Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Get Smart

I had forgotten about this show, when I came across the bosed set in the HMV shop just round the corner, and the face of Maxwell Smart brought back memories. It is not surprising that I had forgotten it, because I can't remember reading about this show on the cult TV blogosphere ever. It is also not one mentioned in the books. Which is odd, considering it is very much out of the same world which gave birth to so many of the shows I write about here - The Avengers, Danger Man, and, especially, The Man from UNCLE. Nonethless I must have watched this show before, because I remember it. I have been unable to find UK broadcast dates, but suspect that I was very young, but suspect that it was around the same time that I was a huge fan of Mission Impossible and The Man from UNCLE, and as I remember my younger self loved Get Max equally.
I have a feeling that this show's lack of presence in the TV blogosphere (as surfed my me, that is) is because it is a relative lightweight in comparison to the shows it spoofs. I'm also not at all clear how popular it was at the time or now: there is a website which has obviously been going for years, which includes a plot summary of every episode and a list of merchandise, which usually indicates a really cult TV show. I am therefore at a loss as to why I haven't read about it in the 35-ish years since I last watched it and have had to seek out the information on the internet. I don't want to assume the programme was unpopular (because it got into several series and remakes, etc) but would hypothesise that it may be one of those shows which is neither one thing or the other - I'm particularly thinking of how the introduction of more humorous elements into the third series of The Man from UNCLE alienated the viewers). If you're looking for a comedy, it is just what you want, but its apeing of the spy genre of the time may not have been that popular at the time, and the reason for that unpopularity may simply be that the spy genre was so popular that apeing it was not acceptable. As I say this is a theory and not one I would go the stake for.
It pleases me to announce that Get Smart manages to include every convention of the spy genre of the time. I particularly like the opening sequence, with the convention of the hidden headquarters. It is of course in the nature of the show that all of these conventions are overdone - particularly the gadgets. I love the sheer ridiculousness of so many of the gadgets. Of course this is another thing which may make this show simply too much for some viewers to find funny.
I also particularly like the character of Maxwell Smart. He is a sort of anti-hero to the hero figures of so many of these shows. Bond never drops anything, and with ridiculous nonchalance brings the case to a conclusion, with time to seduce several women along the way. The men from UNCLE work rather harder and of course have differing approaches to the opposite sex, but nonetheless nothing really goes wrong as such. Do these people really never drop anything or walk into a door? I now realise why - it is because all of the accidents have been soaked up by Maxwell Smart on their behalf and so the probability of Bond falling over as he is taking off his socks is minimal. Smart actually fulfills a function in our society, therefore. To put it another way, he is a secret agent who is more like us than the ones in films and TV. In fact he is so like us that he has had to be given this air of ridiculousness so that we always have the luxury of looking at him and thinking he is more accident-prone than we could ever be. Get Smart is therefore the ultimate comfort viewing.
Nor does Smart actually have a sex life, which places him apart from most secret agents (and ensures that my region 2 set of the first series has a PG, or G in Ireland, rating). He would like one, and is surrounded by beautiful women, but I at least feel slightly relieved for these women because we all know that if he got anywhere with them something terrible would happen. His female colleague, 99, remains firmly in the background in a rather unreconstructed way, in common with the series of the time.
So apart from the humour the conventions of the spy genre are actually all present and correct. We have an evil organisation bent on world domination. The men wear suits. The show is wonderfully redolent of the 1960s - I think if you like the sort of ITC shows I have written about here, if you can cope with the humour, you will like Get Smart. The episodes look and feel very much like...well, like Uncle or any ITC series. They are very much studio-bound, which makes for a very controlled and good quality picture, which has also been restored wonderfully. The only thing I don't like about it - although it is in accord with the US TV of the time - is the canned laughter track.
It is not an accolade I think I have given at all recently, but Get Smart definitely gets my rating of Stonking Good Television

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Tales of the Unexpected Rehabilitated

I am completely sure I have blogged about this show here before, but since for the life of me I can't find the post, it may just be that I have mentioned it in passing. Anyway, what I have probably said about it before is that I loved this show as a child, finding it terribly sophisticated and really attention-grabbing. I have probably also said that I have recently had a set of the whole first series and found it incredibly dreary. Actually, given that that was my opinion it is not very surprising if I haven't blogged about it.
Nonetheless today I thought I would give it another go. Unless you're a fanatical completist and want the every-episode-ever box set (on something in the region of 473 DVDs), or fancy buying it one series at a time, I have a recommendation. Buy the 'best episodes' box set, which comes on ten DVDs and is manageable. If you live in the UK the most affordable way to get it is used from Cex at £12.00. I have also realised two things about this show - one is that the quality is more patchy than I remember from my youth. The other is that I have read elsewhere on the internet today, that beyond the second series the episodes weren't actually written by Roald Dahl. What I'm saying in a roundabout way is that buying the 'best of' box set will excuse you from seeing the duds, but that I have a feeling any viewer will be hard pressed to like every episode of such a long-running series.
I came to it again, willing to give it another go. To my astonishment, I found that it was really gripping. I popped a disc in the drive while cooking, and found that I kept stopping to turn round and look at the screen. I am delighted to find that my early memories of this show weren't as wrong as I thought they were - it was perhaps just that I wasn't watching the best episodes.
In fact I am so delighted that I an rushing this into print so that Tales of the Unexpected can be rehabilitated in the view of Cult TV Blog, without watching my way through all the discs. Naturally it may be that some of the episodes are not to my taste, but that will just confirm the theory I have come up with above.
Of the episodes I have watched, I would have to say that they have retained their power to terrify and horrify. For example on the disc in the drive at the moment is The Stinker. This episode accurately creates the feeling of being on the receiving end of bullying and so can only be an alarming experience for the viewer. I'll Be Seeing You is an apparently fairly conventional tale of a man and a woman who loathe each other stuck in a marriage, relieved for the husband only by the affair he is having with a woman who is steadily losing her sight. Without spoiling the story, the unexpected thing in I'll Be Seeing You is truly ironic, would have been horrible for him in reality, and was probably a bit of a triumph of technology at the time. I particularly like the economy with which the horror is developed in The Landlady, featuring the scariest landlady in world history (pictured). The Landlady takes the premise of Arsenic and Old Lace and somehow makes it so much more twisted than it was to begin with. I particular love the element of sexual frisson the landlady gets from her guests.
One of the things I have managed never to notice about this show is the absolutely stellar cast of stars. Joan Collins for a start. John Geilgud to be going on with. Even I can't moan at Really Big Names, because their acting ability tends to be so good that they enhance the show! There are also a number of familiar faces from TV of the period, but I'm going to be good and not moan about it.
So despite my recent disappointment at seeing this programme again, I'm now finding it rather difficult to think of anything critical, but I'll have a go. I suppose the obvious criticism is that if you don't take to anthology series, you won't like this. It is in the nature of the medium that the episodes will vary from each other in style and quality. I would also say that if you are watching this as a fan of Roald Dahl you are going to be disappointed beyond the first couple of series. Not only do his introductions to the episodes disappear but I have read that the later episodes weren't even written by him
Otherwise this is very much what you would expect of the higher level TV of the time in terms of appearance and production values. I would recommend it for a viewing if you're not familiar with it.

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Secret Service, with Reference to Last Train to Buffler's Halt

Some classic TV blogs can manage to keep their posts on track. I can't even keep on track within a single post without going off on some tangent, so it's no wonder that after posting about episode 1 of They Came From Somewhere Else, I've wandered off to write about The Secret Service, specifically Last Train to Buffler's Halt. The reason for this jumping from one subject to another is a very personal one - I find I tend to use this blog to blog about what I am actually watching, and it seems I'm having difficulty sticking to plans at the moment.
There is another totally personal thing which decides what I post about here - as you know I don't post about shows which are duds. Of course sometimes I just haven't got round to posting about a show or haven't seen it, but life is too short to start clogging up my own blog with my whinges about shows which usually get a good hammering elsewhere on the internet anyway. I'm saying this because in this post I'm going to have a go at rehabilitating a show which is usually considered a complete dud - Gerry Anderson's The Secret Service, the last of his 'Supermarionation' series of shows - and while it has been on my radar for a long time its unpopularity may explain why I have never seen it.
The whole Supermarionation thing is a bit of a touchy one in the classic TV world. Grown men can get a bit embarrassed about watching shows featuring puppets. That said, we all grew up on Thunderbirds and the other shows, although being specifically aimed at children they lack grown up themes and depths and can fail to appeal to adults. More appealing is the Gerry Anderson show UFO - I like it greatly but I'm wary of posting about it here because I just know I will get drawn into what the female and male actors are wearing under their string uniform thingies. UFO isn't lacking in adult themes which makes it different from the shows normally associated with the Anderson name, and The Secret Service straddles the gap between the two, being the last Supermarionation, which also included live action with real people.
I really don't need to elaborate what people don't like about this show, but it is in its mixture of puppets and real people that this show goes wrong. Reading the reviews on the internet it looks as if this creates real credibility problems for a lot of viewers. It seems some people like their unreality to be confirmed by not containing real actors - at least not visible ones. A lot of people finding the casting of the wonderful Stanley Unwin very distracting. I would venture to disagree with this estimation of the show completely. What I would agree with is that this show is all wrong for a children's show of the time and I suspect they would have seen it as too grown up and adults would have seen it as too childish, and I think this is enough to create its unpopularity on its own.
I keep returning to the real/unreal dichotomy in television of this time, and I think this show is firmly in the unreal camp. This episode is a very good exmaple of why. The plot - a train carrying a consignment of cash which is being hijacked, ridden by a secret agent masquerading as a vicar, and which vanishes, is a plot straight out of any of the TV shows I have on my shelves. In fact I think it may actually be very similar to the plot of a missing episode of Adam Adamant! The theme of the shady character who is one thing but is actually a secret agent is straight out of The Avengers, as is the fact of this character pretending to be a vicar. He drives a vintage car. He lives in an actual vicarage. That is indicative of the Church of England being in cahoots with the Secret Service, and that really is a plot which can only come from the Avengers.
A show which features action on a train is of course one which is always going to be atmospheric, and this one doesn't fail. The baddies are naturally locked up in the trap they have set up to get the filthy lucre, and this reversal is about as perennial as you can get.
There is relatively little use of gadgetry in this show, and that is again one of the criticisms of it, but I don't mind that. The man who changes size is again one of the things which reminds me of a certain Avengers plot, and places this firmly in the unreal genre of TV. Personally I like the casting Stanley Unwin as the vicar. If we approach this show as unreal, the fact that he periodically speaks his own brand of gobbledygook is perfectly acceptable, and the things he says are perfectly understandable anyway. I like this show and specifically this episode very much.
So what went wrong with it? These things are not really criticisms looking back but I have a few ideas. It seems too churchy in the titles. The theme music is all wrong for a children's TV show of the time. I have a feeling it would have been less noticeable at the time given what television usually looked like, but the cuts between the supermarionation and the live action shots look a little too different in light and colour to be confortable. That said, if you're a geek, the alternations in action look like a very interesting experiment at the time. It's just a great pity that it was so unpopular and this show has been seen as a low point of Gerry Anderson's output.
My own opinion is that this show really is overdue a rehabilitation. Plus points are that it is like the finaly series of The Avengers on LSD, crossed with Adam Adamant, The Champions, and Department S. Negative points are that if you don't like the mixture of shooting you will never really take to this show. That said, if you like the sort of TV I do, I really would suggest you give this show a go, as I think it is an overlooked, if rather flawed, gem.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

They Came From Somewhere Else Episode 1

I see that I have written a general post about this classic of cult TV, this giant of the genre, this show which was so influential on me as a young weirdo. In fact you can tell that we are in the territory of cult TV here, in that I am watching it on my laptop, downloaded from the internet, in a copy uploaded from some kind person who uploaded their original VHS recording. To watch They Came From Somewhere Else is to go out on to the true frontier of cult TV and also to experience the world of cult TV before easy downloads and DVDs - the age when people swapped actual tapes.
This show's influence on me in my youth was not limited by the fact that this is actually a spoof of the entire sci fi genre. At the age I saw this I must have been barely aware of the genre, but it was clear how the show upturned the pillars of society as we all learned them, and also upturned the pillars of the sci fi genre.
Wendy, the policewoman is a principle character of the whole series - I could see that she was also a parody of many real people, who are set firmly in their own world and rarely if ever go out of it. They are therefore unprepared for an onslaught by Something from Outside that world, because they can have no conception of it. Middleford, the show's location, is of course also a parody. I suppose the immediate inspiration would be one of the new towns - Milton Keynes, say, and while it is presented as an ordinary place where something went horribly wrong, it is plain that Middleford is very clearly intended to be an awful place. In fact I knew for a fact that it was based on the Black Country village I grew up in. Surely there can't be anyone reading this who is unaware of the Sapphire and Steel adventure set in a garage where there is just blackness outside - well that is what the place I grew up in is like, and it is also the whole point of Middleford.
Ironic, then, that we should be introduced early to the work of the forensic lab. Out here in the real world, we would assume that any business in a fairly closed community would either cater to that community or a very specialised business would largely serve the world outside. Here, the presence of a forensic lab implies that there is something very wrong in Middleford already, since it is very clear from the time we see Martin showing Shawna the ropes that the forensic lab is frankly a barmy place. Martin is one the key characters in the chow but he is show up here to be a bit of a dunce, who despite apparently being a very clever chap, can only parrot (and badly at that) what his boss says.
As an adult, of course I can see that Martin lives the same sort of dull life we all do, with his flatmate Graham. I think one of the reasons this show was so formative on me was that it doesn't have the oppressive feel you get of adult expectations when you are a teenager. These are adults, with adult responsibilities, but nonetheless they manage to live in a way which at the time I thought was very sophisticated. Martin can go off to his political meeting. Colin and Anthony play badminton after work and exchange sci fi novels. For a teenager champing at the bit of parental expectations They Came From Somewhere Else was a breath of fresh air, and its relatively constrained world seemed like an escape.
That said, I do feel that this show wouldn't stand up to too much in the way of examination. The whole point of it is that it is a parody of sci fi. The plot is also one which wouldn't really stand up to the sort of hammering I give many a plot here. As an escape route, the world of They Came From Somewhere Else would always ultimately fall on its face because it is a parody and because it isn't really intended to have a serious message.
But the key to understanding it is nonetheless to place it in its time. Recently here I wrote about The Omega Factor, which was made a decade before. The concern there for the harnessing of psychic ability by the mid to late 1980s had become all out fear in Thatcher's Britain. I have written here before about the numberous fears we lives under at the time. Such as alien hamburger restaurants suddenly appearing overnight. Well, perhaps not literally that, but once Chernobyl happened, there was a very real sense that the world was being run by dangerous lunatics and that anything could happen. The authorities responded with violence (although the New Age travellers weren't half a pain) and that violence is echoed in this episode where the police leave the party and leap into their van to go and do someone a mischief. Couple these contemporary conflicts with any amount of alternative stuff with one eye to getting a laugh and this show is very much what you will get. All the fears of the time literally appear here in one form or another and I loved it then and love it now.
There is another way in which They Came From Somewhere Else is very 1980s - I'm not sure how to phrase what I mean, but there is just so much of it. An example would be the way the stranger at Wendy's door takes off his hat and there is another one underneath, and then another. Even though the show is against a background of conflict there is never a feeling of need or want, and I am reminded that this was also the age of the yuppie. There was a genuine feeling of prosperity, a sense of richness and abundance, and I also feel that that is reflected in this show.
Without making this a spoiler, the episode ends on a wonderfully funny note of incongruence, and despite the fact that this episode has largely been spent setting the scene, sets the viewer up very well to expect some seriously weird stuff to occur in the following episodes.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Omega Factor: Double Vision and Some Conclusions

I have only been to Edinburgh once, and my main memory of it was the amount of stone used in its construction. In comparison to the more recent towns and cities down here in the Midlands, which use more brick, the stone gives a very different feel, and I remember finding it quite oppressive. That said, I was surprised at how much I liked the street scenes in this episode - they give a wonderful impression of quirk individuality and hidden parts of the city, as well as the feel of the 1970s. I particularly like the effective use of the Edinburgh dungeon as one the scenes.
In this episode many of the previously-raised themes are elaborated and the loose ends begin to come together. Once again the preoccupations of the age are brought out and given an airing: drugs ( in this case peyote), religion (in this case vodou), foreigners who may or may not be sinister, and let's face it the tacist attitudes come out think and fast. In addition to the possibly sinister foreigner we have 'no African leaves the witch doctor far behind'. You can't both study ancient techniques of mind altering and also look down your nose at other cultures.
Pain. That's another major preoccupation of this one. Crane starts to see his deceased wife and think that someone is trying to make him go off his head. His pain at Hamish's murder of his girlfriend is also palpable. The scenes of pain alternate very effectively with scenes of normal domesticity.
The absolute high point of this episode has to be the disco, for all sorts of reasons. I love the music which sounds as if it is being played through a duvet. I love the 1970s decor of the disco. I love the way a disco is simulated with a dozen actors (if that) - obviously one of 1970s Scotland's throbbing night spots.
I paused in the middle of the episode while writing this post, and I have decided I am going to write my conclusions about The Omega Factor here rather than post about the final episode. There is a reason for this apart from my innate inability to concentrate on any project for long - the things I would have to say about the final episode would of necessity present spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen the series.
What I will say about the ending is that it does at least provide a sense of immeidate closure and a better sense of who is on what side. It does leave the way clear for the second series which never happened, and it does make the sheer extent of the conspiracy absolutely terrifying. I am actually rather impressed by the way The Omega Factor ties up the various threads it had established through the series, with a conclusion which isn't over-simplistic and allows for an adult understanding of mixed motives and never being sure.
So given that I'm impressed with the way the ending ties it up, I would have to say that my verdict on The Omega Factor is that it is quality television. It manages to cover much of the same ground as The X-Files twenty years later, and it is interesting to see how the material is covered in an earlier age of television. The Omega Factor is also something of a relief from much of the television of the 1970s - I can tend to find it either overly lightweight or overly sombre, as fits the age. The Omega Factor is a relative heavyweight - you could discuss the episodes after each broadcast and what a discussion you could have.
My one criticism about the plot is that it can be difficult to follow because of the slightly different style of the different writers. Obviously, mysteriousness is the main business of this sort of TV programme, but situations and people are introduced rather randomly so that it can be difficult to get an overview until you get to the end. I do think this is merely a function of the episodes being written by different people at once without reference to previous writers.
The Omega Files excels in several things. One is that it is a Scotland-set programme which isn't self-consciously Scottish, a trap it would have been easy to fall into. It also excels in a genuine sense of mystery, fear, and intrigue. It gives the viewer a genuine sense of not knowing who to trust, and I think in retrospect an advantage is that it only saw one series so that it didn't go on too long and become predictable.
It will be apparent that The Omega Factor is getting quite high praise from yours truly. My two pieces of advice about it would be to watch the whole series through if you are having difficulties understanding it, and also if you have managed not to see The X-Files, I would suggest watching this first, to give an idea of what the parapsychology world was like twenty years before.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Omega Factor: Out of Body, Out of Mind

What a dream magical ability would be for pretty much anyone. I do love what happens to Sir Willoughby at the beginning of this one - there can surely be no-one who has not dreamt of the ability to influence people (if not actually kill them, as here), from a distance. This episode makes it very plain that being on the receiving end of that ability would be a fairly scary place.
Several other things are also made plain in this episode: that Omega has penetrated to the highest levels of society, for a start - a permanent under-secretary's assistant being fairly high up. The only thing that is wrong is that the assistant removes the band from the cigar he gives him to smoke, so obviously the government agency in question started to go wrong when they started employing men who were not gentlemen! Omega's ambitions are also clearly international rather than being limited to one government alone. I don't know when masonic/illuminati/new world order conspiracy theories fate from, and would be interested to know how old these theories were when this was written.
True to the X-Files antecedent theme, even though Crane's experience in this show started with strange dreams he has now become a sceptic when his brother talks about strange dreams: he becomes the Scully to Michael's Mulder. And of course Mulder and Scully did change round position now and then. Also in common with Mulder, Crane bawls out his boss about the immorality of the events of the previous episode, and has to be reminded that he has signed the official secrets act. This episode is also the first time that I have noticed Crane use the word 'conspiracy' - although it has been very obvious that that is precisely what has been going on throughout the series.
In this episode the X-Files are further presaged by Crane's developing sense of dissatisfaction at the underhand tactics used by Martindale to experiment on his brother. So we finally get some explanation of what has gone wrong with him, and Crane's role as the sceptical agent (bawling out Skinner) is developed. There is a slight difference that Crane sees Martindale as the fanatical true believer, so the dynamic is somewhat different. Crane even goes off to meet a contact in a park.
Previously in this series of posts about The Omega Factor I have rather flippantly referred to the way the show repeatedly shows people sitting up in bed, usually a hospital bed, in a variety of 1970s pyjamas. It is a surprisingly repetitive image in the show, to the extent that I am beginning to wonder whether it was psychically communicated to the writers so that the 'trope' would appear at least once in every episode. In this one the pyjama motif is changed. Crane's brother is out of hospital and staying with him, and the pyjama trope abruplty changes to a sleeping in underwear motif. Presumably the cod psychology explanation for this is that it suggests the truth being revealed rather than being hidden, or some such thing. Even if that is not what is intended it is a change on the previous visual pattern of the show. And what other scene would I use to illustrate this post?
The real opposition in this episode, though is between the world of scientific rigourism (which is also portrayed as the world determined to see its experiement throught to the end, and the world of human emotion. This opposition strangely puts Department 7 and Omega in the same side because they both have the same determination to see their project through to the end, regardless of its human implications, whether in relationships or the effect on Crane's brother's friend Hamish. The human side of this division is of course represented by Crane's deceased wife, his brother and his ongoing thing for Anne.
This division is then left hanging by the excellent ending of this episode, which makes a very clear that nobody can be trusted; Crane can't even trust himself not to set some train of events off unwittingly, by using the wrong word. Trust nobody - where have I heard that before?

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Omega Factor: St Anthony's Fire

This will be a short post because I only have three things to say about this episode.
The first is that Martindale is not noticeably in charge of what goes on in his department, in fact we even see him on the phone to some (presumably) superior, acknowledging that Crane does what he likes. I find it inconceivable that Department 7 could be run in this way, and that it is more likely that the personnel would not only be hand-picked but very carefully vetted and controlled to make sure they are 'discreet'. That said, Martindale is repeatedly made out to be suspicious, so of course it could be that this is entirely deliberate.
The second is that Crane is shown up as being a loose cannon in this one. He gets himself into trouble by trespassing, surely something an official of a secret government department would not dream of doing. It is apparent again that the department is not really being run that well. Martindale even has to send someone else, Anne, to stop Crane getting himself into more trouble.
And the third thing is that it becomes increasingly apparent that Crane is one sexy piece. I would maintain that in a real secret department staff would be heavily vetted and controlled and wouldn't tend to be getting their jollies with the staff of a research unit they are only visiting, and also not with the staff of their own unit. The sudden introduction of sexiness is a misjudged element in my view and it would have been better to let Crane mourn his wife throughout the series, since that would have helped to develop his tortured hero persona. Once again I have a feeling that the difference of treatment (and not just as far as sex is concerned) between different episodes of this series, is a result of multiple writers writing episodes simultaneously, and therefore without reference to what the others were writing.
Of course it is entirely possible that Crane is depicted as a loose cannon so that we are made ready for the sheer instability of the staff of the department they are visiting. In fact the staff are notorious in the local inn. Crane's antics are fairly sensible in comparison to them. I do love the scene where Martindale just doesn't believe what has happened to Anne. In addition to the familiar narrative of bad science undertaken by psychopaths, there is the additional narrative of the shadowy Omega organisation which is behind everything which happens in this show. This show really is the X-Files twenty years before the X-Files.

Shadows: The Waiting Room

Naturally a number of my recent posts have touched on the contemporary 1970s obsession with all things 'supernatural'. This extended to all sorts of TV programmes, and the episode of Shadows I'm going to write about today is reminiscent of the Sapphire and Steel adventure set in a railway station. High praise from the old curmudgeon who write on Cult TV Blog, you may think. And it is, but I'm going to have to be frank and say that this is the episode I like best on the first series DVD of Shadows. And with characterictic inconsistency I would have to admit that I don't really like period dramas, which is what tends to put me off many of the other episodes - even though this one is a drama where one period meets another.
I suppose it is a stable of the supernatural story that trains and train stations are very strong metaphors for travelling - in this case extended to travelling in time as well as space. There are a host of ghost stories about the railways and of course the railway is the setting for many a juicy ghost story. The theme of being stranded overnight at an out of the way station is perhaps best dealt with in Arnold Ridley's Ghost Train, in which of course the train turns out to be a fraud. A touch of real genius about this show is that our contemporary protagonists don't notice the point at which they step into a different time. Their avoidance of that fact is essential to the developing story. It also gives the viewer a wonderful sense of superiority at spotting the things that are wrong. I remember reading in a Ladybird book as a child that there were country places which were still not on mains electricity - I'm sure there still are but you'd have to be way off the beaten track, even in the 1970s.
The brother and sister don't notice that they've stepped back fifty years because they don't expect it to happen, and this episode is in many ways about the ways that people behave in a strange situation. In this case, because the impossible has happened, they act as if it isn't happening. It's only really when the fire man gives them a train time off the timetable for 1925 that they begin to think something is horribly wrong, as indeed it is.
On the subject of societal expectations, the brother and sister aren't sure what to make of the two people they meet at the station: since they are merrily carrying on as if 1925 has never ended, there is a very good impression given that they think they are bonkers. Or at the very least that it isn't a good idea to get on a train timetabled for fifty years ago! The arrival of the train crystalises the brother and sister's suspicions that all is not right - the train is steam, the lamp is oil, and in fact all the fixtures and fittings of the station are set decades in the past. When Gerry finds that he has been talking to someone on a disconnected telephone he begins to wonder what on earth could be going on.
Theis Shadows draws on the elements of horror found in the railway station genre of films. A small country station is that perfect closed setting and in fact in this show the protagonists get shut in to the station and can't escape. Whatever is happening there, the station clock is lying to them and it has the power to stop a real watch from working. When they find the events of the night in a newspaper dated fifty years before, the show becomes genuinely sinister and frightening. It does a very good job of making the viewer unsure of what is happening and therefore also fearful of what may come next.
I won't say what does happen next, but given that this is a children's programme, it would rightly be setting up its viewers with a folklore of ghostly things happening, and perhaps even a lifetime's interest in weird shit! I actually can't criticise this episode at all - yes, it has a small cast and only a single setting, but that is deliberate to create an atmosphere of claustrophobia. The pace is of its time, but it successfull creates the suspense in the viewer. You may criticise that it doesn't ever explain *why* the events of this show happen, but personally I think that is good because it leaves the viewer's imagination free to imagine what happens next.
Although what comes next after watching this, if taking the bus instead of the train, if you've got any sense...

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Casanova 73

True to form I have got distracted from The Omega Factor before I got to the end of its episodes. And I've been distracted by Casanova 73. I like a nice seventies sex comedy me, so it rather looks as if the subject of sexiness has come up again on this blog. Pish. Tush. Can't be a result of my mind at all.
In all seriousness, though, without looking at the sex comedies, it's a bit difficult to get what the seventies were like at all. I read somewhere that one of the Confessions films was the highest-grossing film of 1974, which very much shows what the age was about. Elsewhere on this blog I have touched on the parapsychology of the 1970s, and in my series of posts on 1970s TV shows I have touched on the sheer dreariness of the 1970s. I have a feeling it was the sexiness which made the age liveable for most people. I say sexiness, rather than actual sex, because much of the point of Casanova 73 is the way Henry Newhouse lives in a way which is respectable. I have a feeling that probably the majority of this shows viewers also did at the time. The point for Newhouse is that he leads a double life - in addition to his respectable marriage and job he doesn't half get a lot, which never fails to get him into trouble.
While on the whole I don't like sitcoms, seeing them as uninteresting and based on the reality from which TV for me is the escape. My sort of TV shows things which are not representative of the viewers' world, and like the parapsychology I don't think Newhouse's sex life was representative of most people's. While this is obviously a sitcom, it is in a different league because the situation is not exactly kitchen sink.
Another thing which puts Casanova 73 into a class of its own is that I think I can watch pretty much anything with Leslie Phillips in it, because I love his gentleman-playboy persona so much. I know this is an exception to my usual policy of not liking actors reappearing in things, or who are always obviously themselves, but you won't find anywhere on this blog that I make any promise to be consistent! Phillips's persona is so fitted to the role of Henry Newhouse that the role fits him like a glove. He drips charm at every step. I have actually known a man who seemed to be a sex magnet for women - at the time of writing his latest girlfriend has just given birth to the fifth of his children (who have four different mothers between them), and I am interested in how ambivalent he is about his attraction to women. Similarly to Newhouse he drips charm when it suits him and in fact had sex with my old boss (whom I loathed) in the workplace. In an abrupt change of direction I may have to admit that there is an element of reality in Newhouse's antics, but they are not the norm for the majority of people. My friend is rather keen on not getting a reputation as being a womaniser (too late) and in Casanova 73 it is astonishing that Mrs Newhouse never seems to see what is going on, since as is the case with my friend, it must be obvious to her what is going on.
In addition to Phillips's characterisation one of the things I like best about this show is the 1970s setting. It's a prosperous 1970s setting and the Newhouses' house is decorated with the latest furniture and decor, which in its period somehow doesn't seem tacky. These shows serve to show what life was or was not like in the 1970s, and this also goes for the fashions and decor of the time. The cars are new, as are the buildings, the clothes, and what have you. I particularly love a scene in an Italian restaurant where Newhouse is showing his female companion how to eat spaghetti - oh for the days when spaghetti seemed like a foreign food which required lessons in how to eat it. I am really going to stick my neck out and assert that Casanova 73 portrays a lifestyle which was one to be aspired to at the time. And now I'm going to stick my neck out even further and suggest that the point of the 1970s sex comedies was that the sex was also something to be aspired to. Given the respectable married background of Henry Newhouse perhaps what was to be aspired to was actually liberation from the societal norms (reality) which defined previous generations into a world of free sex (the unreality). This is demonstrated in an ongoing series of spats between respectable society and Henry Newhouse with his libertine lifestyle.
If you haven't seen this show, I think it is best approached as the romp it is. There is no way this show was ever intended to stand up to any great scrutiny, although to be frank I think there's some quality writing going on here. It's written by Galton and Simpson, so what would you expect? Their script allows room for Phillips to flex his character and lifts what would otherwise just be a little frippery into a better-quality class of TV. Production values are very much of the time - if it wasn't a good script and very funny, it would seem rather slow. The colour palette is the characteristic 1970s one I keep banging on about here. The restoration is excellent. So my advice is to sit back and enjoy it, and whenever you laugh say, 'Ding dong!

The Omega Factor: Child's Play

Perhaps I had better come clean at the beginning of this post, and admit that I do myself have some quite incredible psychic abilities, which gave particular trouble when I was at school. I actually went though some real trouble as a result of my abilities. The PE teacher insisted that it couldn't possibly be the ghost of a dead footballer who kicked the ball which hit him in the back of the head. He was just as reluctant to believe that despite his often-expressed opinion that I would never be any good at sport (funny idea of teaching, he had), when I suddenly showed a remarkable aptitude for rugby in the one term we played it, that it was because I had channeled the spirit of the boy at Rugby School who first picked up the ball and ran with it. The art teacher, who was also convinced I 'couldn't' do his subject (in fact the more I think about it, I wonder what the point of that school was at all), refused to believe that it was 'automatic painting', dictated by Matisse himself, when he was reluctantly forced to admit I had come top of the class. The French teacher was reluctant to believe that Moliere had actually intervened in her class, and the RE teacher was sceptical that St Thomas Aquinas was behind my essay (despite apparently firmly believing that the two jars on his desk contained a feather from the Holy Spirit and St Joseph's last breath, respectively). Anyway, you get the gist. When strange things happen around teenagers, wise adults look for naughtiness as the most obvious cause.
And that is what is wrong with this episode of The Omega Factor. Although we know that Colin is not behind the events which have caused him to be expelled from school, there is no way on earth that the headmaster or his mother would think that. There is no way that the headmaster of his last school would simply believe the story spun by Anne, that the trouble surrounding Colin is a result of poltergeist activity brought on by his adolescence. No way on earth. None. This is the point at which The Omega Factor begins to describe an alternative universe, one in which government agencies are set up to investigate this weird shit, and headmasters begin to believe the weird tales spun to them by 'experts'. The show had got away with the invention of Department 7 because its purpose was never really clearly explained, it was very apparent that the government would step in to prevent any real weirdness, there was an aura of plausible denial, and finally because it could always be explained as a way of keeping a handle on the number of weird things going on in the society of the time. The shadowy goverment agency is just about explainable, but the headmaster who insists he would expel the boy if the poltergeist activity continued, is beyond the limits of comprehension.
On the other hand, it is a pity this episode wasn't made as a children's programme. Stuff of dreams and nightmares for a children's programme, this episode. Nightmares, because what adolescent wouldn't be cringingly embarrassed by the presence of poltergeist activity? And what adolescent wouldn't sell their back teeth to live in a world of adults who believe that as the reason for odd things happening? 'I didn't break it, mum, the poltergeist did'. What a dream of an excuse!
Another good thing about this one as a story is that it doesn't overdo the poltergeist activity. It was just before this that the Enfield poltergeist story was raging in the press. Like so many poltergeist stories, that one is best ruled out from an evidential point of view, because there is evidence that the children helped the phenomena along. A lot. Colin doesn't help it along so that it doesn't become ridiculous. In fact this story is also a parapsychologist's dream, because the strange phenomena around the boy are accepted by the experts and it is taken for granted that he could bring these things under control with the right training. His mum rightly takes him away from these weirdos, and back to the normal life of a teenage boy, before giving in under pressure.
The pressure comes from a nameless official of an unidentified government department, providing shades of The X-Files onces again. There are even visual similarities to some of the questioning or torture scenes in the X-Files, when Crane and Dr Reynolds find Martindale experimenting on Colin, who has been put in a wire cage, which looks sinister beyond all belief. Martindale falls for what we may call the Krishnamurti syndrome - adults take a child and make him into a progeny, rather than letting him live a normal childhood. In reality, turning Colin into a progeny would have resulted in him being roundly hated by jealous other children, and unable to adjust to a world which would always see the gift before the person. The X-Files overtones are made complete with the dodginess of what the department is doing in this episode, and the fact that our heroes are emphatically against Martindale's over-intrusive experimentation.
The ultimate message of this one is to be careful of gifts, and particularly progenies, because Colin is ultimately a fairly scary child.

The Omega Factor: Powers of Darkness

It's not really surprising that I was thinking of skipping over the last episode and rushing straight into this one, because this one takes us into classic parapsychology territory from the word go, with a seance. In this case it's lucky that the actors are keeping a finger each on the wine glass because otherwise a disembodied spirit may not be willing to communicate merely by moving the glass. Although employing dead people in theatre would of course be a great saving in Equity fees. Can you sense I've woken up with a little pixie in me today?
Actually despite its classical kids-messing-with-the-occult script this episode raises all sorts of questions for me, some of which I think might just be me being critical or feeling silly. One is that the students who are key players and open the episode, are dressed all wrong. By this I mean that the old-fashioned styles of clothing some of them wear (I think they may have been having a vogue at the time this was made) visually give the wrong impression if you weren't there at the time. I was firmly convinced that they would turn out to be dead already, and that their seance took place in a past age. This impression of them being in the past is reinforced by the old-fashioned flat theu share, and its furnishings.
The fashion show of 1970s nightwear continues in this one, with Crane's brother being featured in a psychiatric hospital. In this one the terylene bites the dust (pictured) which could be a demonstration of the dangers of wearing all those petro-chemicals next to the skin. The rubbish 1970s car featured in this one is a Rover 3500, one of the least reliable cars ever made by the British car industry: even then you didn't see many in operation because they were notorious for spending more time in the garage than they did on the road.
I have a serious criticism of the whole brother aspect of this episode: perhaps I missed it previously but I don't know how Crane's brother has somehow appeared in the show, in hospital, with amnesia... I may have missed it through not paying enough attention, though, but I personally feel that a show introducing a new, fairly pivotal, character with no warning or explanation whatsoever is a bit naughty. It may be a result of the way each episode was written by a different person - it creates a patchiness of treatment which can be disorientating.
This episode, in addition to suddenly changing tack, is a sudden illustration of how the counter-culture can go wrong. Dabbling in occult stuff is always going to go wrong on TV and film, because otherwise it isn't going to be good TV. In this case there's a parallel warning about the dangers of messing with drugs. I suspect the strange choice of datura as the drug here was because of BBC regulations which forbade them showing things which could be copied easily at home. Otherwise this show is a procession of relics of the alternative world of the 1970s. Rather than the dangers of drugs, it is therefore more an exhibition of the dangers of uncritically accepting things you have read in paperbacks. The Bloxham tapes have been shown to be fakes. The Bridie Murphy case was widely disbelieved even at the time... The advantage of the 1970s alternative milieu is that it gives the background in which the scientists of Department 7 have to sort out the empirical facts.
Despite the fact that I'm being critical I do actually like this episode very much. It has the alternative background in spades, drama in oodles, and wonderful visuals. It excels in location shots. I love the wonderful art nouveau tenement building the students live in. I also particularly love how visually effective the scenes in the church are.
My one genuine criticism of this one is that it tries to do too much - in introducing new characters, dealing with a frankly monumental plot, and several huge issues in parapsychology all at once. The amount of material in this episode could have done with a simpler treatment. I would also criticise the developing love (well, sex) interest between Crane and Dr Reynolds. Not only has his wife just died but he is abruptly seeing a colleague. It is unprofessional, reflects badly on both their characters, and could well have been left out. This is a show which doesn't need a sex interest - there's quite enough going on already. I think that it could have been done very effectively without the hospital scenes - although it seems that the 1970s-nightwear-in-hospital-bed scene is an essential part of The Omega Factor.
And it's the amount of stuff without the love interest which still makes this a great show. How anyone could think that a student being regressed to a previous life when she was burned at the stake as a witch, wouldn't be enough material to be going on with? When examined on its own this is enough. It is also the core subject that Department 7 is supposed to deal with - what happens when you attempt to contact the dead and hypnotise your friends to make them remember past lives.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Omega Factor: After Image

Let me come clean. I wasn't going to blog about this episode at all. I put it on and it just didn't grab me: in fact I didn't really understand what was happening with it. I was eager to move on quickly to the classic parapsychology of the following episode. But then that's one of the reasons I blog about these shows - to make me understand them better.
On deeper consideration I think this episode also takes us into the classic territory of cult TV. It's the sort of all-pwerful psychological medicine we see used so abusively in The Prisoner, and warned against so graphically in The Avengers. Looked at like that, this Omega Factor episode is in classic cult TV territory - the baddies have the ability and can misuse it to their will. Drexel's references to the way sensory deprivation is probably employed for pleasure in California, also indicate that these sorts of technology tend to be rather self-indulgent rather than of any use in the cutting edges of medicine, science and order.
Something I haven't commented on is how the setting of The Omega Factor brings back the age to a T. In this one we see a corridor train - I literally can't remember the last time I saw one of those. The collars tend to be pointy, the trousers flared and the cars of a sort which we don't see nowadays because they were rubbish then and have either been scrapped or are kept only by the most extreme fanatics now. There is also a recurring visual of some suffering soul sitting up in a hospital bed, so that we get to see a gallery of some of the more bizarre nightwear of the age - did people ever really sleep in those synthetic fibres? Didn't they get rashes?
In attempting to allow my generalised feelings of dislike for this episode, coalesce into a coherent reason to dislike it, I have come to the conclusion that the pace of this one is just wrong and there isn't enough to grab the attention. Even slower episodes of the show manage to provide interest and somehting to focus on, but this one is a little too academic - for example there is a lengthy explanation of how grief can make people experience strange things. Additionally this one is neither one thing nor the other - there is of course magic involved, but there is also a fairly standard mystery, and it's got a foot uncomfortably in each camp.
There is additionally something wrong with the psychic ability bit. Crane really should be able to tell that Dr Reynolds is in the hand of his magical enemy. In fact he should have some idea of what Drexel is doing, but doesn't seem to so far. Perhaps I'm being over-simplistic. He also doesn't notice that a Range Rover is very obviously following him. But perhaps I'm also being over-picky.
I'm also being unfair - it becomes apparent that this episode is a turning point in The Omega Factor. Of course at this point we are less than half way through the series so it is unlikely that Crane's enemy's fate will be the end of the story. It's like that with magic

The Omega Factor: Night Games

While I have no doubt that I will run out of steam and this show will join the procession of series of posts which I have started and not finished as my grasshopper mind gets distracted, for the moment I am on a role. I have to correct something I wrote in yesterday's post, since I have found that the show has actually answered a criticism I made. When I started my laptop this morning and pressed play for the DVD it started somewhere rather random (obviously this should be subject to a parapsychological investigation in the near future) and I found in the meeting with the Department 7 man in the first episode, that Crane actually did have psychic phenomena happen as a boy. He had suppressed them from his memory but his mother had actually contacted the department herself to make them aware of her progeny.
Apparently The Omega Factor was made in a bit of a rush and different writers had to be commissioned for each episode. This shows in the fact that this one feels very different from the two I have watched before: the style is quite different, changing between scenes much faster, and the pace generally is much faster. The technique used creates a developing sense of confusion in the mind of the viewer, and for the first ten minutes or so, so much is happening that it is very difficult to get an overview. I'm torn, actually, to decide which I like best. The prevous episode felt very much like Sapphire and Steel and this one feels much more modern. This one also has the distinct advantage of really feeling like an adventure - it would be difficult to turn this one off in the middle without finding out what happens. Both styles of writing, however, require the attention of the viewer, as otherwise it is easy to get lost.
Further shades of the X-Files here, because in this one Crane's brother is brought into the plot, as part of the 'something' which needs to be explained. Crane also starts to go full Mulder in this one by sticking his head into something where he is plainly not wanted, and without the say so of his bosses. It's almost like being back in the basement with the FBI's least wanted! Crane's maverick investigation enters into the heart of the Establishment - in this case the army, and true to form he bangs his head against the brick wall of the Establishment. In fact the X-Files shadows just carry on and on. An abrupt change in the department's classification so that they can't get on with their work. Flat denial that the army training ground in Caithness even exists. Infiltration of the army by Drexel's agents. Secret information received from a disaffected soldier. As Scully would say, 'Yadda yadda yadda'.
There is something of a subcultural message about this episode. The graffiti artist Banksy once commented that you can graffiti anything in broad daylight if you put on a hi vis vest and play a radio, hence looking as if you belong. The subcultural message of this episode is similar: you can get away with anything if you look like you're part of the Establishment. Unfortunately once you've done your anything the Establishment tend to get very cross and lock you up!
Possible criticisms about this episode - I actually think it's the best of the three I have written about so far. That said I think a valid criticism is that it does relatively little to progress Crane's investigation into Drexel. It is fairly obvious right from the somewhat impressionistic scenes at the beginning, that Drexel must be behind this in some way, since he is the opponent of the story. All of the development of the story is therefore only developing something we already know.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Omega Factor: Visitations

If nothing else the phenomenal nature of Crane's psychic abilities come to the fore in this episode. That is what makes The Omega Factor great television - it quite rightly exploits this ability to great effect.
What particularly interests me in this episode is the way the parapsychology of the time is showcased very clearly. By the time the X-Files were being made twenty years later, while obviously the skills were the same, there is a lack of the sort of 'science' exhibited in this episode. Many of this science's aspects will be familiar to viewers of the TV of the 1960s and 1970s. The cards used to show psychic ability in The Prisoner, for a start. I particularly like the investigation of the house: it reminds me of nothing more than the opening scenes of the Sapphire and Steel adventure set in the railway station, in which the ghost hunter is setting up his equipment. A technology used in both Sapphire and Steel and here is that of recording the environment and seeing what is picked up: I remember trying this one in our house when I was a child and never getting anything. Having heard some of these recordings I would have to say that I personally am sceptical of this area of parapsychology: many of the recordings require great imagination to understand and certainly you never get the host of voices you do in this one.
The incredible phenomena are used to great effect to make this episode genuinely terrifying. Crane becomes the subject of something way beyond his own understanding here - not only his psychic ability but also the battle he has unwittingly started with Drexel, and the bereavement he has experienced, which is clearly a major driver to him in this episode. He is both the protagonist of the story, since he is the psychic whizz kid, and he is also the wounded hero figure, who has to go through a mourning process and also deal with the assaults of the man who is the cause of his bereavement. I would consider this a plot weakness of The Omega Factor: not that Crane has to carry the whole show as the hero-victim figure (I actually don't know how this series ends, but I have read that it is an ambivalent ending without much in the way of a resolution), but that there is something wrong with the way his abilities are portrayed. It would be inconceivable that a grown man with Crane's superlative psychic abilities would never have been bothered by them before the age of thirtyish.
This episode pulls out all the graphics technology of the time to make the investigation of the house really effective. I particularly love the way we see the food visibly turn mouldy in front of us. I love the paraphernalia of psychic investigation of the time, and the way that the investigation is still framed as an empirical scientific investigation, while at the same time Department 7 has taken on a man of incredible psychic abilities and thus made sure that the investigation will ultimately be completely uncontrollable!
Of course television drama has the great advantage over scientific research, that it will never be required to produce actual evidence for what it shows, and that is why a parapsychology investigation is such a good subject for TV drama. The Omega Factor also has the advantage of being fictional, over such later shows as Most Haunted, which have the great disadvantage that most parapsychology investigation will always be dead boring, and so the antics of the crew become the major entertainment. Of course this isn't an issue in an investigation which is purely for dramatic purposes: the crew can roll around on the floor and foam at the mouth to their heart's content.
Oh - and the other thing that is clear here is that Department 7 are going to have difficulty looking after Crane and his abilities. Yes, that's right, just as is the case in The X-Files.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Omega Factor: The Undiscovered Country

I'm sorry to return to one of my preoccupying worries, no matter how briefly, but regular readers here will know that I get rather worried that the supply of old TV will dry up. Of course it has to happen sooner or later, leaving only the rare discoveries of odd Doctor Who snippets in Zimbabwe or wherever, but once again my fear has been assuaged. I have discovered yet another series which I had never heard of and which is available in its entirety, reasonably priced, from reputable sellers, on region 2 DVDs. It is The Omega Factor, and given its subject matter I am amazed that I had managed to miss it this long, until it came up as a suggestion for me on Amazon.
I try not to repeat information easily obtainable elsewhere on the internet on this blog, which is my excuse for why it mostly consists of my own opinions with a minimum of research. In this case googling the name of the show gets you as much information as you could ever want about its history and production. Highlights of the history to my mind include that Mary Whitehouse raised several complaints about the level of violence in the show - unfortunately the BBC had to admit that they had broken their own standards with this one. Another, major, highlight is that this show is often referred to as a precursor of the X-Files. And finally there is the almost mythical status of this show because after one showing of the first series, a second series was not made, and the first series was never seen again until it was released on DVD in the twenty noughties. These three nuggets alone would be enough to make me very interested in this show indeed!
It is an indication of how much I like this that the boxed set only came through the letterbox this morning and I'm already rushing enthusiastically into print about it on the same day. I have now watched several episodes but will try to limit myself to discussing the first episode, The Undiscovered Country, and general points about the show, in this post.
The first thing to be said is that as a 'pilot' for this show, I would urge any prospective viewers to give the first episode time to get into its stride. Much of the point of this episode is that the journalist Tom Crane is outwitted by a sinister magician and is not ahead of the game. Meanwhile the back story has to be established - his interest in the paranormal, and the way he is set up by the baddies and enlisted by the goodies. This is perhaps the aspect in which the similarity to the later X-Files is most obvious. The series abounds in secret meetings, conspiracies, you name it...if it wasn't that this was the seventies and *everybody* smokes, I would keep expecting Cancer Man or Deep Throat to appear out of the woodwork. That said, despite an apparently pedestrian plot of goodies against baddies, there is one way in which The Omega Factor excels in telling its story. A further likeness to the X-Files is that Crane, the protagonist, develops a personal interest in what is happening because of the death of his wife in this episode, which mirrors Mulder's preoccupation with aliens as a result of his sister's disappearance. Just as in the X-Files it is apparent right from the start of the episode when he has nightmares, that he has an involvement in the magical stuff here.
The Omega Factor excels in telling an extraordinary story in a completely matter of fact way. There is so little drama about it that the extraordinary thinkgs which happen are both easily missed and absolutely horrifying when they happen. Hopefully I will manage not to publish a spoiler here, but the sinister magician Drexel's little hint to Crane of what he can do, just happens in a coincidental way and is absolutely horrific. Subtle, that's how I like my weird shit. Despite Mrs Whitehouse's complaints there is an absence of violence by today's standards despite some horrifying things happening. The DVD release has managed to get a 12 certificate in the UK, which should give an indication of how relatively gentle it is.
For we of a certain age a major attraction of the show is that it is very much of its age. The trousers are sta-prest, the interiors are pure Terence Conran, even the preoccupation with parapsychology is very much of the time. The show is still open to some criticisms, though. The pace is unusually slow for a show of this type - there is a sense in which this is an advantage because when a major event happens in the episode you don't really expect it because the show is just ambling along. The colour palette is the rather drab one we are accustomed to from 1970s shows, however I should stress that this is far from run of the mill 1970s TV, this is quality. One of the things that made it unusual is that while it was made and set in Scotland it isn't as self-consciously Scots as many of the Scottish TV shows of the time - everything really is subordinate to the plot, and it pays off. A further criticism of the visuals is that I find the picture rather dark, to be frank - it can be difficult sometimes to tell what is happening.
My few criticisms apart, I would highly recommend this show to anyone who likes quality drama, anything weird, or just plain magical stuff. The only sad thing is that it was locked away in the archives for so long, and my only regret is that it then took me personally so long to discover it!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Freewheelers Series 6

I am indebted to Grant Goggans's ecxellent and thoughtful TV blog, firebreathingdimetrodon.wordpress.com, for bringing this show to my attention. I like Grant's style of writing about shows, one episode at a time, and of course his son also gets to comment on the shows. While the world of cult TV on the blogosphere may be a largely self-referential one, it pays off when we bring new shows to each other's attention.
Now I know I have been thinking about accent quite a lot recently on here, largely through watching Murder She Wrote for the first time in many years. The question of accent isn't really one I comment on here a great deal, believing that viewers will understand the intended impression given by the chosen accent of a character. Come to think of it, if viewers of the TV series I write about here see the subtle nuances of class as exhibited in the various British accents differently from my own view, I don't think it really matters. A good TV show is understandable on all sorts of diffferent levels.
The point of this discursion into accent is that it is a very obvious indicator oh who is who at the beginning of this series of Freewheelers. I have the Series 6 DVDs, which are the only ones 'officially' released, although the other remaining series are available on the the internet at great expense. This series begins with two escapees from prison (Ryan and Burke, played by Richard Shaw and Michael Ripper). They are marked by their very obviously working class and ruffian accents. On the other hand, our heroes (here Sue and Mike, without Steve - Wendy Padbury, Adrian Wright, and Leonard Gregory respectively) are marked by their Received Pronunciation accents. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the marked distinction immediately puts us into Famous Five territory. Come to think of it, beyond the Famous Five's secure world of Our Sort of People, I would go even further and say that Freewheelers may even take us into a parody of the world of the Famous Five. I mean the sort of thing The Comic Strip did so well in Five Go Mad in Dorset.

From the world of the Famous Five, Freewheelers then catapults us rather abruptly into the world of The Avengers. Ryan and Burke are taken on by a man called Professor Nero (played by Jerome Willis), who definitely speaks Received Pronunciation and fits straight into the Avengers mould of the baddie who is Our Sort of Person gone wrong/rot in the Establishment. In The Avengers, of course, there is always the undercurrent of security given by the fact that the world of The Avengers is not real. Freewheelers adroitly moves that world into the real world, using scenes of country life, seaside, and seagoing. In my humble opinion this 'realisation' of the unreal world of The Avengers is not complete because another major character is Colonel Buchan (played by Ronald Leigh-Hunt), who is the caricature seadog to the end of his fingertips. Of course he turns out not to be real, but the intrusion of such an obviously unreal character seems a little stranger.
I have gone into such excruciating detail about who is who because firstly I need to get them straight in my head. The reason for that of course, is that I have missed out on the five series which preceded this one, and to say the least am coming in in the middle of the show! In fact I have been so over-generous with my own first impressions because I like this show but do think that if you look online for information about it, you can be easily misled (Grant Goggans's posts about this show being an exception). The show changed dramatically in plot and character over its run, and while the Wikipedia page doesn't intend to be misleading by its references to Nazis as the baddies, sales of the show to West Germany had meant that that plot strand was eliminated as the show went on and the baddies were a succession of dabolical masterminds. I am delighted to see that the Avengers influence was a conscious one, though. The dabolical mastermind here is set on exporting gold cast into the shape of frying pans - I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
As the series goes on, I feel that the Avengers influence develops, while the Famous Five setting comes and goes. Professor Nero sets up in a lighthouse on a desert island - what setting could possibly be more Famous Five than that? While he is obviously a great scientist who has gone wrong, and this is a very Famous Five theme, the idea of the misuse of science and its power to create havoc, is one reappearing repeatedly in the television of this age, including in The Avengers. Perhaps this theme is such a part of the spirit of the age that it is impossible to tease out its origins.
There is one thing at which Freewheelers succeeds wonderfully. It is very definitely a children's programme, and doesn't have any of the sexual undertones which I criticised in The Owl Service. Where this success as a children's programme which isn't trying to be anything else could go wrong, is that the 'kids' are very definitely grown adults. In fact, in the final series Wendy Padbury's developing pregnancy had to hidden by some very cunning camera angles! Yet Freewheelers manages to excel as a children's programme with adults as the main characters, by making the kids of a type with the pesky kids in Scooby Doo. These kids are old enough to drive, and what have you, but don't yet have adult responsibilities. This is a stroke of genius, because it places the main characters in a position where younger children would make heroes or crushes of them - almost guaranteeing a continually-renewing and devoted audience. It also cleverly avoids the Famous Five route of making them perpetually children who strangely have adult freedoms to go off on their own and do what they like - this could only ever make the characters other kids to be envied or grown out of very quickly. Another stroke of genius was to name the villains in this one Ryan and Burke, creating echoes of the famous graverobbers Burke and Hare. In true Famous Five style, there is something safe about these villains, in that they are actually fairly hopeless and we know they'll end up in prison again sooner or later.
In true 1970s TV style, the show's location shooting frequently takes place in a mixture of normal settings and some of the more privileged settings of the time - for example many of the scenes take place at sea. Aeroplanes and the opera are also settings used in this series. The car driven by the goodies is very much a 1970s design classic (although I don't know what it is - can anyone help?), and all of these luxurious settings and props underline that this series very cleverly plays on the adolescent tendency to dream and develop crushes.
Production values are very much of the time - naturally this is neither a criticism or a compliment. Interior scenes are very obviously done in a set. Restoration is well done, with no disturbances to the picture or the sound. The locations, while visibly using artifical light, very definitely show characteristic British Isles lighting and weather in contrast to Murder She Wrote! The downside of this authenticity is that the scenes involving being care-chested and/or wet in sea water, must have been incredibly cold...it was a bit of a relief to see that the actors visibly dried out impossibly quickly from their soakings. The incidental music was done by Laurie Johnson, making the Avengers simlarity complete, although in my own opinion the music makes this show feel a bit like Dick Barton Special Agent. Regular readers will know my own dislike for familiar faces - those actors who appear in everything and end up being recognisable for themselves rather than anything else. Of course Ronald Leigh-Hunt is the classic example, of this, being familiar from several series I have written about here. Robert Shaw is probbaly more familiar from his film work and to me Michael Ripper is most recognisable as the liftman in the St Trinian's films. The fact that these are not TV roles doesn't change my essential point - that their familiarity bugged me so that I had to look them up and work out where I had seen them.
My verdict on Freewheelers is that it is not just any old children's TV show - its background in the popularity of 1960s ITC TV shows ensures that it is more out of that stable than in broadcasting intended for children. If you like ITC you will like this. You will also like it is you like adventure stories, cliffhangers, and any Boys' Own-type adventures. Oh - and you may even like the extrapolation of the world of The Avengers into the world outside!

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Murder She Wrote: Sing a Song of Murder

Recently I asked Mike Doran on a comment on this blog whether Angela Lansbury sounds British or American to American ears. He rightly mentioned various accents, but then said that most Americans have long forgotten that she isn't American born and bred, which answered the question which was actually in my head. Of course it is in the nature of the thespian to conjure something which isn't there, into the minds of the audience. That said, it's always difficult to reproduce something you haven't seen. At the weekend my God mother and I were in a National Trust property and the guide was making the point that the bizarre colours on much old china are simply explained by the fact that the artist had either never seen what he was supposed to represent, or else he had only seen a monochrome picture.is
These ramblings on accent and the difficulty of reproducing something you haven't seen are actually by way of an introduction to this episode of Murder She Wrote, in fact the original conversation was partly prompted by my wondering why the other characters kept referring to a British character in another episode of Murder She Wrote, since I couldn't spot one. It turned out one of the actors was talking in his best British accent which I had missed completely!
Anyway, let's get the actual show out of the way first. I have started watching Murder She Wrote for the first time since I saw episodes on TV as a child. I like this show enormously. There is a sense in which it stays safely with the Golden Age canon of detective fiction, firmly and without breaking any of the rules. If you want to watch Murder She Wrote as a strict detective puzzle, you can, and you won't find new information hastily introduced or anything like that. The series is a remarkable translation of the inter-war cosy murder story to the TV screen.
One of the things which the cosy murder mystery was famous for was that it would set the murder in an apparently safe community - such as Miss Marple's village - and turn the social conventions on their head by having a murder in the vicarage, or wherever. On the whole, the earlier series of Murder She Wrote stick to this formula with Jessica Fletcher investigating things in Cabot Cove. Even when it strays further afield a traditional cosy setting is created.
And that is where this episode starts to go horribly off the rails. Let's start with the slight problem that Angela Lansbury is playing two characters, one of them a flamboyantly outrageous theatrical. Probably in any other genre of TV you can camp this up and make it work, but in a detective story my own feeling is that if you get two characters who are obviously the same person it sets up the expectation that one of them will be the murderer, or they're in cahoots, or something along those lines. Obviously it couldn't possibly be Jessica Fletcher, so it sets up the expectation that her cousin will be the baddie, a very bad mistake in a murder mystery.
Which brings me nicely to the question of expectations and unreality. This Murder She Wrote achieved the big draw of having Patrick Macnee on the payroll. I genuinely don't want to bitch about the show but I can only guess that his finances weren't looking too good at this point in his life, forcing him to take this role. It's wrong, wrong, wrong. Macnee's quality of course makes up for the fact that he is cast wildly out of character, and in fact he makes a convincing job of his character. It's the character that's not right.
Which brings me nicely to the accents and here my reason for thinking about reproducing something you've never seen, will become apparent. The difficulty is this: just as Mike Doran commented about different American accents, obviously we have a number of different accents as well, with connotations of both place of origin and class. I'm afraid whoever has devised the accents here has picked up on stereotypes of Northern people and working class people from films of the past. Suffice to say that to native ears *none* of the accents sounds real, not even coming from British actors - they all sound as if they are caricaturing people. At this pont we have actors pretending to speak with accents which are themselves based on caricatures from the cinema! They would have been better hiring British jobbing actors and just getting them to speak normally - surely much simpler.
I realise I have omitted to mention that while it is difficult to reproduce something you've never seen, it is also rather difficult when you are the subject of what is being reproduced, because it forces you to see how others see you, and that is always a painful experience! Most of this episode is set on location in London, but it is very much a London created by someone who had never been there and I love the way it shows how its creator saw it. So many things are subtly wrong - you can see the big landmarks from everywhere (giving the impression that London is a tiny village). I love the scene in Scotland Yard, where a very obviously American telephone sound is heard. That said I think the best bit is the street scene which illustrates this post - that is just not in the British Isles. That sort of light is the sort of light you leave Britain to find! And *three* Minis in such close proximity? Once again it is like a caricature.
I feel rather bad at this point because I feel as if I'm really having a go at this show. The fact that it is appearing here at all of course indicates that I don't think it is a dead loss, and it is precisely the fact that it is like a moving caricature and so bad that makes me like this show. Yes it's a complete fake, the accents are just all wrong, the scenery is hilarious, several big name actors have demeaned themselves by appearing in it, and it even manages to break a cardinal rule of detective fiction, but these things are the reason it's good. My advice for watching this show is treat it as if it's a comedy. Seriously. This Murder She Wrote is so bad it passes all the way over into being good, if you watch it with a view to a laugh. It's difficult to find real comedy this ridiculous, so it should be enjoyed when you find it.

The Avengers: Epic

I thought I had already blogged about this episode but I'm damned if I can find it! Well even if I have I'm going to blog about it again because I like it so much, even though it seems as if the fans are rather divided about this one. I genuinely can't think why! Perhaps I had better say in advance of anything else that my thoughts on this one will be heavily influenced by the interview with Petunia Winegum included on the Optimum box set.
I have a feeling that the reason this one doesn't go down well is because of the huge number of great actors in it. I don't mind this myself - they are great enough that they don't distract me - but the sheer array of talent may distract from Steed and Mrs Peel for the fans. One of the things Petunia Winegum says in the interview is that this one was mooted to be turned into a feature film, which I think would probably have been a mistake because it both parodies the world of the silver screen and there's way too much unreality in it!
A TV script parodying the world of the silver screen is of course not really the material for a feature film. Much of the point of Epic is that it parodies real people and what we would now call 'tropes' of the world of film. This is only what so many other Avengers episodes do, but in the case of Epic virtually every aspect of the film world gets parodied at once. It is for this reason that I think this sort of script is so well-fitted to Peter Wyngarde's personality and acting style. He fits the sheer theatricality of it - it is as if he is actually playing an actor playing a vicar, for example - just as he fitted the character of Jason King so well because it was unreal.
Epic is, of course, the point at which the unreality of The Avengers becomes so postmodern and reflexive that it can begin to get confusing! Of course The Avengers is a series heavily built on unreality anyway, and the point is that in Epic everything is unreal. We start by seeing that Emma's flat is set in an area which is visibly not real (even before she later wakes up in the 'set' of her flat and then puts her hand through a wall). The action moves to a location scene which is obviously real country, but into the middle of this comes Petunia Winegum as a caricature of a vicar. The reality and the unreality can so mess with the viewer's head that it is impossible to know what is real. The arrival of the vicar into this pastoral (yet obviously dangerous) setting reminds me of nothing less than the world of Agatha Christie - a world of chocolate box villages where nothing ever happens and yet there are regular murders.
I suspect that this is the point at which Epic risks losing the fans - I remember when the film came out I was holidaying in Oxford. I saw it several evenings running in Oxford and then later saw it again in Birmingham. The audiences in the two places clearly took different approaches - the audience in Oxford approached the film as a bit of fun and roared with laughter, whereas in Birmingham there was a dead silence, and you just knew that these people were hard-core Avengers fans who were taking this travesty of their favourite TV series very seriously indeed. Epic's big weak point is that if you approach it too seriously it falls apart, and it wants not to be taken at all seriously.
And yet... And yet... while Epic carries on as a spoof of pretty well everything ever committed to film, the danger throughout is very real indeed, and the Avengers' suspicions of what is happening are aroused right from the start. Again shades of Agatha Christie's cosy world full of murderers. I think this is where a valid criticism of Epic can be made - Christie's world is cosy yet murderous. The world of Epic is parodic and yet murderous at the same time. I think that probably a lot of people would have a difficulty with these two things sitting together and would want Epic to be more clearly in one camp or the other.
All that said, Epic is one of my favourite Avengers episodes because the famous unreality peaks in this episode and thus it may actually be the best illustration of the world of The Avengers.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Avengers: Strange Case of the Green Girl

The Avengers spinoffs are coming to my attention thick and fast at the moment. At the start of this year I hadn't heard of the comic strips. I knew about the Right Guard advertisement, but I didn't know that a decade before Patrick Macnee had appeared in a more-overtly Avengers-inspired fashion shoot. It was a promotion for clothes by Austin Reed in Terylene fabric and took the form of a spy story in the Man's Journal, presented with Woman's Realm in April 1966. You can download a PDF of the whole thing here and my source for the images is here. I like this spin-off enormously because it manages to capture the visual world of The Avengers so perfectly.