Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Colonel March of Scotland Yard/Colonel March Investigates

In a recent post about Knight Errant, I passed out of my usual time frame, i.e. beyond the beginning of the 1960s. In recent weeks I have also passed beyond my most recent date, previously the 1990s, when I posted about The Game. This has caused me to reflect on what TV was like before television executives began smoking copious amounts of weed in the 1960s and came up with the weird shows I post about here. I think probably Knight Errant was an atypical example, since it definitely has Avengers overtones. I'm not sure whether this is accurate but I have a mental picture of a snobbish division between the worthy broadcasting of the BBC and the more ephemeral broadcasting of the independent channels - in fact exactly the sort of programmes I blog about here. I'm sure the BBC's output required close attention and could not be reduced to background, although I suspect the picture in my mind's eye of people in evening dress (both viewers and broadcasters) is much further back in time!
I am ashamed to announce that up until last week I had never even heard of Colonel March of Scotland Yard, and only discovered him as a recommendation for my viewing by Amazon. It was a TV programme broadcast in 1955 - 6, of which a number of episodes are available to view or download on various sites on t'internet. You can buy DVDs of some episodes. I am unable to comment on the legal or licensing status of these DVDs. Since reviews are wildly mixed, I am also unable to comment on the quality of these DVDs. Certainly the episodes I have downloaded so far are rather low quality, but I would consider it churlish to complain about that because they are free. Obviously everyone reading this will have access to a computer at some point, and presumably could burn the episodes to a DVD if it was so wished.
Before I viewed the remaining episodes which I have downloaded I did actually buy a DVD of a film called Colonel March Investigates, and here we are in slightly different territory. The only thing I would say about that film is that (in Man From UNCLE films style) it is actually three episodes of the TV programme stitched together. I personally don't have any difficulty with that, but if you are expecting a single protracted plot for the whole hour, obviously you are going to be disappointed. I think it well worth buying this DVD because while obviously being sixty years old, the quality is much better than the episodes I have downloaded off t'internet.
I think it important to remember (especially given that I have watched the film three times on the trot this morning while thinking over what to say in this post) that that cinema release of the TV show would have been the only time people would have seen a repeat of the TV show at the time. Since TV sets were very much rarer, it would also have been the only time a lot more people ever saw this show at all. These facts combined with the approach to television as if it was theatre (each broadcast was a one-off 'performance' which would never be repeated) right up until the 1970s conbine to make 1950s TV very much different from now. You see I have managed to get back to the point I started off making. Whether on TV or at the cinema, people would have had to view these shows as if they were a theatre performance - you would have to turn up when the performance was on and if you didn't you would miss it, and probably never get the chance to see it again. The only pity is that I doubt there was time for a gin in the interval. There is a very real sense in which earlier TV was a much more demanding medium than in todays world of replaying and continual repeats.
These reflections on the differences in the medium are  rather by the way in the case of Colonel March. Regular readers will be well acquainted with my dislike of familiar actors who reappear in so many things, to the extent that you notice the actor not the character. In this case there are two actors who are shown in such unusal roles that one at least of them is almost unrecognisable. I am talking of course about Boris Karloff, who plays the kindly detective of the Department of Queer Complaints, in a much different vein from most of his more familiar horror roles. He confirms my opinion that the really great actors do not allow their own personalities to intrude on their roles: it is easy to forget that this is the great Boris Karloff. There is also a very uncharacteristic role for Richard Wattis as a villain rather than the establishment figures he is better known for. His urbane nature and the simple fact that he comes across as the sort of reliable figure who should be respectable, makes him excellent in this role, because of course you don't expect him to be the villain!
The episodes are based on short stories by John Dixon Carr, one of the 'Golden Age' detective writers who was renowned for his 'locked room' mysteries. They are therefore not written by a hack by any manner of means. My only criticism, and it is a completely personal one, is that I feel that while a short story is in itself a sort of 'locked room' in which to consider a mystery, the ones chosen here were perhaps not rich enough to be turned into whole TV shows. This is a completely personal view, and I wouldn't go to the stake for it by any manner of means: my personal opinion is that these shows are better watched for the atmosphere and the personality of Colonel March. 
Production values are more cinematic than televisual, which may be why the three episodes made into a film work so well. That said, I can certainly name TV shows made twenty years later which have much less developed production values than these shows. I particularly like that Colonel March periodically breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the viewer, which reinforces a sense of involvement.  I haven't really watched enough episodes to come to a conclusion about the sort of world and underlying asuumptions references in this TV show, so I will probably come back to it in another post.
Colonel March is a show which has made me think further on what 1950s TV would have been like. I like the atmosphere of this show very much, and in fact it has made me wonder whether I like all of the shows I do because of their atmosphere (The sixth-series Avengers episode called Fog being a prime example)! This show breaks through some of my assumptions about returning actors, and also provides surprising roles for some well-known actors of the time. I consider it a little-known gem. If you want to buy DVDs I can recommend the SimplyMedia release of Colonel March Investigates, but as I say I cannot speak for the quality of the DVD releases of the single TV episodes, which are anyway available for free download on the internet.

4 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Greetings from Chicago, Illinois USA:

Colonel March was a staple in American syndication for much of the 1950s; local stations here were running it well into the '60s.

From what I can gather it was one of Sir Lew Grade's early forays into film production, made with an eye on sales overseas, especially in the US.
John Dickson Carr (note spelling), the best known British mystery writer to come out of Pennsylvania, was at a peak of popularity on both sides of the pond at this point.
March the series had considerable American input in its production: many of its scripts came from US writers who were on the blacklist at the time ("Alfred Slote" is one name I recall in that context; I have a complete "bootleg" DVD set, so when I get a chance I'll check some of the others).
A frequent director was Cyril Endfield, another blacklistee: He began with the Bowery Boys in the US and ultimately went on to major British films like Zulu.

As to Boris Karloff, everything I've ever read about the man indicates that his own personality was closer to the genial Colonel March than to his many movie villains - indeed it was one of the major reasons he agreed to do the series.

I may take some time to watch other March episodes soon; I can recall seeing a very young Arthur Hill, long before he came to the US, playing a suspect in one show - also another with future director John Schlesinger in a small role; could be lots of other "discoveries" like this ...

Good luck and good wishes from Chicago!

John said...

Thank you for commenting, Mike.
I hadn't realised the strength of this show's transatlantic streak and any inaccuracies in the post are entirely the fault of my sources :o)
And yes, the kindness of Boris Karloff is one of the most wonderful things ever.

Unknown said...

These shows are shown daily in the Talking Movies Channel in the U.K. It's on channel 343 on Sky but I believe it's also on free digital. John Dickson Carr's Gideon Fell novels are very good.

Regards,
Stephen.

John said...

Thank you for commenting, Stephen, I hadn't realised that, nor the number of hits this post would get. Despite me not having heard of this show before, it turns out it is more popular than I thought!