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.