Sunday, 18 June 2017

Freewheelers Series 6

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

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

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Murder She Wrote: Sing a Song of Murder

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

The Avengers: Epic

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