Sunday, 18 June 2017

Freewheelers Series 6

I am indebted to Grant Goggans's ecxellent and thoughtful TV blog,, 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 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
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.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Avengers: The Secret Six and a Giveaway

This is of course an adventure from The Avengers' comic book adventures. I bought the second set of adventures published by Big Finish, only to find that there is a printing error on one of the discs of this set in the first edition. The upshot is that through Big Finish being keen to bend over backwards to please their customers I have wound up with two copies of the disc of The Secret Six (both of which are printed with the name of another adventure. Rather than throw away the surplus one, if anyone wants it, just drop me your address in a comment on this post (I won't publish it), and I will put it in the post to the first commenter.
There is a sense in which this is both a return to the early days of The Avengers (literally two against the underworld), and yet also manages to reference virtually every mystery in history, as well as referencing various Avengers adventures, which themselves already reference or parody many adventures! It may sound overly postmodern but this Avengers adventure is a lot of fun! The advantage of this particular disc is that it has an extended feature at the end with interviews with many of the actors and production, which makes an interest commentary on the advientures.
I like the sheer exuberance of this story, and the fact that the plot is frankly completely bonkers. John Dorney (who adapted this story from the comic strips) makes the point that the comic genre allows the story to go far more places than television (at least at the time) ever could have done, and so this story in particular is more far-ranging than the Avengers TV series, with all sorts of effects which are more easily realised audibly thn visually. For a start there are (obviously) six baddies in this one, who are in no way actually secret. Echoes of Intercrime, obviously.
Yet despite these early-Avengers overtones we are firmly in Avengers-land. The host for the party which goes wrong is of course a Lord. Do I need even to comment on the fact that all the criminals are foreign? - Except one, who is actually also a knight, despite speaking cockney.
What I'm about to say isn't a reservation because I love this play. But I do think that if you are inclined that way you may find that it uses too many devices of the genre (electrified chair and descending top of the four poster bed) and you may find it rather 'ham'. As I say this is not a criticism, it is just a comment that this may not appeal to all tastes. Personally I love Murder by Death and can watch it repeatedly without ever getting tired of it, but I think if you look on that film as a bit corny you will see this adventure in the same way.
On the other hand, the possibly-corniness-to-some-eyes is what makes this in the true Avengers tradition. As we know the whole point of The Avengers is that it is not real, and that applies to this play from beginning to end. Steed was never real to start off with. The secret six are completely unreal. The plot is unreal. Lord Tweezle isn't real - none of the landed gentry in The Avengers ever is. And that is the point.
It is a sign of the quality of this series that I really only want to repeat what I said about this series the last time I posted about it. If you love The Avengers and can live without Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as Steed and Mrs Peel, you will love these. The commentaries touch on a wish by Olivia Poulet (Mrs Peel) that more will be made, and frankly, I too hope they will!

Image credit:

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Frighteners: Bed and Breakfast

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the whole genre of scary TV shows. Last year, for example, I bought the boxed set of Thriller, only to find that it didn't really do a great deal for me. And yet this is strangely idiosyncratic, because as a child I loved both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected. Yet strangely I have never taken to Hitchcock's films, finding them too biased towards the suspense and away from things actually happening, and the two TV shows I loved so much as a child have failed to hold their interest for me as an adult. Another classic film series of the horror genre to which I was exposed as a child and which I find has lost its interest now is the Hammer House of Horror films. I have a feeling that their interest as a child was contingent on the fact that I was staying up beyond what mother would want, she was asleep upstairs, and the films contained a hint of sex - once again the horror and the sex alike never really came to fruition.
For all these reasons I have been ambivalent about buying the recently-released DVD of the virtually unknown series, The Frighteners. The reason this show is virtually unknown, even in the cult TV world, is that the show was originally cursed by bad scheduling, so that is has never actually been seen in its entirety outside of the London Weekend Television area, its placement in the graveyard slot after midnight, and its being cursed by a strike which meant that some episodes were made in black and white, so that they were doomed to the midnight slot, anyway.
The thing I like about The Frighteners is that the frightening stuff is present right from the start. For example in the episode called The Treat the very fact of the three old men glaring at each other in the car with the orderly putting on a brave face is so atmospheric: you just know that this situation contains the sort of depths of awfulness which drive people to mental illness or just plain denial. Unfortunately this is a shortcoming with the episode I focus on here, that while it feels as if it is a criminals-violating-respectable-peoples-lives plot at first, it soon becomes very obvious that the whole point of the episode is Mr and Mrs Cartwright getting their comeuppance for something they have done themselves. I say this is a weakness, but perhaps I am reading these shows through the lens of the sort of TV I usually watch, where you know that someone (whether it be Steed or the men from UNCLE) is going to arrive and put it 'right', or rather do something to relieve the agony. In The Frighteners, the fact that you can see what is coming, merely intensifies the pain, and in fact there is only pain in this show. This is a different world from the feel-good TV I normally watch, and in fact it makes a pleasant change.
Bed and Breakfast starts wonderfully with no lengthy preamble, just straight into the action - and I think this is what makes The Frighteners really different to many of the suspense series of the time. In fact, this is indeed high praise, but it reminds me very much of two Avengers episodes - Game, with its theme of individual retribution, and, more obviously, Take-Over, although of course there the take-over wasn't itself the point. Bed and Breakfast manages to have the same unsettling combination of respectability and lawlessness - with the twist that of course the apparently-respectable guests who drive up in their Rolls Royce are the ones taking the law into their own hands. The fact that both sides of the plot here are visibly opulant and respectable indicates that The Frighteners has a talent for turning the language of television on its head and really messing with the viewers' heads.
Bed and Breakfast also does an excellent job of creating an emotion in the viewer - not merely the emotion of suspense in which something terrible is going to happen. That would be far too predictable and in fact Bed and Breakfast creates a much more frightening sensation that the viewer really doesn't know what the hell is going on. I'm sure I don't need to tell readers here that Ian Hendry is excellent as the rather deranged-seeming seeker of bed and breakfast - he intones the lines in such a way that it is clear that not anywhere near all is being told, and that is carefully kept for the end. I have watched this episode twice in the preparation of this post, and on watching it again it is wonderful the way the visitors insist that the Cartwrights are running a bed and breakfast. This is a very clever and confusing plot device, because after all, going around persuading people that their home is a guest house, is a rather unusual undertaking!
Full marks for plot from me, so what about everything else? I also love the 1970s clothes and cars in this series. The colour palette is the one that I usually think of as '1970s drab' - I'm sorry but this show keeps its punches for messing with the viewers' thoughts, and there is a limit to how visually exciting this show is ever going to get. I have one other criticism, which is that the picture is perhaps not as clear as it could be, although I'm assuming that some restoration must have taken place to the forty-year-old recordings. I am illustrating this post with a screen shot so that you can see the actual quality of the picture. The sound, on the other hand, is perfect.
Regular readers will know that I tend not to like these actors who appear in everything so that you tend to end up wondering where you've seen them before. In Bed and Breakfast the cast of familiar faces show their quality by being their characters rather than themselves, and in fact all of the episodes of The Frighteners include solid, quality actors of the time, rather than mere celebrities. At this stage of his life Ian Hendry's voice was becoming wonderfully gravelly (I said when I started this blog that I wouldn't mention my own TV crushes because otherwise this blog would become overly about them rather than the shows, but I will make my first exception here to say that Ian Hendry is a permanent crush of mine and my one regret here is that the hairy chest doesn't get a showing). Wendy Gifford is of course talented in all sorts of things as well and being a first class actress, including the RSC and Doctor Who in her credits. John Welsh will of course be familiar to anyone who has watched the TV of the sixties and seventies to any great extent, as indeed will be Gabrielle Daye. While IMDb is trying to tell me that Harry Douglas, who plays an old man, is still alive, which I find rather implausible since he was in films in the 1930s, the length of time is shown by the fact that the only actor I am sure is still alive of the cast is Roye Boye, who plays a chauffeur. You will note the theatrical standing of the cast and see that this is one of the things which puts The Frighteners in a different class from the many disposable shows of the 1970s. This is really quality television - I know I keep saying that, but it keeps hitting me in the face.
Finally, I am very pleased to have discovered The Frighteners, given my frequently-repeated fear that no more old TV will ever be released. My only fear for it is that as a show which hasn't been seen much or at all in its native UK, people won't buy it for its reminiscence value, and it may continue to be little-known, hence this post. It is also in danger of being missed because of tending to belong somewhat in a TV plays genre, rather than in the suspense genre. Nonetheless, I like this show very much, and would recommend it to anyone who likes the sort of TV I write about here.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Coming up...

I wrote a whole post recently about the contents of my Amazon basket. Some of those things have moved from my basket into my possession, so this post will be more about things I actually have in hand.
I have bought the second volume of Big Finish's dramatisations of the Steed and Mrs Peel cartoons from the sixties. You can of course imagine my joy at having another four new Avengers adventures. It was cheapest to buy the CDs from an Amazon marketplace seller and you can imagine my disappointment at finding that my new, sealed set contained two discs the same so that I was missing one adventure. Kudos to Big Finish for sending me a replacement disc without fuss - I really hope it was just mine that was like this, a whole run gone wrong could really be expensive.
The first volume of Spike Milligan's show Q has found a home on my shelves. I love Milligan's humour, although I would say that I suspect the confusing and eccentric numbering of this series (beginning at number 5!) may limit this show's appeal, as well as its single-letter name.

Still on the theme of comedy, as I write this I have the Goodies on. This is the second time I have owned this DVD and really can't think why I didn't like it the first time - I can only think that tastes change.

Finally, I have my first week of annual leave in my new job coming up so I have ordered the recently-released set of The Frighteners TV series which I have never seen. Here's a preview:

Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Avengers: Patrick MacNee/John Steed in a Right Guard Advertisement which has caused me to reflect on how sexy old TV is

(Edit: this is my first experiment with the Blogger video player and I find it's not working for me so if you have trouble seeing the video I've also uploaded it here)
The fact that I am devoting a whole post to an advertisement does not mean that I have finally run out of TV to write about - it means that this advertisement has made me want to share some reflections here on the, well, sexiness and world of old TV.
'Sex began in 1963,' was how Larkin phrased the sexual revolution, and of course that was before the TV I write about here, or else more or less coincided with its start. Regular readers will know that I don't shy away from writing about the sexiness of the TV I watch. Yet on the whole it is a rather 'underground' sort of sexuality, which I suspect could be because of broadcasting standards at the time. And here's the thing - look up The Avengers on the internet, and I have to say that you will find some of the shows appearing on what I can only describe as fetish sites. The fight between Mrs Peel and the bare-chested man in You Have Just Been Murdered, for example. That's one which appears on sites for those who like That Sort of Thing. Mrs Peel's get-up for the benefit of the Hellfire Club is a rather obviously sexual image. But on the whole the sex in The Avengers is the incredibly-kinky-but-barely-visible-if-you-re-not-looking-for-it sort I wrote about in my post about Castle De'Ath. As  adults in 2017 I think we can be more frank about sex, but in sixties TV it is something that tends to be there but not commented on.
I think it is for this reason that I don't buy into the idea that Steed and Mrs Peel could ever get into a fling or a relationship. In line with the ethos of sex being there but not obvious, I think it only right that any sexual chemistry between Steed and Mrs Peel should remain just that. Nonetheless I see no reason not to comment on it when it is there, and obviously as is the case with my Castle De'Ath  post, the sexiness of the show dominates my post. I'm aware at this point that I am trying to say that we should make overt something which was intended to be almost subliminal.
Some of the shows I write about here are more overtly sexual. One of the things which prompted me to these reflections is that I have been listening to I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, with its strapline of 'full frontal radio,' which even as a child tickled me. While that also encapsulates the seen-but-not-seen aspects of early sixties nedia, I have a feeling that sexuality became more overt in broadcasting as the sixties went on, and I'm guessing culminated in the sex comedy films of the seventies. Of course I stand to be corrected on this. This greater sexualisation has presented me with some problems, actually. When I wrote a post about Monty Python, I didn't post the topless picture of the shop assistant in the 'Dull Life of a City Stockbroker' sketch, because I was unable to find out whether bare breasts would make Blogger insist on me having an adult content warning so posted it on my Flickr instead. The only breasts to appear on here so far have been these ones !
That said, the pictures on my flickr stream which get most hits are the one with some more overtly sexual element, even one entitled Mrs Peel wearing a catsuit! Obviously sex sells, as always, which brings me nicely to the subject of this post (you see there was a point to all this rigmarole about sex and The Avengers.
This advertisement dates from 1977, New Avengers era. There are two things which strike me about it. The first is that in my humble opinion this sequence of people having their clothes vanish and everyone know they're not wearing Right Guard, is incredibly sexy. While it is often talked about as the stuff of nightmares, the sequence of suddenly being naked in a public place is also one of those things which could very easily cross over into being a fantasy. This mixture of emotions is actually shown perfectly by the passengers on the underground, and there is a nice mixture of horror, embarrassment, and laughter at the clothes of some of the passengers vanishing. I find it interesting that the underwear is probably not the latest designs for the 1970s but is standard boring underwear, indicative of embarrassment and exposure. In the language of television I so often write about, which neatly chimes with the language of dreams here, this spells exposure of all sorts.
New Avengers era, remember. Which brings me nicely to my next point: in the middle of this underground carriage of people in their underwear is Steed. Of course it's Patrick Macnee, but to all intents and purposes it's Steed, since he is dressed as Steed, and of course sounds like Steed. Urbane and refined Steed. Who is completely unruffled by the vanishing clothes, and also doesn't seem out of place, but immediately knows what it means. This is the sexual undercurrent of The Avengers made obvious and also made the subject of the mystery.
Only in the seventies.
My source for the video was here, where I downloaded it, but I notice it is no longer up there, so I decided to upload it here myself.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Special Branch: Intercept

I have honestly no recollection whether I have posted about Special Branch here before: I have a feeling that since it is a show which took a marked change of direction from its 1960s incarnation to its 1970s incarnation, I may have posted about the 1960s incarnation before, and left the 1970s version to be dealt with on a different day. That day has npw arrived, and frankly I am surprised that I haven't got round to posting about how much I love this series here. It has literally everything. It has 1970s nostalgia (my dad had a Ford Cortina like that), it has politics in their broader sense, it has the internal politics of the special branch, it has the personality clash between Craven and Haggerty, and most particularly it has that wonderful 1970s feel.
WHat I like very much about Intercept is the political topic of the South American oil and how this is all related to a parcel bomb which goes off right at the beginning. Energy and violence: what more 1970s subject matter could you require? - this was of course the age when nobody really knew what was going to kick off next. I have written before repeatedly about how I tend to dislike reality coming crashing in on my TV, but in this case I will make an exception. In fact Special Branch is an exception to my rule: here I don't mind the reality creeping in on my escapism, because, well, I don't really have a because. Here it just strikes me differently, and the grittiness is part of the package.
Take the scene where a parcel bomb is delivered by a fake postman to a man in a grotty bedsit. Well, that said the bedsit itself is probably more boho than grotty, but it is very apparent that the *setting* more than anything else, is a bit of a mess. And there is almost something of The Avengers in the way the bomb is delivered as if it is a special delivery, by a man pretending to be a postman, that pillar of British Society.
In common with many 1970s TV programmes, Special Branch is very sexy in a particular way which nowadays seems rather old-fashioned. As usual I'll comment on the totally non-sexual bare chest of the parcel bomb recipient. In this episode a female police sergeant poses as an actress to get in with a bent theatre producer, and I just love the way he literally ogles her when she turns up at his office. He tells her to take her coat off so that he can get a better view, and I love the way he literally licks his lips as he eyes her up. In the next scene she is in his American car and he feels up her leg. You probably couldn't put that on the TV now, merely because it would seem so overdone and corny, as indeed I suppose it is in retrospect. One of the things I like best about this show is that it literally pulls no punches, and the sleazy director character gets his 'comeuppance' by winding up getting shot while on the loo and ending up rolling around in the street in his underpants. The female sergeant, incidentally, winds up with her dress ripped open and also winds up in the road in her bra, in an interesting parallel of the earlier incident. There is nothing of the feel-good amorality of much of 1970s film and TV, in fact there is almost nothing feel-good about this at all! Special Branch is also interesting by virtue of not having a female lead - of the two male leads I suppose Patrick Mower is intended to be the male sex object, but it is ironically George Sewell's character who has had a more established sex life. The relationship here, where they perpetually spark off against each other, is reminiscent of The Professionals, and I suppose the two shows come out of the same stable, as being about a professional job, with anything sexy as a side interest.
I'm finding it hard to find fault with this episode of Special Branch, but I suppose I can drag up some criticism if I try to hard enough. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my distaste with typecasting actors, or even with actors who keep on reappearing. You could say this of both George Sewell and Patrick Mower, of course, but they don't grate on me personally by their presence in this episode. What does grate on me is Paul Eddington cast as the government official. I know that people often comments on an actor's suitability to a particular kind of role, but it is not something I take to. I have watched this episode four or five times, including one time paying much closer attention for the purpose of this post, and it may be just me getting lost in the 1970s milieu, but I find it very difficult to know who is who in this show, or even which side they are on. Of course this may be deliberate.
Otherwise I like it very much indeed. Visually, this episode excels at the contrast between high society and the sleazy demimonde. It is shows like this which show up period shows such as Life on Mars as not quite getting the period touches right. In Special Branch you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and feel the vinyl seats of the cars against your legs. That is without the 1970s smell of fear and the perpetual threat of violence and disaster at any moment.
That, of course, is what Special Branch excels at and which puts it head and shoulders above most of the 1970s shows I have blogged about here. It is also what makes its realism more acceptable to me personally. Some 1970s TV shows try to avoid the unremitting awfulness of that decade and in the process create a show which is as interesting as the instant mashed potato of the age. Special Branch faces the violence and desperation of the age head on, and by not avoiding it, come up with a show which is superlative in its interest and drama.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Avengers: Small Game for Big Hunters

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

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Avengers: Return to Castle De'Ath

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

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Gunfighters

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

Seventies TV: Whodunnit

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

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Taxi! The Villain

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

Monday, 27 March 2017

Lily Savage Parodies Classic TV

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

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Prisoner: The Laughing Prisoner

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

George and the Dragon: First Impressions

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

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Flower of Gloster

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

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Prisoner: The Computer Wore Menace Shoes

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