Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Danger Man: The Man Who Wouldn't Talk

I don't usually do plot synopses - one of the reasons I started this blog is that the internet is heavy on description of classic TV shows & short on analysis, but I just feel a synopsis would be helpful here, so here is the one from IMDB:
'In Sophia, Bulgaria, a fellow agent has been picked up for interrogation, and Drake has to go in and get him out before he talks. Meridith (Norman Rosway) can only stand just so much, and upon arrival, Drake must act quickly. He is hampered at every turn by the secret police, as well as the attention of a young female interpreter (Jane Merrow) who has suspicions of her own about Drake's real motives. He manages to get to the roof of the police building and toss a gas cannister into the building's air intake vent, then breaks in, locates a groggy Meredith and hustles him outside to a waiting car. Playing cat-and-mouse wiith the police and his suspicious interpreter, he also has to deal with a delusional Meredith who still suffers from the treatment he's received at the hands of his tormentors. A hair's bredth escape out an upper floor window saves them both.' (http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0553846/synopsis?ref_=m_tt_stry_pl)
It's interesting - one of the reasons I wanted to have a plot synopsis for this Danger Man (& that is a completely fair & even-handed one) was to show that actually what this Danger Man is *supposed* to be about, in fact is about, is so not what really happens. This is a perfect demonstration for me of why the heavily-descriptive approach often taken to these shows, let's them down badly. In fact the Danger Man website (http://www.danger-man.co.uk/turningpoint.asp) gives this as one of the 'turning point' episodes: the turning point here would be Drake taking in the effect being tortured as part of his duties, has on another agent.
For myself, I was trying to think why this show reminds me *so* much of The Prisoner. On re-watching it I'm reaching the conclusion that I first got that impression from the female interpreter. She reminds me of one of the female Villagers put in to 'help'/seduce/compromise Number 6. Drake's response to her is so much like Number 6's - understandably, since she's got 'government chaperone' written all over her. So in fact, it is that Drake reminds me more of Number 6 here - he is clearly placed in a situation that would push anyone into behaving with Number 6's independence & suspicion. The situation also naturally evokes certain well-worn Prisoner themes - the individual against the society, trust, loyalty, the way people behave when they're cornered, whether ends justify means. It will be clear that the synopsis above cannot possibly touch all of these underlying themes.
I am therefore developing a theory. I am still assuming that Drake is *not* Number 6. Clearly at the time Danger Man was made, he was only Drake & nobody else: at the time this show was made Number 6 did not exist. However the two series were influenced to varying degrees by the charismatic & forceful McGoohan. It is therefore to be expected that the *ideas* present in The Prisoner would have at least some pre-existence in Danger Man. It would even be impossible for McGoohan to have acted his way through Danger Man without any ideas sticking in his mind - we are all the product of our experiences. My theory therefore is that The Prisoner drew on themes already appearing in Danger Man. These themes may not only have appeared in the episodes identified as 'turning points' or ones with obvious Prisoner themes, although that is the case here. It is as if The Prisoner took the underlying subjects of this episode & made them the explicit subject. That is the level of influence I'm thinking of.
To draw one example out a bit more, I wrote at length about institutional behaviour in The Prisoner - how people behave in a relatively controlled environment. The Sofia of this episode is clearly an extremely contained environment & it's marvellous how the characters react with a full house of institutional behaviours, featuring all sorts of deceit, sabotage, duplicity - all intended to get what the person wants in the institution. Even at the level of making some allies while rejecting other characters as 'them', this show is really depicting people in an institution.
An interesting parallel with The Prisoner is that Meredith is not himself, as a result of the torture he's experienced. He can't be relied on, in a sense & not all of his behaviour is what you'd expect. The Prisoner parallel is that in both situations we see people broken by the treatment they've received. Why do the longer-term inhabitants of The Village just go along with it? That's the question raised again in The Prisoner, well an experience like Meredith's is the answer.
The interpreter & doctor provide further examples of Village-like behaviour. They work in/for a regime that will happily torture people (of course they may not know this or it may be covered up by talk of the glorious People's this, that, & the other). Is it really possible to remain an agent of that oppressive a regime & not know? What value do we put on other people? It boils back down to - why are those people doing what they're doing?
Mike Pratt makes a welcome appearance. Of course he wasn't Randall when he made this. I have commented on the quality of his acting before, when he appeared in an episode of Spyder's Web: he doesn't distract as Mike Pratt, but comes across as his character. He repeats that quality performance here.
There is a slight difference in the approach to 'abroad' used in filming this episode. Danger Man tends to be very studio-bound with only stock footage of foreign scenes to give the right flavour. Since this one features an escape by road, that wouldn't really have worked - unless back projection was used, which I feel would have been a better idea than the location used. I've never been to Bulgaria, but I'm fairly sure it doesn't look like Maida Avenue, London, W2 (http://avengerland.theavengers.tv/danger.htm)! This is really my one criticism. I like this episode a lot - it's perfectly paced, suspenseful, quite painful at times. It easily makes it into my stonking good television category.

Doctor Who: Doctor Who & the Daleks

The film, that is, the critically-slated & never-mentioned film starring Peter Cushing as The Doctor. I've already blogged about the TV version of this show (http://culttvblog.blogspot.com/2014/01/doctor-who-daleks.html?m=0) & on re-reading that post am delighted to find I liked it more than I thought I did.
One of the things I notice about my Doctor Who posts is I don't seem to be able to get into the sort of relentless grinding detail in which Doctor Who is often discussed on the internet. I'm not sure why, I'll probably come to a reason at some point. But for the moment imy main feelings about this film both flies in the face of the fans' & critical opinion & is also very short: I think this film version is *better* than the TV version. <Ducks to avoid the cabbages thrown from the wings>.
I found myself repeatedly thinking as I watched it, 'This is the filmic treatment that Doctor Who really needs.' Don't get me wrong - I'm not making this out to be some epic, but I think it points out something lacking in the TV series. The kind of stories told in the TV series should be made as films. They would be so much *more* frightening on the big screen. They need music. In a cinema the audience would feel inside the action in a way you don't with the telly.
And what a film it is, it has the sixties heady vibe of the Charlie & the Chocolate Factory film of 1971, I think because of the colours. We who grew up in the seventies remember them as a magical time of bright colours: & so they were, but only because we were off our heads on the additives in the food. In the 2010s they have to turn to crystal meth for their high, can you believe it!
The colours used are actually very clever: the scenes outside the city are in greys & browns. Inside the city the shades are - well, I'm not an artist but I can only describe them as soft pastels. This provides a contrast with the relatively bright colours of the daleks themselves, although I did like a baby blue one. It's when we come to the daleks that my theory that film would be better than TV here, wobbles a bit. The famous scene where they turn round, find themselves surrounded, & the daleks appears on the TV screen for the first time ever appears in both film & TV. Of course it would be truly terrifying in a cinema (probably only if you hadn't seen the TV version already). However watching that scene on TV would give it the feel of a documentary: & the subtle implications of that could provide nightmares for weeks!
I wouldn't go to the stake for this idea - I've just realised the reason I'm sying this is that I think we are more accustomed to the idea of the images we see nowadays, being unreal somehow. Even if they're not CGI, they'll be photoshopped within an inch of their lives. The panic caused by The War of the Worlds ought, surely, not to happen nowadays. I was at work on 9/11 & saw as I passed a TV several times, the footage of the towers & I really thought it was a film, & not the actual news. But I digress.
To return to the somewhat psychedelic colour palette it has also been applied to the Thals. Their costumes are still ridiculous, neither here nor there, but their hair is wonderfully artificial-looking, & all the men have a fringe that's ridiculously high. A sad contrast to the poor daleks, who at least maintain some dignity, being encased in their enclosure thingies. That's right - once again I feel sorry for the daleks & the Thals elicit no sympathy at all.
I hadn't realised some elements of Doctor Who's character in this. Time Lord goes to a faraway planet, hoodwinks his companions into staying on the toxic planet for his own curiosity's sake, teaches the peace-loving natives to fight, sorts out the situation for them, goes home. Not the slightest hint of imperialism there. This is exactly the same plot as the TV version referenced above, but hit me differently. This may be because it's Peter Cushing playing the Doctor & I expect him to be creepy & sinister. I love Cushing's doctor portrayal: from now on when people ask my favourite Doctor, I'll say him. It's actually a fairly low-key role, but Cushing does a good job of being kindly old man yet leader of the people at the same time. Roy Castle manages not to annoy me - I remember him as an intensely irritating person, but a straight acting role seems to stop that effect on me.
Don't get me wrong - this film isn't without faults. Perhaps the most glaring is the attempt to make it funny. Whatever else Doctor Who is, it doesn't suit the Carry On elements that have been inserted here. Ignore them, is my advice, watch it as a longer, more epic, Doctor Who episode, & you won't be disappointed.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng Chiang, Episode 3

The trouble with creepy ventriloquist's dummies, is that they are susceptible to knives thrown at them. As an instrument of fear & terror, they fall flat. Like clowns, they are difficult to remove from their entertaining origins. This may be an entirely personal prejudice, but it was the creepy dummy that lost my engagement here.
This episode otherwise has a full house of the conventions of frightening Victorian literature: mysterious cabinets, Chinese men, sewers, quality table linen, a mysterious Master, you name it. An additional kinky element is added by the lascivious way in which the Lord requires 'fresh young donors'. Perhaps I'm beginning to lose it completely, but I was disappointed to find, on my second viewing of this episode, that he did not say it in a Leslie Phillips voice! That is purely the product of my own deranged imagination.
Tom Baker, though, in his incarnation as the Doctor, appearing in Victorian London, gets into Victorian gentleman role perfectly. I don't remember Doctor Who habitually using the word blackguard to refer to his enemies, but he does here, a wholly era-appropriate phrase. This has caused me to reflect on how Doctor Who adapts to the time in which he is - as a Time Lord, this ought to be a piece of cake, but he always either gets it subtly wrong (Matt Smith) or completely refuses any engagement with the age in which he finds himself (William Hartnell). Here, Tom Baker seems to get a certain pleasure from his Holmesian role. I do love the way he caught a salmon in the fleet & shared it with the Venerable Bede!
If I had seen this when it was first broadcast, I would probably have found it both very frightening & yet wanted more. As an adult I keep finding my attention wandering again. Perhaps I'm just not in a Doctor Who mood...
My favourite line:
The Doctor (of a gun): 'Explode? Unthinkable! - It was made in Birmingham.'

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Danger Man: To Our Best Friend

I was planning a post on the Rik Mayall series Bottom. On balance I'm not sure I would call it cult TV, but nonetheless would recommend it as a jolly good view. I remain to decide on whether to post on Filthy, Rich & Catflap, which nonetheless I would highly recommend as a memorial to Rik Mayall.
Meanwhile, back to Danger Man. Oh *how* I love this episode: it is a proper Cold War spy intrigue piece. The plot is relatively simple on the surface: Drake goes on a mission, finds the spy for the Other Side, job done. But it is plainly not that simple on any level. For a start it is evident that not only are spies from Russia present in London, but have even infiltrated into government! That opening scene reminds me of a sscene in The Professionals where Cowley is meeting with Russian agents, playing a gme of intelligence chess with them, to the great annoyance of Bodie & Doyle. It is very plain that the two sides are not completely divided, or even differentiated. I'm quite sure this isn't the impression the opening scene is intended to give, but it all just seems too cosy not to be institutionalised sharing of information. I may perhaps be reading the situation of The Prisoner into this, though, since there it isn't at all clear which side is which.
I started off this run off posts on Danger Man, by thinking about a comment on Mitchell Hadley's blog, that Drake's resignation was on the cards through the final season of Danger Man. I've already commented that in one episode it was almost as if he was being set up to resign, in the way that employers do make unwanted employees' lives a living hell so that they will leave. Actually, I've just reached a conclusion about whether or not Drake is Number 6: if he is, M9 is being run by complete incompetents. The *only* thing sought by the authorities in the Village is his reason for his resignation. Given that that is the case, it's slightly pointless to try to find the reason for a resignation, if it has been cleverly engineered by cunning management techniques - assuming he is John Drake. Similarly if John Drake is perceived to be a threat to the organisation, I feel the more classic way bureaucracy would deal with his ilk is to sideline him into a small corner abroad or a desk job. The only desired goal would be to keep hold of him so that an eye can be kept on him. If he then resigned, pressure would have to be brought to make him retract the resignation or else simple surveillance would have to be set up. The rigmarole of The Village does not make sense in this scenario. The only way in which it does make sense is if the authorities are so incompetent that they have *no* idea what one of their operatives is up to. Clearly the incompetence & bureaucracy of the organisation is one of the things that drove Number 6 to resignation, & I'm sure I'll change my mind about this, but right now, I am convinced that Number 6 is *not* Drake. Radical stuff, eh?
However this episode is one of several identified (on the webpage referenced below) as turning points in the career of John Drake, the ones that turned him off M9. This seems to be true whether or not he is identified with Number 6. On the principle of Occam's Razor, the simple, obvious reason for the winding up of Danger Man given in this quote holds the ring of truth: despite much smoke & mirrors, it is likely the ever-temperamental McGoohan had had enough:
'[...] What is known is that Patrick McGoohan was beginning to tire of being John Drake. He has stated that the show was beginning to repeat itself and he had already made various attempts at getting a film version of "The Prisoner" unsuccessfully off the ground.
'This must have represented a major concern for ITC. Danger Man had become the company's most successful production, out selling "The Saint" and making McGoohan the biggest name on the ITC pay role at the time. With McGoohan's contract for the series due to expire shortly, Lew Grade, always a keen business man had to keep the star happy. This explains why, eventually McGoohan was able to sell ITC "The Prisoner", but for the time being at least ITC were keen to keep the adventures of John Drake a float.' (http://www.danger-man.co.uk/turningpoint.asp)
This webpage also gives a suggested viewing order for the half-a-dozen 'turning-point' episodes, before watching The Prisoner, to make the events leading up to Drake/Number 6's resignation absolutely clear.
As for this episode, I am in two minds - anything with McGoohan in it tends to have this effect on my existing rare & special INFJ tendency to try to see all sides. The bottom line for me about this episode is that Drake should plainly not have been sent on this assignment: this is so plain that it is almost a weakness in the plot, since this simple fact makes the piece so unreal. On the other hand it brings up all sorts of possibilities & implications for Drake's situation.
Firstly he is plainly not an agent suspected of being 'double'. Had he been, he would not have been sent on a mission so obviously difficult, which would leave the agent open to opportunities to betray M9. It is not inconceivable that they could have wanted to test Drake's loyalty, but this would be an overly-sensitive case to do it on. There is clearly something the organisation doesn't know about Number 6, but they obviously have confidence in Drake, suggesting he is not the same man.
Secondly if he is being pushed out of the organisation they couldn't find a better way to do it. Incredibly likely to blow up in their faces, though, if Drake was even slightly unstable.
Thirdly, the theme of the incompetence of Drake's bosses comes to the fore here: it is rank incompetence to send him on this mission. To me this suggests that if Drake resigned it was through irritation at being managed by nincompoops. I mean, seriously, in any field of work, let alone intelligence, if the operative has any involvement with the subjects of any investigation, let alone a sensitive one, you'd change the operative. No. No. No. Just wrong.
The slight problem with the plot aside, I can't really fault this one much. It's marred by familiar faces among the actors. However as an abroad Danger Man, scenes are well set with establishing stock footage. Visually it's superb, using many of the stock scenes of sixties espionage films: panelled board room meeting, scene in a lift, I particularly like the radio revealed when the vodka bottle is picked up, & the scene with the gas canister in the car. All in all, stonking good television.

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Young Ones: Nasty

I will definitely be returning to Danger Man at some point, if not necessarily in the near future. I am rather less sure that I shall actually finish the episode-by-episode blog I started on the Doctor Who. I got distracted from both of these by the early death of Rik Mayall, which it seems trite to call 'tragic'. I mean, Nigel Planer's tribute to him was, 'He's left me on my own, the bastard.' I was thinking I couldn't really post here on The Young Ones, but when I look at the TV starring Mayall that I have in the house (in addition, Bottom, & Filthy, Rich, & Catflap), TV doesn't come much more cult than this. I was too young to watch The Young Ones, but I remember it as the one of the formative experiences of my childhood, so I must have managed to watch it somehow. Perhaps I wasn't really too young, but perhaps Mother disapproved - a ridiculous act in itself, guaranteed to ensure that any nearly-teenager will want to view the material disapproved of. Literally all of the great comedy stars/acts/venues of the eighties appear in Mayall's BBC obituary (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-27765539).
The Young Ones bears all the hallmarks of quality TV. No, seriously. Don't be taken in by the surface. It can be watched over & over again without tedium, & each time you notice things you hadn't seen before. Sometimes it is so subtle you're not sure how to understand it, it can be understood on so many different levels:
'The setup of The Young Ones seems childish, and the stories themselves extremely fragmented. In many episodes the actions of the main characters seem to do nothing except hate and victimize each other - with everyone bullying hippy Neil, ignoring the claims by self-styled anarchist Rick that he's the 'most popular member of the house', punk psycho Vyvyan hitting everything and saving his love only for his hamster.
'Only cool dude Mike seemed above the fray in adventures that included Vyvyan discovering oil in the basement, an atomic bomb falling on the house, and everyone going through a time warp.
'Underneath the post-punk, rock culture insanity however, classic sitcom rules worked; Neil was a put-upon housewife in all but name, Rick and Vyvyan wayward teenagers with a penchant for (on one hand) fatuous semi-Marxism and (on the other) hitting people, with Mike the father figure whose plans for making money resemble an even-less-competent Del Trotter.
'They faced enemies such as the constantly tricksy Balowski 'family' - played in their entirety by Alexei Sayle - and the foul Footlights College team in an episode in which our heroes end up on University Challenge.
'It was the style and the characterization of The Young Ones, rather than its stories, which was entirely new. Never before had violence of such degree, squalor, physical foulness, blood, sex and death, all been used as such a regular part of a flagship comedy programme.' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/theyoungones/)
To me, even this crit on the BBC website misses the deeper stuff about values, identity, rules, the old guard, & lentils. I also remember The Young Ones as revolutionary television for the 1980s - remember the BBC was the bastion of tradition in theory:
'Stories were set in a squalid house where the students lived during their time at Scumbag College. It can be classified as a comedy of manners.
'When it was first broadcast, the show gained attention for its violent slapstick. Though new to mainstream audiences, Mayall and Edmondson had been using it in 20th Century Coyote for some time. The show also featured surreal elements, such as puppets playing talking animals or objects. Confusion was added with lengthy cutaways with no relation to the main plot.
'Throughout the series, the fourth wall was frequently broken for comedic effect by all characters at various parts of the show. The wall was usually broken as either a punchline to a joke, or to make a plot point more obvious. On several occasions Alexei Sayle broke both the fourth wall and character to address the audience in his real-life Liverpudlian accent.
'Episodes in the second series sometimes included "flash frames" (three frames, equivalent to one eighth of a second), but these were edited out of some repeats. These were included as a mockery of the British and American public's fear of subliminal messages in television and music. Unlike original flash frames, which lasted only one frame, these were long enough to be noticeable without being identifiable. The images included the end caption of Carry On Cowboy, a rusty dripping tap, a leaping frog, a dove in flight, a skier and a hand making pottery.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Young_Ones_(TV_series))
Nasty is a second-series Young Ones episode & so is even more surreal than episodes of the first series. It opens with the characters burying a body, a clever contrast with the recurring theme of 'Have we got a video?' Throughout the episode. It has all of the Young Ones's classic irrelevant plot turns & commentary on the world of the eighties. You would think that younger people may not find it funny - I'm delighted that a friend still in her twenties finds The Young Ones absolutely hilarious - again a sign of quality television & quality comedy.
High points for me include: the luvvy playing the postman. I love that Vyvyan has wired a bomb to the doorbell in case they don't hear it, but then blames the people who've rung the bell for setting it off. I love the scene with the South African vampire who pretends to be a driving instructor. This is carried on for the exact right length of time. Vyvyan wants to bite the vampire to death, but he retorts that they can't (in the era of apartheid) bite him because he's South African. I love the scene set in a Victorian still-life poster in the kitchen which comes to life, & even that is anachronistic. I love the scenes where Alexei Sayle breaks the fourth wall. I love the running period joke about having a video. I love Neil in a dress which he finds in Rick's (the P is silent) bedroom.
Don't waste your time looking for anything to criticise in this show. If you take to The Young Ones, there isn't anything. If you don't, you won't be able to watch it at all.
My favourite line - chosen with difficulty from a tremendously quotable show:
Neil: 'He's going to turn us all into vampires, & we'll all be dead yet still alive, like Leonard Cohen!'

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Danger Man: You're Not in Any Trouble, Are You?

I've skipped over Parallel Lines Do Meet, although its opening beach scene has had me craving the sun so much, rather than our present thundery weather here, that I shall probably return to it. The reason for my jump to this one is it has made me think of the most persuasive evidence I have seen so far that Drake is *not* Number Six. It isn't really in this episode, as such, so perhaps I'd better come clean. I have an addiction. I have sufficient addiction thinking that I'm incredibly proud of it. It is to tobacco. I'm young enough that (in Britain at least) the kind of smoking shown in the opening scene of this episode - lighting up in an enclosed public place - would not have been illegal in Britain for some at least of the time I was smoking, but you'd have been asked to leave. I'm also old enough to remember my dad smoking in a department store & being asked to stop for the reason that it would set the sprinklers off, rather than any other reason. Until I stopped I've smoked in season & out, regardless of whether it was allowed or not. Like all addictions you have a relationship with tobacco, & there is a smokers' mythology of real smokers & the ones who aren't. Here's the point of this rambling: John Drake smokes, Number Six does not. I've just realised this. Yes, he could have given up, but The Village would be exactly the kind of setting to start a smoker off again, & Village Cigarettes would be a branding opportunity not to be missed. They'd probably have some weird chemicals mixed in with them, or else they'd be ridiculously low tar. My point here is that this is a marked difference between the two men, & to me with an insight into the addiction, indicates permanently that they are different people. This really isn't anything to do with the episode under discussion: it is just that the murderer lighting up just before getting into the lift, made me think of it.
None of that is really a propos this episode, so for a start let me say that I don't personally object to the reusing of a script from the first series, Name, Date, & Place. Of course I'm going to wind up watching that & comparing it to this. My guess is that since this is one of my favourite Danger Mans, I'll prefer this one. Sometimes, as in The Avengers, it's interesting to see how remade stories develop the series & the characters. In fact I think some of the recycled Avengers stories are among the best.
I have watched this Danger Man many times now, not just with a view to this blog post, & an idea has grown on me through the repeated watchings. It's very tongue in cheek, but surely this is a parody of...well, virtually all the sixties spy shows I can think of & then a few more. Don't get me wrong, it is *extremely* tongue in cheek, if it was intended at all.
The first scene that gave me this impression was when Drake makes contact with 'Murder Inc' in a car: the American accent that announces that it is a 'hot car' is so overdone that it can only be a parody of the detective genre. It surely can't be that this show falls down on the American accent there - it didn't have to be an American accent, it could well have been an Italian accent. This idea is reinforced for me by the way the Italian accents in the rest of the show don't come across as overdone (to English ears, that is). In fact I was sure they were being so careful with the accents that the bellboy was going to be silent - but then he makes a noise of some sort, which is his sole oral contribution to this. The noise is noncommittal - he could be pretty well any nationality. Since this show is so careful about this, I suspect the overdone American accent (overdone to my ears, that is) is deliberate.
Then it comes across as a carefully-constructed parody of James Bond's romantic exploits. Maintaining Drake's careful non-involvement-beyond-the-bounds-of-duty with women, he has a woman literally throw herself at him. Drake needs to befriend her to some extent to get into her bedroom for the all-important 'shaver' - he is shown using one himself. Of course Bond would have gone there, & of course Drake does not. The fact that she does not get her man, despite her best efforts, is what completely inverts the Bond plot.
The - relatively underplayed - spy technology thing is another Bondian reference. Nor, in case I'm showing my lack of knowledge of the Bond films & the love & gadgets came after this, need Bond be the only source for these aspects of the spy genre that are - as I theorise - parodied here. The Man from UNCLE, for example, that would be another source. In fact virtually any of the Cold War spy thrillers. In fact, I see there was a contraption of tear gas in a briefcase in From Russia With Love (1963) - a perfect gadgety/Cold War inspiration for this.
It is funny, this post coming straight after my last about British perceptions of Chinese people, that the agent designated to kill Drake should be played by Burt Kwouk. He'd already been in a James Bond at this point, & there is no particular reason for having a British actor of Chinese descent at this point - except that the Chinese are supposed to have strange mystical knowledge of how to kill people. Given that the piece is set in Italy, it could just as well have been a Mafia man to kill him, if we're talking stereotypes. And my point here remains that that is exactly what we are talking about - a stereotypical Chinese killer appearing for no reason, except that this show is so obviously a parody of all sorts of British films. Normally I don't like these repetitive actors in sixties shows - but Kwouk works very well here as a stereotypically interchangeable Oriental character. What prevents this becoming a Fu Manchu parody is the fact that the murder enterprise is ruled over by another evil mastermind - how Bond can you get! This is quite different from many of the baddies in Danger Man, who are quite frequently sad characters, or sympathisers for the Other Side: it is rare to see the Evil Genius himself.
So all in all, a favourite Danger Man episode of mine, which has had a developing effect on me as I have watched it repeatedly.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng Chiang, Episode 2

I raised lots of questions about this Doctor Who adventure at the end of my last post about it - some of them were even meant seriously. Reading them now, it strikes me that my questions make ridiculous the confrontation with the world's largest rat that begins this episode. The Doctor & Leela act their fear admirably; the enlarged rat would be truly terrifying if it existed. But this is Doctor Who - the implausible is meat & drink.
The giant rat gives way to two straightforward scenes of detection & Victorian London life, which I like hugely. I'll say it again: anything set in smoggy Victorian London is on to a winner. The anachronism of Chang's flashing eyes as a method of hypnosis is what makes it a Doctor Who - my only query would be why the Doctor himself has to use more conventional means later in the programme. Although... But... To me this doesn't feel like a Doctor Who. It feels like a Sapphire & Steel. It's taken me for ever to work out why this is & I think the flashing eyes routine has made me draw the conclusion that it is because of the special effects of the time, which give a visual similarity to the two shows. Also it is clear that time is all over the place in this world - such as a hologram appearing in a century where it hasn't been discovered yet - which for me creates an expectation of something Sapphire & Steelish happening. There is even a mention of Chang's inferiority to a Time Lord (or something similar) by the Lord & Master that of course Chang simply has to have.
I love Leela in this one: her knowledge of how to kill someone is so useful. I love her eating. I also love Professor Litefoot, the way he's sure the Doctor isn't a gentleman, on account of listening to the address he gave the cab driver. It is essential of course that Litefoot grew up in China, to provide us with the obligatory person with inside knowledge, that nonetheless doesn't compare to the Doctor's. In this, this Who is so classically detective genre.
Yet it isn't really about that: it actually continues to be about culture clash. It cleverly uses the conventional plot device of detective literature (blinkered detective - or in this case a whole city who probably won"t be able to see the whole picture - meets wiser character who solves the mystery) is harnessed in the service of a clash of larger clash. Nor is it merely derivative again - the various literary references are nods merely.
Reasonably enough, I suppose, for a series, this episode raises even more questions than the last episode:
Who is E.B.?
Who is Chang's Lord?
What is the Doctor thinking?
My favourite bit: The Doctor pulling flags out of Jago's sleeve.
My one criticism is that the Doctor & Leela are separated for the cliffhanger at the end - reasonable enough - but when it comes to the actual cliffhanger the dummy isn't nearly sinister enough. Sick, twisted, monster that I am, it made me laugh out loud. And that means that there's something very wrong here, & it must be with the TV programme; it couldn't possibly be with me...

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Danger Man: The Mirror's New

A totally - I suppose unexpected would be the word to describe it - beginning to this Danger Man episode. A scene of archetypal luxury, with a man apparently listening to music from a record player. This scene then opens out to show another man reclining on a bed behind the chair. Once again, all the trappings of luxury - the drapes & the fur on the bed. The music provides the ideal climactic background to the man on the bed shooting the man (to whom he owes money) on the chair, after playing cat & mouse with him for some little time. He leaves the apartment & goes to a car, dropping a scarf on the steps, which he slips on as he returns, managing to get back in the apartment but knocking himself out.
How to read this opening in symbolic terms? It could *almost* have a hint of homosexuality about it. Whatever, the man on the bed is plainly louche, a roue, a playboy. He's got it written all over him. It's written all over his flat. His flat is a studio flat, is clearly tiny, yet there is apparently room for a bar & certainly for extravagant drapes. This man is clearly set up as a villain right from the start. I wonder how this would have read in the 1960s - in the way I'm reading it, I hope. I'm less sure on how the two men in (matching) turtle neck jumpers & dark glasses would have read then - looking at appearances of similar-looking men in other 1960s shows, I'm guessing they would have read as villains in the television language of the time. They're definitely not on our side - far too sinister, & the solid reliability look is reserved for Bierce's boss. So in fact this show does an excellent job of making a complex beginning, where it isn't at all clear which side the characters are one: exactly the right impression for this episode, in fact.
I am struck by the theatrical nature of this episode. It *feels* to me, as did a lot of particularly early 1960s television, like a stage play. Imagine this show done on the stage, it's perfectly possible. A bed for the studio apartment, a desk for the embassy: this one actually consists of a series of scenes. With this theatrical feeling come marvellous visuals. The sense of reassurance that I described developing as the series progresses, is present here to a wonderful extent. Visually this show literally doesn't put a foot wrong - the oddness of the opening scene up to the titles serves to attract the viewer's attention. It is a pleasure to watch, I can't describe how visually excellent this one is. When Bierce reappears & it is apparent that he is missing a day, the secretary shows him the correct date on a desk calendar, & when he rationalises it as her putting the date too far forward, Drake visually reinforces this with his newspaper. Far far more effective than arguing with him would have been. For a Danger Man set abroad, the scene is also very effectively set with establishing shots of Paris, creating the right atmosphere.
There are a few questions raised for me by this episode. One is of what is known in Britain as data protection. You can't just casually take sensitive papers home anymore - (no, now you're supposed to leave them on a train in an unencrypted memory stick!) - I would like to say that this couldn't happen anymore, but I suppose what I mean is that the focus on Bierce would be different nowadays. On an organisational level, it is astonishing how unsuspicious Bierce's boss is about him. Seriously - a diplomat vanishes with sensitive papers, with a whole day missing from his memory when he returns, & his boss continues to think he is not a security risk? Since I continue to have Drake's likely reasons for resignation at the back of my mind, I would guess that he would probably be intensely annoyed, being surrounded by such incompetence. It is clear that the diplomatic service is being run on a basis of personal ties rather than professionally, on the basis of objective criteria. On that basis Bierce would be flying back to London post haste. To someone intelligent & competent, this rank incompetence would be the ultimate irritant - having to clear up after people who leave themselves open to security leaks.
Drake's character comes across as more sympathetic than usual in this episode. He does a very good job with Mrs Bierce: the priority is clearly finding out what has happened to her husband, but he speaks to her with sympathy & succeeds in getting her to open up about her husband's apparent failing. Similarly, this episode is a showcase for Drake talking to all sorts of different people, making it apparent how adaptable he could actually be, while showcasing McGoohan's acting ability.
Wanda Ventham, in her introduction to this episode in my boxed set, comments to the effect that Danger Man was just a standard show, although nothing with McGoohan in it could really be ordinary. I was going to disagree with her, but having seen the show three times on the trot, I'm inclined to agree. Despite the apparent complexity of this one's plot, the complexity is actually only the complexity that Bierce has created in his own life by leading a double, triple, quadruple, life. Au fond this Danger Man is a relatively simple morality story - it is very obvious from early on that Bierce isn't letting his left hand know what his right hand is doing, & that no good can come of it. I also don't really like that the two men in dark glasses turn out to be agents for the other side, masquerading as money lenders. It is too simple that they are the ones who kill Bierce at the end, while also not providing a satisfying end - we don't see what happens to them, if anything. Drake is made an ambivalent character there - clearly sorting out the spot of bother with Bierce is his *only* concern in this case. And he promises not to disabuse Mrs Bierce of her false impression of her husband. The problem as defined is all neatly sorted out & everyone can go back to pretending.
My favourite bit: McGoohan's act as an Irish salesman of German encyclopedias.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng Chiang Episode 1

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with Dr Who. I've watched a lot of it over the years - the doctors when I was growing up were Tom Baker & Peter Davison. I've watched a lot of David Tennant, some Matt Smith & all off Christopher Eccleston. I *must* have seen Colin Baker episodes, but have no recollection of them now. Considering I've watched quite a lot of the canon Doctor Who seems to have made relatively little impression on me, I'm certainly not a massive fan in the way I would be a fan of The Avengers, & I can't think why. I remember liking a lot of the Who I've watched. I was surprised to watch some early episodes (blogged about here) & really not be impressed by them. Unimpressed to the extent that I did not buy the Lost in Time boxset of remnants when I saw it in Cex; I would never be a Who completist but I have all existing episodes of The Avengers. I also recently bought Ghost Light, having looked at it in the BBC shop & thought it would be my sort of thing, but I found my attention drifted. I tried to watch it several times but there was always a point beyond which I wondered what was going on.
This Doctor Who adventure comes as a pleasant relief, then. I bought it purely on the basis of the rave reviews it gets, somewhat nervously & hoping I wouldn't be disappointed. I'm *not* disappointed! To be frank, it's on to a winner, since any mystery of any sort, even a sci-fi one, can't really fail if it takes a theatre & Victorian London setting. In this of course, it is - not influenced or derivative exactly - but makes reference to lots & lots of cultural icons.
My main criticism is Mr Chang. Even in the 1970s the image of a Chinese person that he projects was just plain wrong. He is even placed next to genuine Chinese people, which shows it up even worse. I do however feel there is a possible way to read this. The episode begins in a theatre - the theatre is symbolic of everything being artificial. It is plain that Chang is such a caricature of a Chinese person that he gives me an impression of someone pretending very badly to be Chinese. If it is intended to cast suspicion on Chang, there would be no better way. In one sense this aspect of this adventure draws on British racist attitudes towards Chinese: frequently used in the cinema of a previous age, but it jars now & was increasingly unacceptable 40 years ago. I would note that criticism of Chang is fairly universal, with no implication that his badly-acted role is deliberate. Other than Chang I literally cannot fault the acting. Costume, personification, acting, all perfect.
The script is excellent. It's not for nothing that this is one of the Doctor Who's that does get quoted; its exchanges are worthy of Noel Coward!
-Have you been drinking?
-Not a drop, Sir.
-Then you should start now.
Nor does this adventure fall into the trap of merely being a conventional Victorian murder mystery (similar to what Black Orchid does): the culture clash of Dr Who and Leela with the Victorian London world provides the correctly Whovian element. I was actually going to say it jars, but I think it has to be this way to make it a Doctor Who. 'I haven't been in China for 400 years...'
This adventure is almost a gleeful parody of the British detective genre. The Doctor just knows that the Tongue of the Black Scorpion is at work. Then the stooge, Jago, after commenting on the newspapers' theories, finds that Chang's 'dummy' has blood on its hands. I say parody because it is so overdone that if you watch this adventure hoping for a straight mystery, you'll be disappointed. I think it is probably best approached as an atmospheric showcase for The Doctor. This episode also does a good job at raising the necessary questions:
What's with Chang's dummy?
Is Chang Chinese?
Will one of the real Chinese people feed Chang to the rats?
How do the criminals of Victorian London instantly recognise Doctor Who as their nemesis?
Who's been feeding the rats?
Will Jago get eaten?
Where did Leela achieve such mastery of English (far better than Chang's)?
Why have the police taken The Doctor into their confidence rather than arresting him?
Will the police fall into the trap of rather obviously arresting all the Chinese & theatricals in the piece as dodgy characters, leaving The Doctor to be eaten by the rats?
Why haven't the rats got stuck in the Victorian sewers?
*Ten feet*????

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Danger Man: Whatever Happened to George Foster?

This post is having the greatest difficulty seeing the light of day: I would like to blame it on an IT problem, but in reality it's been a me being silly with IT problem. At this point we are approaching halfway through the region 2 box set of longer Danger Man episodes, & I feel this is where the series really gets into its stride. Despite the years it's already been going on, I feel Drake or McGoohan develops a new reassurance in the role, the storiess have a new reassurance: it's as if everything is just falling into place.
It's strange, since on the surface this one starts like an episode I wouldn't like of sixties drama: all manana & revolution in Latin America. However straight after the titles it gets into its stride as a Britain-based story of high society corruption. Yet I feel that doesn't begin to describe this episode: it is literally polished on all levels, plot & subplots work together in an engineered way, characterisation is excellent, the dialogue sparkles maturely like a vintage champagne. Unusually for me, I literally can't sing the praises of this episode highly enough.
Characters, for instance. Whether it is realistic for mid-sixties high society, of course I can't say, but it gives an impression of brilliant, yet brittle, characters, which does nothing to jar at all. The two women who clearly hate each other, for example. It could so easily go wrong to have such brittle conversation in the midst of what is really a quite intense spy drama, but it doesn't. There is literally not a foot set wrong here, & they perfectly manage to be part of a colourful cast. The George Foster of the title manages to be incredibly frightening.
You see at base this episode is not about bigamy or corruption: it's about power & fear. Drake has at heart the interests of a place called Santo Marco. He has against him a powerful bigamist, pretending to be someone he isn't. 'I can ruin you,' he tells Drake: his threats & offers of bribes - 'I hope we can be good friends,' he says after threatening to ruin Drake in every way - are cleverly interspersed with domestic appearances from the woman who believes herself to be his wife. This cleverly underscores what 'Lord Amerford' has at stake, & how he has established his life on a lie.
You don't quite feel sorry for him, since the script is perfectly arranged to show him up for the monster he is. This show manages some serious terror: it is literally a case of Drake being up against any number of dangerous men, having a simple truth to tell, which the establishment is predisposed not to believe, since George Foster has oiled the wheels so that it is in powerful people's interests to support him, rather than Drake. The pressure on Drake is immense. Once again the episode has a scene in his own mews house - he has literally no privacy & is in danger of his life. He is beaten up once, a passenger in his car crashes it, framed with stolen goods - this is an episode where the odds are really stacked against him. It's lucky we know he's the goodie, or we could think that beating up a policeman & stealing a police car could make him an ambivalent character. He's rather more in the desperate hero category, to my mind.
The ambivalent character is actually Foster's legal wife, who is quite content to know that he is a bigamist, & as long as he does 'his duty' to her refuses to see that as a payoff. He even tries to bribe Drake. To his credit he doesn't really try to look for sympathy, but believes himself to be untouchable. It is at the moment of showdown with Drake that Foster's *other* wife does one of her domestic intrusions, to measure a sleeve on him, which underscores the impact the story of Foster's bigamy coming out, would have on her. Drake rightly has created some insurance before he gives Foster an ultimatum. He also makes it plain that it is for the benefit of the little man in San Marco, not for the pleasure of having won. It does come out that the threat underlying his ultimatum was a bluff - that's the only bit I don't like: it would have been better left as it was.
Yet despite being virtually single-handed he can rely on his contacts in Fleet Street, almost alone. So there is an element of this show that is about the little man against the big man, & how working together works against insuperable odds. It's actually a bit trade uniony!
Highlights of the sparkling dialogue:
'I'm too rich to have problems, I only have attitudes.'
'He seems a nice young man.'
'Yes - what a pity.'
'What a dear little house.'
Mirrored by the later,
'What a dear little room.'

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Danger Man: The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove

One of the things I was hoping to happen, when I started blogging about old tv programmes, was that the process would make me think more deeply than is usual about the TV programmes I watch. Television is a terribly seductive medium: it sits in the corner of the room & the remarkable thing is for the most part people pay it no attention at all! Over the past decades it has spread, often into every room in the house, & is on pretty much all the time. Personally I think this is to do it a disservice. I only watch what I want - exclusively either on the internet or DVD. I personally never watch TV when it is actually scheduled. By a focussed attention you begin to realise a lot of the little subliminal tricks that go on, in advertising & so on, when you do watch it. You notice how the images are manipulated. Much of the information that enters our heads is unbidden & designed to work on us insidiously. To turn off from this is to become automatically eccentric, but also to pay a different sort of attention to things.
Watching TV even in this way I realise I wasn't thinking things out as much as I could be. I realise I wasn't attending to what was going on on the screen, properly. This Danger Man episode is a case in point. I have seen it numerous times before, it is one of my favourites. The approach I was going to take was that this is a straightforward have-a-good-go-at-driving-the-spy-mad story. I was even going to make a criticism that this story is very obviously an apparent set-up from the beginning, leaving the only source of suspense, the amount of pain exerted from the agent, albeit that it is apparently a dream. I can't really phrase the approach I was originally going to take, better than henri sauvage does in his imdb review:
'Speeding on his way to the airport, secret agent John Drake (Patrick McGoohan) swerves to avoid a couple of young boys chasing a ball and loses control of his car. After a devastating wreck, the camera lingers on his shattered dashboard clock, stopped at exactly 12 noon.
'The rest of this story is supplied by Drake's subconscious: A duel of wits in which the hobo he passed on the road right before his accident morphs into the suave, sinister (and much better groomed) music lover and casino owner Mr. Alexander (Francis de Wolff), whose unsavory deeds range from attempting to blackmail Drake to passing secrets via microdots on gambling chits.
'What's impressive about this episode is the way it's framed from the first as a dream, and evokes the alternating logic/illogic of a dream state quite nicely, without succumbing to the temptation of going wildly overboard. Just a subtle, gathering wrongness (like every clock you see during the episode shows twelve o'clock) and unsettling discontinuities (such as the title character, Mr. Lovegrove, who -- to put it mildly -- wears many hats in this story) leading to an appropriately bizarre and manic crescendo.' (http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0553854/reviews?ref_=m_tt_urv#showAll)
But I've been forced to rethink that view. Of all the Danger Man episodes I've written about so far, this is the one that I feel is the real precursor of The Prisoner. It looks like The Prisoner. Drake acts like Number 2. Something is wanted from his by a suspicious power. Some of the scenes are almost straight out of The Prisoner. This *is* The Prisoner. The number of Prisoner-type 'tropes' I can identify would include the following (tropes in brackets have been taken from the Prisoner tropes at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Series/ThePrisoner):
Drake drives purposefully in a topless car at the start of the episode (cool car).
The vagrant looking for a lift is very probably a first attempt at getting hold of him (sinister surveillance).
A child-like way of setting his course astray
The action after the titles begins & keeps reverting to, Drake's own home, which even looks rather like Number 6's cottage in The Village.
His home is already invaded by another man.
Mr Lovegrove wants to see him at the Treasury (Number 2 wants to see him at the green dome?)
Repetitive questioning about how he has done something he knows he hasn't, with concerns raised about his security.
He behaves nervously, almost with a tick, which makes Lovegrove laugh uproariously = Number 2's bonhomie pretence (affably evil).
Lovegrove makes out he is more understanding than the Minister = Number 2's attempts to be understanding or chummy (affably evil).
The casino doorman's familiarity, ?intended to set the scene that he goes there regularly but has forgotten.
The man behind the desk recognises him, ditto.
The casino is a scene of luxury, parallelling the village hall & much-vaunted amenities in The Prisoner (Becoming the mask; dystopia; gilded cage).
Drake is taken to Mr Alexander, who behaves very much as Number 2.
Pretend concern for Drake's wellbeing & reiteration of the idea that he owes them money.
Drake rationalises against all these apparently sane people = he is the only sane, or just plain sensible, one there.
Dramatic music behind this scene.
Alexander then produces the real reason for taking him in to the casino: he hints they know he is in the 'travel business' = hints they know about him, but they want more.
The other people in the casino all seem sane & calm.
Drake's vision shifts, people look different, he focuses on some very specific things here & there - this to me looks very much like the visuals of The Prisoner.
Drake tries to find an ally in Lovegrove, but it's apparent at times that he's on the other side (government conspiracy; hoist by his own petard).
Drake changes his game to become a 'real gambler' to clean it up (hoist by his own petard).
The corridor he walks - in a rather wobbly fashion - down is very reminiscent of some scenes from The Prisoner.
His interview with the doctor is eccentric enough to have taken place in The Village.
He can't resign: he wouldn't get a pension (resignations not accepted).
There is another John Drake (identical stranger).
Polite party chit-chat covers up the agenda of a femme fatale (Daddy's little villain).
Drake befriends the woman at the casino, only to find she is in Alexander's employ.
Drake's position as seen by the enemy is delineated in the allegory of a game, in this case of cards (human chess?).
Drake is given a final ultimatum, threatening him with destruction (determinator).
The people that Drake should be able to rely on - his superiors - do not believe the story he tells them (deadpan snarker).
Drake examines himself & finds someone else in the mirror.
There are strangers with demands in his house again.
When softly softly fails, his interlocuters resort to violence.
Drake appears to play along, or at least sympathise with, his enemies - clearly a tactical strategy.
The apparent friend, who turned out to be an enemy, reappears as his friend. She confirms his suspicions as to what is happening at the casino.
Even the patrolling policeman is revealed to be one of Drake's enemies (dramatic unmask).
Drake sees the evidence of his car crash being 'arranged' then it vanishes again.
Drake 'turns the tables' on the enemiy by 'playing them at their own game'.
Drake deals with a femme fatale again, with no reciprocation on his side (celibate hero).
The enemy - what he is fighting against - is revealed to be Drake himself (Batman grabs a gun; identical stranger).
The image is seen as allegorical of the reality it depicts.
The characters in the dream are finally revealed to be 'actors' in Drake's car crash (all just a dream; but you were there, & you, & you).
What is missing here that is very prominent in The Prisoner, is the theme of control & messing with the mind. Clearly it would not be possible for this one show to represent *everything* that happens in all The Prisoner's episodes, but I find it interesting how may similar ideas to The Prisoner appear, in an episode which is not normally a runner for the role of Prisoner inspiration.
I am not wishing to imply that there is anything else happening in this story than the plain plot line, strange as it may seem. It sounds like I'm trying to project The Prisoner onto this Danger Man: in reality I think it is possibly that the dream world depicted here inspired the world of The Prisoner in a very subtle way. Perhaps The Prisoner is therefore more of a dream than is immediately apparent: if Number 1 is oneself, then The Village can also be the production of ones own psyche.
I am astonished at how much magical thinking there is in this episode - connections are made between things that have no obvious causation. This is exactly the ethos of The Prisoner - the reason for everything, the 'prime mover' is always hidden & there is no apparent reason for much of what happens.
So all in all an interesting episode which can be read on a number of different levels - as in deep good television always can - including possibly containing some seeds of ideas for The Prisoner.