solely based on the DVD of two episodes – about a plastic-eating virus and mutant rats – and reading around other people’s writing on the show.
In this show the 1960s’ ambivalence towards scientific progress reaches its peak, as does suspicion (I don’t really want to use the words conspiracy or paranoia) towards the establishment. The frequently simplistic Cold War-era dialectic of goodies and baddies, with the Establishment firmly set as the goodies, although open to infiltration, is turned on its head and made more realistic. I feel that probably this is one of the reasons old TV is so comforting, even TV dealing with such apparently live issues as megalomaniac evil genii, that the end is always going to be a return to a settled status quo, and peace for Blighty. Doomwatch is not slow to deal with the other side of this coin, that the government could set up a toothless agency to be seen to be ensuring the safety of scientific investigation, with the sequel that the personnel selected for the agency turn it into a real investigative body, and that the reality of scientific investigation could well lead to actual disasters.
As usual the key for me is to try to watch the show from the perspective of the time and my feeling is that this show would have been genuinely chilling. As has been commented repeatedly here before, the 1970s was an age of real fear, people were actually prepared for nuclear war starting at any moment. My own mother had a hoard of tinned food and a plan written on the back of an old envelope. In Doomwatch, just as in real life, the optimism of the post war years turns bitter and the technology which made so much of life easier than it had been, was easily turned against us. That this pressed buttons in the psyche of the time, was indicated by the huge popularity and prominence of the show at the time.
Given the contemporary popularity of the show and its legendary status among cult TV fans, I would have to comment that it is very difficult for what was intended to be a shown-once show to live up to its inflated reputation. It is also mooted as a predecessor of The X-Files, obliging it to carry a very heavy mantle indeed. That said, Doomwatch doesn’t do a bad job at all. It is perhaps necessary to make a few allowances before judging it. Its production values are in my opinion slightly old-fashioned for the time, although once again trying to see it through contemporary eyes I’m guessing it was intended to use the pace and ethos of a serious drama, if not of documentary footage at the time. One of its episodes, which was never broadcast, did use actual footage of an execution, for example. The overall impression is firmly of a serious contender in TV drama terms, intending to give an impression of being based on actual facts: Doomwatch’s success is that required by all TV fantasy, that it makes the viewer believe that the events in the show could happen. The second episode on this DVD is actually the classic example of this, and is probably more effective now than forty years ago, since rats are now actually beginning to take over urban areas and the authorities are having increasing difficulties keeping on top of them.
Visually, it uses an interesting mixture of the visual languages used by the various shows I have blogged about before. Classic British interiors are used to indicate either the Establishment or solid, authoritative knowledge. Visually, we know we can rely on the Doomwatch staff because their offices are conservative, panelled, with books. The Doomwatch personnel are interstingly seen in opposition to Establishment figures who disbelieve their information about a plastic-eating virus, and who are seen in exactly the same environment. Modern, laboratory-type environments are used to indicate the rarified atmosphere of the research which ironically leads to danger for humanity. This is again a slight inversion of the visual language used in both The Avengers and Doctor Who.
In addition to an increased complexity of visual language, the characterisation of Doomwatch is more developed than in some ‘sci-fi’ series. No character is the cardboard cutout that you could expect, but each character has a full share of ambivalence and complexity. This is an adult show, and is dealing with complexities of adult emotions and life. In terms of pace the show moves slower than modern TV, as is to be expected. I suppose what I’m feeling towards here is that Doomwatch copes well with its inflated reputation, given the production of the time, and the fact that it was intended to be viewed once and then wiped.
My one criticism is a criticism of effect. The plastic-eating virus is very well shown as creating a strange black sludge. In the episode about the rats a very effective scene shows rat traps being set, before they are found propped open with cutlery and the bait taken, by rats who are heard from outside the room but not seen. The fact that they are unseen makes this scene effective and that is how they should have been left. The effect is completely spoiled by the next scene, in which some very obviously unreal rats are seen attacking the investigators. Even in the early 1970s surely the effect could have been better than that.
So my overall impression of Doomwatch is that it is a sophisticated, overall effective show, well capable to carrying the heavy mantle of its reputation, with just some reservations about shortcomings in special effects. I’m looking forward to the remaining shows being released this year.

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Enfield Haunting

Christmas is coming and true to form I’m getting as close to being Christmassy as I’m ever going to be by posting about a ghost story. It may seem like this broadcast is way outside my comfort zone of usually 40+ years old TV, but I have always had a fascination with anything which could come under the heading of weird. I am keenly awaiting the release of the forthcoming documentary on Borley Rectory, since that along with this story was one of the formative influences of my young weird life. Also ‘the paranormal’ may be said to come under the usual definition of ‘cult’ rather than my own definition, of anything I like!
This is a show which rightly claims to be based on a true story, of a family tormented after the daughters began playing with a Ouija board. It is one of the more high-profile haunting stories in British psychical lore, and is the more effective for having taken place in an urban area in modern times and is therefore free of the usual paraphernalia of ghost stories. Even allowing for some dramatic license in making the story into a modern TV mini-series, this show is not a bad adaptation of the original story by any means. It is paced exactly right to give the correct fear. It even-handedly correctly places the story in its context of adolescence and budding sexuality without becoming prurient in any way. The effects are not over-done in any way. Apart from the few quibbles below, I literally cannot fault this production and would recommend it to anyone for a Christmas ghost story.
My main problem with it is that it slightly takes the family’s situation out of its correct setting. Of course this would only be an issue for someone who read the original book or has seen photographs of the actual house. The house in which it is set is rather more upmarket than the original council house in which the family lived. I have included period photographs to illustrate the real circumstances in which they lived. The problem with the house in this show is that while it is shown as unkempt from outside, the interior is an accurate setting of 1970s furniture. This is the only point at which it doesn’t add up: a family who either couldn’t to paint the outside of their house or were too distracted by other things, also would not have had a contemporary interior. And of course this is borne out by the contemporary photographs. Judging by the patterns, I would date the lino and some furnishings in the house from the 1950s or before. This is a family which was clearly in big trouble, including financial, and there seems to be a tendency in modern productions to avoid the realistic set. This is an unfortunate fault because it makes the story fail to add up, even if you are not familiar with the original story.
What accurately comes across is how completely distressed was everybody involved in the case. It was not so much a broken family as a fractured one. In addition to the father leaving and the elder son being ‘away at school’, the family went on to experience mental illness and young death from cancer. Grosse, the man investigating, was also in mid-bereavement, and this production accurately portrays the way in which there is no way in which this could have been approached objectively.
I like Timothy Spall’s portrayal of a man who is clearly very ill. He sounds as if he smokes about 80 a day, and I cannot fault his portrayal, except to say that I feel it might be slightly overdone at times and the other actors have far more subtle presences. There is a very real sense in which this production makes the story the story of Maurice Grosse, rather than the story of the Enfield poltergeist, which surely has more than enough material in itself.
These faults apart, I cannot recommend this show too highly and commend it as an even-handed approach of a story which more than anything else would lend itself to hysteria.
Image credits: Telegraph and Daily Mail

Monday, 7 December 2015

Batman and The Avengers

I am watching the first series of Batman (1966). I consoled myself for the reduced-size reopening without a conveyor belt of my favourite sushi restaurant (who the hell picks sushi off a menu?) by buying the boxed set, expecting a diversionary trip down memory lane and some very lightweight viewing indeed, but of course it's set me off thinking. I watched Batman in my childhood, although it was after the 1960s. Since I must have been very young and I remember singing along to the theme tune (truth to tell, it's hard to stop myself doing it even now), and making the sound effects. It must have been before I encountered The Avengers for the first time, which was on the advent of Channel Four in the UK.
That said, on revisiting it, Batman reminds me so much of The Avengers. I have Googled this connection at length and have been unable to find anything on the internet drawing parallels between the two series, although naturally this search is necessarily complicated by the ongoing Batman franchise and the existence of another set of Avengers. I have been trying to formulate a theory around the possible influence, which naturally must stick to the historical facts. It is not very likely that Batman the series was influenced by the fourth series of The Avengers, the first really to ramp up the weirdness, since The Avengers series premiered in October 1965 in the UK, and the first series of Batman premiered in January 1966, in the UK. Batman must have been at least well under production, or at the very least written, as the fourth series of The Avengers appeared on the screen on the other side of the pond. I don't believe it was exported at that time either, so it would have required a writer – a very influential one at that – to have seen the show in the UK and also been writing for Batman for the Avengers to have influenced Batman. I think it more likely that since Batman first appeared in 1939, with his own nominal comic starting 1940, if one show influenced the other it was more likely to be Batman influencing The Avengers.
The most obvious likeness between the two shows is in the area of unreality. The whole point of The Avengers is that it is not real, and if Steed were seen in a real situation he would appear like a caricature. Batman takes this caricature to a whole different level, except given its comic book origins, in many ways what is being parodied is the comic book idiom.
The likeness starts for me with the baddies. The parody and campiness of Batman may seem to be extreme in comparison to that of The Avengers, but in terms of weirdness the baddies actually compare. Remember how the baddies in the Avengers are always megalomaniacs who plan to conquer the whole world by such things as cats' collars? That obsession with cats isn't so far removed from an obsession with jokes or coldness. The Penguin and his obsession with umbrellas takes up a repeated motif of umbrellas used in several episodes of The Avengers, in addition to being a seminal aspect of the Steed figure.
And I think that is what most makes the connection for me – Batman actually uses the same visual language as The Avengers. It is not for nothing that Batman and Robin's alter egos live in a panelled manor house with an English butler – this is exactly the same visual language as that of The Avengers! The panelled manor spells Establishment, solidity. I have deliberately chosen the screen cap which illustrates this post because it shows the way in which the villains appear in the image of respectability, as contravening it. The underlying moral lessons of Batman – Robin not going into a night club because he's too young, say – are another part of their characterisation as respectable figures. The entire point of the villains is that they break the conventions and rules of respectable people. This is exactly the way in which The Avengers paints its villains, frequently putting them in a setting of contravened respectability, old families gone rotten, and so on. I have even been keeping an eye on the books in the various scenes – obviously it is not very likely that Batman would use the Steed's library books from whatever theatrical supplier in Britain they were hired for numerous ITC series, but the leather-bound books have the same purpose: they spell solidity, learning, and so on.
There are two ways in which Batman differs markedly from the world of The Avengers. The first is in the approach to technology, which almost completely lacks the ambivalence found in British television of the era. In Batman, the duo of course use technology at length to help them in their crusades; in The Avengers this happens rarely or never. I feel this probably reflects different attitudes to technology on either side of the Atlantic at the time, but of course wouldn't want to make too much of this generalisation.
That of course relates to the other major difference, which is that the world of Batman is very much American despite borrowing things which would spell olde Englishe respectability for Americans, but which are sometimes just plain wrong for Brits. There is a scene in which the English butler proffers iced tea, for example, and this is just plain wrong. Tea in the US in a markedly different things from here to this day. That said, this use of the language of dream English solidity is using the same symbols used in The Avengers to refer to the same thing, only from a native point of view.
Naturally this theory of mine is one which I have dreamed up as I have been cooking this evening with Batman playing in the background. And of course if anyone is able to point me in the direction of other comparisons of the two shows on the internet I would be delighted to hear them.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: A Change of Mind

The rest of the classic TV blogosphere is beginning to reflect on how our favourite shows celebrate this festive season. In typical fashion I have merely touched on Christmas in name only with a ghost story, and am now running back to seeing possible allusions to apartheid in The Prisoner. I must apologise to my regular readers for not posting in a little while; the trouble with my 'manager' is continuing and has all been rather stressful. I have wound up being a witness in a disciplinary hearing for one of my 'colleagues'. The manager conducting the hearing looked slightly shocked when he said that I was making a very serious allegation, and I replied by putting a dossier in front of him of six years of incidents, and the dates when I informed the manager of these things, copies of emails, and so on.
This may seem divorced from the subject in hand here, but actually it isn't. The subject of this episode comes down really to humans' mutual need for society and the effect it has when that is actually completely withdrawn. The literature is lengthy on how humans influence each other to behave in particular ways, particularly in groups, and that kind of pressure is one of the strongest influences which can be used to affect someone. It is a brave person who stands out from the crowd, and naturally Number 6 is aiming to be exactly that person and see what happens. I personally feel this may be one of the episodes which better fit the theory that Number 6 is John Drake, who has resigned to see what has happened at the village he has devised for people whose knowledge can't be safely released, than the theory that the series refers to South African apartheid. I say this because the ostracisation by The Village genuinely seems to affect him, and since we all know that The Village is a complete sham that is not really something that would bother him. It would bother him, however, if his desire to investigate the village was hampered by his being declared unmutual.
There is still a parallel between the situation in The Village in this episode and South African apartheid. To belong to the community you have to behave a particular way, be a particular way, even look a particular way. This is exactly the kind of social division envisaged by apartheid, an Afrikaans word which means 'apartness', but which the propaganda machine of the time defined as meaning 'good neighbourliness'. In that system it was mandatory to be declared legally a member of a particular community and remain in it. It was painted as socially unacceptable to contravene this rigid boundary. It is interesting that the apartheid government used medical experimentation on homosexuals and others who were considered undesirable: it provides another interesting parallel with this episode of The Prisoner that male homosexuals underwent 'conversion' to being women, to the extent that when apartheid ended, some of these people were left half way through surgery, and remain there to this day.
A further parallel between apartheid's and The Village's approach to creating a beneficent society, is that they are both a complete sham. It is hardly surprising that the residents of The Village have come round to behaving in a way which props up the regime, just as white residents of South Africa behaved in ways which propped up the regime, or at least may have expressed disapproval while enjoying their privilege. Ironically this is also mirrored in my 'manager' ignoring repeated reports of a member of the team actively sabotaging the work of the team over a period of years, and informing me that 'we rub along all right most of the time'. People like a quiet life. People make the best of their situation.
Both The Village and the South African government used to their full advantage the human propensity to be averse to anything perceived as the 'other'. In the case of The Village, it is interesting how quickly the entire Village was turned against him as a social pariah. In the case of apartheid, one of the effects of keeping the races separate was to keep people in ignorance of what was actually going on. When the only time you meet a black is when he or she is working as your domestic servant, it ensures they are not going to express dissatisfaction. Apart from the actual manipulation of the press which occurred, a major propaganda achievement of the apartheid government was to ensure that the different races lived sufficiently in ignorance of each other that they would believe the distorted news.
I think on balance despite clear echoes of the techniques of apartheid in this episode, it can also perhaps more clearly be seen as a reflection of our own society, particularly the contemporary criticism of psychiatric abuses. This is much clearer in the latter part of the episode, where Number 6 apparently undergoes social conversion. In many ways this feels like the ECT scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to me, in fact Number 6's role is very like that of Randle McMurphy. I mean that it feels like the psychiatric criticism of the time – that the hospitals were full of people who were there for decades for no particular reason, who were treated badly, who were experimented on and often subjected to quack treatments at the whim of the staff. There is also a very real sense in which the aim of the episode is the same as the aim of the psychiatry of the time – for agitation to be over. The patient can be calm enough to behave in a socially acceptable manner. I feel that that reading of this episode would probably trump the apartheid reading, since it keys better into the main aim of the episode.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Ghost Stories for Christmas: Stigma

Pagan. Now there's a word which gets a hammering all round and is taken up and run with by all sorts of people. Its etymology is Latin, of course, from the word for fields, and it means people of the fields. It's a Latin way of saying country bumpkin, and was coined at the time Christianity was a spreading urban religion to refer to the unbaptised hordes who stuck to their previous Pagan ways. Similarly Christmas is a festival argued over by all sorts of people, and it seems strangely suitable that I should be reviewing this story of alleged Pagan remnants from this box set of ghost stories for Christmas. I may or may not write about the others, which are in the main adaptations of MR James's marvellous stories, but I've chosen to start with this one since I find, reading the reviews of the internet, it gets widely criticised for not being a ghost story. It seems to me that it can be considered a ghost story, it's about a ghost of a different sort from the usual run of ghost stories. It picks up on some of the themes familiar to readers of this blog, found in the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s: modernity versus tradition, religious symbols of baptism and virginity, ideas of religious sacrifice, and the idea popular at the time of 'the old religion'. Personally I think it's absolutely superb and just had to blog about it here, to try to counterbalance the largely critical drumming it's tended to get.
The main divide here is a truly Christian/Pagan one between baptism and ancient sacrifice. The theme is introduced by the name of the young girl, Verity, again a word of Latin etymology and which refers to truth as a virtue. She is seen driving home with her mother in a car (it's a Citroen Diane for those interested in that sort of thing), and the car is contrasted with the surrounding countryside, which countryside is also contrasted with the digger employed in alterations to the garden, including removing one of the standing stones. The pictures of standing stones are the real thing, taken from the circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, and I believe that those sort of things are probably protected as ancient monuments in reality. These contrasts of nature versus mechanisation introduce the main themes.
The story is one of a dead body, with knives through its ribs and at all four corners of the grave, whose disturbance leads to the death of the mother of the house, who bleeds to death by spontaneous bleeding with no visible wound. The blood is a major visual theme throughout the piece. Mrs Delgardo's later bleeding to death is presaged by the blood of the joint of beef she is preparing for dinner just as the men are trying to take up the stone. Blood is of course one of the major elements of religious sacrifice throughout the world and throughout history – the implication here is that because the ancient sacrifice has been disrespected, Mrs Delgardo must pay for this with her own life. Further religious symbolism is added by the comparison of blood with red wine – again a Christian reference to the eucharist – when Mrs Delgardo thinks she is bleeding although her husband (played wonderfully by Peter Bowles) thinks she has got the red wine down her front, which is actually the case.
A further visual reference to Christianity is in the recurring visual of white sheets, towels, clothes, walls. In the early church, the newly baptised would wear white only for a period after baptism, and it of course remains a symbol of illumination. In the ancient world it would be contrasted with black, which while it would tend to be seen as racist nowadays, is of course influenced by the sheer fear of the dark in Europe before electricity. As Mrs Delgardo is bleeding in the bathroom, and wiping the blood on white towels, or as her blood later pools on the white bedding, it is as if visually the symbol of Christian baptism is being overtaken by the blood of ancient sacrifice. Significantly the time when it turns out that what looks like blood is actually red wine, she has changed into a flowery ethnic dress for dinner, visually a pagan representation opposed to the white which otherwise dominates. Mrs Delgardo's partial nudity while she dabs at the blood in the bathroom, represents a taking off of the Christian baptism, which she keeps trying to put on again by repeated washings, repeated use of white towels, bandages, etc, but through all of which the ancient blood seeps. Her nudity is a return to the state before modern sophistication – a true paganism.
The knives which pierce and surround the sacrifice in the garden are reflected in a scene in the kitchen when Peter Bowles can't sleep. It is apparent that the sacrifice is happening then, since the vegetables on the stove represent the country, and the knife on the stove represents sacrifice: the country is taking its sacrifice.
Ironically it turns out that the cottage the family live in was previously in the family of one of the men digging up the garden. This exchange of the 'natives' (with regional, although somewhat confused at times, accents) with the incomers who speak received pronunciation, is a further image of the land wanting its own, wanting sacrifice, and not actually really belonging to the people who merely live in the cottage. They are portrayed as townies and contrasted with the villagers: it is not really loud-pedalled in this piece, but it is very apparent that their way of life would have been relatively expensive for the 1970s. They own two cars, the kitchen is obviously an expensive fitted one, they can eat a joint of beef for dinner, they have afforded to buy and do up an old cottage, and furnish it with antiques. But this film criticises their way of life – there is a very real sense in which it is not real, and in fact drawing on a major concern of the time, it is seen as actually inevitably leading to its own destruction.
Also about as 1970s as you can get are the visuals (I've included pictures of the cottage as well as the stone to make the contrast clearer, and to indicate that although the family obviously want to live in the country it is not in an authentic way). The cottage is a dream of tasteful 1970s decoration: we're not talking avocado bathrooms here, but rather Terence Conran decoration books. It is paced exactly right and in some ways I will have to grant is more suspenseful and horrifying than ghostly, because you just know something terrible is going to happen and the film draws you inexorably towards it. 
My one criticism is one extraneous to the actual show, & it is that my suspicions are always aroused by the phrase 'the old religion'. It is sometimes used to refer to Wicca, which although it is bigger in the States in the only living religion Britain has given to the world, & is a wholly twentieth century creation, drawing on popular (not academic) ideas of what ancient religion was like. These ideas are present here to the full, including the 13 year old girl who is definitely flirting with one of the workmen at one point. Sex & knives, the visual paraphernalia of the imagined old religion which became Wicca. This was the age of The Wicker Man, of course, & this ahistoricity is a personal quibble rather than a criticism of the film, but this is a blog & I reserve the right to fill it with my opinions!

Apartheid in The Prisoner: It's Your Funeral

In so many ways, this episode is a no-brainer when looking for possible allusions to South African apartheid. The level of surveillance in The Village rivals anything Botha's government could later have thought up. The laying of traps using the sophisticated methods of corrupt medicine. The use of technology to monitor events. The activities of the 'jammers' are not dissimilar to the method of keeping your opponent busy which I delineated in my last post in this series.
But what particularly catches my interest in this episode is the activities prognosis on Number 6. Even though he is usually portrayed as the most discontented inhabitant of The Village, it is interesting how much – unless intended to lull his captors into a false sense of security while he is gaining intelligence – his daily life in The Village is a routine of simple leisure and relaxation. In fact that would seem to be the routine of every inhabitant for the purpose of this episode, although such things as domestic work and maintaining the grounds are shown in other episodes. In fact the reason this is the aspect which most resonates with apartheid for me, is that it has such strong echoes of the leisured, affluent life lived by the white minority in South Africa. Despite the slight change in economic power towards some of the black population, this is actually still largely the case, only now the affluent whites' privilege is buttressed by money rather than apartheid.
Under apartheid whites living in South Africa – even poorer white people – were virtually guaranteed a secure, prosperous life, and part of this was the amount of work done by blacks for whites. This caused the volume of leisure time enjoyed by white people, exactly the kind of life shown in the activity prognosis in this episode of The Prisoner. Just as the fact that the whites in South Africa constituted the electorate on their own and naturally had strong incentives to maintain the status quo, no wonder that the majority of the inhabitants of The Village settles down to their sedate, leisured life, because it affords one of the main aims of human life. Even the malcontents are clearly identified and eventually just ignored: jamming is the process of keeping your opponent busy and in a society where the authorities don't really have to account for anything, they can just ignore the threat. This is jamming gone wrong.
Into this sedate world comes an apparent assassination threat. Again it is interesting how exactly this mirrors the tactics of successive apartheid governments – when comfort alone isn't enough to keep the electorate voting for you, there is no harm in introducing a terror threat. Of course it helps if there is ongoing unrest among the malcontents/non-white population, which can be loud pedalled to create a perceived threat. In this case, this process is actually turned round on Number 6: in fact the process is almost exactly the same as 'jamming' only turned round to be used by Number 2 on Number 6. The tactic is then turned around again, so that Number 6's warning is manipulated to discredit him. In the faked films of his warning successive Number 2s, none of whom have appeared in the show before, history is created to make Number 6 believe what the authorities want him to believe.
The sheer power in this technique is shown by the simple fact that Number 6, surely one of the least credulous men one could ever want to meet, falls for it completely. In fast succession to this, Number 2 wants this investigated, and of course the records he asks for aren't there. Again a clear echo of the ethos of apartheid, where history is written as it goes along, a spin in placed on every event to make it conform to the required pattern, and ultimately everybody's head is spinning so much that nobody knows what the hell is going on. The effect of this episode on the viewer – which must surely include an element of confusion – is probably exactly how living under apartheid, in any racial classification, must have felt. It is impossible to know who is on what side in this episode, and although the 'goodies' in the form of Number 6, win, it is never apparent what is going to happen.
Just as under apartheid, in The Village this all takes place against the background of the pretence of democracy and forced appreciation by the people for the wise men who govern them. Once again, it only takes a few plants to start this so that everyone else will join in, using the power of crowd psychology.
Finally the introduction of terror is the most powerful means of manipulation. I don't mean on the part of those who are committing acts of terror, because it is usually rather counter-productive in that it makes people fear those who commit these acts. Politically it is therefore very useful is your opponent will resort to acts of terror, because it will force the populace to fear them, rather than do what they want. In fact it is very difficult to see how The Village could reasonably have continued if the plot to assassinate Number 2 had actually gone ahead, since the pretence would have gone completely. Of course that is a different in the South African situation, since when terror was resorted to the aim was actually to cause the destruction of the ruling regime.
Incidentally I like Derren Nesbitt very much as Number 2 – he makes an unusually eccentric one, and I particularly love the scene where he wears pyjamas and a dressing gown – almost the Noel Coward approach to being Number 2.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Sweeney! and Sweeney Two

I touched briefly on The Sweeney, when I did a series of posts on 1970s TV shows earlier in the year. Re-reading my post, I find that I was mainly interested in the historical context of the show, making reference to the contemporary history in my local area. To tell the truth, I have never actually got on well with The Sweeney. I thought for a long time it was because one of my old neighbours put me off it by describing it sneeringly as 'very old fashioned', and recounting how she and her partner, who likes it, would fight over the remote interminably until her got so drunk he would go to sleep and then she would watch what she wanted.
Unfortunate and largely irrelevant associations aside, I didn't realise that The Sweeney also spawned two films, the subject of this post, and through watching them I have discovered what I think is wrong with The Sweeney. The show is much better served as a film than as a TV show. There, said it. These two films are basically Sweeney episodes, with the same characters, same milieu, etc, but in my humble opinion flow much better than in the TV episodes. The acerbic Regan is not well served by the TV slot medium: he comes across as too acerbic and does not have the opportunity for character development afforded by these films.
This development is most helped by the sub-plots possible in a film, although the basic gritty premise remains unchanged. This is London of the 1970s, and it's rough as a bear's bum. The basic subject of these two films is really police corruption. This was of course a major public concern at the time – and the real history behind The Sweeney includes many a resignation of a police officer and repeated scandals. Nor is the rest of gritty reality ignored: the illustration to this post is Regan in a bathroom with a high-class prostitute. There is porn, corruption in high places, you name it. I always find it interesting how 1970s TV managed so effectively to combine fascinating glimpses of the rich and privileged of the time, with a view of how that world interacts with the desperate underbelly of society. This in a sense breaches the real/unreal divide that I am so fond of, since both sides of this divide are naturally somewhat unreal to the other half.
To anyone my age or older, these films are a visual delight. One of the reasons I chose the bathroom picture for this post is the truly awful wallpaper. The locations are expertly chosen, the clothes are ridiculous, the interiors are tasteless. This is a retrospective of the 1970s at its best. My main concern is how any film of the time would have coped without a concrete multi-storey car park in which to have a chase! The cars are a dream of reminiscence, in fact at one point there is a scene in a scrap yard which would be a delight to any classic car enthusiast. Te films also serve as yet another reminder of how awful British cars were at the time, since at one point a Morris Marina is written off. Anyone remember those? Thought not, but my godmother had a gold-coloured coupe.
I would have to admit to a certain ambivalence about John Thaw in this, since for me he is only and ever Inspector Morse. I find it interesting how Regan almost provides the other side to the apparently more refined Morse character; the other side because in terms of being antisocial there really isn't much difference. It is strange to see Thaw smoking, given that he died of throat cancer. I see that he smoked from the age of twelve.
In the manner of the time and the straight-up nature of these films, sexiness isn't lacking. In line with the 'topless on TV' undercurrent here, I see that even though this disc is an 18 certificate, the nudity is described as moderate, in comparison to the language and violence which are described as strong. There are glimpses of breasts at various points in both films, and in one scene the entire criminal gang line up supposedly in the sun (although they look very cold) in wonderfully 1970s swimming trunks. The depictions of sex are rather ambivalent – Regan at one point gets off with the posh tart, while Carter is also seen in bed with a woman. Regan makes it quite plain that he is happily divorced, and judging from the horseplay depicted in the office at one point, this is a very male team, hard-working, -playing, -drinking, …you get the idea.
All in all I would strongly recommend these films over the TV series of the same name, although of course I'm going to have to look it up again now to make sure I'm not doing it an injustice.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Theatre of Blood, starring Vincent Price and Diana Rigg

This film may seem like a departure from the normal televisual delights blogged about here, but I am actually writing this piece because this film is worthy of probably the highest approbation I have ever given here: it is almost like an episode of The Avengers. It is necessary of course, to ignore the fact that Diana Rigg plays the baddie's daughter, and the baddie's ultimate target is played by Ian Hendry, but the plot itself is worthy of The Avengers:
'Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) appears to have committed suicide by diving into the Thames, after being humiliated at an awards ceremony. But he has been secretly rescued by vagrants, who welcome him into their circle. Weakened by meths-addiction, they prove to be a docile crew, that he will use in a campaign of revenge on the drama-critics who failed to salute his genius.
'Lionheart plans to destroy his critics in a series of poetic killings, based on classic Shakespearean murder-scenes. So one of them is depatched on the Ides of March, like Julius Caesar. Another has his heart cut out, referencing Shylock's 'pound of flesh'. Some of the murders are also linked to the seven deadly sins. One critic, noted for envy, is tricked into murdering his wife in a jealous rage, like Othello, before being jailed for life. Another one, noted for drunkenness, is drowned in a cask of wine, like Clarence in Richard III.
'Meanwhile Lionheart's daughter Edwina has been arrested as the chief suspect, and he needs to reveal himself in order to save her. In the final drama, he orders his chief critic Devlin to give him the coveted award in order to spare his life. But he refuses, and Lionheart plans to put out his eyes with red-hot daggers, as with Gloucester in King Lear. His contraption gets stuck, however, just as the police arrive to save Devlin. To thwart them, Lionheart sets fire to the theatre, and in the confusion, one of the vagrants kills Edwina with the award statuette, unwittingly casting her in the role of Cordelia. Lionheart retreats, carrying her body to the roof and delivering Lear's final monologue before the roof caves in, sending him to his death. Devlin comments "You must admit he did know how to make an exit."' (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_of_Blood)
Brim-full of eccentrics, odd theatrical characters, unusual scenes, hatred, lunacy, it is extraordinary to find a film of the horror genre set in a world so close to Avengerland. In fact it has made me ask myself whether it couldn't possibly actually be parodying The Avengers, in a strange postmodern reversal of the way in which The Avengers parodied other genres. Certainly, the Avengers never made the mistake of setting an episode in the theatre – the fiction that is Steed would have looked far too artificial in the world of greasepaint, but if it had I feel that this would be very much an Avengerland version of the theatre.
In a strange way it helps that the cast of this film is like a roll call of big names of the time – normally my dislike for familiar faces would make me hate that, but once again it works by making it impossible to forget that the sort of tensions among actors and hatred for critics depicted in the film, are actually the daily life of the thespian. In fact I found myself looking around the cast and wondering what level of animosity they could manage to conjure up among themselves!
Despite its Avengersesque world view, of course Theatre of Blood differs in one important way – the violence is very real and very graphic, in a way it never was in the Avengers. This film can manage to be both very funny and horrifying at the same time – the scene where one of the critics is force-fed a pie made of his dogs is particularly revolting. This comes as a shock against the theatrical, privileged, world in which the film is set, very different from the stereotypical (to me – I'm not a great fan of horror) settings of the horror film. Visually the film looks very much like the sort of scenes depicted in The New Avengers or The Professionals, and apparently is unusual in being filmed almost completely on location rather than in studio. Visually it is superbly 1970s – step this way to see the shag pile carpet, and Ian Hendry in a frilly evening shirt in a colour which may well be best described as lavender. The film also doesn't feel like a simple horror film – there are elements of the detective genre as well.
If I have one criticism it would have to be that I don't think Diana Rigg is used nearly enough – obviously this is completely personal. That said, while she has the perfect foil in Vincent Price, you can't fail but notice her when she is with the other actors, so perhaps it was to get her appearances in proportion. A plot fault is that it becomes clear as the film progresses, that as Lionheart's daughter, the fact that she was sympathetic to him must have been known to all of the critics, because of the way he appeared to kill himself. The fault is that obviously suspicion was going to fall on her. Price is of course superlative as an embittered Shakespearean actor: he overdoes it to exactly the right degree.
All in all, although it isn't cult TV as such, and so purists may feel it has no place here, this film is an excellent addition to the library of anyone who loves The Avengers.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Hammer into Anvil

Periodically the question comes up in the classic TV blogosphere, of the standing and worthiness of television viewing. Could one put it on a CV as a hobby? Or would that risk being interpreted as meaning the person is a couch potato? Certainly there are different ways of watching television and engaging with the shows that one is seeing, and by a strange coincidence I have recently proved the utility of television viewing to myself, with a link to this episode of The Prisoner, and even to allusions to apartheid!
I have been somewhat silent here for a little while, and rather than just be silent I will say that this silence was caused by a spot of bother at work. Another one. My 'manager' is completely ineffectual, determined to get rid of me, and periodically has a go at trying to push me through the door, which always end in her looking stupid. Some people never learn. Naturally the only parallel here to the kind of risk under which those who suffered under South African apartheid lived, in the need for tactics in overcoming a hostile, dangerous power. I would argue that this episode could almost function as a perfect primer in resistance and causing confusion in a powerful opponent.
These are also of necessity the tactics used by those who resisted apartheid. There is a necessary power play involved here, and just as in Hammer into Anvil, it so happened that the powers that be in South Africa were under pressure from outside as well as from their target. 'I'll break you, Number 6,' says Number 2. That is his mistake, because the almost hysterical tone of voice in which he says it, shows that he is not actually in control at all. At the time this episode was made, apartheid was at its height and the South African economy was at its strongest: by the mid-seventies it was apparent that the cracks were showing, and just as with Number 2, the weaknesses only had to be seen to be exploited.
Number 6 starts on a campaign of what I can only describe as 'keeping them busy'. I think it marvellous that the mere act of sampling gramophone records could have such an explosive effect. Of course this kind of civil disobedience would have been difficult to maintain in South Africa, but once actual resistance started, the government's reaction, to impose states of emergency and so on, was even more criticised by the outside world, leading to an increase in external pressure. I personally used almost exactly the same technique by managing to draw attention to things she was doing. Already under pressure from her manager as a result of not doing appraisals, she is also now facing an enquiry into her mismanagement over a period of years. Oh, I could tear my own tongue out.
I love the blank sheets of paper trick. The thing is that Number 6 isn't actually doing anything at all, he's merely putting papers in the boat. From that point on, the technique moves into actually driving Number 2 off his rocker, and remarkably successfully. It is of course essential to 'reconnoitre' the entire situation when working to change regime, to avoid unexpected consequences. Number 6 has successfully identified that he is actually too valuable to The Village authorities to be killed or actually broken. I feel that in this sense the actual point of The Prisoner is exposed: the authorities want Number 6 to tell them the information he has, this information is obviously valuable. The elephant in the room with The Prisoner, is what this knowledge is, and how you interpret the show is largely dependent on what you think the knowledge is likely to be. This idea of resistance and overtones of the apartheid situation I think makes the show much more pointed: in many ways Number 6 shows them what he knows. They think they've got all the information on him, but all the time he is watching the authorities much more systematically than they are watching him. The failure to check the facts of his birthday and Number 113, shows a remarkable sloppiness that Number 6 would never have fallen into.
Of course it is at this point that Number 2, buckling under the pressure, starts blaming other people. This is paralleled very closely by the response of the South African authorities to any resistance. 'He's out to poison the whole Village,' is stated as Number 6's intention, and naturally the intention of the resistance to apartheid had to be to destabilise the whole economy. Again it is necessary to decide on what losses you are prepared to bear before the battle, and the losses in South Africa were very high indeed.
This is the point, at the beginning of the episode, where this Prisoner perhaps has the loudest echoes of apartheid, more than any resistance or tactical manoeuvres. It is the 'suicide' in the hospital. It is somewhat anachronistic when talking about The Prisoner to use the example of John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg as the example, since it was only opened at the end of the 1960s, but it became notorious for the kind of deaths in custody that the apartheid regime was expert at. Just as things were covered up in The Village – at one point revenge on Number 6 is planned in a way that could not be traced back to Number 2 – so these deaths were covered up with excuses which would be plausible if they happened rarely, but not when they keep on happening. These excuses became the subject of a poem:
In detention-Chris van Wyk

He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Checkmate

I am becoming aware of a certain dissatisfaction as I watch through The Prisoner looking for possible allusions to South African apartheid. Checkmate has brought these dissatisfactions to a head, and I think it is for the reason that so many elements of the apartheid regime and society can be seen in The Prisoner if you look hard enough: pseudo-science, social engineering, political force, ideological underpinnings, abuse of medicine and psychology, labelling and institutionalisation theories (these were very fashionable at the time), and so on. In fact I am coming to the conclusion that apartheid was probably not the main inspiration for The Prisoner, although it indicates the openness to different allegories that the series can so easily be read in terms of apartheid. This particular episode is I think probably best read in terms of Goffman's theories around labels and institutions which were very prominent in mental health from the 1950s for several decades and used to underpin the theories of 'care in the community'. Ironically, in terms of The Prisoner, this move was painted as beneficial to the sick, rather than a means of cheapening their care, which led both to the release of people who should never have been in institutions in the first place and found themselves often unable to cope outside, and also the release of people whose conditions meant they presented a considerable risk to the community they were resident in.
My real point here is that ideology can always be misused to support what you want. Medicine and psychology can always be used to underpin whatever fringe notion you have at stake. Notoriously the already-discredited Nazi pre-war theories of eugenics were largely used to underpin apartheid. This underpinning strikes me as having an interesting echo in this episode. The underlying theme of conformity reflects the quandary of knowing that you are living in an unjust society. Reference is made to breaking points and giving up in this episode. If you live in The Village what do you do? – resist and risk being broken, or conform for a slightly easier life, knowing that you have in reality been broken anyway? There are also questions of which side people are actually on and which side they appear to be on. A question which is not really examined in this issue is that of what side people think they are on – if the supposedly respectable, lawful institution of government and church tells you that, say, racial segregation is right and just, and decreed by law and God, an awful lot of people will not question that, or will suppress their doubts where they have any.
The action in Checkmate takes place against a background of a Village full of almost completely conforming sheep. Yes, of course the events of The Village are subordinated to Number 6's activities as the dramatic effect of the show, but I feel in institutional and behavioural terms this subordination reflects what would actually happen in reality. The chilling fact is that in reality the majority of the Villagers would at least have kept quiet and not resisted. Even allowing for the later rigid control of the media by the authorities, privileged whites in South Africa under apartheid had no excuse not to know what was going on. The examples I have been giving from Apartheid: The Lighter Side were all in the public domain. There was no excuse for not knowing. This is the painful conundrum that really underlines any connection between The Prisoner and apartheid, and also connects it to the institutional or behavioural theories of Goffman. In reality, when it comes to the crunch, most people prefer their own comfort to the bigger issues. This is the real reason Number 6 could never rely on any help. This is the real reason it took the black majority population of South Africa so long to resist apartheid in any marked way: most people are so busy getting on with their own life they will deal with that as best they can before anything else. In this context it is relatively easy for the authorities to play people off against each other and sow the seeds of suspicion, exactly as they do in Checkmate.
There is a further, even more chilling, undertone to this conformity and comfort. After a while in The Village, it would become your home. You would have pangs at the very idea of leaving. This feeling of comfort and security would lead you eventually to support the activities of The Village authorities, and of course at that point any resistance is impossible. And at this point a psychological trick comes into play where you are convincing yourself that you are not supporting The Village authorities, or else refusing to see the abuses happening in front of you. Witness to this is a documentary named Apartheid Did Not Die. I have already referenced the writings on the internet of pro-apartheid South Africans. And only today, I have discovered that when the monuments to the architects of apartheid are pulled down, they are not just junked as I assumed, there are people who actually want them:

When a bust of Hendrik Verwoerd disappeared into the night in Midvaal, the question arose: What actually happens to the statues from our sordid past?
'What are they going to do with the head?" I wondered as the noose on the strap tightened around the prime minister's stiff neck.

The image on the television showed a bronze bust of Hendrik Verwoerd being hoisted off a sand-coloured plinth and deposited on a white flatbed truck. Perhaps the old man would be carted off to a secret municipal dumpsite named in ­honour of Leon Trotsky.

There is no such place. Metaphors are not fact and history is not easily swept aside by Trotskyite rhetoric, especially when it is cast in bronze. Dismantling this sort of history, which is ceremonial, blatant and weatherproof, requires many talents, not least being a head for political theatre and nous for logistics. A contact number for a man with a crane is also useful.

Timothy Nast, the 28-year-old executive mayor of the Democratic Alliance-led Midvaal municipality, recently proved himself adept at the latter when, on May 4, he rid his metropolitan region of what was said to be the last Verwoerd sculpture on official public display. But his handling of the event was marked by naivety, allowing a nominally benign action to escalate into a national comedy.

A quick recap of where things stand.

On the morning of May 5 Nast's office telephone started ringing off the hook. What had the mayor done with the Verwoerd bust that had stood outside the Meyerton municipal offices for the past 28 years? The queries intensified as television news replayed images of the former prime minister's summary lynching. Who was the man with the white truck? And why did he pitch up for the removal job at 10 the previous night?

"It was removed when the contractor could remove it," Nast, who grew up in the patrician village of Henley-on-Klip, bluntly told an inquisitive Sapa reporter. "Ask the contractor." And he is? "A man called Piet," responded Nast, unable to offer a surname.

The low comedy of his opening gambit set the tone for what was to follow. Responding to inquiries about where Piet had journeyed into the night with Verwoerd's bust, Nast offered an unequivocal response. The bust had been returned to its owners, the Klipriviervallei-kultuurvereniging (KKV), an obscure cultural council that is technically defunct.

The KKV formed part of a network of regional cultural councils allied to the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK), a powerful Afrikaner heritage organisation and Broederbond front group founded in 1929.

In May Freddie Peters, a former KKV chairman and current Democratic Alliance member, hastily reconvened the inactive council following threats of vandalism to the bust made during the run-up to the recent hotly contested local government elections. (The elections saw ANC heavyweights such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Julius Malema trek to Meyerton in an ultimately failed attempt to drum up party support).

On May 4, the day the bust was removed from its plinth, Jackson Mthembu, the ANC national spokesperson, issued a statement lambasting "the sheer display of arrogance by Nast, who has refused to remove Verwoerd's statue". He added: "To the majority of South Africans, except in the eyes of the DA, Verwoerd remains a symbol, embodiment and apartheid architect of all ills of the country's terrible past and his statue should be confined to a museum."

Nast, who was 19 when he was elected a municipal councillor in 2000, acted swiftly, convening a meeting of the mayoral committee. It passed a "formal resolution" to have the Verwoerd bust removed and Piet was summoned.

The hurried removal of the bust has ushered in a period of political theatre.

A day after the bust's removal, Dumisani Dakile, Cosatu's provincial secretary in Gauteng, issued another of his quixotic communiqu├ęs. Dakile, who last year denounced Malema as a "premature leader" and a "grandstanding crazy individual", demanded that the statue "be removed and thrown into the dustbin of history within seven days".

Presumably the biblical timeline is indicative of how long it takes to build this mythical dustbin.

The Midvaal chairman of the Freedom Front Plus, Corrie Pyper, was equally annoyed, if for entirely different reasons. "Skelm," he cried, accusing the DA council of being underhanded. "I'm not saying apartheid was right but it is still part of our history," Pyper told Sapa. "If you want to do something like this, you tell people: 'Listen, we are going to remove your uncle. Come take a picture, come shed a tear.' "

Were it 1994, Dakile and Pyper's statements would read as urgent and timely. But by 2011 both men appear to have boarded the late flight to a place called Political Expediency. "How soon people become bored with the making and unmaking of history," says Pavel Grekov, a Russian state functionary, in Johannesburg writer Ivan Vladislavic's superb 1996 short story, Propaganda by Monuments. Grekov makes this observation about his memory of "the hundreds and thousands who had taken to the streets to watch the first monuments fall". 

It was not just the Russians who lost interest in toppled monuments. In Germany thousands turned out to see the undoing of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Three years later, when a 19-metre red Ukrainian granite effigy of Lenin was dismantled in East Berlin, men in hard hats were the principal crowd. Unmaking history had become a dull logistical exercise.

As in Berlin so too in Bloem­fontein: three years after the workmanlike disassembly of Lenin, a 4.3- metre bronze statue of Verwoerd, which had stood in front of the headquarters of the Free State provincial administration since 1969, was removed from its pedestal. The steady removal of Verwoerd busts from council offices in the ensuing period has, for the most part, happened unnoticed.

"Where do they put them all?" Grekov wonders to a work colleague.

"Scrapheap — of history," he is told.

"No, seriously," Grekov insists.

It is a fair question. In Hungary, which also saw its fair share of toppling monuments, a 20-minute ride on a Budapest bus will deliver you to Memento Park, which displays 42 public sculptures dating back to Hungary's four decades of communist rule. Not all monuments are preserved in this way. Nikolai Tomsky's stone Lenin, all 129 pieces of it, is buried south of Berlin.

The situation is no less contradictory in South Africa. After spending 12 years in a warehouse attached to a Bloemfontein furniture factory, sculptor Gerard de Leeuw's life-size statue of Verwoerd is currently in Pretoria—so too the Meyerton bust. Their display couldn't be more distinct.

The De Leeuw sculpture lies on its back on old tyres in a storage yard at the Voortrekker Monument. It is wrapped in shade cloth and dotted with mud dauber nests. In contrast, the diminutive Meyerton bust is being displayed provocatively alongside the old orange, white and blue national flag at Kleinfontein, an 860-hectare right-wing enclave northeast of Pretoria. (Quote an: here)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Dance of the Dead

I feel this episode of The Prisoner may best encapsulate what it would have been like to live under apartheid. The ones we have seen so far have, as it were, represented apartheid on a policy level, and this one indicates the effects of those policies on individual lives. This not only perfectly reflects the apartheid government's approach: passing laws to perpetrate injustice, and letting them have their effect. '[His room is] the only place he can ever go, ' says Number 2, and that room encapsulates private life, not just in the sense of location or a racial classification, but in terms of ones own life. Owning a pet, choosing ones own clothes, who one is – these are the things that are affected by a totalitarian regime.
Nor for nothing is the reference to the dead of relevance. I cannot be sure whether it would be anachronistic to refer to the apartheid regime's notorious death squads in this connection. Certainly the earliest news reference to them I have been able to find online has been in the 1980s, after Botha's 'state of emergency' was declared. I have found reports of police brutality going back to the 1970s, after the notorious John Vorster police station opened, but I have been unable to find a contemporary source that would have provided the basis for references to death and disappearance for this episode. That said, it was clear to some at least of the inhabitants of South Africa in the1960s that they were not experiencing the rule of a benevolent law:
'...[M]any families first got in touch with the T[Ruth and] R[econciliation] C[ommission] because they could not even be certain that their sons, husbands or brothers had died. During the apartheid years, when so many took up arms in the fight against a divided society, hundreds of those killed in clashes with police, or executed later for their role in the fighting, were dumped in anonymous graves far from their homes.
'Between 1960 and 1990, around 135 political prisoners were executed for political offences in South Africa, but an estimated 21,000 died in political violence during the struggle. These long years were also characterised by in-fighting stoked by the state, which set activists and agitators from across the country against each other.
'As many of these activists had travelled hundreds of miles from their homes to work and campaign in cities, there was little chance of their families finding them if they "disappeared" in mysterious circumstances.' (Source)
It was more or less at the time this episode was made that apartheid was actually at its high point (once the 1970s dawned, the completely engineered economy began to crumble since even diamond wealth couldn't make it compete internationally). Such things as the control of the media and spying, many of which only became known later, are already present in this episode. Perhaps it reflects a historical understanding of the sort of things that totalitarian regimes do to support themselves.
But perhaps the moment which best encapsulates the apartheid allusion is where Number 6 is given his 'costume' of his ordinary clothes to wear at the ball. The fact that people were given costumes rather than choosing them, and referred to only by their allocated numbers rather than their names, is perhaps a clear reference to the apartheid regimes system of racial classifications, which could at times be as Wonderland as anything in The Village:
'Eleven-year-old Sandra Laing, who was White, then declared Coloured and has now been classified White again, does not quite understand what has happened to her.' (Sunday Times, August 6, 1967, cited in Ben MacLennan: Apartheid The Lighter Side, Chameleon Press, Plumstead, 1990, p. 13)

Friday, 16 October 2015

Seventies TV: Zodiac

I have had this show on my list of ones I have wanted to post about, for some time, at least six months. What has prompted me actually to get on with it, is that considering I have watched the whole series several times with growing enjoyment, I have been astonished to discover the rather mediocre reviews on the rest of the internet. That seems to be the role of this blog – the present an unerring eccentric view of TV programmes, in fact one could almost say that it embodies my own opinions!
I get the impression that people penalise this show for several things – it seems that the scores on reviews are lower than the impression you would get from the actual review. So let's get the show's shortcomings out of the way first. Its production values are incredibly dated, even for 1974. It was shot on video tape, it is either completely or nearly completely studio-bound. The sets are very plainly just that – sets, including sets of the outdoors. To my mind, all of these things are the sort of things the fan of vintage TV accepts, or even appreciates. Having seen a film at the cinema yesterday for the first time in some years (it was Legend starring Tom Hardy as both Kray twins and I would recommend it highly), I have been reminded of how unreal CGI actually looks if your staple viewing is of the vintage mine is. I would grant you that the production of this show is more of ten years before, and this show bears no resemblance to the contemporary live-action shows. It feels much more like a stage play in pace and presentation.
A more valid criticism in my eyes, is that this is a series called Zodiac which only has six episodes, giving an impression of incompleteness. I have not been able to find a reference online to whether the full zodiac was intended, and it is not apparent from the available shows because they are all self-contained. I also get the impression from some reviews that this is a series which has a cult following and is considered a neglected gem in some quarters: in the world of vintage TV this reputation is one which is almost guaranteed to make a TV show a disappointment unless it is absolutely superlative.
I feel that where Zodiac fails to be a resounding hit with the vintage TV crowd, is that I for one am finding it very difficult to place it. Obviously in terms of this blog I have a ready-made label for this show in the form is 70s TV, but I would find it difficult to say that if you like such-and-such a show you will like this. Certainly, in terms of my own favourite division of vintage TV, into the real and the unreal, I would have difficulty placing this one. It is trying to be both at the same time. It is a police procedural, with occult overtones. These overtones are taken completely seriously, I should say, and played completely straight. The astrologer is obviously a sensible person who is capable of reasoning, to the astonishment of the detective at times. Unfortunately the launch into astrology and tarot would tend to put off the fans of police procedural, and the at times plodding work which goes with police work, would tend to put off the more flighty magical types. This is this show's biggest downfall – it tries to appeal to two different audiences at once and is bound to fail.
Otherwise, it is superb. Each stand-alone episode is well-plotted. What is not to love in top 1970s totty Anouska Hempel as the astrologer? Normally I would find the host of familiar faces in this one distracting but it works very well, because it is actually such a strongly-scripted show that the familiar faces become the characters. I have also been watching Anton Rodgers in Murder Most English (based on Colin Watson's excellent Flaxborough novels, where I find I reacted to his presence by thinking that he is never anything but Anton Rodgers. Here I find I forget that he is Anton Rodgers and play attention to the part. Even many of the guest actors in each episodes are great names of the time and none of this annoys me, who can't stand repeated casting of actors. Totally unreasonably, of course, since it can't really be expected that an actor can only ever play the one role for which he is typecast and never anything else.
Visually the show suffers from the porridgy colours inflicted on many 1970s shows, so that it often doesn't tend to look that interesting. The sets make up for this to a great extent by the detail and complexity of the 1970s tat. In terms of pace, the show is probably slightly slower than modern ones, but this is made up for by the sparkling tension between the two main characters.
So all in all, I wouldn't personally give this one that low a score. I would recommend it to the kind of people who like the kind of TV shows which this kind of blog features! My only proviso would be to remember not to expect to be able to place it in any ready-made box too easily.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Comic Strip Presents & Others: The New Statesman

The subject of time has come up in the classic TV blogosphere this week, so of course I have to leap in and give my two penn'orth. My impression of time in the world of TV is that it depends on the programme and the viewer's first experience of it. The later Avengers were made before I was born, for example, but seem very recent to me because of my early experience of them on the young Channel Four. Many of the 1970s shows I have talked about here seem very old because they were broadcast when I was a very small child, while the shows from the 80s and 90s when I was at some very difficult ages, are etched on my memory as if yesterday. I would also suggest that older production values and social concerns can make shows seem older than newer ones.
Recently I have been rediscovering a whole movement of 1980s comedy. I have posted several times here on the subject of comedy recently, and what surprises me most is how little I have posted on it. Of course this is because much of the pre-mid-1980s TV comedy is (in my humble opinion) really not much cop. Then in the 1980s a whole 'alternative' comedy movement came along which was actually funny and remains so thirty years later. The first of those programmes was The Comic Strip Presents…, which I'm sure I will come to at some point. I have already touched on the wonderful Young Ones. But I have not yet posted on Bottom, Filthy Rich and Catflap, French and Saunders, Ab Fab or The New Statesman, which is the subject of this post.
I have a feeling that probably The New Statesman would have been a better vehicle for celebrating Rik Mayall's talent in the wake of his death than is The Young Ones. The other series for which he is known often rely on a comic counterpoint between Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, but The New Statesman gives him much more of a solo stage, to which the other characters are subsidiary. Nor can this programme be considered a mere rehash of Yes, (Prime) Minister, although it seems to cover much of the same territory. The Yes, Minister programmes give me the heeby jeebies, because it depicts what to me is a chilling world of personal careerism, backhanders, and the prevention of any real progress by the machinations of the civil service. Yes, Minister serves up an all too real world of politics and diplomacy which is easily transferrable to any forum in the world, where nothing really matters. Bizarrely The New Statesman manages to take the same material and make it hilarious for me.
I'm not sure why. Nor does it seem dated, and can make me laugh out loud at this length of time. It certainly should seem dated, since it very much reflects the 1980s, the age of the 'yuppie' in the UK. Its concerns are completely of that age: AIDS is mentioned, parliamentary corruption and perversion, police influence in public life, sexual morality, conflict with trades unionists, radioactive waste dumping, and Jeffrey Archer and the Vatican Bank even get a mention. This list includes virtually all of the major concerns of the time, and as far as this blog is concerned, represents what came next in the history of the usual 1960s preoccupations in my habitual viewing.
I think that probably I would recommend this as an antidote to dewy-eyed Anglophiles, in need of seeing the seedy underbelly of British public life as it is. I love the bit where B'Stard takes money from a blind beggar to put in the parking meter: these are often the people who represent us. I love the scenes in the House of Commons (Did you know that to this day the BBC maintains a complete replica of the House of Commons?) and non-native Brits viewing it should not be shocked at the abuse our parliamentarians give each other in the chamber. That is traditional and allowed! The show's Wikipedia page accurately summarises B'Stard's attitudes, which stand as a summary & criticism of parliamentarians' attitudes of the time:
'Over the course of the series, stage shows and newspaper columns, Alan opined on numerous topics, most of which demonstrated his contempt for the working class and indeed anyone not of the political and financial elite (the ordinaries). During an argument with a constituent, B'Stard declared that he believed he was helping British industry by driving a Bentley (a [Lagonda] In series 4) and having his suits handmade by British craftsmen. B'Stard's arrogance even extended to stating that there was nothing wrong with the education system that couldn't be put right with £2,500 a term, and that NHS waiting lists could be abolished by shutting down the health service, thereby eradicating poor people and eliminating poverty. B'Stard continued this train of thought through his defection to New Labour when he was instrumental in arranging a postcode lottery for cancer treatment so that "only the right people get better". Alan at one time proposed inverting the rallying cry of the American War of Independence by stating that "No representation without taxation" was a more fitting clarion call, believing people such as himself (the "enterprising, over-taxed minority") to be called on far too often to bail out other members of society. Alan used the same argument when proposing to cut off all social security payments to elderly people as he believes they should have considered how they would look after themselves instead of wasting their money on "ghastly holidays in Blackpool". When being interviewed by Brian Walden, Alan readily consented that should he rule the UK, the rich would only pay tax on their cocaine, children would be forced to work in mills and the elderly and infirm would be left to die by the thousands.' (Source)
One thing which I find particularly clever is the way B'Stard's reputation manager, Norman, gradually undertakes what we would now call a gender reassignment, becoming more feminine at each appearance, and even commenting on her increasing femininity. This is cleverly juxtaposed with the fear which the Prime Minister inspires every time she is mentioned. Mrs Thatcher's name is never actually mentioned by anyone in parliament, and they always refer to her as 'she' in a tone which manages to be fearful without being overdone at all. It is clear that the one actual female character in parliament is not feminine at all!
The scenes which take place in B'Stard's constituency are also charming, displaying a community of eccentrics including his father in law, and the retired hangman who runs a pub.
Normally I would criticise the fact that there are some familiar faces in the cast (Peter Sallis plays the former hangman, for example), but their presence is not intrusive. In fact I have been sitting here trying to think of some criticism to make of this show, and been completely unable to do so!

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Many Happy Returns

I have commented before in this series of posts, that it is possible to read virtually anything into The Prisoner if you try hard enough, and that is certainly true. Certainly the elements of apartheid relating to power, conformity, nonconformity, and control, all find very strong echoes in the dynamics of Number 6's experience. But I feel this episode takes us very close to the heart of apartheid and its real point. In fact I feel it could be argued that the opening sequence of almost every episode replays Number 6's forced removal, echoing that of the people forcibly removed from areas rezoned for whites, under South African apartheid. I'm afraid this is going to be a post where I largely marshall evidence brought from elsewhere, and that is largely because I can't summarise the forced removals better than they are here:
'From 1960 to 1983, the apartheid government forcibly moved 3.5 million black South Africans in one of the largest mass removals of people in modern history. There were several political and economic reasons for these removals. First, during the 1950s and 1960s, large-scale removals of Africans, Indians, and Coloureds were carried out to implement the Group Areas Act, which mandated residential segregation throughout the country. More than 860,000 people were forced to move in order to divide and control racially-separate communities at a time of growing organized resistance to apartheid in urban areas; the removals also worked to the economic detriment of Indian shop owners. Sophiatown in Johannesburg (1955-63) and District Six in Cape Town (beginning in 1968) were among the vibrant multi-racial communities that were destroyed by government bulldozers when these areas were declared "white." Blacks were forcibly removed to distant segregated townships, sometimes 30 kilometers (19 miles) from places of employment in the central cities. In Cape Town, many informal settlements were destroyed. In one incident over four days in 1985, Africans resisted being moved from Crossroads to the new government-run Khayelitsha township farter away; 18 people were killed and 230 were injured. 
'Second, African farm laborers made up the largest number of forcibly removed people, mainly pushed out of their jobs by mechanization of agriculture. While this process has happened in many other countries, in South Africa these rural residents were not permitted to move to towns to find new jobs. Instead, they were segregated into desperately poor and overcrowded rural areas where there usually were no job prospects.
'Third, removals were an essential tool of the apartheid government's Bantustan (or homeland) policy aimed at stripping all Africans of any political rights as well as their citizenship in South Africa. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were moved to resettlement camps in the bantustans with no services or jobs. The massive removals in the early 1960s to overcrowded, infertile places in the Eastern Cape such as Dimbaza, Ilinge, and Sada were condemned internationally. These were dumping grounds for Africans who were "superfluous to the labor market," as a 1967 government circular called them. Ultimately, these people were to become the responsibility of "independent" Bantustans so that the white regime would have no financial responsibility for the welfare of people there. Hundreds of thousands of other Africans were dispossessed of land and homes where they had lived for generations in what the government called "Black spots" in areas that the government had designated as part of "white" South Africa. Also, some entire townships were destroyed and their residents removed to just inside the borders of bantustans where they now faced long commutes to their jobs. By the 1980s, popular resistance to removals was widespread, and government plans to remove up to two million more people were never carried out.' (Source)
If it seems as if I'm making too much of the removal issue, when I'm supposedly writing a post concerning returns, that is actually because I'm doing it deliberately before turning it on its headby commenting that actually the point of this episode is to turn therecurring removal theme of the rest of the show into a return. Of course the point of the return is that Number 6 cannot return to what he has known because his home and car have been usurped by the Village authorities. He has been truly disappeared in a passive way, just as many people were in South Africa. This impossibility of return and its parallels with apartheid forced removals are reinforced in this account relating to forced removals in Sophiatown, Johannesburg (the removals in District Six of Cape Town were more contemporary with the making of the show and may therefore have been more influential but this quote happens to say exactly what I want to say:
'Nobody argued that Sophiatown wasn't a slum, at least in part. The journalist Anthony Sampson, who knew both the neighborhood and its people quite well, once wrote that it "was filthy, overcrowded and it stank...." It was also, he quickly added, "the heartland of developing urban black culture -- it vibrated with activity, talk and excitement." And, so, everybody -- everybody, that is, who was black or politically progressive -- would have agreed with Father Huddleston that "...the Government's scheme was not slum-clearance but robbery: robbery carried out in the interests of and under pressure from the neighboring white suburbs: a political manoeuvre."'(Source)
The apartheid authorities were not really relocating people to a suitable place under their racial policy, they were really taking what people had for themselves. The illustrations to this post are before and after pictures of Sohpiatown – it was made impossible to return. Subsequently the area was renamed Triomf and housing built for working-class Afrikaners, although it has now been renamed Sophiatown again.
The message that the apartheid authorities were giving to the displaced non-whites is almost exactly what the Village authorities are saying to Number 6: We will do what we like, ensure you have no recourse to law, we will take what is yours, including name and identity, and you can never return. In the case of this episode, Number 6's solitude is additionally reinforced by the empty Village and lack of speech in the first part. The message is chilling in the extreme, and one calculated to induce despair.
Image credit: here