Sunday, 12 June 2016

Thriller: First Impressions

I have a policy for this blog of not posting about TV shows which I consider complete duds: naturally that means more frequently that if you don't find a show written about here it means that I've never seen it, which applies more to the American shows you will find talked about on the cult TV blogosphere. That said, I am writing about this show to try to clarify my own thoughts about it: the fact that it appears here means that I don't think it is no good, but I have decidedly mixed emotions about it.
Firstly is the fact that somehow I had managed never to hear of it. I see that it was broadcast from1973 to 1976 and so I would have been in no position to see it when it was first broadcast. It has all the hallmarks of quality, because it was created by Brian Clemens ( a name which should require no introduction to readers of this blog) who scripted the majority of the episodes. I see from the wikipedia page that some of them were based on Avengers scripts (including Take Over, Don't Look Behind You, and The Joker) and were re-used subsequently to become New Avengers episodes (Medium Rare and The Colour of Blood). The original music was composed by Laurie Johnson, another name who should be familiar to us all, and it becomes apparent that Thriller is, in a sense, what came between The Avengers and The New Avengers. I haven't watched the whole series at this point, but it has already become apparent to me that wikipedia is right to state that many of the episodes are set in the English home counties/stockbroker belt. Of course we cult TV aficionados would perhaps be slightly quicker to call the setting Avengerland. The wikipedia page goes into further details of how the different episodes step into different genres, including detection and the supernatural. This strikes a chord with me because I have been reflecting recently on how The Avengers parodies different genres of screen writing; for example the series 6 episode Wish You Were Here is an Avengers-style reworking of many a Golden Age detective story. All of the elements of the story - the conspiracy to take over the firm, the country house hotel, the 'locked room' plot device of keeping certain people prisoner in an otherwise innocent hotel - all could well come from Agatha Christie.
The respectable antecedents of Thriller gather together to make the show look and feel exactly like The Avengers. Thriller uses the same visual language of traditional settings and ordinary respectable situations to create the Avengers atmosphere of a respectable, comforting world gone awry; in fact compared to other 1970s series Thriller must have looked somewhat old-fashioned because of its use of a more colourful palette than the predominant browns fashionable at the time. The visual setting of Avengersland further reinforces the Avengers feel of the series.
But there's something not quite right, which detracts from my enjoyment of this series which ought to be bang up my street. In trying to put my finger on it, I have thought about how I approach The New Avengers: I have written before her about my humble opinion that to enjoy The New Avengers it is important not to approach it as if it is The Avengers but as if it is a completely different 1970s series and approach it as if it were, say, The Sweeney or The Professionals. How then should I approach Thriller, bearing in mind that it comes from the same stable as The Avengers and yet is not The Avengers? This is the difficulty I am having in deciding how best to approach it. I feel that Thriller in a sense is short-served in comparison to The New Avengers because in addition to being closer in time to the original Avengers it is also closer in development. It has so many Avengers overtones that it is impossible to overlook them and yet bearing in mind the Avengers overtones leads to automatic disappointment because some classic Avengers elements are completely missing.
What is missing may be summed up by saying that Thriller lacks the conscious unreality of The Avengers. While the setting is apparently very similar, there are none of the caricatures and ridiculous situations which are a staple of The Avengers. This is not a criticism: Thriller is definitely not in the same weird stable as The Avengers, and it is necessary in a series called Thriller to make the viewer build up an expectation that what is happening could happen in real life. I have a feeling that this uneasy relationship to The Avengers will make or break this show for me, that I will either manage to forget the Avengers link and love it, or will forever be dissatisfied.
My personal ambivalence aside, the show is one which I would very much recommend to anyone who likes Our Sort of Television. The writing is naturally excellent. It varies a little since the episodes are aiming for a number of different genres, including horror and detection. The plots are naturally of a pace which would fit in in the 1970s: once again if you want slow suspense rather than short attention-span television, this is for you. The sets are fairly obviously mainly studio-based, perhaps overly-so to my mind, but this isn't really a criticism I suppose. I have kept an eye open and failed to see familiar items from ITC shows or The Avengers, and failed, so they must have used a different prop supplier. There are occasions when I feel that the show would benefit from a larger cast - even in pieces set in public, such as a library, it is obvious that the same few souls are reappearing over and over again. My one criticism of this show, which some will consider entirely a personal preference, is that it uses far too many familiar actors of the time. I much prefer the ones where I don't know the actors, since even though the big names are not playing characters for which they are famous, it still makes me recognise the actors rather than the characters. My only criticism of the Network boxed set I have is that it seems to play rather unpredictably: I have often got to the end of a disc only to find it replaying a scene I have alreadt seen once.
If you like anthology series, and want to experience one written by a major contributor to The Avengers and so with many Avengers echoes, I would recommend Thriller highly. As for whether I will be able to take to it, long term, we shall have to see.

4 comments:

Grant Goggans said...

I'd love to read more about this series, and I absolutely love the phrase "Our Sort of Television." What more needs to be said?

John said...

Thank you!
I'm sure when I wrote this post I found an episode-by-episode online analysis of this show which unfortunately I can't find now, but tnere is more out there to be read.

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (again):

What I remember about Thriller (GB) was that it couldn't be called that in the USA.
Back in the early '60s, MCA and NBC mounted an anthology series called Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff.
At first, the stories were a mix of crime dramas and semi-horror tales; midway through the first season, NBC and Revue (what MCA called its TV production arm) decided to go to horror full time, playing up Karloff's intros as mood-setters.
Thriller (US) didn't have a long run, by American standards at least - 67 hour-long shows in black & white.
But when it went into local syndication, its popularity picked up noticeably; it's been running on local US stations to this day.

Fast-forward to 1973:
The ABC network in the US is in need of a shake-up for its late-night (post late news) time slot on weeknights; Dick Cavett's talk show, a critical darling, isn't drawing well, but ABC doesn't want to drop it outright.
On NBC, Johnny Carson is apparently unbeatable, while on CBS, Merv Griffin is the loss-leader.
After much executive-suite head-banging, ABC decides to make its late-night lineup a grab bag, to be called ABC's Wide World Of Entertainment, alternating weeks thusly:
- A week of five Cavett talk shows;
- A week of newly produced comedy-variety specials;
- A week of talk shows hosted by Jack Paar, coming back to network TV after a decade off the air;
- and Wide World Mystery, original suspense dramas produced on very low budgets in Hollywood, New York - and a newly acquired set of shows from ATV in England, known over there as Thriller.
MCA, however, was a litigious lot; ABC couldn't use the Thriller title stateside for the ATV shows - they had to be subsumed into the overall Wide World Mystery package, along with the US-made shows.
Starting in the winter of '73, that's what happened. Every fourth week, after the late news, ABC would have a new(ish) mystery drama each weeknight - all on tape, some from New York, some from Hollywood, and some from England (the Thrillers, minus that title).
ABC's announcer on Wide World Of (whatever) was Fred Foy, best-remembered as the long-term announcer of The Lone Ranger ("From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!!!")
Foy brought his customary brio to all the shows, but he saved up something special for Thriller (GB):
"Tonight on Wide World Mystery! An all-new suspense story written by BRIAN CLEMENS!!!"
If the episode in question had an American star (most of them did, as I recall), Foy would shout out that name as well.
Over the next few years, ABC would alter the schedule configuration (the four-week rotation went down early), but the Clemens Thrillers were always a part of the overall mix.

The ATV Thriller is available on US DVDs - as is the '60s Karloff Thriller, to the confusion of many lazy collectors who still can't keep the two shows straight.
I have the DVDs of both shows - just to be on the safe side.

John said...

Well that confusion over the two series also gave me difficulties! And once again thank you very much for an insight into how these shows were exported - although of course by this point American leads were featured specifically to make the show more attractive to the US.