Monday, 22 February 2016

Railways on TV: Dressed to Kill (The Avengers)

I find that this Avengers episode was one of the first shows I blogged about here ( here ). Naturally I don't feel that what I said there can be improved on in any way,  but I do want to at least touch on Dressed to Kill in this series of posts on railways and railway journeys.
It has made me think of the role train journeys can play in films and TV shows. I have already touched on the role of the train creating a closed environment,  most useful in a whodunit as providing a limited pool of suspects. The fact that trains make journeys provides an allegory of change - almost what would be called pilgrimage in religious terms. In Dressed to Kill the passengers in one carriage alone are deliberately separated from the rest of the train and then left in an isolated place where they can't threaten the villain's plans. 'Its a bit quiet for Wolverhampton, ' indeed.
The pilgrimage aspect of train journeys is paralleled by the more supernatural associations of the railways. Many legends of ghosts revolve around trains and stations. Here in the Second City we have the top-hatted figure seen so often at New Street,  but alas never by me. These liminal associations lead naturally to the idea of trains and stations as links between worlds and dimensions,  a role perhaps best seen in the Sapphire and Steel adventure set in a station. It is also clear that the railways instill their own... I'm not sure what the word is... Passion? Mania? It was obvious that the man in A Funny Thing Happened had fallen for the romance of the railways in a big way and it had taken over his life. Beware if you think of train spotting,  you never know what you might be letting yourself in for!
Image credit: http://www.dissolute.com.au

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Railways on TV: A Sentimental Journey (Randall and Hopkirk Deceased)

I have an impression that Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) is rather less popular than many of the shows I post about here. I find the most popular is The Avengers (particularly posts where I talk about Mrs Peel – I think I may have explained those posts’ popularity) and then The Man from UNCLE, although I haven’t really posted on many of those episodes. You would think, with the show’s 1960s vibe and appearance, it would be right at the top of the list. Perhaps there may be a problem with genre, although I would place it firmly into 1960s unreal genre myself, but a railway journey contained in this episode is enough excuse to include it in this series of posts on the railways. Perhaps I should post more on this show and see what happens.
Please don’t get the impression that I don’t like this show – it is actually one of my favourites to put on and just drift into the mood of the episode – but I find I want to start off with a few criticisms. I feel there is a difficulty of credibility with this show – on the one hand it shows the hand-to-mouth existence of the self-employed private eye, with the grinding debt and violence that go with it. On the other hand this bloke has his deceased partner to help him and while I’m not too up on the economics of the time Randall seems to have a lifestyle which couldn’t possibly be financed by someone who never seems to have any money. I don’t mean the essential things for his job, his car and beat-up old office, but I mean his relatively spacious flat furnished in the latest style with furniture which definitely didn’t come from a junk shop. Of course once again I am over-analysing a show intended to be watched once and not paused, but on consideration this does create a dissonance. I think a further weakness of Randall and Hopkirk is to juxtapose the elements of realism with the elements of unrealism found in Hopkirk’s character, since this has the effect of making Hopkirk’s character stand out too much against the ordinary background. I am also never sure whether the show is intended to be funny, which creates a further confusion. I seem to have answered my own question as to the relative unpopularity of this show. While one of this show’s strengths is usually the excellent visuals, a visual confusion in this episode is caused by Randall wearing too much white so that he looks too much like Hopkirk, who is the ghost! And nobody, repeat nobody is called Dandy Garrison. The alarm bells ring immediately.
I didn’t realise he was in this one but Drewe Henley, who was so good as the evil groom in A Funny Thing Happened… reappears as a double-crossing baddie and once again gives a wonderful impression of enjoying it. This does not detract from his fury when he is himself double crossed! There are other familiar faces from the 1960s, but none of them is intrusive enough to make you think of the actor rather than the character.
This show is another which immediately takes us into a different age of British trains. Not just the livery, the spaciousness, the sleeping accommodation, the ‘BR’ etched onto a mirror, all bring back an age of gracious and spacious train journeys. I stand to be corrected on this but I don’t think there is such a things as a train journey, even overnight, within the British isles nowadays where you would have an actual bed to sleep in. I don’t think I’ve ever travelled first class in my life, but I’m fairly sure that even in first class you wouldn’t nowadays get the restaurant car service that you do on that train. The train effect is of an era with the episode of The Avengers in the last post, and thus gives a good impression of actually being on a train and once again soothes the viewer with the sound of the train.
On a completely personal note, one of the things Randall and Hopkirk (and in fact much classic TV although I have just been reminded of it) does for me is remind me of how much older everyone used to look when smoking was more common. Of course Mike Pratt died of lung cancer not many years after this show was broadcast, and looking at him in this episode the smoker’s skin around the eyes is very evident, as are the smoker’s teeth with withdrawn gums and brown staining (perhaps that was missed, since I can’t think of another example of such obvious staining in TV shows of this age – in fact usually people’s teeth are immaculate, even those actually shown smoking). The never-smokers in my audience will find it bizarre that I feel nostalgic for the smell and look of smoking, but my own addiction is not dead, witnessed by how pleased I was when a woman came up to me in the street the other day and asked me if I had a fag, although I gave up years ago. The never-smoker also finds it difficult to understand how one relates to the lady Nicotine, and the intense associations it has. The never-smoker will never understand how nice it is for me that my voice of tobacco in my head is Fenella Fielding in Carry on Screaming, and how nice it was the other day when my godmother was talking to me about a clock my father gave her, to have her comment that she thought I’d stopped smoking, since she could smell fags. Hello, dad. Anyway, enough of the weird world of the addict.
I like this episode enormously, I find it soothing. If you’re looking for a whodunit this is not the place to look, since it is very obvious from very early on that Randall is a ‘stooge’ and the girl is not telling his everything. She is also rather too obviously the femme fatale! Nonetheless it is a good romp, and I am indebted to the Randall and Hopkirk Declassified site (as for the screen cap) for this insight into something I have never noticed before:
' An ITC inter-series in-joke is hidden in plain sight in this episode. Shortly after the opening title sequence, when Jeff enters the Glasgow tenement building to collect the item he is to take to London for Sam Seymour, he walks past a wall covered in graffiti. Eagle-eyed viewers would no doubt have spotted the familiar stick-man symbol of Leslie Charteris' creation, The Saint. However, this particular representation of the sign was somewhat limp-wristed and fey and scrawled diagonally across it was the distinctly politically incorrect legend, 'IS BENT', implying that the character's fondness for the ladies was a bit of an act. The Saint was of course a phenomenally successful ITC series starring Roger Moore and many of the cast and crew of A Sentimental Journey had worked on that series over the years, including director Leslie Norman. Had The Saint continued into Randall's era, one wonders if a similar piece of outspoken graffiti might have manifested itself in that series, perhaps along the lines of 'Jeff Randall couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag'?' ( http://www.randallandhopkirk.org.uk/programmes_04_a_sentimental_journey.htm)

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Railways on TV: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station (The Avengers)

It’s a funny thing (damn, I swore I wouldn’t start out like that) but coming to this, one of my all-time favourite Avengers episodes, straight from the Man from UNCLE episode I last blogged about, it seems rather plain and ordinary in comparison. I would like to think that that merely suggests the sheer psychedelic quality of UNCLE rather than any defect in The Avengers. I also wish to put right the error I made in my last post of only getting to the railway when I had dealt with the actual programme, by starting straight off on the subject of trains.
The opening scenes bring to mind a very different picture of the world of trains, and a different Britain, from that which pertains today. Look at those rows of trains in uniform livery, a livery which brings back happy memories of train journeys with my parents as a child. Not a livery you would see nowadays, and of course you would see all different liveries now: a legacy of the subsequent Conservative government’s policy of privatising everything in sight. The eccentricities of the British railway system are of course all historical (for example I have no fewer than four railway stations within walking distance of my flat) and I was amused by this description of the British rail system which I recently found on Trip Advisor:
' Britain's railway system is one of the most extensive in Europe, and although the network suffers from its Victorian heritage as well as the legacy of successive governments' interference and underfunding; it is the best way to travel from one end of the country to the other and appreciate its highly diverse landscape and culture - once you have worked out the network's many infuriating quirks and idiosyncrasies! ' ( https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Travel-g186216-s202/United-Kingdom:Culture.html)
One of the things I find most interesting about this episode is that the Avengers are very clearly working, or at least Steed is, within an organisation. There are times when Steed can seem like something of a maverick, but it is very clear here how he and his fellow agents follow procedures and within an organisational framework. I do love the way it is not ever made clear just what Steed’s organisation is, but the fact that they are sent in subtly to investigate the Admiralty would indicate that they are very high in Whitehall indeed. The paraphernalia of spying in this episode can only be described as excellent: I love the scene with the recording on the umbrella.
It is just as clear that the Avengers and their world don’t exist in reality. This episode is set in a Home Counties Avengerland which clearly isn’t real. In railway comfort viewing terms, that obviously helps, since it is obvious that this train is travelling through a world which never existed and is never going to come into collision with our own. I think there are a couple of reasons this episode comes across as so cosy and comforting. It is obviously set in the winter (mentions of a girl’s fireside and Steed’s electric blanket) and much of the action takes place in the evening. The brightly-lit train functions as both a warm cocoon in the cold dark evening, but the fact that it is set in the evening makes mental connections for most people with going home after work. Many a commuter must have watched this and been lulled into calm. Despite the fact that the subject of the episode is a (completely Avengersesque and unrealistic) plot to assassinate the prime minister, which ought to create a sense of disease, it manages to be remarkably cosy. I think this is a similar way to how The Town of No Return, which I also find very comforting and cosy, works psychologically, but of course I may be alone in this perception.
Eccentric characters abound in this episode. I particularly love Admiral Cartney, who is such a dirty old man, as well as being incredibly naïve. The 1960s was a time in Britain when you could often buy a disused railway station for a song (following Beeching’s reduction of the railways) and convert it to a home. The eccentric station owner’s ambition to own a main line station is however completely unrealistic! My absolute favourite character is the groom. I love the deranged glee with which he obviously loves killing people! I see that he is played by an actor called Drewe Henley, who was luck enough to be married to Felicity Kendal for a time, but sadly had to retire from acting due to suffering from manic depression.
I have a perception that this is a show of two halves – I don’t claim this to be objectively true, I’m just saying what I think. I feel that the tone of the show changes dramatically after the shooting at the signal box, and becomes darker and more intent on the count down to the assassination. This is signalled by changes in music – and can it be that the sound of the train changes slightly? – and I find it very effective. If I have one criticism of this show at all, I would have to say that I think this changed mood is spoiled by the more slapstick/Avengersesque elements subsequently introduced, such as the throwing of things in the restaurant car and the mere fact the Durbridge’s main industry is the manufacture of eyes for teddy bears.
Otherwise the pace is excellent. This is The Avengers at its peak. The train is not so obviously a set as it was in The Man from UNCLE. The stations are fairly obviously sets, but of course in The Avengers you can always let that go with the simple explanation that things are not supposed to be real! If you read the article on dissolute.com.au about this episode (to which I also owe the picture of the groom) you will see that continuity and other blunders galore can be attributed to this episode if you watch closely enough; I think it is best appreciated as a piece of comic relief which won’t take too much scrutiny!

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Railways on TV: The Adriatic Express Affair (The Man from Uncle)

This series of posts on railways and railway journeys on cult TV shows kicks off with this second-series episode of The Man from UNCLE. And the show itself starts off in great UNCLE style with the men using communicators hidden inside guide books. If they survive they are no doubt in someone’s collection nowadays. I also love the way it starts with Solo ogling a pretty girl.
I find it interesting the way you could actually miss the railway journey in this show if you tried to – the journey is mostly a foil to the colourful plot and larger than life characters. I hadn’t thought about it until watching this show for the umpteenth time this afternoon, but I hadn’t thought about what genres The Man from UNCLE could reference, by which I mean that it obviously isn’t just a straight spy show and while the third series has the reputation for camping it up in competition with Batman (imagine even trying…) this episode of this series is certainly not completely dead pan. Elements of camp abound throughout this – whoever put out a raging fire with a soda siphon? – but it also has elements of…I want to say slapstick or the circus. I’m thinking particularly about the man with a false beard in the station: if you try to place obviously false beards in context it usually means an obvious fake spy, and usually that beard is going to be twanged on his chin, which is what makes me think of the more humorous elements. I may be taking this too far, however.
I find the character of Madame fascinating. I really cannot tell whether the old lady act is intended to be deliberately put on so that people will underestimate her. Certainly she acts as if she is very elderly indeed while still managing to keep tabs on a beauty empire as a day job and be a THRUSH agent as well. I would put her age as being in her sixties (although I am notoriously a bad judge of this) yet she herself states that she doesn’t sleep at all. She is another of these characters in The Man from UNCLE who are overdone just enough to be completely unreal. I find particularly interesting that Madame’s main beauty advice is to stay out of the sunlight – this is surprisingly modern and at the time you would expect any beauty kitten to spend quite a lot of time and effort getting the kind of deep tan considered attractive at the time, and leading to malignant melanoma in later life.
The technology is also overdone enough not to hold water when under consideration (please don’t think that this is a criticism) . The spikes in the sausage stall are wonderfully ridiculous – there is no conceivable way any death caused by that could be accidental and the particular incident at the station would in reality stop the train departing. The plot of a culture which can effectively end everything is right up there with the later series of The Avengers. Those who know me will know that this is probably the highest praise I personally can ever give to a TV show!
The train (just in case anyone thought I would never get round to mentioning it) is used to provide the kind of closed environment in which an investigation and action can be carried out. This is hardly a whodunit though, as I think it is very clear from very near the beginning who is on the THRUSH side. Apart from anything else, Madame is very obviously the stock femme fatale of the spy genre. Once again this is not a criticism – it is a statement of fact and I would definitely put this show in the category of ones you must sit back and enjoy the atmosphere for a bit, rather than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. This show does borrow a major trope from the spy genre, which I will take it upon myself to describe as the struggle in/outside of a train, a staple of so many films of the 1960s. If I have a criticism of this show it is that the train is slightly too obviously a set. Although when I come to think of it I think that I may be seeing it like that because I am returning to UNCLE after a little while of not watching it. I am also coming straight from the uncompromising realism of The Sweeney and the contrast makes it slightly too obvious where the stock footage of a steam train is used.
In fact I realise that I have actually forgotten how much of a parody The Man from UNCLE is. I do love the way Solo invites Madame to join UNCLE, and the revelation that she was the originator of THRUSH. And even better I love the way Madame presents herself as an UNCLE agent to the young girl. There are so many shades of The Avengers in this show, especially in Madame’s pursuit of endless youth which becomes a quest to end the world when she can’t get what she wants, that it is impossible to enumerate them all.
My absolutely favourite scene is the one where Solo is so rude about the way Madame applies makeup, indicating that she should have her eyes tested.
I am actually finding it quite difficult to criticise this show if you are looking for an entertainment rather than a straight spy mystery or whodunit. It moves at exactly the right pace to maintain interest, and – at least to my mind – has none of the feeling you can sometimes get about 1960s TV that it is moving at a snail’s pace. It is rather obviously completely shot in the studio, but that was the state of the art at the time and I would be being slightly unreasonable to expect it any other way. Visually it relies on what I think of as the classic Man from UNCLE palette of lots of greys with hints of yellow green and blue. I have only just realised that these aren’t completely divorced from what we in Britain would call Festival of Britain colours. Naturally this is merely an observation, although I feel that this show would have been read very differently in Britain than in the US at the time. I mean that it doesn’t look like one of the later ‘unreal’ series of the 1960s. At this point I am wondering aloud more than anything else, and wouldn’t like to pursue this too far.
All in all, superb comfort TV to the background of the comforting rattle of the train on the tracks. It doesn’t bear too close examination if you are expecting it to be too much of an exact spy piece. And just one criticism – I’m no expert but when was prune juice ever drunk in high society?
Image credit: http://stendek.tumblr.com/post/114096851919/man-from-uncle-adriatic-express-affair-eve-madame

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Coming Next: Railways in Cult TV

I’ve been feeling the need to do something a bit different here. True to form, there is always a new way of looking at classic TV and I’m proposing to do a series of themed posts about TV shows which feature trains, the railways, are set around the railways, or feature a journey as a considerable feature of the show. Of course I will probably allow myself endless leeway as to what I can include under the heading of the railways, or else I will change my mind about this themed series of posts and instead do what I am planning for the future, themed posts around particular actors.
My personal obsession with trains began as a child, and bizarrely very quickly expanded to include everything associated with them. It is not merely me, but it seems to be a national obsession, since we all know that grown men happily give up the trappings of the office of a weekend to go and work on hobby and restored railways. Trains are of course an ideal vehicle (pardon the pun) for the TV or film writer, because a moving train provides the perfect closed community and locked room environment. I wouldn’t like to state this too assertively, but I’m guessing the train has provided a setting more frequently for detectives than other genres of fiction, on this account. We also tend to associate them with a particular time, which of course is exactly the golden age of the railways in Britain before Beeching took his axe to the branches.
I have in mind a number of shows to blog about here. The Avengers has at least two heavily train-orientated episodes. I have already written about Dressed to Kill here, although I see no reason not to do a show twice, and I am also looking forward to the idea of writing about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way, which has always been one of my favourite Avengers episodes. There is a Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) episode where a chunk of the action takes place on a train since Mike has been commissioned to escort someone north with an attaché case of…I think it’s money, and the fact that I can’t even remember the name of that episode should indicate how long it has been since I have watched it. I notice that there has been a sudden spike in views of my posts on episodes of The Man from UNCLE, but I would anyway have included the episode where a glamorous fashionista, who is actually a THRUSH agent, has a good go at killing the men on a train. I may include the X-Files episode where Mulder finds himself trapped on a train which is a ticking time bomb – I continue to be ashamed of the paucity of posts on The X-Files here. Don’t worry that Doctor Who will get left out, I can establish enough of a connection to include Web of Fear. Obviously there may be other episodes which have involved trains in some way, but that is a) one I happen to have on the shelf, and b) one I have been meaning to post about for a while. Department S will not be neglected of course: if I can manage to twist the rules to include Web of Fear, then Last Train from Redbridge can definitely be included. No doubt there are more I will think about, but this post is just to introduce a new theme in my posts here.
I do unfortunately have an unspoken rule that I only talk about cinema films here when I think they will be of particular interest to my readers, or when they are connected to a particular TV show somehow (Q-Planes and Mister Jerico are on my list of things to post about, but I am hoping to think of other possible inspirations or successors to The Avengers and make that another series in itself). Trains are well represented in the film world, and it would be remiss not to break my own rule at this point and mention just a few of them.
It is spectacularly old-fashioned, and Arthur Askey grates on the nerves of everyone born after about, ooh, 1930, but I like The Ghost Train very much. I find that I ignore the Askeyesque adaptation and can attend to the original story. The Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes story Terror by Night, is set almost completely on a train and full use is made of the ‘locked room’ scenario. The Lady Vanishes has a lengthy scene on a train, of a sort which again is full of dodgy foreigners and spies. I think that one of the ways the train setting works in films and television is that on the whole trains can be quite comforting because of the noise, and a nice murder inverts our expectations, while also comforting us at the same time. Margaret Rutherford alternates with Julia McKenzie as my favourite Miss Marple, and while very little of it takes place on a train, the Rutherford film Murder She Said is a very atmospheric view. In a humorous vein, and again in a fashion which may be way too old-fashioned for a lot of people, Will Hay’s Oh Mr Porter, which also includes legends of headless horsemen and smuggling, is bang up my street. All of the films mentioned in this paragraph are available for download at the Internet Archive at the time of writing.

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Once Upon a Time and Fall Out

The parallels between these episodes as we near the end of The Prisoner, with South African apartheid are absolutely screaming out to be paid attention to. I have already touched on them: forced removals, interrogations, heavy police methods, the violence of the sjambok, disappearances and bannings, all of these were the tools of the apartheid government as the regime buckled under pressure from within and without the country.
Instead I would like to focus on how personal Once Upon A Time actually is. In this episode the whole stretch of Number 6’s life is laid out in intimate detail. On one level this merely mirrors the totalitarian nature of the apartheid regime – it truly did regulate all aspects of the citizens’ lives and deliberately keep them in ignorance of anybody else’s life – but it is also personal in the sense of it being about Number 6’s very life story and being. I am actually finding it difficult to articulate what I mean by that, since it has already been clear that both regimes were intrusive into all aspects of life. If I think of an example, I suppose the childhood memories would be the sort of thing – the sort of memories that really are completely individual to you, to the extent that even when you compare them with other people having the same experience, they can usually be different.
This level of intrusion is beyond law, and is perfectly mirrored in the guilt-ridden memoirs of life under apartheid written by white South Africans. Apartheid, far more than degree absolute, had the strange ability actually to write ones memories. In this it had the capability to mark its victims and beneficiaries permanently by ensuring that everything which forms you is coloured in some way by this oppressive system. That is the tragedy of present South Africa – that the past cannot be ignored, and the society remains deeply marked by its apartheid past. It is no use saying, for example, that there are blacks who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps so the others can do it as well. In reality the majority of blacks would not be starting from a place where they can just do that, for health, educational, social reasons.
Surely I can’t find a parallel between Fall Out and apartheid, you may ask, but I think its rather obvious. It is spelled out in great detail in the cartoon which illustrates this post and shows the reason why South African society can only ever be totally screwed up from now on: the ongoing divisions of apartheid actually remain, and apartheid is the cause of them. There is no white South African who can claim not to have benefitted. Once again, this realisation leaves its legacy of guilt with all that that entails, in the memoirs of white South Africans. It also means that there is a continual power imbalance in race relations in the country, whether inspired by hatred, pseudoscience, or guilt. This is the best parallel to draw between The Prisoner and South African apartheid: the sort of society which can create The Village or apartheid, is fairly permanently screwed up and harmful on an individual and collective basis to its citizens, while also using rewards and apparent freedom to perpetuate its ongoing control.
My conclusion therefore about whether South African apartheid could be an inspiration for The Prisoner, is that the above states the best connection, as a political or social one. Unusually the apartheid image matches better to the latter episodes of the show than the other themes I have examined. However, I feel as a single inspiration of the show it falls down in comparison to either the Danger Man theory or the allegorical reading.