Saturday, 21 February 2015

Seventies TV: It Ain't Half Hot Mum (Again)

I've just been watching the first series of It Ain't Half Hot Mum, and have come to quite a different impression from the one I posted about in my last post here, where I got side-tracked into racism & body issues. That was also largely based on memories of the show when it was first broadcast, when I was a child, and on viewings some discs I bought of series 3 and 4.
It is usual to comment on the show's now-unacceptable (and unacceptable at the time to those portrayed) attitude towards various ethnic groups, imperialism, and so on. I think this can distract from the show as a show. Firstly I certainly would guess that eight series of this show were way too many: unfortunately I've sold the discs of series 3 and 4 so could only compare by watching them on – ahem – a certain internet website which often has whole episodes of TV shows on. However, the characterisation and the show's standing as a situation comedy strike me as much better in the first series. The characters leap out fully-developed right from the start of the first episode, and I would have to respect this as quality writing. I stand by my later memories of Perry and Croft's TV shows as being dreary – perhaps the same principle of going on too long (and bizarrely with virtually the same cast in programme after programme) applies.
One thing has struck me in particular as interesting – the acceptance that 'Gloria' is homosexual. He makes comments accepting that he is, he doesn't seem to deny it (leaving the question of insult aside) when referred to as a poof or a nancy boy. The show interestingly raises a further level of sexual ambivalence by the excitement Captain Ashwood shows at the idea of the men dressing up as women. Just like the real thing. Hmmm…
Nor is the actual situation in India at the end of the second world war completely ignored, although obviously it is only used as the background to the sitcom. The situation, if you like, is that the inhabitants of the country want the British out. This provides an interestingly unstable background to the antics of the concert party. I feel that in addition to the colonialist response to this so often demonstrated in this show, it may also faithfully reflect an attitude reported during the Second World War – when your life is continually in danger everything changes proportion and sometimes important things are treated in a shrug it off way. There was nothing that could be done about the situation so people just 'carried on', in the words of the irritating posters so fashionable a few years ago. It's cringe-making now, but a sing-song or a concert party probably was seen as a valid way to boost morale or at least provide escape in a dangerous situation.
Don't get me wrong – this show remains demeaning to virtually every group of people it mentions. It couldn't really be broadcast in any prominent position today. The jokes in the show are just that, you may say, and don't mean any harm. But the point is that ultimately they do. Words are things, it is not true they never hurt, and perceiving the freedom to insult whole groups of people in the name of entertainment creates an environment where it becomes acceptable. But the reason I'm posting again is that I've come to the conclusion it didn't start as bad as it went on, and also the higher quality of the first series suggests some better writing than I would have noticed in my previous viewing. It's still Probably Not Cult, though.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Avengers: Hot Snow

I have been prompted to write about Hot Snow by two things recently: one was the appearance of Ingrid Hafner in The Clifton House Mystery, and the other is that I have been watching Undermind, another show from the ABC stable. I love the first three series of The Avengers in their own particular way, in a way quite different from that in which (posh grammar) I love the last three series. In fact, for me it is a relief to be back in the early-to-mid-sixties after my lengthy excursion into the seventies, although I can't quite put my finger on what the difference is. I've mentally pinned it on to the live vs recorded difference, but it may not be that.
Certainly Hot Snow has a good go at being about as gritty as you can get. In the televisual language later perfected in The Avengers, if you were to see Dr Tredding's home and surgery set-up, it would equate to a solid character at the heart of the community. The house is neither modern nor trying to impress with upper-class privilege. However, of course I am reading it through the lens of the later series.
The major difference is that Steed is not the lead, of course. This dialogue from the third act, which does not survive, highlights the deliberately ambivalent impression he would have given to the viewer:
A little later, Steed telephones Keel from the gang's flat.
STEED: Hello, Dr Keel. Do you recognise the voice?
KEEL: Yes.
STEED: Now listen carefully. I haven't got much time. They want to get
you. I told them I can persuade you to re-enact what happened
to your fiancée. I explained to them that you would think you
were following up the trail that would lead to her killer.
KEEL: Where do I meet him?
STEED: Outside Vinsons. He'll force you into a car. You must get in.
Now, do you understand? You must get in. It's 11.45. Shall we
say in 30 minutes?
KEEL: I can just about make it, but...
Steed replaces the receiver.
KEEL: Hello?
The telephone line goes dead.
Steed turns directly to the gang, who have been listening in.
STEED: Everybody clear?
CHARLIE: The docks.
STEED: We'll pick him up at 12.15. By 1.15, he'll be floating out on the
(Richard McGinlay, Alan Hayes & Alys Hayes: The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, Hidden Tiger Books, Electronic Edition, 2014, pp. 25-26)
I also realise something: I've been watching Hot Snow because I wanted to compare it with Undermind (which I can only describe as superb, but which richly deserves a post of its own), but I've been avoiding posting about it. I'm afraid of posting about it in case I later want to say something different about it: but I've decided just to go for it and I can always post again later. I also realise I've rarely watched what there is of it all the way through, even though I've watched other things on the disc repeatedly. I think there's a sense of dissatisfaction about Hot Snow. This may be adequately explained by it effectively ending one third of the way through. If I just didn't like the earlier Avengers at all it could be that, but I'm just not sure what about it gives me this sense of unease and desire to avoid it.
Because in so many ways it's perfect. Murray Melvin is perfect as the effete gangster. It even manages to presage the baddie-with-pet motif which I'm sure we would all associate with James Bond. I love that the fifty years which divide us from this show are long enough to make our world markedly different: one of my dissatisfactions with Mad Men was the self-conscious way in which the actors made a point of smoking. Here, it is taken for granted that doctors will smoke. It is not pointed. That is just what happened at that time. In wracking my brain for criticism, I've been forced to the old faithful that the scenery shakes in one place when Dr Tredding closes a door. In fact I'm forced to a conclusion: the sense of dis-ease here may be entirely deliberate. Given that this is the episode where Keel's fiancée is murdered in front of him and the villain is not captured (until the next episode), thereby setting his life in an entirely new course of Avenging rather than just medicining, it can only be deliberate that the viewer is left with a certain discomfort. And this is surely the hallmark of Stonking Good Television.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Seventies TV: The Clifton House Mystery

Children's TV of the 1970s again, and once again a series that I was probably too young to see at the time of its original broadcast. And I have no doubt that my mother would have discouraged me strongly from watching it, on the pretext that I would find it frightening (as I child you don't understand how these pretexts work for adults). In fact I think I would have loved it, given that I've discovered it's based on a true story:
'The 1978 children's paranormal TV drama The Clifton House Mystery was a ghost story based on the circumstances of Brereton's death. The plot revolved around a family moving into an old house in Bristol that finds a long-dead skeleton in a hidden room. After some unexplained incidents, they become convinced that a ghost connected in some way with the Bristol Riots of 1831 is haunting the house. After checking local records, they realize that it is the ghost of a dragoon commander who was court-martialled for his handling of the riots, and who later disappeared without a trace. The ghost is named "George Bretherton" in the TV series. One of his descendants, named "Mrs Betterton", had sold the house to the family, but was allegedly unaware of the hidden room and its contents, referring only to a vague family scandal that happened generations ago.' (
In fact I think back to the seventies as a halcyon time of interest in all things…I suppose the word 'paranormal' would cover it, or possibly 'supernatural'. Certainly The Clifton House Mystery has an aura of incredible familiarity, and certainly not because I have seen it before, but because it manages to include many of the great elements of a classic ghost story – a basis on real history, objects with a link to dead people, a hidden room, blood dripping from the ceiling, human remains. In fact these were many of the staples of my childhood reading, when I could get to choose it myself. One of my favourite books was The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively, which once again draws on the classic folklore of the ghost story. In fact the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford actually has a witch in a bottle among the exhibits. When I got to about the age of thirteen my mother finally gave in to my badgering to consent to me having an 'adult' ticket at the library, so worried was she that I might find out some mystery or frighten myself somehow. In fact the first thing I took home was The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price. Those familiar with the Borley Rectory story will be aware that opinion tends to be sharply divided between fanatical belief and fanatical denial. My own opinion is that the story is too good to be true: there is hardly an element of traditional ghost stories missing, and while I can't claim to know anything about psychical research I can see that Price's efforts were sloppy at best, and the need to remove an alcoholic, nymphomanic, terminally-bored, vicar's wife from the scene before investigating should be obvious to all.
Anyway, this over-egging of the cake doesn't afflict The Clifton House Mystery: its story is just right. Instead it is spoiled by other things. Visually the set gives exactly the right impression of darkness and neglect, and the repeated music box music is perfectly hypnotic. Peter Sallis makes an interesting ghost hunter, but unfortunately he is spoiled for me by over-identification with a certain later role. But the one huge hole in the plot of this one is that after a human skeleton is found in the hidden room, the parents just leave it there and don't do anything about it. What? Incredible. It's perfectly simple to include the authorities as bumbling simpletons or disbelievers. Rather this unreal action pushes the story over into fiction so far that it erodes the real impression so necessary to a ghost story. Rather, this is a gilded youth story rather than a ghost story. The children go off to a lecture on ghosts without their parents knowing where they were, they actually knock a hole in a wall without being told off. This unreality is what makes this story as essentially out of synch with our own world, although you may also think that that is the point of this genre:
'You don't have to be nine to find this stuff funny. When I re-read the book for this article, aged 36, I laughed just as much as ever. There is also great comfort in these descriptions of boyhood – even if they also come with their own difficult truths. This may be a book targeted at children, but it's still Penelope Lively. She never talks down to her younger readers, never assumes that they are less than intelligent. The result is a book more profound than most written for grown-ups. And also sadder.
'Even in the opening pages, we hear that the village of Ledsham has "the air of being dwarfed by the present". A new, uglier reality is encroaching on the cosy past: "New housing estates were mushrooming now on two sides of it, but the centre remained as it must always have been with the houses and streets a size smaller than the houses and streets of a modern town. Lorries, and even the tops of cars, rode parallel with the upstairs windows of the terraced cottages."
'It soon becomes apparent that everything in the book is at odds with time – as James becomes all too aware.' (

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Seventies TV: Z-Cars

We're at the other end of the seventies here from most of the shows I've been looking at here: my personal TV memories begin at the end of the seventies, so I'm more familiar with programmes which may have begun in the seventies but continued into the eighties. I'm also familiar with some of the repeated sixties shows which were staples of eighties TV in the UK. Z-Cars takes me into completely alien territory since it was mostly broadcast before I was born, & once I came along I have no doubt it would have been well after my bed time. The illustration is of the DVD I have bought, of seventies-broadcast episodes. I'm surprised to discover how little survives of Z-Cars: it's taken me this long to suss this but I think there is a major difference between seventies TV & the sixties shows which are the staple of my viewing. This difference is demonstrated by the way whole series often survive from the seventies, particularly many of the series which frankly aren't that good. This difference in survival is underlain by a major difference of approach to the medium of television, being seen more as single theatre-style productions in the sixties (remember so much sixties Dr Who survives because of it being so widely exported while the original tapes were re-used in the UK). At some point policy changed to an archival approach undergirded my an understanding of television as repeatable. The point of this lengthy digression is that nowadays a shoebox twelve series would be in box sets but it is no longer possible to experience the whole of this show.
I'll happily own up to being on alien territory here but this show surprises me in all sorts of ways. It feels much different to the majority of the shows I've blogged about here, much less ephemeral, more theatrical, I could almost say more worthy. Minder, by way of comparison, could be left on in the background while doing something else, but Z-Cars seems to demand attention in a way characteristic of earlier television. If you don't pay attention to this one you'll miss something & be lost. 
In my real/unreal dichotomy Z-Cars self-consciously aims for real & gritty in a way which I gather was unusual for the time. Naturally this is a completely personal opinion, & of course I've written about my problems with actors & accents on here before, but there is a major problem here. This show aspires to be 'northern', but only does this in a way perceived by people in the south of England, who particularly if they come from London, have a tendency to think that the Yorkshire moors start at Watford. Certainly accent-wise there is little to place this show anywhere more than generically in the north of England. I don't really have a dog in this fight as a Brummie, but I recognise Mancunian & Geordie accents. Yes, people move but dramatically this fails to give an impression of an integrated community, other than in a rather bizarre 'somewhere-up-there' way. 
In fact Z-Cars isn't at all what I expected. I'd somehow got the impression there was much more action: perhaps this is how it was seen at the time. It doesn't help that in the first episode the caretaker from Grange Hill is keeping a shop with a generic northern accent! 
Having said all this, Z-Cars has some strong positives: it is a solid dramatic police procedural. Sadly I doubt anyone unused either to the theatre or acclimatised to modern television could sit through it. Probably the episodes I've been watching have come from just the wrong time for modern viewers. The collars are huge, the cars memorable to me but antique to anyone younger, people smoke in the pub, there are no mobiles, & so on ad nauseam. It is 'old' but lacks the pounds, shillings & pence charm of older shows.
Incidentally, one of my colleagues decided to let slip yesterday that her maiden name was Garnett, causing me to roll around in laughter. Yes, if the discs show up, I'll go there, bravely pushing the boundaries of taste, which us what this blog is all about.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Sherlock: Second Impressions

I recently fell for an offer in a charity shop where you could buy X number of DVDs for Y amount of money. My third choice was the first season of Sherlock. I was frankly thinking that I may be able to sell it on for more than I had spent on it, since I had already tried to watch it once & could only consider myself unimpressed. She I took against on my first viewing was actually the whole adaptation of the Sherlock thing to a modern milieu. I thought it over-written & a little too clever for it's own good.
Nonetheless I thought I'd give it another go & was pleased to find I took to it much better this time, so much so that I've gone out & bought the second series as well. However perhaps I'd better say that I suspect this post will sound more negative than I feel.
Certainly it is very clear from the start of A Study in Pink & from the commentary on the disc that there were two starting points to the creation of this series, one of which I disagree with. That is the notion that Basil Rathbone is still the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes. For me Rathbone is a little too cold as Holmes, a little too down on Watson. I find Jeremy Brett remarkably unmoving as Holmes: I have friends whose preference is either for Rathbone or Brett & of the two I can see the Rathbone preference. I find I lose interest in the middle of the Brett ones, they seem to lack both momentum & atmosphere. I have been unimpressed by the two recent films - Holmes should not be turned into a CGI extravaganza. My personal preference would be for Peter Cushing as Holmes: I like his intelligent, relatively unemotional portrayal convincing & probably as close to the depiction in the books as it could be. The point of this is that I disagree with the assertion that Rathbone has not been trumped as Holmes on the large or small screen. I would argue further that Rathbone is the wrong place to start to source our internal image of Sherlock Holmes: I believe the true source for that is to be found in Paget's illustrations to the stories in The Strand. These illustrations have echoes in the look of this show, particularly in the design of the flat in Baker Street - an admission of the true origins of the Holmes 'look'.
The second starting point is at the heart of this adaptation of the Holmes stories, namely that if Watson were writing about Holmes today his writing would take the form of a blog. This demonstrates what this show excels at - making the viewer think about how Holmes would translate in modern terms. The fact that I would personally disagree with some of these ideas merely reinforces the truly Holmesian effect of making me think about it. I think choosing a blog as Watson's medium is a mistake. Ironically, given that I'm blogging about this, I think a blog was an unfortunate choice, as of course social media dates very quickly & that single choice will make this show seem very dated as blogging becomes even more outmoded than it already is. 
Of course that is always the danger of 'updating' something. On the other hand I had never realised before that Watson would probably have what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depressingly easy to translate into twenty-first century terms. Of course he would nowadays be in therapy, reflecting badly on his condition's likely reception in the nineteenth century. So I'm both impressed by the adaptation's thought-provoking ability & ambivalent about some aspects of it.
Something unchanged in Holmes's world is interestingly the way he moves around the city & relates to the various groups of police, ethnic groups, the homeless, etc. I like this lots, it's strangely reassuring. Another thing which is the same is the way Holmes manages to be intensely irritating. Conan Doyle likes to portray his deductions as greeted with wonder by everyone surrounding him, which I find incredibly unlikely. I think the way he tends to irritate people in this show would be much more true to life.
There is however a major problem with understanding Holmes nowadays - it is almost impossible for us to understand a pre-sexual revolution & pre-Freud understanding of sexuality. I particularly don't like the repeated device of having another character mistake Holmes & Watson for a couple. Once, perhaps, would have been adequately making the point. Hints of a bromance would also have worked better but it is jarring for anything gay to be suggested. It is possible to read hints of a subconscious sado-masochistic dynamic (not implying relationship) into Holmes & Watson in the original stories, but I feel they would translate best into modern terms as two men sharing a flat, both heterosexual. The repeated gay suggestion also falls flat on it's face because the parts are played very straight. The only character who comes across with a gay presence is Moriarty, who is supposed to be gay & is played by an actor who is gay in real life.
While I cannot fault his portrayal of Holmes I have another problem here. I have commented before here about my dislike of big name actors: there would be something wrong in coming out of A fictional work with too great an awareness that you've been watching, say, Gielgud. The whole point of A really good actor's trade is that you forget about the actor himself. I notice a tendency for people to say 'Did you see that programme with Benedict Cumberbatch?' I'm only remarking on a phenomenon rather than making a judgement, the tendency seems to be there.
All in all, Sherlock is thought-provoking, which I feel may be it's enduring contribution to the canon. It has some shortcomings of perception & depiction, which I feel may make it date quickly & prevent it entering my Stonking Good Television category.