Saturday, 5 November 2016

Dick Barton Special Agent

My policy on this blog is not to write about shows which are complete duds; of course it also means that if a show does not appear on this blog it may mean I think it is a dud or I may just not have got round to writing about it. Nonetheless I think it is better to use this blog to write about quality TV than to publish a list of shows which should be avoided. The point of this preamble is that this post is intended to rehabilitate a show which is unfairly neglected in my opinion. The reviews online seem either to be outstandingly positive or absolutely terrible. This show is real Marmite, and it is the 1979 Southern TV series Dick Barton Special Agent.
The original Dick Barton series was a radio series broadcast from 1946 to 1951on the Light Programme, and the eponymous hero undertook a series of adventures, driven by his boredom after being demobbed after the war. The series is redolent of a Britain long-gone, and many of the attitudes it shows are redolent of a dream Britain which probably never really existed. To put Dick Barton into the world so often discussed on this blog, he is definitely one of us, a real Englishman and defender of what is right. He is out of the same stable as Bulldog Drummond - a stable which later would give birth to John Steed and John Drake, that is after they felt the need to earn their livings. Barton was a hero of the time, and also an interesting model for a generation which had been amputated from the cosy comfort of pre-War Britain. Dick Barton was a hugely successful franchise of the time, including films as well as radio, and has become emblematic of that time and the attitudes which characterised it.
And it is at this point that I would have to introduce a slight problem into this show. The reason for going into the original Dick Barton was to delineate exactly what was being transferred onto 1970s TV: a 1940s hero in a very particular time with a bunch of attitudes which were largely superseded by that point. And this series, while consisting of new adventures, would be almost slavish in its reminiscences of the time and original series, to the extent of being broadcast by Southern Television in the same 15-minute slot that the original radio series broadcast in. and it was played completely straight; to quote the 'viewing notes' which come with the boxed set:
'Southern took as much as they could from the original format. The result would be so engagingly straight-faced that many critics and viewers would interpret the whole series as an extended parody.'
And that is the problem. Dick Barton is a re-creation in a different medium, with slavish adherence to elements of the original radio show, transplanted to a very different era, yet not advertised as a parody. This means that it is a bit difficult to know how to approach this show: either as a reminiscence or a parody. It is a TV show and cannot be viewed as if it were an old film, and I notice that the show's rave reviews on the internet tend to be from people who love the original series or like that genre of adventure hero literature.
I'm going to have to be upfront about my opinion that I think the format is a terrible mistake because it ties this show in too much to its radio background. I think it may work very well if you were going to do the thing of watching one episode an evening, but in the sort of continuous viewing a boxed set invites, the theme tune becomes exhausting. I find it interesting that while Southern broadcast the show in its evening slots as it wanted, the other networks broadcast the episodes two at a time at weekends; I'm left with the impression that this was an individual exercise in reminiscence and parody which backfired because no other enthusiasts could be found to follow into Barton-land.
There is another sense in which Dick Barton works really well. I wanted to write here about the sense of comfort viewing a show set in a world where we know who everyone is and the foeigner is either subservient or the baddie. Of course some of Our Sort of People go off the rails as well. And then I wanted to write about how ridiculous Dick Barton makes these attitudes look. I particularly wanted to write about the way the show's heavy-handed gallantry and obvious compliments to women are absolutely hilarious. And then I wanted to write about despite their comments about women the partnership between Barton and Snowey White is susceptinle of a sexual interpretation (I mean only in the way the dynamic between them is a rather Holmes and Watson couple dynamic, I wouldn't like to suggest that anything would be - hushed voice - going on), a question which no other Dick Barton adaptation has ever raised in my mind! Far from interpreting the whole series as an extended parody, I'm finding it raises question upon question and is far from the simplistic hero-fest that the early Barton films are.
I think that this show produces such a mixed effect on me is an indication of its quality. Its slavish adherence to the format of a 1940s radio show, but transplanting it to 1970s TV, means that it requires a sort of attention which the other shows of the time don't. Perhaps this was another reason for its lack of success.
Otherwise I frankly can't see why this show gets such a critical hammering on the internet. I have read repeatedly, for example, not only that it was plagued by budgetary problems, which is a mere statement of fact, but that these budgetary restrictions show in the actual finished product. Personally I can't see it, I really can't. The period setting of the show is done as well as pre-CGI TV will allow. I would maintain that there is a sense in which this show is set in a fantasy world, as sort of 1970s reconstruction of a previous world, rather in the same vein as the world later inhabited by the young fogies of the 1980s. If you look closely you will see things in the background of shots which couldn't have been there in the 1940s, but that is my pernickerty nature coming out. After all this show was made in the real world (and benefits from that) rather than in a studio. It escapes that dreadful 1970s colour palette of browns and greys by virtue of being set earlier. Rooms are decorated in relatively stronger colours, I love the motor cars and clothes.
I have read it questioned why this show would get a 12 rating in the UK rather than a Parental Guidance, given the relatively safe content and low-level fighting. I suspect that that was influenced by the traumatic subjects touched upon in this show. Every episode ends with a cliffhanger and there are multiple attempts on Barton's life, some of them being in a quite twisted way, such as being buried in the sand on a beach to be drowned by the incoming tide, being locked in a refrigerated container to freeze to death or another one where Jock is locked in a gas-filled room to be killed in a detonation set off by a telephone call. For younger children I think these methods of killing would be the stuff of nightmares and would verge on torture if used in reality, which I think may explain the 12 certificate. Any fighting scenes are nonetheless fairly low-key, and there is no bad language of any sort.
I have commented on the pacing, which is strange by any standards. The picture is strong and clear, with no apparent deterioration of the recording, if it has not been restored. The sound, similarly is strong and clear. The visuals throughout are naguralistic with naturally no CGI of any kind or even any special effects. People who like the sort of television I write about here will feel quite at home with this series, and I would recommend it to anyone, with just the proviso that the format can take some getting used to. It may best be watched one episode at a time over a number of weeks, but I feel that this show is far too addictive to do that, and the repeated cliffhangers will have the viewers wanting to know what happens next.

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