Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Reflections on Quality Television inspired by Spyder's Web

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

2 comments:

Grant Goggans said...

"Things That Go Bang in the Night" is certainly as unreal as they come. The scenes of the cousins getting their weapons ready as they go to sleep is extremely odd; the recurring gag of bringing all the dead characters' shoes together even more so.

The gag about the shoes reminded me of similar scenes in The Avengers. It's been many years since I last watched the show (I'm going to begin rewatching and blogging about it later this year) so I don't remember specifics beyond one case where Steed was introduced to all the deceased partners of an old firm of solicitors by way of their coffins in the lobby. I think that Spyder's Web's lack of music and stagy presentation really killed the comedy in those scenes though, while a similar scene in The Avengers would have been full of life and therefore would have felt more real.

It's a shame we didn't learn more about Lottie's life beyond "she makes award-winning documentaries," but I think the fun banter between Wallis and Albert helps give all of the characters a grounding and a life. We may not learn much about Lottie, but her employees are so believably human that it makes her a more believable character.

John said...

Thank you for commenting, Grant. You make very good points: I particularly hadn't thought of Wallis and Albert being the otherwise-missing human interest, but you're absolutely right, that's what they are.