Saturday, 14 October 2017

Reflections on Children's TV Inspired by The Feathered Serpent

As I write this I am watching a programme called The Feathered Serpent, which is a show I bought completely on spec. Although I was alive when it was broadcast I have no recollection of it and will presume to quote from the blurb on the box:
'Starring Diane Keen and Patrick Troughton, The Feathered Serpent is a story of murder, intrigue and political manoeuvring set amid the splendour and turmoil of ancient Mexico. This release comprises every episode of the children's drama series from Thames Television, memorable for its spectacular sets and lavish costumes, originally transmitted between 1976 and 1978.'
Watching this show has caused me to reflect rather waspishly on vintage children's TV, and particularly the few children's shows that I have written about here. These shows are so few because I have found that TV shows I remember from my actual childhood rarely stand up to the rosy memories I have of them: mym memories of shows from my adolescence onwards are much more accurate and so are less likely to be disappointing.
I find, though, that I am now wary of giving children's TV shows a viewing, because so many of them have been greatly disappointing. These shows have the dual challenges of being entertaining something like forty years after they were made, and being intended to be entertaining to children or young people at the time they were made, despite being made by adults. It is no wonder that that children's TV can be so disappointing at this length of time. In fact, Freewheelers (and now The Feathered Serpent) are the only TV shows made for children which I do not remember from my childhood and yet have written about here.
I have a feeling that the problem with children's TV is that it isn't really intended to entertain children, as such, but can have several other agendas. Surely every reader of this blog will remember how Doctor Who started off as an educational show? And that, for me is the problem with children's television. I think middle class parents still do this, but I can remember children of my generation being given boxy, cheaply-produced sets of classic books to read. Well, some children may have read them but I didn't. The classics of world literature which are or were given to children cannot have been intended to entertain, but as improving exercises.
And in contrast to Freewheelers, which I remember thinking was very cleverly geared to appeal to adolescents at a certain stage of yearning for adulthood, and thus was largely about fantasy and entertaining, despite a certain moral agenda, Feathered Serpent reminds me of those sets of classic books. The Flockton Flyer would be another example of a show not aiming to improve, since every boy's dream of having a whole steam train to play with is never really a worthy sort of thing to think about. Feathered Serpent is not about an escape into a fantasy world, I have a feeling it is about improvement. And it is only as I write this that I realise that this is almost exactly the unreal/real divide I perceive so often in adult TV cast in the terms of improving.frivolous. The mere fact that the show is set in ancient Mexico suggests that it has a didactic aim rather than a frivolous one.
And there's a very simple reason I know this. I have been forced to quote the blurb off the box because the show launches with no explanation whatsoever. Nowadays, of course, if the viewer wants the background, he will consult the internet, but in the 1970s no such resources existed and I think the curious child would have had to take some such course of action as this - first the Radio Times or the TV times would have been consulted, which would have given about the same amount of information as the blurb I quote above. Without the benefit of the Radio Times the viewer would have had to ask parents for advice or ask around at school the next day. The only way to discover the historical background to this show would have been in books. Many children's homes would not contain an encyclopedia and they would have resided in the sort of homes which also contained sets of standard novels to read. So the library would have been the way to find out what this show was about. When you watch a show which is intended purely to entertain, it will not usually raise questions in your mind or require background reading, therefore this show is either deliberately intended to be educational or else very worthy television, with a rather unfortunate assumption that the children of the age would just know the historical background.
And yet... I wouldn't like you to think that I am just making out that this is a worthy, educational show, because it's interesting that some of its themes plug in well to the times. As we know the 1970s were a time of fear of nuclear holocaust, of exploration of magical powers and natural mysteries, and of all things considered Pagan. In many ways the 1970s were most people's 1960s, and there is a very real touch of Paganism involved in this show. We see divnities really consulted and decisions and asked for signs, which of course they never fail to produce. We see the primacy of religion (and yet a religion so different from our own Church of England) at the heart of a society, and also the clash between an old religion and a new religion.
And so, some criticisms. The obvious one is that The Fathered Serpent is not a light view. You have to concentrate and it moves at a slower pace than, say, The Avengers, so watching it while ironing would not be a good idea. My own main criticism is that I really don't think the years have been kind to it. In comparison to the effects produced now, the sets and costumes tend to look a bit home-made and not really lavish or spectacular. Production values are of the period, and it is completely studio-bound. The colour palette is of the time, although I wonder why everyone's skin is the shade of brown it is. What I really love about the sets is the wall paintings, which must have taken much labour and are clearly inspired by the art of the time and place. As I commented above, to me a major problem is a lack of explanation of who is who or what is happening with the result that several episodes in I'm frankly rather confused, but again this may be something that may be solved by an attentive viewing paying attention to every word.
Another thing that Feathered Serpent makes me think of is that I want to write a piece on our regional TV stations in the 1960s onwards. I have a feeling that the reason I have no recollection of this show (in the days when we only had three stations) was that it may not have been broadcast in the Midlands, being a Thames production. Ths post I have planned on our various regional stations and the reasons for their existence, is sadly one which has defeated me every time it has landed on the drawing board so far.
In summary, you will like The Feathered Serpent if you have an interest in ancient Mexico. You will also like it if you were the sort of child who actually read the improving books given to you for birthdays, you will watch it if given to you, but I'm afraid I wasn't that sort of child. If you want the classic children's TV of the age, I would seriously suggest getting some Tiswas or Grange Hill and watching that.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Steptoe and Son: Porn Yesterday

This may seem like I'm going completely off-topic but one of my other interests is architecture and I have been watching a film called Utopia London  about the idealistic planning involved in reconstructing London before and after the Second World War. In Utopia London's vision, egalitarianism featured highly and everyone was to have the same opportunities. In my humble opinion, the egalitarian bright future dreamed of in the 1940s was a red herring. On the whole people don't want to share and even if you were to share out the world's resources completely equally, some people would still manage to be penniless after the first week.
As a result of these elements of human nature we find the kind of alternative economies we see in Steptoe and Son (you see, I was going somewhere with that introduction). This is also not something which is different anywhere in the world: where I used to live in Bearwood, if you wanted rid of something you just had to put it out in the street. Metal is taken by dealers, anything else is reused, recycled or burned, and about the only thing you couldn't get rid of was old mattresses. If something had been out a couple of days you just had to put a sign on it saying it was for sale and it would still vanish, even if it was absolute rubbish.
This alternative economy as lived by the underbelly of society is the subject of Steptoe and Son. One of my aims in wittering away on this blog is to understand the TV I watch better, and it is only through writing this post that I have realised one of the reasons I have always found this show uncomfortable to watch- it is the subject matter of hand to mouth living in poverty. I always thought it was the dysfunctional relationship between father and son which made it so uncomfortable. In fact Steptoe Senior goes into the level of desperation which led to his debut in porn, and the wonder is that Steptoe manages to make this kind of desperation the subject of comedy. The nature of this comedy in a sense places Steptoe and Son firmly in the category of realism TV rather than the unreal TV I normally prefer to escape with.
In this episode Steptoe senior's desperation-fuelled film debut is turned into humour by the simple device of Harold ridiculously over-reacting to the What The Butler Saw film. Made in the 1920s for the sort of machine you would find on a seaside pier, it was very unlikely to terribly pornographic by the standards of the 1970s when this was made! Even the Vicar comments that much worse was being broadcast on the TV than you could see in one of those machines. Harold's disgust is strongly contrasted to Albert's wish for sympathy for his plight and wish to keep just one picture from the reel as a souvenir.
Into the middle of this comes, bang on queue, the Vicar. Despite Harold's moral disgust at Albert's appearance in film the Vicar wants to see the reel and even wants to sell it to help finance new bells. The vicar is played by the wonderful Anthony Sharp, who I don't think I've seen elsewhere as a clergyman but was surely made to play one!
Another class division is made very clear when the scene changes to the fete. In contrast to Albert and Harold's bare-chested working man appearance (they share my approach to clothing on a hoot day) the people at the fete are all very smart indeed. Visually this makes it very clear that they are hobnobbing with a different class of punter here. A class of punter who are queueing up to see a What The Butler Saw film rescued by scouts from an old photographer's shop (the alternative economy again). I love that some of the women recognise Albert and want his autograph! The Vicar gets in on this by charging for his autograph. This episode therefore is ironically about desperate poverty but it is ultimately overturned into a success...which is capitalised on by the Establishment in the shape of the Vicar's bell fund.
And just in case anyone's don't get to see the 'porn'!
Image credit:

Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Avengers: Propellant 23

A blog about TV suggests the blogger is blogging about what he is watching. I have always aimed to make this blog more about what I think is good TV, and since I last wrote I have been watching some more Archer and a few other things. The other things won't be named because they won't be blogged about here and I have thus made a point of returning to quality TV, and hence this post. This is a series 2 Avengers episode which I've never really got on with, and so this blog post is my way of making myself think more about it, and hopefully come to understand it.
In the visual language of 1960s television, the episode begins by telling us that the action will take place among the privileged, or possibly powerful. This is done by the simple device of setting the opening scene on a passenger plane. I feel that in the early 1960s flight would have been less available to most people than it was with tha later advent of cheap package holidays, and thus already sets the expectations. Additionally the plane is flying to Marseille - nowadays this flight would be nothing from, say, Heathrow, and of course Tripoli remains a truly far-away place, but at the time 'the Continong' was inconceivably exotic to many in Britain.
The next scene may begin to explain why I have always found this episode hard to understand - not least because of my habit of not paying attention. The scene is of Mrs Gale and Steed. Leaving aside the question of why he recruits an anthropologist to help with a matter of national security, and she allows him to wake her up in the middle of the night to ask her, the scene is full of the sort of magical omniscience the later series of The Avengers are better known for. Steed and Mrs Gale are at Marseille. There is no explanation why they both just happen to be at the scene of the action - they just are. I like the visuals of this scene - we see them sitting in the car but the background is completely black and they could actually be anywhere. Visually this is so effective, and the whole effect of the scene is rather disorientating, rather the way one feels while 'in transit'.
'Terrible bore hanging about in airports, isn't it,' says Steed to a man in the airport, thereby indicating that this mode of travel is old hat to him. In comparison to the visual effect of the last scene in the car, I love the way the sirport set gives a much more amateurish effect. It is very obviously a set indeed and this effect remains throughout the episode.
I love that Steed is his old shady self in this one. He enveigles Mrs Gale into helping and then when the airport gendarme asks him what he is doing in France he gives a very dodgy, almost blustering, answer, which would normally be guaranteed to make a policeman of any nationality prick up his ears. Steed turns the tables on the gendarme and starts asking him questions! He then asks another gendarme if he can take the murdered man's briefcase back to London - another of the sort of questions you just don't ask in a context of international travel! Steed gets even more shifty by returning to search the police's office at the airport after the've all gone home. Once again the airport gives an impression of not quite being real. I don't doubt there are tiny airports whic effectively close down at night, but I'm still sure they were patrolled by security if not police, even in the 1960s! While I have interpreted these characters as belonging to the gendarmerie, I see that they are actually security, yet are dressed as steretypical old-fashioned French policemen.
In common with being shady Steed, Steed in this one also puts Mrs Gale in a ridiculously dangerous position, with I have noticed he tended to do with Venus Smith as well. The wonder is that Mrs Gale just happily goes along with it! I like the way Steed's hair is very shiny and slicked back in Propellant 23, using, presumably, brylcreem. A further style thing I like very much in this one is to see Honor Blackman smoking a cigarette in a holder. And of course Steed just has to put in an order with the baker as he is looking for the bottle.
It is so Avengers to have the next scene set in the lingerie department of a shop! - Preceded by a fight in the airport that we don't see, but in another act of magical omniscience during the interval Steed has got the briefcase, Mrs Gale has examined it and they have arranged to meet. We see that Steed is answerable to somebody, and we also see that this episode is about a rocket propellant, which of course Mrs Gale knows about already, which places this episode firmly in the rocket age. Steed is outrageously flirtatious with the sales assistant, telling her that he will take her when she asks what he wants - these early Avengers really are incredibly flirty. This scene gives rise to my favourite exchange in this episode:
Mrs Gale: 'Do you always arrange to take your calls in a lingerie department?'
Steed: 'If humanly possible.'
Mrs Gale's garter gun which we see at the end is unthinkably kinky!
Subsequently we see more of the lives of the characters as they relate to Propellant 23. The mystery of who the young Geoffrey Palmer's character ('bit of a cock up in the catering department') is remains - but I think this is deliberate, naturally. However then we see that he is in cahoots with the man we see trying to stab Mrs Gale.
Something the episode does very well is to resist having the French characters speaking in 'French' accents. This adds a further layer to the unrealism, because while the effect of being in France is given loud and clear, these people are clearly not French. I can only repeat that I rather like the economy of the sets - few, simple sets are used to give the impression of this jet-setting world, and in monochrome they are very effective.
My one criticism of this episode is that unless you are really paying attention it can be quite difficult to follow. I suppose this reflects the sort of attention TV writers expected fifty years ago, but the difficulty is increased by the way the episode tends to jump from scene to scene in a rather impressionistic way with little explanation of what has happened. This isn't a criticism as such, but the small cast makes the scale of this Avengers seem much smaller that its international setting would suggest, more like a stage play. I mean that everybody knows who the man touting for a hotel is, suggesting the cast is smaller and more intimate than it would be in this sort of setting in reality. It is also rather evident before the denouement who is on what side and so by the time we find ourselves in the bakery there is only one way this can end.
So my conclusion about this Avengers is that it is quality television which requires close attention to keep track of what is happening. The scripting is rather impressionistic and the visuals are very effective. This is one of the more arty episodes of The Avengers, which is therefore harder work for the viewer.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Archer: First Impressions

All things espionage. That has recently been the subject of this blog, because that was the fashion in the 1960s, when so much of the TV I like was made. The spy thing, of course, is paradied in so many of these TV shows: I might mention Man from UNCLE in addition to Get Smart, which I have recently rediscovered.
But none of those parodies parodies the world of espionage as effectively as Archer, which I have only just discovered. My only regret at having discovered it so late is a rage at a cruel world that I have somehow managed not to hear about the show up until now. How could that have happened? I can only conclude that the universe produces another TV show for me to watch when I conclude there isn't enything left.
Archer parodies the inner world of the spy. The real world of the spy. The world of the spy where you actually work in an organisation with HR and all the other paraphernalia of the modern workplace. Add the twist that his boss is his own mother and you have the makings of a farce. It is a sign of the quality of this show that it manages to parody clueless secret agents working for a chaotic organisation, without losing interest and while remaining intelligent. At the time of writing I am half way through the first series so obviously can't speak for whether the show keeps up this level of interest in future series, but merely avoiding becoming repetitive for the episodes I have watched so far, is a considerable achievement.
Archer himself is hopeless. There is a wonderful scene where we see a secret agent's cover blown because Archer has rung him on his mobile asking him to confirm that they work for Isis, for some girls in a bar. The point is that all the ethnically diverse agents of Isis have been lost, and we are privileged to see that Archer has done the same thing over and again. This premise of a secret agent who is hopeless is not normally one that would appeal to me but Archer pulls it off with aplomb and style.
That said, the sense of humour is probably a bit adult for a lot of people. Nonetheless Archer's anarchic, sexy humour appeals to me personally, and here in the UK the show only has a 15 certificate which indicates that the British Board of Film Classification doesn't consider it *that* shocking. Of course the point is that the whole show is a parody of the sexiness of the secret agent, perhaps best personified by Mr Bond.
I particularly like the mother. I love the way she has swapped over all the medicines in the medicine cabinet to confuse the servants. And I really love the way she rings a bell for the caterers to bring in the soup at a dinner party. It is the same bell she kept on her bedside table to wake the nanny when Archer wet the bed as a child; a fact she doesn't hesitate to tell the guests.
Archer is a show which has made me laugh out loud. And if you like to see the spy genre parodied, I would highly recommend it to you.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Department S: The Soup of the Day

My recent watching of Get Smart and the comments on the contemporary craze for all things to do with spies has caused my mind to turn towards Department S. This is an over-generalisation, of course, but it may be significant that as the sixties wore on and in the US the spy-craze turned more towards parody, in the UK it just turned bizarre. I'm thinking of all the ITC shows, distantly related to spycraft and espionage, whose characters became more and more flamboyant, peaking in Jason King. In the midst of the Cold War the actual espionage remained a serious matter and those who did it became the subject of the TV shows. I'm quite prepared for this little thought of mine to be blown out of the water, of course.
This Department S episode is one which is a very good example of why I dislike familiar actors reappearing in all sorts of shows. Right at the beginning we see Patrick Mower appearing as a baddy. A few years later he was appearing as a goodie in Special Branch. Of course they wouldn't have been seen together but I'm finding it a little difficult to think of a TV show of the time in which Patrick Mower didn't appear and was always obviously himself. Naturally the two shows are not quite contemporary, and I'm also not keen on actors being typecast, but when you're living on a diet of the TV that remains form the sixties and seventies it can be a bit confusing.
One of the things I like most about this one is that it starts off by showing the reality of multicultural background of Britain of the time, with its scene in Chinatown. None of the pretend Britain of The Avengers - Department S is set in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan world of the 1960s, and so must have been as aspirational as any other TV show could be. Sir Curtis is of course not only black but is also a knight and has the sort of accent which can only indicate an Oxbridge education, so the show really does show the sort of sophisticated mixing that was frequently a few decades in coming in the real world. So Soup of the Day has an element of unreality, which reflects that despite the show's cosmopolitan aspirations, this episode is very much set against the unreal background of Swinging London, demonstrated best in the kind of interiors we see (pictured), and even more in the sudden change of scene to the Portobello Road stresses that this episode is set in Swinging London. When the empty crate of fish soup is found, the music changes further to stress the Swinging nature of the set-up, before moving to the cosmopolitan setting of Lisbon. There is just a suggestion here, so common in the TV of the time, that the age was going wrong, and the latest trends were actually the instruments of Our Enemies.
As a mystery this one is unfortunately handicapped by a huge error of plotting. It is very obvious very early in the show that the soup is only a red herring and the point of the heist is the radios. The fact that we know that means we just watch Department S being mystified. Since the soup was dumped and there was nothing unusual about it, it was always going to be obvious that the soup was not the point. This episode gives the game away far too early. It is also apparent that the baddies are not at the top of their field because they've managed to draw attention to themselves. A further weakness is that the plot can be very difficult to follow.
That said this episode has many high points. I love the curio shop run by the two girls to whom Jeremy seels a radio. As a purveyor of the sort of kit you would want if you were furnishing your home as an outpost of Avengersland it is a delight. In fact it could serve as a textbook for how to furnish your home in the style of Swinging London. Another high point is Jason King's abortive attempt to chat up the secretary at the soup exporter's - which is ruined by her insistence on bringing her mother along as a chaperone, so that King is forced to say that he would also bring his own mother as a chaperone. King falls at the first hurdle, for a change, but the secretary overcomes this difficulty! The boutique selling military clothes is another high point. In fact this show is something of a compendium of the suppliers to the in crowd in Swinging London.
Despite being largely studio-bound this show doesn't stint on the props. One of the smaller ones is the transistor radio, which in its leather case reminds me of a cassette player my mother had in the seventies, and I remember it being fascinating that it had its own leather case. Her explanation for that was that it was 'portable'. The other prop I love is the huge American car used by the baddies in Lisbon. There is a scene where you see the door open and the thickness of the wall of that car is quite something.
So in conclusion, despite the plotting defects of this one, it is a wonderfully atmospheric view for the fans of 1960s TV or of the 1960s in any way.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Hancock's Half Hour: The Cold

I was very chuffed at the way my last-but-one post kicked off a conversation mainly about British comedians and the difficulty we have exporting them elsewhere. Dominic Bird made the pertinent comment that the only humour anything like ours is Russia's and that it must rain a lot there. Which brings me nicely to the subject of this blog post - Hancock has a cold. In addition to the weather, colds are a British preoccupation. The rumours are true that there used to be a place which researched treatments for the cold, and people would go there on holiday to be given a cold and experimented on.
It is only a nation which could support that kind of official centre which could also produce the sort of humour we have in this episode. When you say it, it sounds strange: the object of humour here is a man's illness. Oh dear, how can I live with myself?
The joke is, of course, in Hancock's approach to his cold. The rest of us may go to bed for a couple of days if it's bad enough, but he's invested in every quack remedy going, including even Mrs Cravat's witchcraft! Hancock is taking exactly the same brave-hero-who-is-really-being-rather-hopeless approach he does to everything else, including dating in the last episode I wrote about. We all know that nothing he does is going to help at all. On the other hand we all know that in private we have all fallen for these quack remedies ourselves, although naturlaly we wouldn't tell anyone. Hancock, however, gives us the opportunity to laugh and feel superior about somebody's irrational faith in quack remedies, secure in the knowledge that ours will never be in the public domain. And needless to say Hancock's little peroration on how wonderful he is, is to say how superior his nose is to Sid's.
The ridiculousness is shared by Sid James. I love the way he wears a face mask and sprays an aerosol every time Hancock coughs. And Sid's ridiculousness is counterpointed by Hancock developing full-blown flu, and then taken to extremes by Mrs Cravat. The point is that Hancock is behaving like we all do with a cold, as if we're going to die, and nobody believes in any of the mumbo-jumbo he's invoking to sort it.
There is an episode of Hancock's radio show where he also resorts to magical practices as a result of being required to perform on Friday the 13th - only in that case Sid screws him for all he's got with a fraudulent druid order. Again, it is extraordinary the way Hancock's humour relies on situations where humans actually have no power and have to resort to superstition - in this case he goes to see a proper doctor who has a cold himself and naturally has no treatment for it.
I suppose the underlying characteristic of this humour is that it takes the things we all do but are ashamed of, laughs at them, and puts them on the TV for all of us to laugh at. The marvel, the wonder, the raw talent, is to get a whole half hour out of this and to remain funny, a funniness which remains after repeated viewings. Galton and Simpson were comedy genii.

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Goodies: Gender Education

 I suppose there was a time when the only source for information on cult TV was books - and friends, of course. Then came the internet and provided a place where fans of old TV could both publish their own opinions and be influenced by other people's. I find these days that whenever I want information about a TV show and google its name, the web pages which give me the information I want will tend to be from blogs, and will also give me the writer's opinion to make me think in a different way. This post is almost entirely due to the influence of Grant Goggans's blog, since he has been watching The Goodies with his son and has prodded me into giving the show another go.
Of course I have seen The Goodies before, but I suspect I wasn't in the right mindset at the time, because I remember heartily disliking it. On watching it again I find I like it enormously and in fact have watched the discs I have, several times. But let's get the criticism out of the way first - the show is very much of the time and hasn't really aged that well. There is one show which talks about South Africa - obviously with reference to apartheid, but younger viewers may not get the reference. The other thing is that it is a bt of a nostalgia fest - the trousers and flared, the hair is long, in addition to the contemporary references. For a TV fan it is interesting to see the contemporary outside broadcast set-up after Bill is taken on by the BBC - no doubt it looked bang up to date at the time. I do like, though, the Avengers-esque set in a field. These contemporary references of course have a tendency to sound different forty years later - there is for example a reference to doing an impression of Rolf Harris!
The contemporary reference in the case of this episode Mrs Desiree Carthorse is an obvious reference to Mrs Whitehouse's obsession with having nothing naughty on TV. The Goodies use the medium of a TV show very cleverly to show up Mrs Whitehouse's prudery and obsessionality with stopping normal elements of human life appearing on TV. The joke is of course that their gender education film, 'How To Make Babies By Doing Dirty Things,' is so ridiculously unsexy that it's hilarious. The results of Mrs Carthorse's actions are shown by the way people turn against The Goodies, who are referred to as Baddies in their hate mail.
But the absolutely best bit of this is the spectacle of Richard Wattis in a wig and a pink suit, interviewing The Goodies who collectively play another prude, Sir Reginald Wheel-Barrow, who decides that the film is inocuous. Wattis tells him that he has only been invited to give an extreme loony point of view. The absurd visual humour of The Goodies is shown by the fact that Wattis can only see that they are The Goodies and not Sir Reginald, when they take off their moustache.
The humour gets steadily more ridiculous as the episode goes on. I particularly love the way Bill goes berserk and starts shouting rude words (like brassiere) at Mrs Carthorse before eventually blowing up BBC TV Centre. I think if you like Monty Python you will probably like this - although it has a less cerebral feel and was obviously aimed at a slightly different audience.
My one criticism of it being slightly too contemporary and thus dated is my only one. The picture is perfect - and the colour palette is rather brighter than the porridge colours which dominate in so much TV of this time. The sound is also perfect. My impression is that a lot of trouble has gone into the restoration and I have enjoyed watching this for the fourth or fifth time greatly. That said, despite ending on a happy note I will still traumatise the cult TV blogosphere by appending a picture of myself enjoying the sun on the canal bank earlier today - it's been a glorious bank holiday here for a change!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Hancock's Half Hour: The Big Night

I've been meaning for ages to write a post about Tony Hancock here, and have been prompted into it today by watching some of a DVD called Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson's... which is Paul Merton in a number of plays originally written by Galton and Simpson for other people. I watched most of The Bedsitter, and found there's nothing really wrong with it. I like Merton's persona and acting hugely, but the trouble is the script was written for Tony Hancock and you come out with the impression that Merton is playing Hancock playing the part. So I have returned to watching the original.
Surely everyone reading this blog will have heard of Tony Hancock? That name is a legend in British comedy. And of course he was born here in Birmingham, although never lived here for very long. The show is of course Hancock's Half Hour but also features Sid James. The scripts, as I mentioned above, are written by the legendary Galton and Simpson. Have I overdone the words legendary here? It was very difficult to come out with a dud with that stable of talent. And that's the main difficulty with Paul Merton playing scripts written for Hancock: he's a good actor but simply can't compare with the lad himself.
Hancock is also a show which is remarkable for something else. It's my personal perception but the majority of (British) 1950s TV I have watched moves at the pace of an incapacitated, very elderly snail, in comparison to the 1960s TV I like best. This is not bering bitchy, although it might be a huge generalisation, it is genuinely my perception of a major difference of pace between 1950s TV and 1960s TV. And this slowness of pace is not something which can be said of Hancock's Half Hour, even though the episode I'm writing about here was in the fifth series, broadcast in 1959. The show sizzles along, never fails to satisfy, and best of all, takes many a repetition and still draws a laugh.
I think a major reason Hancock is so funny is that he is talking about the life we all lead but try not to talk about. In this one he is going out on a big double date with Sid and they literally don't have anything to wear. I love that the reason for this is that the daily woman, Mrs Cravat, has taken all of their suits to the dry cleaners, and they are forced to collect their clothes wearing running gear. I also love the fact that he has a daily woman at all. The point is that Hancock is trying to be the great gent - Mrs Cravat waits at table during breakfast - but fails completely. The reality is that we none of us really get to what we aspire to (although I personally am living in the poshest place I've lived in in my entire life, which is also strangely the cheapest), but we don't broadcast it. We are entertained by Hancock's discomfort at his own inability to live up to his own standards, but who has never found they don't have anything to wear?
The other strand of his humour is the way everything goes wrong, which takes it one step beyond the level of disaster we can usually expect, and prevents it becoming uncomfortable for the viewer. In this case Mrs Cravat has failed to wash any of his dirty shirts, so even after he has a suit to wear he doesn't have a shirt. This gives an opportunity to use the stalwart scene of comedy TV, the laundrette. I am delighted that he describes the shirt he wants to wash as made of parachute silk and says how it excites the girls when they get a glimpse of his string vest through it! I love laundrettes, myself, and particularly love the laundrette in this show. I love that they have to weight the clothes first. I love that Hancock is so fascinated by the clothes going round in the machine. And I particularly love that James is smoking in the laundrette. But I most love that even though it is his first time of seeing a washing machine, Hancock takes the opportunity to give the man to his side one of his little discourses on how he knows all about it!
Of course the whole point is that we know the big night is going to be a disaster. Hancock has the gall to blame it on Sid James not dressing properly! This is how Hancock comforts the viewer - by amplifying our own social inadequacies and embarrassments in his own person and allowing us to laugh at our own coping strategies.
Another thing I find interesting is the attitude of the cinema manager to Hanock, initially refusing him admission because he has turned up in a jumper without a shirt. The other men in the cinema are dressed in suits and ties, and I love that a suit is the natural thing to wear on a date. In the manner of the time Hancock tries to dress as a beatnik because there is nothing else, and is seen as a hoodlum. Can that be any indicator of how much our world has changed since 1959? Would anyone seriously wear a suit on a date nowadays?
My only sorrow about this episode is that we don't get to see the actress Hermione Boot, who is starring in the film they go to see!
If you haven't seen these, I would just say that if you want a perfect picture you will be disappointed. There are obviously various bootleg versions of these shows doing the rounds anyway, but I am watching these on BBC DVDS and the picture is very grainy when expanded to full screen. I don't object to that or the sound which also isn't perfect, but if you object to those things, you will find this difficult to watch.
But my advice would be to set those things aside because this is definitely Stonking Good Television.

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.