Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Avengers: Small Game for Big Hunters

The maid has the dinner on, all is quiet outside in the compound and I am thinking of having a sundowner so it's time to think about a blog post.
What has prompted me to write a post about Small Game for Big Hunters is that I think it gets an unfair hammering on the internet. It seems to me that the key to understand where this Avengers is coming from is to think ourselves not only into the world of the Avengers, but also into the time that this episode was happening. The world of The Avengers is of course the epitome of Britishness - and I will be the first to acknowledge that it is a Britishness which never really existed. Remember how many of the episodes are about Our Sort of People who have gone bad and bought into some diabolical mastermindery? The point is that The Avengers save Blighty and the empire goes on undisturbed for another day.
And that is the point of this episode: it is important to remember that this episode was being filmed at the absolute dying end of the empire. It was an empire which we were proud of, but that the majority of the viewers of this show would never have experienced at first hand. It was in the 1960s that the last remnants of the Empire gained independence as autonomous nations, and if you listen to what is actually being said in this episode, that perception of loss is ever-present.
In true Avengers style, this episode also brings to the fore the fact that the outposts of Empire are not only open to corruption by deceit, but were also open to being used by men who were definitely Not Our Sort of Person. This is an interesting fictional counterpart to the things we British did to the Kikuyu in Kenya and the way South Rhodesia really did go its own way as Rhodesia under Ian Smith a decade later, supported only by the apartheid government in South Africa. This episode really does pick up on the way things often went to pot in the colonies.
And yet... this episode is very much criticised for the fact that Kalaya is not a real place. Not only is it not a real place, but it is depicted as a sort of generic 'colony'. Even the natives are of several different ethnicities from different parts of the world! This is of course a valid criticism of the show's production, however I feel that since we are in Avengerland it should be viewed more sympathetically. As we know one of the points of the world of The Avengers is that it isn't real. There is a rule in the show that black people are never seen, and neither is blood: reality isn't really allowed a foot in the door here. Hence, when a simulacrum of a former colony is set up just outside London, the unreality has to be really loud-pedalled. The depiction of Kalaya is therefore interesting as a digest of every idea of what 'the colonies' were like in every jingoistic schoolbook ever. The 'native drums' which are criticised as grating after a while, are of course part of this set up. There is a twist here - the apparent 'superstition' of the Kalayan people is used by the white people who are the baddies, to cover up their planned crime: this at the same time that Kalaya has gained independence and thus entered the 1960s, including throwing out its colonial masters. The whole 'colonial' edifice hides the fact that the baddies in this one are white people: and how Avengers can that be?
There is a thoroughly modern message here, which subverts the usual pattern of an Avengers. While the thoroughly British gentleman saves the day, the reality is that the world has changed and there is no longer a colony to save. This is without any of the usual ambivalence that goes along with modernity in The Avengers and much of the other TV of the 1960s. Of course there is also a postmodern message in the wish to retire to Hertfordshire, which for the purposes of this episode is exactly where 'Kalaya' is!
These are the reasons that I think this episode is criticised unfairly. It is really best seen as a relic of the age of African independence and serves as an interesting reminder that the uber-Britishness for which The Avengers is famed, is actually set against a backdrop of change for Britain.
Frankly I suspect that this is an Avengers the viewer will either love or loathe, and I love it myself. I can't even see the problems with the plot, whcih I think (without checking) I have seen described as 'incoherent'. Perhaps it's just me, but I would definitely call this Avengers Our Sort of Television.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Avengers: Return to Castle De'Ath

This is probably one of the posts which it has given me most pleasure to post here. In fact I'm absolutely delighted to be writing this post, for the simple reason that I feel as if I have done Big Finish Productions a disservice here and am delighted to have the opportunity to make it up.
One of the things I find myself repeatedly musing about here is the likelihood that the cult TV I like so much will one day turn into a static 'canon' because there will be no more shows to be discovered. My own rather dogmatic opinion is that it is possible further Doctor Who serials will be discovered while it is unlikely that missing Avengers shows will be discovered, and I am delighted to find that I have, in a way, been proved wrong. It turns out that a comic strip of Avengers adventures - with stories not based on broadcast TV episodes - was published in Diana Magazine in 1966 and 1967.
Getting excited yet?
I certainly got very interested when I found out that that was the case, and that these adventures have been republished in book form and, even better, turned into audio adventures by Big Finish Productions, under the title of 'The Avengers - Steed and Mrs Peel - The Comic Strip Adventures'. They are naturally available for download on the Big Finish website and in two volumes of CDs if you want to be old-fashioned.
What made me very interested indeed is that these adventures genuinely date from the time that the original Avengers series were being broadcast. In my humble opinion they are therefore very likely indeed to pick up on the zeitgeist of the time which originally gave birth to the later series of The Avengers. My fear with Avengers adventures written subsequently, and indeed much of the fan fiction, is that they either caricature the 1960s or introduce elements to may main alien to the series, such as that Steed and Mrs Peel are in a relationship. And indeed these adventures are incredibly true to the originals, because they comes from that time. I am focussing on Return to Castle De'Ath in this post because it is the only one I have listened to so far and in fact I am listening to it again as I write this post. I can say without hesitation that Return to Castle De'Ath is an authentic 1960s Avengers adventure, picking up on key elements in the original series. Eccentrics galore - check. A foreign prince - check. An isolated setting which allows for a closed environment so that an Avengers twist can be put on a cosy Miss MArple - check. Glittering dialogue - check. Action scenes - check. I literally cannot criticise Return to Castle De'Ath at all.
This is largely what gives me the most pleasure in writing this blog post, because I'm afraid I did a bit of a hatchet job on the Big Finish reconstructions of the Series 1 adventures when I posted about them. My opinion of what went wrong there remains - that Big Finish have essentially recorded television scripts intended to have visuals which makes them incredibly difficult to follow. My suggestion about them was that the scripts should have been rewritten to introduce a narrator (rather like the South African Avengers radio plays). I am delighted to say that in this dramatisation of a comic strip is done in such a way that you don't need a narrator. Sound effects, the script, different accents, are all used to create a picture in the listener's head. I see that Return to Castle De'Ath is written by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, as is The Miser, while the other two are by other writers. Paul Magrs is familiar to me as the writer of a wonderful series of spectacularly eccentric books set in Whitby, but I don't know the writer of the final series in Volume 1, John Dorney at all. I would therefore caution the reader to remember that my laudatory comments only apply to Return to Castle De'Ath at this point.
I only have one little criticism, which is one that is carried over from the Big Finish productions of the series 1 Avengers episodes: the theme music lets it down by sounding like it was done on a cheap synthesizer. I will repeat what I said then: the theme music should be played by proper instruments and I don't believe it can work out that expensive to hire music students to play it - or even very expensive at Equity rates.
It is not something that is a criticism for me personally - but I'm aware that there is naturally a great attachment to Patrick Macnee as John Steed. If you are someone who feels like that you may have difficulty with these dramatisations. My personal opinion is that Julian Wadham is perfect as Steed, and in fact as he has been talking I have found myself visualising Steed in the original Castle De'Ath. Olivia Poulet is also excellent as Mrs Peel - I like that she sounds rather younger than Diana Rigg in the role (I am guessing that this is at least partly related to Diana Rigg's well-known smoking and I'm also guessing that Olivia Poulet doesn't smoke, at least going by the picture on the box). Other people who can only see Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel will again have a great difficulty with these dramatisations.
What this has made me realise is the sheer difficulty of what Big Finish have taken on, in continuing a series where the fans have such an attachment to the stars. Even with Doctor Who they don't have such a hard job, because one of the hallmarks of Doctor Who is that the lead actor changes periodically. The only other of their series which I'm familiar with is their productions of Sapphire and Steel, where again having a different male actor didn't bother me, but I have such an attachment to Joanna Lumley's vowels that I did miss her!
Otherwise, Return to Castle De'Ath is a perfect reconstruction of a 1960s Avengers adventure, because in truth that is what it is. It is really very good indeed, and I don't often say that, especially about Avengers stories!

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Gunfighters

I'd better start by saying that I wouldn't be writing about this Doctor Who adventure if it didn't come in the Earth Story duo set with The Awakening, which I had to buy as it is the only way to get The Awakening, which I fancied. There's nothing wrong as such with The Gunfighters, but I wouldn't have bought it because I don't tend to get on with period dramas. You may say that that is ridiculous when I'm writing about a TV show based on the ability to go to all sorts of times, and of course it is ridiculous, but I am just declaring a pre-existing bias.
This adventure is of course set in a very specific time, in the Wild West around the time of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, which would of course date it to the end of October 1881. I am rather ambivalent about this setting - although I note that it was at this time that Verity Lambert and others of the original team left Doctor Who and it consciously took a rather different direction. For the purpose of my scribblings here, my comment would have to be that gone is the original didactic and worthy tone of Doctor Who. Apart from the way this one would make the kids go to school and look up the history in the books the next day, The Gunfighters feels a lot more as if it is purely for pleasure.
On the positive side this is a gift of a setting for a Doctor Who, because of course there is a natural confusion between The Doctor and Doc Holliday (strangely I can find no mention of this on the wikipedia page about the gunfight. It also provides a 'real' setting for an adventure, showing how Doctor Who can actually break into real time, and of course this adventure is a far cry from some of the more fantastic ones featuring aliens and all sorts of odd thing. This Who is based on notionally historical events.
And that is where it rather goes horribly wrong for me. I wouldn't necessarily go to the stake for this opinion, but the whole point of Doctor Who is that he is not human, that he deals in worlds we can have no cognisance of at all, and deals in matters of life and death for universes. The great shortcoming of this Who for me is that his reason for being there at the OK Corral is as pedestrian as a toothache. Apart from the fact of Doctor Who and companions being from different times, they could be purely extra characters in a Western story, and nothing happens that is not in conformity with normal Earthly physics. Doctor Who even ends up carrying an Earth gun. Do Time Lords actually have to have teeth taken out? Somehow I doubt it, and the scene where he is asking the dentist for anaesthetic is just plain wrong: surely he would know that at the literal frontiers of human life medicine is often reduced to the bare necessities.
Despite my dislike for period dramas I am not overly irritated by the Western milieu of this show. I would just say that I think Britons in the twenty-first century are more used to hearing genuine American accents than we were in 1966, and as a result I think the accents can seem somewhat over-done, but that is not great fault. Similarly the Western characters can seem rather over-acted, but I suspect this is building on the almost caricature features of the Western genre. The special features on this disc refer to the fact (which you can read about elsewhere) that William Hartnell was nearing the end of his life at this point. His powers were failing, he was irritable and having more and more difficulty remembering his part. That said, he stands out head and shoulders from the other actors, and when he appears it is very evident that here is a great actor. Until his appearances the show is a standard Western, essentially, but Hartnell makes you sit up and pay attention.
Production values are very much what you would expect of 1966-vintage Doctor Who. The picture quality is very good for the era: it lacks some clarity but nothing you would not expect, and the sound track is absolutely fine. The story moves at a comfortable pace and the number of episodes is just right. I think that if it were not for my distaste for the lack of weirdness, this Doctor Who adventure would be among my absolute favourites. If you buy the DVD ( and if this is your bag I see that this adventure is available separately from The Awakening, although not the other way round) it has special features galore including a feature about the changes in the show at this time, on which I have been heavily dependent for some of the facts I have referenced here.
Despite my reservations about the terrestrial setting and atypical Doctor Who plot, if you want to see an early Doctor Who adventure while the show was at a turning point, or even if you like a Western, then this is the show for you. It also marks the point from which Doctor Who took a more exclusively science-fiction approach.

Seventies TV: Whodunnit

I genuinely thought I had already blogged about this already, but am unable to find it. I suspect I may have written a piece about this show and it vanished when I had a netbook die some time ago. Anyway, Whodunnit is a show which I can't resist writing about - as usual for all the wrong reasons!
By all means, watch this show the way it was intended to be watched, if that is what floats your boat - as an exercise in deduction, expanded into a full programme by a panel's deductions and audience participation. The formula is very simple, yet surprisingly effective: the show begins with a film showing the actual death. The panel and members of the audience who have also been selected to deduct who did the murder, are introduced. The events surrounding the murder are elaborated in another film. The celebrity panel members get to ask to see parts of the film again - they have to give some notice, because I imagine this would have presented some technical difficulties in the 1970s. The celebrity panel then question the actors (in character, obviously) in the film of the murder, they and the audience panel give their solutions, and Jon Pertwee, the compere, reveals the true murderer. If you want a straightforward deduction to work out, and to engage in a virtual discussion about how could be the murderer, then this is exactly what you are looking for. I do like a nice murder myself, but tend to lack the attention required to work it out.
But that is not all there is to a watching of this show in 2017. Did I mention that Jon Pertwee is the host (for most of the series - Edward Woodward was the host for the first series)? If I also mention that the two resident members of the celebrity panel are Anouska Hempel and Patrick Mower, it will reveal further what I am getting at here. This show is an orgy of 1970s culture, with none of the bleakness we expect from the gritty television of the era. The other guest celebrities, who differ each week, are an array of the big names of the time. One can name Honor Blackman, for example. I still intend to write about Aimi Macdonald elsewhere but she appears on this as a guest. Diana Dors is another. There are also great names among the men as well: who would have thought you could get Kingsley Amis among the panel of a TV quiz show? Obviously normally I don't like familiar faces distracting me from a TV programme, but in this case the big names are obviously the point. It is a very nice touch that members of the public also get to form a panel of deduction and submit their solutions.
Quite apart from the big names on the celebrity panel, there is something else that I love about this show. I was strangely hooked from the moment I saw Jon Pertwee smoking while presenting the show. The actors who are being questioned are often smoking as is the panel. Nobody questions this, and as a dedicated smoker who has given it up, even I am slightly surprised to see people smoking as they present a TV show! Probably that more than anything else, has brought home to me the fact that there is a huge historical gulf in the forty years between the 1970s and now.
The collars. It's not only the smoking which brings home that we are well and truly in the unadulterated 1970s here. It's the collars. Nowadays, if anyone wore a collar like those worn by virtually all of the men, it would be for a joke. Did people really wear collars like that and smoke as they presented TV shows? They must have done. Did people really have hair that long? Could Aimi Macdonald really maintain that squeaky voice without going hoarse? All of these are things which this show is making me wonder about.
The attitudes. There are some surprisingly sexist things said, or else some innuendos, which I have a feeling wouldn't appear on TV nowadays. There are even some double-entendres which probably would seem very unsophisticated nowadays, but they remind me that the 1970s was the age of the sex comedy, and the Confessions films were among the highest-grossing films of the decades. This is not even to mention some of the period attitudes which come out in the films showing the murders and the circumstances surrounding them.
There are other nice touches about this show. The set changes each show, since it based on the set of the film of the murder. The new set each week and the big names in the panel, make me think that this show must have been high-budget and high-kudos at the time. I also particularly like the relaxed way in which Jon Pertwee moderates: it is a far cry from the some of the more sedate quiz shows of the time. It is also very interesting to see Pertwee in a very different setting from the role he is best known for, and one is which he is not obliged to play anybody but himself, but just act as the host.
To be frank, I think the possible criticisms of this show are ones that you would really have to squeeze out of it. You could say, for example, that many of the filmed murders include large amounts of over-acting, but I feel that that is deliberate. The show is meant to be fun, and it makes gentle fun of its own genre. Personally I'm finding it very difficult to criticise this show for production or any in any other way. The actors who play in the films and are afterwards questioned by the panel, are doing something incredibly difficult for an actor: they are being asked questions for which they are sometimes visibly unprepared, about a character which is only a bit role for them after all. The murderer can lie, but the others have to maintain a consistency in the story, which must have been incredibly difficult to do. Naturally one thing this does is sort out the truly great actors, who answer their questions looking calm and collected in their role.
So contrary to the drabness of much UK 1970s TV, this programme not only does what it sets out to do, but also provides an entertaining spectacle of contemporary costume, celebrities, and attitudes.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Taxi! The Villain

I write today about the only remaining episode of a show I didn't even know existed until yesterday. The show was called Taxi! The remaining episode is called The Villain. I came across it because it was largely a vehicle for Sid James, one of my favourite actors. You can see this episode on youtube should you so wish.
It seems (according to wikipedia) the show was built on the propensity of London taxi drivers to tell tall stories. James features as Sid Stone, who owns the taxi company and shares a house with some of the other drivers. This remaining episode is from the first series, which was broadcast over the summer and had poor ratings; the completely-missing second series introduced more characters and therefore variety.
Taxi! raises a question for me personally: where does it stand in 1960s TV terms? I find it very difficult to place in comparison to the rather exotic offerings I routinely watch. It is from 1963 and is therefore pre-Emma Peel Avengers-era, and show none of the sexiness and adventure even of the early Avengers. One thing I would definitely say is that Taxi! shows itself for the BBC show it is: the majority of shows I blog about here are ITV shows. Taxi! feels much more like a stage play converted to the screen, which is a salutary reminder for the modern viewer that that is actually how TV was seen by the people who made the shows.
On another level, Taxi! is like many another drama (or possible sit-com) set in a particular work place. Hospitals and police stations are always good for human drama. Taxi! manages to spell out the central dilemma (through the mouth of James) very well: at what point do we put our foot down with other people, even if it means they have to take the consequences of their actions? The particular dilemma here is that Sid reports another driver - a man notorious for bullying other people and just pleasing himself - to the police with the result that he loses his license. This is naturally criticised by the other drivers, who have a (perhaps misguided, depending on how oyu look at it) loyalty to the profession above everything else. This action is despite the fact we see Sid cheating a tourist out of a return fare to the airport - the charge comes to £2 and how I wish that would get you further than the nearest lamp post these days!
There are all sorts of other ways in which this show is redolent of its age. Sid tells one of his drivers that he simply must get a radio in the cab if he wants to get ahead. Sid goes to the police station and the desk sergeant (a vanished species) knows immediately the particular case he is talking about and says he will see what he can do about getting the charges dropped. The sets look like the interiors of houses in Avengers of this period. The telephone numbers and exchanges are the old ones which not even I remember. The taxi drivers all have actual shirts on - no t-shirts or tracksuit bottoms in evidence!
This show is also an interesting mixture in terms of production: while much of the action very obviously takes place in sets, the external shots are of very good quality. In terms of production values, as I say you should expect a much more...I suppose the word is 'worthy', production than many of the shows I write about here. My one real criticism is that the story is rather confused by the introduction of a woman - the plot gets back into its track OK, but the introduction of a romantic interest isn't enough for those who want to watch romance, and detracts from the main thrust of the plot. The self-serving driver gets his comeuppance when one of his women meets his wife and he faces a far worse worse fate than the law can ever throw at him.
I have no idea how the one episode has remained - who kept it, how it was saved, and so on. I can say with certainty that it is incredibly well-preserved for an odd episode of a nearly-forgotten series. Would I want to watch the rest of the series if it existed? Probably. I don't think it would be a keeper, because of the relative simplicity of the plot. I would watch it for the 1960s milieu and background, and hope my readers do too.
Image: Sid James in Carry on Cabby

Monday, 27 March 2017

Lily Savage Parodies Classic TV

The parodies are coming thick and fast at the moment. I didn't really need to ask myself the significance of cult TV when I realise the impact it can have on popular culture. This post is about comedian Lily Savage and her parodies both of The Avengers and Doctor Who. Well, I say 'about' - it more showcases them, so click play, sit back and enjoy.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Prisoner: The Laughing Prisoner

I was very pleased to find today that the Laughing Prisoner is back on YouTube in its entirety. It vanished for quite a time because a DVD release was mooted, which it seems has never transpired, so some kind soul has uploaded it again. As I am writing this I am watching it for probably the first time in thirty-five years and marvelling on the effect this spoof has had on me. Picture it. The 1980s. In Britain we had four television channels for the first time ever and there was some difficulty filling them with material. Channel four quickly became known for its arty and risque content, amongst which was the show which created The Laughing Prisoner, The Tube. I remember not liking The Tube very much, but obviously there was something in the zeitgiest which created the best parody of The Prisoner ever. The fact that the then young crowd felt they could parody a TV show from twenty years before was that at the time much of the television of the 1960s was being mined to fill the schedules of the TV channels - I think there may also have been a showing of The Prisoner to mark its twentieth anniversary. The two things came together, and this was the result.
I don't know who had the brilliant idea of casting Stanley Unwin as Number 3, but the choice is so successful that it creates a marvellously ridiculous atmosphere. I love particularly that footage from The original Prisoner is interwoven to give the illusion that Number 6 is still imprisoned there since the 1960s. As Stephen Fry says, nobody has ever got a thing out of him, and frankly The Laughing Prisoner gives an impression that all the inhabitants of The Village are rather deranged. Number 6 is shown fighting with Rover, who elsewhere has become a good pet, who Stephen Fry takes for walks.
There are other things changed from the original series. The bleakness of the scenery and the difficulties that must have been experienced maintaining Portmeirion are much more apparent here: gone is the happy sun-filled Village of the original series, and it is replaced by a much bleaker world. This, of course, makes The Village much less frightening than the manufactured spontaneity and happiness of the original. The gloom is lifted by the musical interludes - I imagine they are there because The Tube was primarily a musical show.
When I watched this show last, I had not had the experience I had at the end of last year of resigning. My employers didn't need to ask me why, my 2,000 word letter of resignation told them in great detail all my dissatisfactions going back for sixteen years. I don't therefore need to fear that I will be taken away to a Village and pressed to reveal why I have resigned, but I am nonetheless myself in the position of Number 6 (or Number 7 here). My point is that the act of resignation puts you outside of The Establishment, who can then feel free to punish you. Of course in The Laughing Prisoner it is apparent that there are only three resignees and two of the three are doubtfully sane. The Laughing Prisoner also shows the temperamental and petty nature of The Establishment's hatred against those who abandon it, something which is left ambiguous in the original series. In my own case, fortunately my industry in this city is largely split into two organisations and I have moved from one to the competition, and a surprising number of my former colleagues are texting me asking to be kept posted on vacancies...
The Laughing Prisoner moves faster than the original series because (in my humble opinion) it isn't mainly setting out to create an enigma but rather a set of pastiches of aspects of The Village. What it does show up very clearly - despite the already archive quality of the 1980s show - how bad the original footage was at that time, in comparison to the fully-restored look we are so used to today. It looks awful. It's crackly, the colours are bad, in fact it looks like I remember The Avengers looking in the 1980s. Lucky us, with technology moving on as it has. And (this really is going to sound ridiculous) I had forgotten how big hair was in the 1980s, on both men and women. That is so embarrassing to say! But it again highlights the bleak, austerity-driven world we live in now. Perhaps it was my age, but I remember the 1980s as a time when things felt possible, when it felt as if the prosperity dream would never end, it felt as if you could do pretty much anything you wanted... The reality reminds us of the injustices and pain of the time, but also prevents the freedom we felt at the time.
This all-pervading unreality is the theme of The Laughing Prisoner and what I love absolutely best about it is the way the board of Channel 4 are all cardboard cut-outs.
I so badly want a Prisoner chair now.

George and the Dragon: First Impressions

I am stuck at home sick, having managed to scratch the surface of my eye. It is getting better slowly but be prepared for this post to be even more eccentric than usual, at least in spelling and punctuation. It has given me time to indulge in this new-to-me series, which I bought largely on spec on the basis that I tend to like things with Sid James in.
I am ashamed to say that while I was obviously aware of Peggy Mount's existence, I don't think I have seen much with her in, except for some episodes of The Larkins (which I downloaded and are waiting to be posted about here). I am interested to find that she is a very interesting person, whose life was marred by a wildly unhappy upbringing – she got into acting largely to get away from this upbringing, because her mother told her she would never amount to anything in comparison to her sister. She did that thing which is probably one of the most difficult human actions – she cut off all contact with her birth family in the 1940s, later surrounding herself with an adoptive 'family' of more positive relationships. It must have been extraordinary for her birth family to see her on the telly, but of course if you don't want to risk your child cutting you off, you don't treat the child that badly.
The underlying sadness to Mount's life of course is in opposition to the fire-breathing characters she tends to play. It is evident that this was not character casting, and in fact the Dragon character here is not half such a dragon as she's made out to be, rather she is kind and has a heart of gold. You can meet much worse dragons any day off the week (I recently overheard one of my current colleagues saying that she had told her son's girlfriend that if push came to shove he would choose his mother over his partner and the mother of his child. Asking for trouble, that is).
The fundamental relationship in this show is that between, well, George, and Gabrielle Dragon. I was astonished to read that this show was broadcast as laste as 1968, because the success of the show is dependent on the fact that nothing is ever going to happen between those two. There is clearly a romantic and sexual chemistry between them, and much of the action is based on the to-ing and fro-ing between them. The subject of sex comes up repeatedly and yet, and yet…in comparison to The Avengers this show seems so old-fashioned. Admittedly comparing this show to The Avengers is hardly fair, because nothing will ever compare to it, but I think there are other 1960s series which make George and the dragon look like a 1950s relic.
There are other ways it seems like an older TV series than it is (this is not a criticism, merely a statement of my perception). The Colonel's household is so old-fashioned just in terms of staffing. Sure there are people who can still afford to employ a housekeeper, gardener, and chauffeur, but I feel that sort of household better represents an age of fuller employment and lower wages.
The show's production values also represent an earlier age in television than 1968. It is completely studio-based, with no external footage at all. I like the sets a lot – I like the looks of the 1960s interiors which are aiming for traditional rather than modern. I like the way smoking is mentioned casually, as just something people did rather than the self-conscious smoking you would find in Mad Men. Despite my conviction that this show represents a slightly earlier era in TV than some of the up-to-date shows of 1968, I have afeeling that it probably better encapsulates the way of living of most ordinary people in the 1960s. Were long players available in the 1960s? I'm fairly sure they were, but Gabrielle is passionately attached to mer mother's old 78s which get broken in one episode.
I have a feeling that normally this is a show I wouldn't take to – that is you think of it as a situation comedy. But George and the Dragon manages to hold my interest largely because of the chemistry between the characters and the relatively fast pace of the stories.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Flower of Gloster

Regular readers will remember how I walked out of my last job in September and walked straight into a better one. I am delighted to announce that only three months later an even better opportunity for promotion has come along and my notice is in. As my congratulatory present to myself I bought several of the things in my Amazon basket, Spike Milligan's Q, which I don't doubt I will be writing about here soonish, and Flower of Gloster, about which I just have to rush into print at once.
On reflection I find that I have written about several children's programmes here, or rather programmes intended for children, which may or may not have a grown up following as well, but relatively few of these stay in my permanent collection. Tintin is there in French - he used to irritate me in English, and then I actually went to France and saw kids sitting on the floor in the hypermarkets reading the books, and got hooked. I also keep the 1970s version of the Famous Five, just because. I have a feeling that Flower of Gloster will be a keeper.
You see, Flower of Gloster is a dream. It is so sweet. It is the sort of show you can put on after a nightmare day at work, and be taken elsewhere. Notwithstanding that moving a canal boat down the length of the country is very hard work indeed, so you do see some real labour going on.
A major constituent of the different world depicted in Flower of Gloster is the sheer difference that the intervening fifty-odd years have wrought on the world we live in. For a start, there is a complete absence of the sort of safety-mindednes subsenquently enshrined in law by the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. On several occasions, you see the actors in the 'cut', actually in the canal water and while canal swimming may have been a commonplace in the nineteenth century, I don't really think it was ever a good idea. Children are seen running around completely without parental supervision, and one of the wonders of this show is that is shows a world for children which is free of the then-prevalent fear of stranger danger. Ironically this show depicts almost exactly the world I write about her so often - the 1960s world where the old order was passing, and a brave new world being built. I suspect that at the time people thought the canals were dead, although I have no idea whether they are actually used commercially any more in the age of high-speed communication. Another aspect of the difference in communication is the regional accents you hear - I genuinely think that probably you couldn't hear such strong British regional accents nowadays, and in places, even as a native speaker I have difficulty understanding what the characters are saying!
Then at the start of disc 2, the show suddenly comes home, which is announced by the words, 'We've got to get to Wolverhampton by tonight'. Living in the Venice of the UK as I do (no, seriously...) there is no way my home city of Brum could not appear in this show. If nothing else it shows how bad the state of the canals was in the 1960s before the restoration movement took off, and Flower shows the post-industrial landscape of the Midlands before the warehouses were turned into flats and what have you. I love the 1960s view of the city centre - and I particularly love that the instant they tie up in Gas Street basin they get out and get shopping! But what I love most is the contrast between the 'old' canal and the thrusting new world being built about it - which exemplifies that contrast that features in so much of the TV I like. I love that they go shopping in the Bull Ring and you get to hear the market traders shouting - which really hasn't changed in the years since, although they don't tend to wear ties nowadays! I love the way the man selling rolls of cloth works out the maths in his head *in old money* - I mean actual shillings - which is something which always defeated me although my mother still thinks in old money. I love that then as now and always, Birmingham is one big building site with cranes everywhere - in fact this is a Birmingham thing and there is a 19th century folk song about a sailor who came back home and didn't recognise it as Brummagen!
Production values of this show are interesting: I believe it to be a filming of a book, although I'm not sure whether it is a true story, but I know for a fact the show is made in a way which is far divorced from story-telling. Much of the lore of the canals is explained at great length, so there is a kind of educational undercurrent, but it is presented very much as the tale of a real journey. In fact it looks and feels much more like a documentary than a scripted show, and the extras who tow the boat in Wolverhampton are very obviously locals judging by the accent! Purists probably wouldn't be that keen on aspects of the restoration - the sound is clean and crisp, but the picture shows more dots and marks than some people would probably like. The theme is orchestral but I love the way the incidental music is jazz numbers, which is one of the things that prevents this show from becoming unadulterated pastoral idyll.
I have no hesitation in not only telling the rest of the cult TV blogosphere to go out and buy this series right now, but I am also giving it my rare Stonking Good Television award, for its escapism and unusual production.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Prisoner: The Computer Wore Menace Shoes

I have come incredibly late to the cult of The Simpsons - for some strange reason I took an instant dislike to them in the nineties, but now they make me roar with laughter. I make no apologies for blogging about an episode here, since I think The Simpsons are now venerable enough to be considered Cult, and they're also not the newest show I've written about here. This episode in particular fits in to this blog because it is the famous one which parodies The Prisoner and has a guest appearance by Patrick McGoohan, so is definitely suitable a cult TV blog.
The first thing to say about this show is that I think you should ignore many of the reviews for the season twelve boxed set, which say that the packaging is impossible, and you inevitably damage the discs removing them. To get that out of the way, the way to get one disc out is to squeeze the flaps containing the discs you don't want and turn it upside down until the disc you want starts to slide out and grab it. There, simple, and controversy out of the way.
There is an irony about this Simpsons - a deliberate one, no doubt - that it comments on our modern world of internet surveillance and invasion of privacy. In fact, if this isn't exactly the sort of world the original Prisoner series warned us about, I don't know what is. The themes of anonymity and the use of knowledge run through this Simpsons at every step. This is seen through the microscope, and the tiny world being viewed is what could happen in any town if a single person started using the 'information' he had, and of course the trouble is that *everyone* has secrets and they don't want them revealed! Like all good television, The Simpsons hold up a mirror to our world, and the uncomfortable truth is that so many people will believe any old rubbish, and the point of the prisoners' knowledge is that it is really a load of old rubbish which is clearly very threatening to the powers that be. It is so clever that the particular bit of nonsense which Homer has stumbled upon is the hysteria around flu jabs, thereby drawing on a true ridiculous theory.
I love the sequence where Homer wakes up in The Island, which deliberately apes the awakening in The Village scene of The Prisoner. The Simpsons version of The Prisoner effectively hold up a mirror to the real series as well by pointing out that Rover is actually only a balloon when it comes to it, while maintaining the fear that the agents of control of The Island are actually in our own homes. My only criticism of the episode is that it reverses the priorities of The Prisoner by spending the majority of the episode showing what Homer has done to deserve incarceration, rather than spending the majority of the episode on The Island only slowly showing what he has done.
Nonetheless this is a Simpsons episode of special interest to cult TV fans.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Avengers Series 1: The Yellow Needle

Back to series 1 of The Avengers today. I think I'm going to have to accept that even though I may plan series of posts in an orderly line on an orderly theme, I don't think like that and thus my blog is always going to be more of a mishmash of posts on different themes which come and go as they enter and leave my head.

Anyway this Avengers is a classic series 1 Avengers, in that it completely lacks the weirdness of the later series. There is sex, or rather sexual tension in it, but it also lacks the sheer sexiness found in the later Avengers. I don't really have an overview of the series in my head, but I suspect that Steed plays a larger role in this one than he may have done in a lot of series 1 episodes.

The differences from the later Avengers aside, this is one that is very much of its time and perhaps is now seen at a disadvantage, since we can only see it with the benefit of hindsight. The specific time in which it is set is that when Britain's former colonies in Africa were seeking independence and making their first steps as new states. The fact that this transition was frequently accompanied by a bloodbath is a fact which can be explained in any number of ways and tends to draw out the prejudices of the commentator. To declare my own bias: it is what you can expect when we (the British) create a country to our own design, pillaging it of natural resources, ignoring existing tribal tensions and boundaries, treating the indigenous population as backward idiots who should be grateful to us…and then leave them to it, with no possibility of a return to their previous forms of government and high expectations of future prosperity and so on.

The assumptions of the Avengers episode are completely different and surprisingly characteristic of The Avengers when they are examined. For a start, the depiction of Tenebra, the African state which is on the verge of independence, is breath-takingly politically incorrect by today's standards. Even the name indicates that this is a country in the darkness which is incapable of taking its own steps to independence without descending into anarchy.

The answer to this is of course the intervention of the British government in the form of John Steed, and this is what I mean about the Avengers-ness of this story. It is very much one where our hero races to the rescue of whatever institution is at risk from some diabolical mastermind, and the peace and security of Blighty and our way of life is assured. In this case the life of the president of Tenebras is assured so that the country can't be taken over by the opposition who are obviously dirty tricks merchants. Thus the president of Tenebras, who is obviously thoroughly Westernised, remains Our Sort of Chap.

If I seem to be a little waspish over this, it is interesting that the president is here placed in opposition to people who clearly have African (I think I would probably have to place the country in West Africa in one of the parts which are semi-Christian and semi-Islamic) names and interests, and one of them has an Islamic name. These people are depicted as not learning our gentle Western ways from the years of colonialism and will clearly stop at nothing to get their own way.

The colonialism/independence conflict apart, this is additionally a fairly straightforward political story of intrigue, and it falls down because it is very obvious that Jacquetta Brown is going to be on the side of the enemy. It's a classic of detective fiction – the person administering the life-saving injections has the access to administer life-finishing injections. Obvious really. The story further falls down because it is inconceivable that nobody would notice in the five years she has worked for Sir Wilberforce, that she has a K branded on her forehead. A whole five years of a fringe which has remained solidly in place and never betrayed her secret? Impossible.

What this Avengers does for we fans who will never now see it, it illustrate marvelously the thing I have noted so often about Steed before: he uses his associates and exposes them to danger. In this case Keel only gets drugged, but since the person who did it is obviously a killer, he could quite easily have ended up dead. There is an irony in this, because it seems like the exposure to danger theme comes from above in the form of the British government, since Steed goes off to Tenebras alone posing as a reporter and is in probably even more danger, with no hope of support at all. So while Britain will interfere in other countries' plans for independence, it yet will not look after its own subjects. This Avengers manages to leave a very nasty taste in the mouth if one is British.

Image credit:

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Doctor Who: Planet of Giants

One of the all-time great Dr Who adventures, this one, or rather one of the legendary ones because it was intended to be the first ever, before being demoted to first adventure of the second series.
I'm trying to make a connection betweem the original educational intent of Dr Who and the major concern of the time which is the real subject of this adventure. This concern is of course the contemporary ambivalent attitude to technology, where it is both the white hot hope for the future, and also a source of danger if not managed properly. Rachel Carson's book about the supposed dangers of DDT was published the year before Dr Who started, and since her findings - that DDT has effects further down the food chain - while not being completely unchallenged at the time, would have been very much the latest science at the time. Ironically, since I believe Carson's research is now believed not to have been controlled enough, of course this Who's educational intent missed the point.
That is not a criticism, because anyone can be right with the benefit of hindsight. This Who has however been subjected to the sort of attention which any show of this age is particularly unable to withstand, and as a result has tended to get heavily criticised on the internet. Since this blog is my own ramblings on classic TV I will just say that my only real criticism is that the twin strands of dangerous chemical and shrunken TARDIS crew are too easily mixed up. Once again, though, I think the real reason for that is that TV shows of this age require watching with closer attention than many newer ones, so it may just be me.
I notice a tendency to connect the shrinking motif here to the 1950s film The Incredible Shrinking Man, but I think it can be traced much further back in various media - it can be found in Laurel and Hardy, and of course in Lewis Carroll. It is the science fiction thread here, in counterpoint to the real world concern about dangerous chemicals. I would also note that The Avengers picked up on both these themes later in the sixties, in different episodes: the shrinking motif is well suited to The Avengers' unreal world, while the poisonous dust motif is well suited to The Avengers' plotline of attempted world domination by some diabolical mastermind.
One thing I didn't realise as I watched the four episodes on the DVD was that in the extras I would find two additional episodes cut from the show as originally made. In fact they are recreations of those episodes, and I have decided that the way they are done is my favourite way to reconstruct a show. Footage is cleverly taken from elsewhere and the missing soundtrack voiced by actors playing the original actors playing the characters. These actors are superb, and you really do have to look closely in places to see that the action doesn't quite match the dialogue. This way of reconstruction to my mind beats the animation or still photography methods hands down.
The other extras on the DVD are also superb, and give an insight into the making of the series.
This Who adventure will always have to bear a heavy burden in terms of its status as the one which could have been the first but wasn't. Personally I don't think it would have been up to the task of kickinh off an entire new sci-fi series: while of course it does bring the world of the time lords into ours it doesn't manage the atmosphere of strangeness that An Unearthly Child has. That said, it is still a very atmospheric Who, using both a stock science fiction trope and a contemporary concern to weave a competent tale.
My favourite bit: the switchboard operator and her policeman husband using the switchboard to trick the baddies into giving themselves away.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Why old TV?

Subjects I have mentioned here frequently include a fear that no 'new' old TV will ever come to light again, and the atmosphere of old TV. I have never really posted about what it is about vintage TV that I and others appreciate.
A reasonable assumption would be that it is an exercise in nostalgia, but I think this assumption is flawed, although of course it will be true for some people. Personally I often find that programmes I remember fondly fall flat on their face being watched at this length of time. Obviously I don't mean the ones I write about here! In fact while you do get reviews on Amazon where nostalgia is clearly the point, it is noticeably lacking in the TV blog community, the sort of people who will read this.
It must be that there is something different about old TV from the contemporary version. I don't think it is primarily quality, as I say, I think it is found in the medium rather than the writing. Of course I can't ignore that modern TV is written much differently.
Of course modern TV depicts a different world from, say, that of 1960, but I still don't think that is the thing about old TV. I personally don't tend to take to period dramas of whatever age, and that is what makes me think that the era depicted on the screen is not what makes the difference: I don't think I would like a modern series set in the sixties. In fact I didn't like Mad Men, not least because its depiction of smoking was far too self conscious.
I am reduced to production then, and I think this might be the reason we like old TV. It is perhaps like those people who prefer records to digital audio because the sound's better. When you don't ordinarily watch CGI it is very obvious and apparent. Of course everyone knows it's there, but there is something more real about TV which required the events shown actually to take place and to be filmed. There is a reality about the events depicted which you don't get from computers.
Perhaps this is what it is? Perhaps we who watch old TV want to see things really happening to people who really existed?

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Peaky Blinders: Second Impressions

You will see that I have changed my profile picture: a bare chest made it difficult to comment on other people's blogs and you will see that I have on a Birmingham City Football Club shirt, which reminded me I had series 2 of Peaky Blinders to watch.
First things first, I have to confess to not getting on very well with Peaky Blinders and I can't think why. Naturally it has been watched and talked about at length locally. There has even been a bit of a trend for flat caps.
The elephant in the room with the peaky blinder thing is that it isn't true. The gang the story is based on were around in the 1890s, not the 1920s. It is unlikely they used razor blades at all, as they were luxury items.
Don't get me wrong, there were areas of this city at that time where the police just didn't go. There was also a myriad of geographically-based gangs.
There's also something wrong with the way the show looks. To this day, I can show you real poverty in this city. At the time Peaky Blinders is set people lived in slums. The illustration to this post is one of those slums, as it was before the National Trust opened it as the Back to Backs museum. Peaky Blinders looks too clean, too spacious, too light: all things which come at a premium.
One thing I will say of the second series over the first: they've got the accents better. The predominantly Liverpool accents of series 1 are gone. The local detail is also just right.
If it's any consolation to the die-hard fans, I may seem negative, but a show only gets blogged about here if it isn't a complete dud!

Sunday, 29 January 2017

My TV Shopping Basket

The title of this post may seem rather strange, and is certainly a departure from the way I usually write about TV here, but given that I see I repeatedly post about a fear that the supply of old TV will dry up, it is interesting that there are a few things in my Amazon basket at the moment, taht I may obtain and write about. That said, I won't necessarily buy them from Amazon, or at least from Amazon themselves: I shop around between Amazon, Cex and eBay, and more rarely will buy something off the shelf in HMV, but use my Amazon basket as a way to remind myself of things I possibly want to see. Regular readers will know that I usually only write about shows here that I rate: this post is an opportunity to write about shows I haven't seen at all, so can't really judge, but to comment that I would like to see them.
First up is Flower of Gloster, which it seems has taken a long time for Network DVD actually to release. I am very pleased that a review for it has already appeared on Amazon, commenting on what quality TV it is, and particularly how dated it looks in terms of young boys wandering off on their own, talking to strange men on canal boats, and the fact that the boys 'do their own stunts' on the show. You can see such a scene on the video that I am using to illustrate this post. Then, as now, canal locks are very dangerous things, contained areas of water with possibly unseen things underneath, the likelihood of catching Weil's disease from the water... as a modern health and safety exercise, this show would just go on and on and shows how the world has changed. The video I have used here also shows the point I make periodically, that a man's bare chest wasn't a sexual thing once upon a time. As a Brummie, I also want to see this show because it shows the city and its canals (in case you didn't know Birmingham famously has more canals than Venice) as they were in the 1960s.
Spike Milligan's show Q has been released in two box sets, and they are definitely on my list of things to watch. Considering I could never tolerate the Goons very well (I would have to admit that Harry Secombe merely irritated me) I love Spike Milligan's humour a lot. I have one of those BBC Classic Comedy single-disc anthologies, which claims to capture the highlights of Q and his other series There's A Lot of It About. It is perhaps more associated with Peter Sellers (who plays his own ghost), but Milligan also features in a film in my shopping basket, Ghost in the Midday Sun. I have never seen it so really cannot comment at all, but given that the online reviews tend to comment on its surrealism I suspect that it is my kind of thing.
I notice that recently I have been venturing back in time from the sixties fantasy Avengerland in which I feel most comfortable. Edgar Wallace was one of the most popular crime writers of the earlier years of the twentieth century, and I am finally planing on trying one of the anthology DVDs of his Mysteries series. I was looking at them when I popped into HMV today and thinking that since I do like an old film, they ought to be bang up my street. I have never read any of his myseries so cannot comment on what they are actually like.
Returning to comedy, I have to admit that Dick Emery never fails to make me laugh, although his humour is so old-fashioned nowadays. I lent Ooh You Are Awful to a friend once who watched the beginning and returned it silently to me as if she didn't want it in the house, but he makes me roar. I have another of those BBC Classic Comedy discs, but the one I have in my basket is the disc containing the recordings Emery did for ITV in a rare departure from the BBC. The blurb and the reviews on the internet don't suggest that they differ in any great way from his normal output, so I am looking forward to more of the same.
I am more ambivalent about the Armchair Theatre series, believing anthology series to be rather patchy by nature. That said, it seems to me that the several box sets of the various series are retaining their value on the resale market, which often suggests that a TV series is quality and thus those who buy it on release don't sell the discs on. Otherwise, it is of course one of the all-time great names in TV shows, with what can only be described as a glittering cast of writers and actors. Of course you all know my reservations about great name actors in TV shows - and even before they became famous, watching those shows afterwards can often still bring the actor's later success intrusively into the viewer's mind.
Other shows I would like to see? Well the parody Laughing Prisoner would be high up on there. It has been on Amazon as awaiting release for some years, but never actually comes out. I remember seeing it in the 80s when there was a fad for shows like The Prisoner and The Avengers, which were being shown on the then-new Channel 4.
Perhaps I will make a point of writing an occasional post on what has caught my eye in the world of classic TV without the obligation to watch the show and thus make some judgement on it first, I have found it quite refreshing. Just please bear in mind that I am making no recommendation of any of these shows, so watch them at your own risk!

The Avengers: The Master Minds

Another of the great and very popular Avengers episodes, this one. In fact it's a bit difficult to know what to say about it because of the sheer volume of stuff on the internet, even to the extent of a detailed analysis of the crib notes on Steed's cuff.
From the very start this Avengers is so very, well, Avengers. There is literally not one image in this episode which doesn't scream Avengers. The outmoded uniform of the guard, juxtaposed with the instruction to 'Kill him,' which is surely more shocking than it would normally be in the circumstances. As always in The Avengers the guard is killed without blood, and with the apparently incongruent juxtaposition of the episode's title. The scene then cuts straight to the image of Steed driving through what can only be Avengerland.
The Avengerland depicted in this episode is actually an interesting mixture of the great institutions of State (the Tower), the classical columns Steed drives through to get to Sir Clive's house, and the fact that Sir Clive's house is relentlessly modern in architecture and fixtures. Incidentally I love the open fire in the centre of the sitting room, and am wondering whether the people in the flats above me would mind having a chimney put through their living rooms. The additional fact that the ransack organisation is using the traditional surroundings of the school, places this Avengers firmly in the category of an infiltration of the Establishment by Diabolical Masterminds.
Something which I feel hasn't been commented on much about this Avengers, is the recurring theme of the body and embodiment. Physical fitness is contrastes with mental fitness - although of course in this case physical fitness wins out in the end. Physical medicine is seen as relatively helpless in comparison to psychological medicine, and the theme of the body, the use of the body recurs frequently.
Nor is this episode short on the sexiness, not all of it coming from Mrs Peel as it happens, although the fact of her being asleep in Steed's car and the fact she wears a nurse's uniform must have set more than a few pulses racing at the time! Additionally when she and Steed arrive at Sir Clive's house the camera lingers on the rather glitzy catsuit she is wearing: Mrs Peel is clearly the principle sex interest in this one. Sex raises its lovely head in various other places in this episode as well: the struggle Steed has with Sir Clive's daughter who is only wearing a fur coat over a bathing suit, in which she has flown home, and I do like the scene of Steed with the male pin-ups, and the way he flexes his biceps, clearly putting him in the "body" side of the divide here, in one of the girls' bedrooms in the school. Mrs Peel's reaction to them, when she comes across them in the midst of her uncharacteristically subservient role of helping Steed unpack, places her firmly in the "mind" camp.
There is a more serious element to this Avengers, though, and it picks up on the oft-recurring theme of technology and particularly the misuse of technology, in this case for mind control, using the cover of an apparently innocuous organisation. The contemporary interest in psychiatry also raises its head and in one wonderful scene we see Steed beating the service psychiatrist at his own game. The diabolical masterminds who run Ransack attempt to control the members' bodies by the use of psychological means indicates that Ransack isn't as clever as it thinks it is. The fact that Steed can get in by pure cheating shows for sure that they are not that clever. And of course as usual Mrs Peel is shown up to be the brains of the outfit, as well as the sexy piece.
I particularly love the scene in the gym, where the opposition between mind and body is complicated somewhat by the fact that the brainy members of Ransack do get their exercise in. Steed poses as the non-physical person - he doesn't even have gym shoes - and I like the way that he and Mrs Peel remain clothed when everyone else is in gym kit, which naturally makes them stand out like sore thumbs. Mrs Peel is also posing, of course, since she is the very embodiment of physicality as well as having brains, but is not joining in the exercise. While Steed and Mrs Peel appear to be united, they are set against each other by the enemy, when Steed has to tell Mrs Peel that she doesn't remember a single thing that happened to her the night before.
As is often the case with TV shows that I love, I am finding it very difficult to find something to criticise in The Master Minds. You could say that the whole plot is frankly incredible, but of course that is the whole point of The Avengers. I find the voice over the tannoy telling the members of Ransack what to do, rather annoying, and think it would have been better and pushed more buttons in the psyche if a more commanding or military-sounding voice had been used. There are some criticisms of the factual stuff in this - the things on Steed's cuff and the conversation about the word yogurt - but since the whole point of this episode is that the brainy people are wrong, these criticisms are not incongruent at all, to my mind. There are also criticisms on the internet that this one takes a long time to get into its stride: I certainly think it improves as it goes on, and certainly once the opening scene is over, the visuals improve once the action in the school starts.
In the final analysis of this Avengers, the body wins out over the mind, and of course that was always going to be the point. The opposition between the two was set up from the start, and much of the point of this episode is that Mrs Peel is on the brains side of the equation and gets taken in completely. Steed doesn't have the brains, but has the sense to unplug the speaker in his room and is thus immune. Here, brawn saves the Great Institutions of Britain when they are threatened by the brains of The Enemy.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Public Eye: Don't Forget You're Mine

This second-series episode of Public Eye is an odd one which has survived from the series, which may be found among the extras on the 1971 series box series, along with a canalside interview with Alfred Burke during filming of the series. For the second series of 1966, Public Eye relocated here to Birmingham: Burke gives as the reason that Birmingham hadn't really been exploited on television up until then. Of course it was also to have use of the state-of-the-art facilities at the recently-demolished ATV studios on Broad Street.
The scene is set with a wonderful view of the old Bull Ring market complex - with the moving sign on the side of St Martin's house set to give the title of the programme. Perhaps I'd better get the local colour out of the way now, since I realise that the majority of my readers live very far away from here. It is interesting that the scenes of Birmingham used in the show are actually of the very modern, futuristic Birmingham of the 1960s, which was created by the council getting a lot of compulsory purchase order and demolishing everything in sight. It is also interesting that virtually all of the street scenes shown in this show are now gone. Fifty years later, the only thing that remains is one wall Marker walks along. My point here is that the heady futuristic dream of the sixties has largely bitten the dust.
One of the things which made me think about this episode is that I have been watching the second series of Peaky Blinders. I was wildly critical of the first series, but had heard that the second was better. Accent-wise, it is certainly better (you would think the first series was set in Liverpool), but I would have to say that coming to this from Peaky Blinders, I'm feeling bad at having even the slightest criticism of the accents. The episode begins marvellously with Marker trying to find an office to rent from Souter, an estate agent. His accent is ever so slightly overdone, but nonetheless is about as spot on as you're going to get on television, and serves to set the scene that Marker has definitely arrived in Birmingham. The best accent is actually the school teacher later on in the episode.
Local colour over, this situation is exactly the kind of outsider situation which Marker is so used to. He manages to get a run-down office and is essentially in business. Of course it only takes one phone call for him to get his first case and off he goes to see Mrs Jessup, around whom this case revolves. QUite literally revolves, because the whole point of this case it that it is something of a wild goose chase and Mrs Jessup is not quite what she seems to be. In fact she really isn't what she seems to be, because - look away if you don't want the story spoiled - it is really unexpected when she is seen with her toy boy later in the episode. The fact that Marker asks the young man is he is above the age of consent, moves Mrs Jessup into a category which is genuinely unexpected. The real nature of her search is very well hidden from the viewer until almost the end, making this episode a real surprise.
This episode shows the leg work of the private eye very well. Marker quite literally gets through shoe leather finding Mr Jessup, and many of the locations which are mentioned are real places, giving an extra sense of veracity to the viewer.
There is, however, one thing wrong with this episode, which must be ignored if you want to enjoy it. When she tells him that her husband has disappeared, this is merely stated as a statement of fact, and that is what is wrong with this one. People don't just vanish, without argument, without warning. If they do, their nearest and dearest have a habit of ringing the police. Marker's suspicions as to Mrs Jessup should have been aroused at the first interview, and he would have asked her what had happened to make him just vanish. I also have a feeling that Marker would have not hesitated to point out that usually if a man doesn't contact his wife the reason is an obvious one.
The oft-repeated situation of Marker having the wool pulled over his eyes and used, is opposed to the strong educational background to this episode, with its concurrent background of art and culture. The contrast is between the instilling of learning and the deceit of Marker. In fact the whole point of this episode is one of deceit: when Marker does track down Mr Jessup (I'll call him that for the sake of tidiness), it turns out that the wool has also been pulled over our eyes about his relationship.
A further contrast is between the go-ahead modernism of sixties Brum, which doesn't sit at all well with some of the squalor shown in the suburbs, and Jessup's landlady's old-fashioned shock at having an unmarried couple living in her house. Visually, this show is marvellous. The interior scenes are wonderful, and I love Donald Jessup's bohemian flat. Both visually and plot-wise, this Private Eye maintains interest to the very end.
I like Pauline Delaney in this one a lot. Far from the stable support character to Marker who she plays in later series, she is a far more louche character. I love the dramatic character she plays here: she overdoes it marvellously. And of course she is set up in the plot to be the person you end up disliking most. Marker winds up with his usual role of being the person who does what is right - in this case by not cashing Mrs Jessup's cheque so that he can prove what she is up to.
And that is the reason this Public Eye works so well - it is a plot calculated to work well with Marker's character. I would recommend it to any viewer.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Avengers: Get-A-Way!

It's lucky I have never attempted to write an actual book about cult TV - I would never have been able to stick to the train of thought for long enough, and the periodic medium of blogging seems to suit my way of ruminating much better. You will see that I started posting about Series 1 episodes of The Avengers last year - I will return to that, I am sure. I wrote then about the feeling I have of being almost frightened to blog about my favourite TV shows, in case I reach a point where I have blogged about them all and there are no more. Well, I have actually found myself returning to a programme I have already blogged about and found it wasn't the end of the world, but I have found myself somewhat held back by the fear I spoke of. This has prevented me writing so much about my favourite shows, so that is what I am going to do. I chose this Avengers episode to write about by literally shuffling the discs in their boxes and landing my finger down on the index, secure in the knowledge that I would be unable to find anything in The Avengers that I didn't want to write about.
The first thing to say about Get-A-Way! is that it immediately presents an anachronistic mixture of apparently mediaeval monastery (or the non-Catholic's idea of what a monastery would be like), contrasted with the then up-to-date technology used by the service which guards the men held there. This is not the first time The Avengers has a creative 'prison' - the rest home in Noon Doomsday is as much a defensive prison as the one in this show - with the problems of entry and exit reversed.
The scene of Rostoff's escape is again juxtaposed with the scene of drinks in Steed's apartment - the evening dress suggests solidity and reliability in the visual language of the show, and the fact that Miss King is the only woman makes it clear that this is a professional gathering rather than one of friends. The threat is similar to the one in Noon Doomsday, in that it is aimed clear at Steed personally, or rather he is the obvious ultimate target after the others have been knocked off one by one.
The science-as-great-white-hope-yet-open-to-misuse theme, which occurs so often in the TV of this era is amply shown in the fact that the opposition have developed a chemical to make people invisible. The names of the criminals and the fact of the chemical being (rather unconvincingly) hidden in a secret compartment in a vodka bottle, indicates that the enemy is somebody on the other side of the Ironfrequently Curtain, placing this show very much in its own time.
We know who the enemy is, but this show really makes me wonder about the nature of the organisation Steed and Tara work for. The fact that fruits are used as the password for the prisoners' cells, is very much in line with flowers being used as the names of agents in Who's Who. This is one of the things I like best about The Avengers - it is touches like that which stop it being merely a standard spy show, and inject a sense of the ridiculous. I love that the prison is set up in a pseudo-monastery, that the agents wear pseudo-habits, and that the prisoners' cells are, well, monastic cells! It is a wonderful example of the unreality of The Avengers, because none of this would happen out here in the real world! Incidentally I see that the external shots of the monastery use Ashridge House in Hertfordshire, which did actually start out life as an Augustinian monastery in the thirteenth century. Unfortunately I think the unreality is carried a step too far, as I will show below, because once it is apparent that Steed is going to be targetted he is left on the case and refuses further protection. One would think that Mother would have stepped in at that point to do something.
I was surprised to find at least one negative, in fact dismissive, review of this episode on the internet, saying that the episode is only saved by Peter Bowles's performance; I have read another review saying that the beginning of the episode is too weak (both of these are on the website. I personally disagree: I find Peter Bowles an unconvincing Russian and an unconvincing baddie. I also disagree about the beginning of the show, which I think draws people in excellently. Rather I think there are things wrong with this episode, but I would put them elsewhere: by the twenty minutes point of this show it is obvious that Steed is going to be targeted by an 'invisible' assassin. This creates the dual weaknesses that the organisation don't force him off the case into hiding, and that the story becomes a straighforward hunt for the solution to the invisibility conundrum. Unfortunately the solution to that is very obvious by the 25 minutes point, making the rest of the plot a rather thin one. We know that Steed will be hunted down, but we know that The Avengers will find the solution to the problem and stop him being killed. We know what causes the invisibility and the rest is filling. Even given that The Avengers is typically much more about atmosphere and characterisation than plotting, this is a major weakness. Obviously I do feel there are flaws in this episode, but just don't agree on where they are!
Otherwise I have a feeling that this one isn't a favourite of the fans. It scores consistently high on the internet sites where you can score TV shows, but I have found a lack of actual written reviews online, which I think is interesting. It suggests to me that if it was more popular somebody like me would have leapt online and written about it! Another weakness, which is completely personal and one I am not sure would have applied at the time, is that Peter Bowles is far too familiar in other roles to me, to be convincing in this one. Now I come to look, I see that he was warned on leaving RADA that he would never play an Englishman because of his swarthy looks, and I see that his early TV work consisted entirely of playing 'foreign villains', so perhaps he was more convincing to others that he is to me!
My main question about this one though is, would Steed really have been in any fit state to give anyone a lift after a night of drinking champagne? And what does it say about his attitude to safety that he offers George Neville a lift home? Even granted that this was a long time ago, the offer of a lift does genuinely surprise me!
My conclusion on this Avengers episode is that it is one of the weaker ones of a superlative series, and so still far from being rubbish. It is another case where a show intended to be seen once with no opportunity to pause or rewind it, may not stand up to the sort of examination I am subjecting it to. It is an example of the more lightweight Avengers episodes which can still be wonderfully entertaining. I do particularly like the closing scene where it appears that Steed is invisible.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Reflections on Quality Television inspired by Spyder's Web

Last night (although it was probably more like the afternoon where he is) Grant Goggans kindly left a comment on one of the posts I wrote when I originally went through Spyder's Web episode by episode. To find that series of posts you can click on the Spyder's Web tag on the web version of this blog.
Grant's comments set me off thinking again about Spyder's Web and of course today I have had to crack the set open and have a watch. I have particularly been asking myself the question I asked in my last post, about what I think differentiates quality television from mere television, which is still to ignore the duds completely. I would personally put Spyder's Web in the Quality Television bracket, and I have been thinking about what makes it that. Given that the category of Quality Television would include shows such as The Avengers, The Prisoner, Danger Man, among the better known ones, and among the ones less talked about, I would include Department S, The Champions, Spyder's Web, The Man from UNCLE, and Special Branch.
I think probably there are two defining characteristics here: one is a certain eccentricity, and the other is a reliably offbeat characterisation. For me the kiss of death on an Amazon review is when a show is described as a popular sitcom. What is it about the sitcom format that makes it so popular? I personally can't think of anything less interesting than watching the boring day to day activities of people I will never meet and who have never existed. My own daily life is rather pedestrian and I think I would have to watch TV as an escape from normal life. To drag this blog past back towards the subject I have given it: the life of the characters in Spyder's Web, and in fact all of the shows I mention above, can hardly be described as ordinary. Even film-making, the cover-story of Arachnid Films, is relatively speaking, a rather interesting and sophisticated world to the outsider.
Perhaps the parallel for this requirement that quality television should not depict ordinary life as such is the popularity of murder mysteries in all media. No doubt we have all known people who we would dearly wish were no longer around, but the reality of actually killing somebody is a different matter entirely. I'm also not taken with anything in the line of courtroom dramas, police procedurals, and so on: give me the magical realism of the Avengers any day, where there are no qualms about Steed and Peel suddenly just knowing that something is happening somewhere.
And then there is characterisation: the characterisation of Spyder's Web is incredibly strong, while somehow managing to be rather unreal. What I mean by that is that while we see a little more of Hawksworth's home life and interest in cars, we see nothing that I can remember of Lottie Dean's home life outside of Arachnid Films. Perhaps there isn't a home life, but in reality this makes her character rather one-dimensional. I don't intend it as a criticism if I say that she is almost a caricature of a secret agent: no family life, no home life, nothing that can break in to the secret. As far as this applies to the characterisation I like in Quality Television, I suppose there is a sense of unreality about all my favourite TV characters. Steed is unfortunately so unreal that to give him as an example feels like going straight for the low-hanging fruit. John Drake would be another example. He has a home, he has friends, apparently, but it is all rather unreal. I think what I am really getting at here is the fact that I like my characters to be unreal and going about their unreal business: apparently real people going about ordinary life are not really my cup of tea. Some of the more realistic shows fail in this to my mind, by trying to make what are obviously fictional characters only too real. Cockney cheeky chappies are all very well, but only exist in the imagination of the middle classes.
So: unreality and characterisation are my two main definers for really good television and Spyder's Web manages to tick both boxes. I see when I first wrote about this series I commented that the episodes varied in quality, which I suppose it the result of having different writers. Grant commented that the episodes on disc four are his favourites and of course we disagree about Things That Go Bang in the NIght! Of course An Almost Modern Man has the great advantage of guest starring Mike Pratt, and also of starting with a 'voodoo' ceremony. Magic, conflict and a willingness to discuss the more conflicted aspects of life - well frankly, these sound like a recipe for a post on this blog! Incidentally the magic scene looks exactly like stills from presumably an outtake from The Avengers episode Warlock included in the Optimum DVD set - the idea of what a magic ceremony looks like is strikingly similar, and I suppose the bare chests equate to perhaps a wildness, unconcventionality, or being in touch with the physical, or else possibly it was as close as they could get to the actual ritual nudity of Gerald Gardner's Wicca. Presumably the decision was taken to have Alban Blakelock with a top on for the take that was actually used. There is also nothing not to love about the other episodes on disc four, since they also ramp up the weird and wonderful. I see that these episodes were broadcast amongst the last, and perhaps there was a certain confidence about the show and its format by then.
The aspects of 1960s culture brought to the fore by these episodes are also of great interest to me. The conflict between the ancient and modern, and the fact that the world was simply a place where conflict on the world stage marked everything, are so 1960s. And what is very Avengers was that we see these great dangers being fought by two individuals employed in a rather shady way by Whitehall, and operating under a decidedly flimsy cover story. If only the world was still so simple now!
There is still a lot to like on the other three discs of the boxed set. In my humble opinion some of the episodes reach Avengers standards of quality and weirdness! In fact I think there is another parallel to draw with The Avengers. I am just watching Nobody's Strawberry Fool and Hawksworth has just commented that he hasn't yet finished reading Scouting for Boys. I am reminded of the occasions in The Avengers where Steed is seen to be reading Tintin - in French, of course. Hawksworth is something of a Steed character, in terms of breeding and being a Jolly Good Sort. The fact that his home setting is shown is telling, because in the visual language of television it gives us an insight into what he is about, and his solidly, safely furnished flat is provided with books aplenty, indicating a solidity to him. Where the Avengers thing is rather inverted, is that Lottie is and will always be, the boss in the relationship. That said, of course the relationship between Steed and the 'girl' of the time changed as time went on, and while I love series 6 dearly, I know a lot of the fans see the Tara King character as a mistake. Nor is an 'adult' dynamic ruled out between Lottie and Hawksworth: it feels much more of a relationship between a man and a woman where sex just lurks out of sight, and while it is fairly obvious that nothing is Going On, there is the implication that it could have done if things had been different.
The purpose of this post was just to log some thoughts on the quality status of Spyder's Web. Perhaps I will write a post or several posts actually comparing the various episodes to similar episodes of The Avengers. If you haven't seen this one yet - and let's face it, if you're reading this blog you certainly should have done - I would strongly recommend Spyder's Web as Our Sort of Television and one to be purchased as soon as possible.
Illustrations: screen shots from the galleries on the DVDs of Spyder's Web: An Almost Modern Man and The Avengers: Warlock.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Turtle's Progress Compared to Minder

A belated happy new year to all my readers. I wasn't drunk all this time; I managed to pick up a bug which has literally laid me low for a week, hence the lack of posts here.
Today I want to write about a series I bought on spec and comment on the way it is often compared to the slightly later series Minder. Turtle's Progress is what we would now call a spin-off from the 1975 show Hanged Man. I have owned Hanged Man on DVD, have watched it all the way through, and am not going to beat about the buch in declaring frankly that I didn't take to it. I bought it thinking that I would like its main premise, of a company boss who 'dies' in order to investigate who has it in for him. I still do like that premise, I just found that it lacked oomph and failed to hold my attention, a completely personal response to it, and of course you are welcome to disagree with me vehemently.
Turtle's Progress features one character from Hanged Man, but the setting is very different. It is the sort of East London gangland with forays into the respectable world TV series, which the word 'gritty' could have been coined to describe. Turtle (John Landry) and his sidekick Razor Eddie (Michael Attwell, who I eventually managed to place as playing one of the burglars in the Are You Being Served episode where it is stock taking and burglars break into Grace Brothers) are petty thieves who mistakenly steal a van which just happens to contain a consignment of safe deposit boxes. Naturally the contents of the boxes is much more valuable than the van itself, and the whole series is based on the implications of opening the boxes one by one.
I actually like that plot very much. It allows for a basic set of characters who interact with a different set of characters each episode, and the underbelly of such enterprises as racing and antiques can be visited, depending on who has an interest in the contents of the box opened in that episode. The constant background is the seedy setting and criminal family background of the protagonists.
The internet reviews I have been able to find for Turtle's Progress are few and far between yet almost relentlessly positive. It is evident that this show gained a strong cult following at the time it was first broadcast, and those people have cottoned on to its release on DVD with glee. I therefore feel obliged to make some criticism of the show, and I think it would have to be that considering this show dates from 1979-80 it is remarkably studio-based and doesn't compare well with the action-based series of the time, such as The Sweeney. This is purely a production criticism, but I think that is a major drawback for this show. A further production criticism is one which is simply because this show is caught in an unfortunate time frame: nowadays British ears are more accustomed to hearing real American accents than we were in the 1970s. Unfortunately this means that the actors speaking in 'American' accents are in no way convincing. Perhaps this is best seen as a historical record of how British TV portrayed Americans in the 1970s.
Turtle's production values also show when it is compared to Minder. You will read everywhere that Turtle's Progress had an influence on Minder, in fact it is mentioned on the box. To my mind the way in which it compares best is the depiction of the London demimondaine criminal fraternity, populated entirely by cockney chappies. Nonetheless Turtle's Progress feels much more 'worthy': it feels much more like a series of plays, and while the theme is clearly criminal it feels to me as if the treatment is much less adult. I am almost all the way through Turtle so far and I'm yet to meet a single reference to sex, to a crooked copper, or to the kind of desperation routinely referenced in Minder. Yes, Malone is clearly Turtle's minder, but to my mind the comparison really begins and ends with that fact and the London setting.
A question is raised in my mind by these shows, as to who their intended audience could be. I have written before about the north-south divide in Britain - by this was an ATV show so it couldn't possibly have been to entertain northerners. I also wonder, since the characters are to a man working-class, loveable cockneys, whether this was intended for the entertainment of the middle class? I just wonder that, rather than stating it as a fact. Turtle's aunt Ethel is the sort of loveable cockney character who makes mistakes in terms of simple general knowledge: I love the way she thinks that tea from the Co-Op in Fulham is not foreign, but nonetheless... There is of course a further historical element to this show in that I don't think for an instant the original working class population can afford to live in Fulham these days, unless housed in social housing, inherited a place, or sharing. Turtle is set at a time which has forever vanished in the wake of Thatcher, and the irony is that Turtle bizarrely emulates the private industry advocated by Thatcher.
On a completely personal level, both Turtle and Minder raise questions for me as to what differentiates these shows from what I would consider 'real' cult TV shows, such as The Avengers, The Prisoner, and so on. I think the difference is that those shows have a real streak of unreality. The problem for me with so much 'real' TV is that of course it isn't real at all!
Nonetheless I don't feel the need not to comment on Turtle's Progress as being a complete dud. I don't think the comparison with Minder holds up, and I think they are best approached looking for slightly different things. If you like cheeky Cockney chappies who are down on their luck, well Turtle's Progress might be just your thing.