Friday, 24 July 2015

Strange Report: Second Impressions

These are my second impressions because I have actually owned the boxed set of this show before and sold it. I found myself thinking about one of the plots, and this turned into one of the rare occasions when I regret getting rid of something, so I bought it again, fortunately much more cheaply this time, on EBay.
I'd better start off by saying that I don't find anything terribly objectionable in this show. Regular readers of this blog will know that that is how I usually preface tearing apart a poor defenceless old TV series, and I really don't want to tear this one apart but I realise now the things that made me uncomfortable with it the first time round. The first thing is the name. Just to be completely clear, this is a series of crime 'reports' investigated by a chap called Strange. You would therefore expect it to be called The Strange Report; I have a feeling that it may not have been because that would be too obvious a parody of late 60s and early 70s TV reportage. And this series notoriously plays everything very straight and resists spilling over into campness. The fact remains, however, that The Strange Report can more easily be understood to mean a report by a man called Strange (and in fact, reading around on the internet, that is exactly what people often call it), but Strange Report without the definite article more easily sets up the reader to expect a report which is strange, or about something strange. Speaking as an amateur of many of the strangest TV series ever (and have no fear, when I can get my head round it I will gladly write about Gurney Slade), this isn't that strange. And that is what lets it down. I wasn't around at the time, but I'm quite sure that expectations of strangeness at the end of the 1960s could have been very difficult to meet: Department S this ain't, which is why that comparison fails. In fact the strangest episode I've seen so far I'm watching as I write, and it's about witchcraft. I don't yet know how it ends, but I have a feeling that the cold scientific approach of Strange's team will reveal a plain crime behind the apparent magic. Oh – and there's another name thing. If you have a name which is in any way odd, particularly if it is an adjective, you don't walk into a room and say, for example, 'I'm Jolly.' You walk into a room and say, 'My name's Jolly.' And this is much more the case for Strange as a name. The only reason you would walk into a room and say, 'I'm Strange,' is for laughs, and in a series which otherwise is completely straight, this can only be an example of how there is a slight lack of identity.
I know it must seem like I'm nit-picking, and indeed I am, but this point (the 'I'm Strange' line doesn't appear frequently by any means) leads me nicely to the point that this is a series with multiple writers, and it shows in a certain patchiness of approach. You may say that that is to be expected, but I would maintain that it is a production problem – with multiple writers you have to lay down some very clear rules as to how the show goes, and there is the odd hint that different ideas were fighting behind the scenes. Some of the episodes are definitely of a genre that would provoke my taste for anything offbeat, others are more straightforward detection, others have regrettable elements of politics and ideology, which cannot necessarily be assumed to be acceptable to the viewer.
For a change to my usual policy, I don't find familiar actors' faces a distraction in this series. I think this may be because they are usually limited to one or two, are not the same old roll call of actors who appeared in so many independent TV series in the 1960s, and frequently are in roles which show them in a much different light to their typecast, familiar roles. This is therefore a refreshing change from my usual reception of another familiar face.
On the other hand, I would just comment that this is one of those shows where people talk about the star. Just as people nowadays go to work the next day and say, 'Did you see that thing with [invariably] Benedict Cumberbatch?', I have no doubt that at the end of sixties people said the same about Anthony Quayle. For me he is not the star of the show, nor yet Kaz Garas, but Anneke Wills as Evelyn makes this show for me. To start off with I had to keep double-taking to make sure that Joanna Lumley hadn't somehow slipped in as another character. I looove those vowels. She is marvellous as the young gel in Swinging London.
And that is where this show comes into its own. In this it reminds me of Adam Adamant, since it gives wonderful glimpses into the London of the time. This was an age when people went off to London to get into the scene of the time, they became students or got a job as something or other. I don't doubt that at the time they thought they were quite badly off, but I feel that that probably wouldn't compare to the sheer difficulty and expense of surviving in London nowadays!
Strange Report also uses a similar visual language to that found in The Avengers, but with a slightly different sense that the more modern visuals may be intended to suggest youngsters and Swinging London. There is also the same appearance of progress mixing to various degrees with tradition – this may have been related to the admittedly transatlantic ambitions of the show, which were to come to a head in the second series which was never made. Of course the period detail comes with a downside, which the picture illustrating this post is intended to demonstrate, that while the sets were decorated in the height of fashion for the time, it is in retrospective awful. That wallpaper. The clashing curtains. Think Tara King's apartment and you realise that it is not surprising so many murders happened in these shows. And that shirt. I mean, seriously, either it would take hours to iron the frills on the front, or if it didn't need ironing, it would make your hair stand on end. Considering how much I love the TV of this period, I've been a bit slow to realise how awful the taste of the time was, and this show has made me realise it.
This is not something which can be said of the music, which has far higher ambitions than a mere TV series – far from being some light confection for TV, it gives the impression of being much more cinematic.
Incidentally, the ideas of 'witchcraft' – always a word which can be poached by anyone who wants to use it in anyway they want – are clearly poached from the ideas of Gardnerian Wicca of the time, which in turn come from popular ideas of what historical witchcraft was. In reality, it is interesting how Strange engages with the 'witches', since no reputable academic has ever accepted the idea of witchcraft as the Old Religion, or of the religion of the Goddess. The reviews of Margaret Murray's books in the journal of the Folklore Society alone, would indicate to an academic that there was something fictional about the whole thing. And yes, it comes down to a question of superstition, although Strange ends by not committing himself on the question as to whether they are real.
All in all, not an objectionable series, which I shall be keeping this time, marred somewhat by a few flaws which make it unable to stand up to the sort of grilling I give a TV show.

4 comments:

Walt deFucq said...

"..a certain patchiness of approach. You may say that that is to be expected, but I would maintain that it is a production problem" - why? Why does it need to be a problem of any sort? Surely the wide variety exhibited in the scripts allows the show to exhibit believable, well-rounded characters who encounter the many and varied aspects of life that one would expect such people to meet in the real late 1960s.

John said...

I hadn't thought of that possibility. I was suspecting a lack of direction given to the writers.

Mike Doran said...

Message from Chicago (two years delayed, but what the hell):

Strange Report was an Anglo-American co-production: Sir Lew Grade's ITC partnered with Norman Felton at MGM and NBC in the USA.

Sir Lew was having one of his sales streaks in the US. Circa 1969, he worked a deal with NBC to make original series in England, using American and British talent, mainly in something other than the variety formats he'd been selling in the States for off-season use.

Norman Felton was a successful producer of series TV at MGM; his biggest hits were Dr. Kildare, which made Richard Chamberlain a TV star, and The Man From UNCLE, which did the same for Robert Vaughn and (by accident) David McCallum.
Felton had hit a dry spell by '69, when NBC put him together with Sir Lew for this trans-Atlantic deal. The original plan was for Strange Report and a few other ITC shows to play on the NBC Fall '70 schedule, but there was a change of management at NBC, and the productions were mainly shelved.
Come January of 1971, Anthony Quayle had brought Sleuth to Broadway, and the NBC brass decided to play off Strange Report as a mid-season replacement; Quayle made an obligatory Johnny Carson appearance (really more for Sleuth than anything else), but Strange played out in virtual secrecy otherwise.
I have a DVD set; in watching the shows, I noticed that many of the writers Felton employed were Americans, most of whom he'd worked with on Kildare and UNCLE. Kaz Garas, who was in the entry level of US TV, was put in for Yank interest, while many of the British players had had at least some exposure in the USA; the one I can recall at the moment was Pamela Franklin, who'd put in time at Disney not long before, but I'm sure there were others.
You could tell me how Strange Report played in the UK; the American run was short and not successful. There was a paperback tie-in, published in the US by Lancer: I've got that, and the DVDs, and my memory to tell me that this was a series that I liked then, and still like today.

Now I'll hit Publish, and see how far back people go when they check this site out (other than me, of course).

John said...

Mike, thank you for commenting.
Actually some of my older posts get quite a lot of hits because they come up in google when people search for the show.
I'm interested that UNCLE script writers were moved over to Strange - it does show and is probably one of the things which explains why the set is still on my shelf.
As for how the show was/is received in the UK it is probably quite telling that I have absolutely no idea, have never read a contemporary review and rarely seen current interest from the old TV fans.