Sunday, 28 June 2015

Paul Temple Again

I see that Patrick Macnee died in the week, at the age of 93. I commented on the It’s About TV blog that I couldn’t write a better tribute to him than Mitchell Hadley did, so I would refer you to his his post. There is something about the extremes of old age which be very bitter sweet: I knew an old lady who was very proud at having outlived all of her contemporaries, and survived the various ailments she had suffered from all her life, yet there must be a great loneliness when there is literally nobody left to whom you can say, ‘Do you remember…?’. Macnee wore his age gracefully, from what I have seen of him speaking in the past few years. For his life I would refer people to his frankly extraordinary autobiography.
I have been surprised by some echoes of Macnee and The Avengers in the films I have been watching this weekend. I have resisted starting a tag on this blog of ‘Not TV’, but I think I have some films which will genuinely be of interest to the readers of this blog, and anyway I have the excuse with these that their subject matter is related to a TV series I have posted about before. I suppose nowadays we would refer to Paul Temple as a franchise, since for decades his adventures have been available in the various media of print, TV, film, and radio play. The films stay more close to the books by Francis Durbridge than the TV series did, and it is interesting to see films of stories that I have become rather familiar with.
I bought the the box set of Paul Temple films on spec, having never seen any of them, and hoping to be drawn into the railway atmosphere by the train setting of the murders in Send for Paul Temple. As it happens, there is very little train location work on that film, but instead they are marvellous 1940s escapist films of just the sort I like.
The echoes of The Avengers come of course in the world they are describing. Despite my joking that whenever they discover a dead body, Mrs Temple asks, ‘Darling is he…  is he…?’, and Temple replies, ‘Yes, darling, he’s working class,’ of course the world depicted here is much more complex than that. It doesn’t quite rival the out-of-this-world unreality of the Britain depicted in The Avengers, but it has a definite outlook of fighting for what is right. I would parallel Temple in some ways with the later Steed, although certainly not the earlier one: he lacks the shiftiness and makes his living by supposedly writing books but the police have become completely dependent on him to sort out their problems for them.
No direct references are made to Temple’s background (as opposed to the many upper-class hints dropped about Steed), but I find the depiction of prosperity depicted in these films very interesting. They were made in the 1940s, when Britain was still under rationing, and while reference is actually made to returning to austerity when they return to Britain, nonetheless the Temples live the kind of life of unparalleled luxury which would have been a dream to most of the viewers of these films, even without post-war conditions. They have a ‘man’ to look after them, the motor cars depicted are definitely not little run-arounds, and so on. And what a different world they live in! Mrs Temple has given up her journalistic career as a result of being married, and she comments at one point that she can’t handle all the housekeeping as well as a criminal investigation. It must have been after this that we humans decided we would have to cope with working full time and all the housekeeping. I love the cut glass accents the actors (except if playing a self-consciously working class character, in which case they become Eliza Doolittle cockney) have, which would be terribly old-fashioned nowadays. And the smoking! The smoking is of course completely right for the period, not as self-conscious as in Mad Men.
And I think that is my verdict on these films, that they are exactly right. It is not just that they are contemporaneous of the books – the radio plays were as well, but manage somehow to sound as if they are caricatures -  but rather they are exact depictions of the visual world depicted in the books. They are not overdone in any way. And I think this is again what makes them superior for me to the 1970s TV adaptations of the Paul Temple character: the kind of luxury world depicted in these films does not translate to the 1970s very well. It immediately looks like a Jason King programme, and in a more prosperous world depicts luxuries probably more available to the general public. One of the points of old films is that we are safely insulated from both the dangers and the luxuries depicted in them. We might get jealous of the characters, but we can escape into their world, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a city cinema, without the dangers of getting murdered.
It isn’t a criticism as far as I am concerned myself, but I have read criticisms online of the picture and restoration quality of these films. In fact on one of the DVDs Renown actually announce that it isn’t up to their usual standard, but they have released the film anyway having done what they can to it, because of the popular demand. I don’t personally object to some jumps in the picture, a line here and there, and a few pops in the sound, I personally think this is what one can expect of seventy year old film, but if you insist on crystal quality picture and sound, you will not like these films.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Protectors: First Impressions

Some of what it pleases Wikipedia to call 'disambiguation' may be necessary at the beginning of this post, since this series brings us right to the heart of confusing television names world. This is a series broadcast by  ABC in 1964 [not this ABC nor yet this ABC In fact this has become confusing to such an extent that I have seen it theorised that the first reel of Hot Snow survives because it was returned to the wrong ABC and ended up in the States, rather than facing the almost certain destruction it would have faced here in Britain. Another confusion can be caused by the fact that there are no fewer than three TV series called The Protectors. I don't mean  the 1970s series  (I have tried to watch it, and although normally I take to ITC shows, I found it a drab 1970s luxury-setting spy show), nor yet do I mean  the 2009 series, which is far too new and not esoteric enough to be on my radar yet. I may be blogging about it in fifty years' time. Instead I mean  this one which is so recently re-released that it doesn't seem to have a Wikipedia page yet. Instead this basic information is from the Network page, which is also the same as the blurb on the back of the DVD box – that's right the box which illustrates this post: 
'Meet The Protectors: Ian Souter, Robert Shoesmith and their Girl Friday, Heather Keys. Their motto: 'We Sell Security'. Their object: to prevent crime. Operating from a smart Marylebone office, they form a high-powered private investigation team dedicated to fighting crooks and forestalling crimes of all kinds in the twilight borderland between the underworld and the policeman's beat... This classic ABC adventure series stars former RSC player Andrew Faulds as the fiercely moral Souter, a Black Watch officer turned private detective; Michael Atkinson is fellow troubleshooter Shoesmith, an ex-policeman with an unnervingly acute understanding of the mind and methods of the criminal; Ann Morrish is secretary and confidante Heather, a former auctioneers' assistant with a sharp eye for art fakes and forgeries. Originally screened in 1964, this complete series has not been seen anywhere since its initial transmission.'
I may be making a judgement based entirely on my own niche television viewing, but it would seem to me to be a 1960s thing to name shows after what their protagonists do. Of course, given the lack of presence this show has on the internet, I'm imagining this, but given that this is also an ABC production, it wouldn't be too far a stretch to see this as an attempt to capitalise on the popularity of The Avengers. It sounds like it, at this length of time it even looks like it, yet is subtly different. As highlighted in the quote above, there are three protagonists in this show, rather than the doctor caught up in the underworld, and contacted by John Steed, who subsequently takes over the stage. Instead, The Protectors is very much set in the other extreme of the world of security. None of your London back streets here, rather the settings are in intelligent, privileged, society, at least by the standards of the 1960s. These are not also shows set up to be a Jason King-style escapism and a chance to see into the lifestyle of the rich and famous. These are movers and shakers, but it is still plain that their lives are far from perfect.
The role of women is incredibly different, which has highlighted for me how revolutionary The Avengers actually was, in its depiction of Cathy Gale. Women hold roles of leadership and power in this show, but it is always plain that there is some question as to whether they can manage them. The one woman in the team of Protectors is also described as a Girl Friday, and is plainly intended to be an assistant to the two men.
That said, the setting interpreted in the visual language of television is very definitely modern. The sets are clearly in a family lineage with the more modern sets used in The Avengers. I'm particularly reminded of the scene with the empty coffin in The Undertakers. Again I don't know that this particularly applies here because I don't have a source, but I have read that many of the sets for these black and white shows were actually painted in shades of grey and black, in fact purely designed for how they would show up on the screen. The design of the sets is accentuated by the imaginative use of lights and pattern. Something which is very frequently used is the device of light shining through suspended ceilings to create particular effects, a very effective device in the context. Titles are clearly from the same stable as Mrs Gale-era Avengers titles, with an excellent and catchy theme. Incidental music is atmospheric to the action of the show but doesn't distract from it. In common with most TV shows of this era, it would probably require more concentration than a lot of modern shows, while its pacing feels more leisurely than a modern show, but not boring by any manner of means.
Another major difference with The Avengers is the complete (so far as I have viewed) lack of a sexual dynamic. This is another aspect of this show that has really brought home to me how the continual sexual sparking between Steed and the various Avengers girls is something that must have been considered very go-ahead for the time.
The three main actors are real theatre and TV heavyweights. Full use is made of familiar actors of the time. Normally this irritates me, but it is a mark of the quality of the writing of this show and the actors' acting, that I can just think, 'That's so-and-so,' and ignore it. Familiar faces include Peter Bowles (several Avengers episodes, and of course To The Manor Born), Donald Hewlett ( It Ain't Half Hot Mum ), Elizabeth Shepherd ( The Corridor People, and of course she made a couple of episodes of The Avengers playing Mrs Peel), and Martin Miller (surely by this time he was completely typecast as a generic continental character as in Danger Man).
All in all, I'm finding it very difficult to criticise this show at all. Production values are probably slightly higher than Mrs Gale-era Avengers, stories – I haven't watched all of the discs yet – have different writers so I'm expecting a few duds along the way but so far I'm finding the plots convincing, and followable. It is another show which is bound to be viewed with a nostalgic eye, not just for the actors but for the way the world has changed in the fifty years since it was recorded. Oh, and I like the new Studio Canal jingle, much better than the one on my Avengers boxed set.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The X-Files: My Umpteenth Impressions

I have got to the point where I have finished decorating my new living room, bedroom and the ceiling of the hall. I have a week's annual leave and I'm going to use it constructively in watching The X-Files from beginning to (as near as I can get) the end. I actually can't believe I have had this blog for so long and not written about a single show in this series; naturally the reason is the obvious one that I have been away from the show for some time. It has personal associations for me, which are of moment if not even traumatic. The show was the background viewing to a very difficult period of my life in my twenties, and were also the obsessive comfort viewing of my first episode of depression. A period of not watching them has made me come to them with fresh eyes. 
This fresh view is mostly caused by my more recent viewing of the older, mostly British, more classic cult TV that I write about here. I have been more influenced by the mindset of those shows than I used to be. I am particularly struck that the X-Files now seems to me almost a direct descendant of some of the major themes explored in those older shows. The TV shows of the 1960s frequently had an ambivalent attitude to modern technology, in which technology is both the great white hope of the future and a danger that can be unleashed at the slightest thing. This fear comes to its logical conclusion in the X-Files, where of course the biggest danger is alien technology, although there is more than enough room for a few megalomaniac computer scientists on the way. The 1960s shows contrast tradition with modernity, perhaps best illustrated by the visual language used in The Avengers: it is never completely clear-cut but broadly speaking British tradition (leather armchairs, family seats, noble families) are contrasted with modernity (go-ahead scientists and revolutionaries). In the case of The Avengers the ambivalent approach to technology extends to this dialectic of tradition and modernity, so that some of the baddies are old families gone wrong, while Mrs Peel, for example, is a sort of polymath embodying the resources of salvation found in modern technology.
In the X-Files this tradition/modernity conflict translates into an American context. I used to think of 'the American dream' as being a distinct subset of the episodes, where an archetypally American scene is shown to be in some way rotten to the core. Re-watching them, I feel there is a very real sense in which all of the X-Files episodes are about the American dream gone terribly wrong. Tradition is embodied by the American government, and all subsidiary authorities. The lifestyle guaranteed in this land is threatened by on the one hand alien invasion, but on the other hand is shown up to be fake at every step of the way. The very bodies which are supposed to protect the American people are rotten to the core, and it is apparent that there are lies within lies, deals within deals, and it is almost impossible to know who is who. This situation really is the intelligence milieu of The Avengers written huge, placing the show in a quite different televisual tradition than the sci-fi/conspiracy milieu it normally falls into.
And how old fashioned it looks! It is hard to believe I was watching the first UK broadcasts of this show twenty years ago. It strikes me (I'm working through series 1) how 1980s the hair and clothes look. Big hair. What look suspiciously like shoulder pads. You name it. To UK eyes (I really don't know how this would read to an American) the very obvious prosperity would look like a TV show set in the 1980s. The technology looks even more old-fashioned. The netbook on which I'm writing this post is old, but still makes the computers in the show look like BBC Micros. The phones are huge. This rewatching is reminding me of the historical truth that anything set in a particular time becomes purely of that time.
The X-Files, of course, is the victim of its own successful aim for realism. The reason The Avengers doesn't seem old-fashioned fifty years later (although the interior of 3 Stable Mews hasn't worn well) is that it is consciously unreal. The world of that TV show never existed and never will. The X-Files aimed more to set the viewer up for an expectation that the events depicted could be real, and as such has ended up preserved in 1990s aspic. This is not a criticism, it is merely a statement of my impression on this reviewing.
I actually quite seriously can't wait to get to the rest of the series!

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Sherlock Holmes: starring Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock

I am settled in in the city centre. It is nice to be able to pop to the World Famous Rag Market when I want any little oddment (what do you mean, how can it be world famous, you've heard of it haven't you?). The only disadvantage I have found so far is that I have been unable to find a decent chippy – there is one over the road from my door, but I was shocked to discover on the Food Standards Agency website that on a score of 5 as the best for hygiene, it is even possible to score zero! The light of my apartment lends itself to Victorian colours (the acres of magnolia are gradually being obliterated) and living near the last remaining court of back to back houses in Brum, in what would have been a teeming slum, my thoughts have turned towards the nineteenth century. 
I was delighted, then, to discover a boxed set of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, in which star an actor I had never heard of, Douglas Wilmer. They were BBC productions and date from the 1960s, so are definitely in my time period. They have, however, caused me to discover the full depths of Holmesian fundamentalism there are out there. I have read of Wilmer being described as 'the only actor who got it right,' and generally the best Holmes actor ever. This is obviously a very tall order, and incredibly high praise, considering how many actors have played Holmes. For myself I like to think that different actors can bring out different aspects of Holmes's character. For all that I don't particularly take to Mr Cumberbatch as an actor, finding his own presence too much, I appreciate the way he plays Holmes. He plays it very much as if Holmes has the INFJ personality in the Myers-Briggs personality indicator, which he probably would have done. He also correctly accentuates Holmes's more antisocial traits, such as his habits at home and knack of saying the wrong thing, which would probably put Holmes on the autistic spectrum nowadays. The Basil Rathbone series, while being infiltrated with wartime propaganda, allow a view of how golden age cinema saw Holmes; he is correctly cerebral to my mind. He also brings out the crueller aspects of his attitude to Watson – these are correctly there in the character, to my mind, but don't stop me wanting to slap him. I have recently seen Rupert Everett as Holmes for the first time: I like very much the way he brings to the fore the foot-stamping teenager elements of Holmes's personality. I would imagine that most of the fans wouldn't like Everett in the role for that reason, but I feel her brings out something that is genuinely there in the character. My personal favourite actor in the role so far is Peter Cushing – he is the most cerebral I can think of, while also being kindly. The cerebral aspect is unfortunately over-emphasised, to my mind, by Jeremy Brett, resulting in an overly cold performance.
Despite all this, I can't think why people would describe Wilmer as the only actor who got Holmes right. Perhaps I'd better say that I don't actually object to his portrayal at all! But I feel something is missing. He is almost too polite to Watson – one of the major elements of Holmes's personality is that he is irritating to live with, rude to Watson, and positively antisocial! Wilmer plays him as too much of a gentleman, so that the sparks are missing. He is also not cold enough: he plays Holmes as clearly a very intelligent man, but there is too much warmth in his personality to play the thinking machine which is Holmes.
I realise that that slight criticism would be enough to ruin this series for some people, so perhaps I'd better say that the set will be going on the shelf to stay there for the foreseeable future, rather than into the heap of discs for sale in the cupboard. I think I probably warmed to the recent Cumberbatch series because it is an attempt at updating the stories to modern times – admittedly an invitation to violent argument – and as a rule I don't like period drama. I would usually much rather watch things set in their own time. I cannot fault this series as a period drama. Perhaps the fact that it is fifty years old and so have none of the swishness of modern CGI makes it far enough away in time from the present that it seems genuinely old. The sets, costumes, etc, none of them jar at any point. Nor is it overdone – for example what put me off Mad Men was the self-conscious smoking that went on. Real smokers aren't self-conscious about it, they just smoke.
Another thing this series has got exactly right is the pacing. I recently gave up watching the series called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes because of the too-slow pacing and uneven story quality, which kept losing my attention. These shows remain relatively close to Conan Doyle's stories, and show the quality of his writing. The rivals of Sherlock Holmes were not rivals at all, it seems. My verdict on this series is that I will be keeping it: if it is really quality I will find myself watching them again at some point.

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Introduction

The beach at Durban in 1960: as heavily engineered as The Village
(Image credit: here.)
One of the possible influences often cited on the creation of The Prisoner is the experience of members of the production team of apartheid-era South Africa; an additional contemporary weight may be added to this as the issue was coming to the public arena in the 1960s as a result of the Sharpsville Massacre, in which police shot a number of black youths who were merely protesting peacefully.
As is my wont, I have reached a conclusion before I have even written these posts, and so I am going boldly to come out with it at the start: I think it is apparent that no single influence can be attributed conclusively to The Prisoner. It was clearly written in such a way that it could be interpreted as referring to multiple matters, lending itself to multiple interpretations, which continue to be argued about on the internet to this day. Other possible readings would include various allegories and an interpretation of The Village as a containment facility for Cold War-era spies who are considered risky in some way. In particular I find the interminable arguing about the significance of black and white badges in the series to be fruitless, since every conclusion can always be contradicted. It is a pity, really, because this is the most obvious reference to apartheid, although I feel it is a little facile for McGoohan, and could well be a blind. I find the references to South African apartheid to be much more subtle.
From the early days of British settlement in South Africa, areas were demarcated for different races. This later becomes even more apparent in later town planning: for example, segregation was built into Johannesburg even before the city had started to be constructed! Ongoing conflict between competing English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking settler groups ultimately left the Afrikaners impoverished by the early years of the twentieth century, a situation which changed after the National Party came into power in the late 1940s. Let me make it plain what is the unspoken issue here: South Africa is an immensely resource-rich area. The issue is both of greed for diamonds, and of competition merely to survive. All of the most basic human instincts come into play in the history of apartheid. Drawing inspiration from Nazi-influenced studies of humanity in Germany, the National Party developed a philosophy of separation, which in fact even had an underlying theology. They claimed that a policy of separate development for the different races in South Africa was the only, indeed God-ordained, way for humans to live. From the 1950s onwards a series of increasingly stringent and ridiculous laws enforced the rigid separation of the races. Areas of the country were zoned for the different races to live in, people were legally defined into races according to a number of pseudoscientific tests. Of course blacks were allowed into white areas for the purposes of work – in fact servants' quarters had to be built by law from the 1960s onwards. The 'grand apartheid' dream of the different races living in their separate lands (which if carried to its conclusion would have made South Africa a completely white nation), was accompanied by the 'petty apartheid' of segregation of benches, pathways, beaches, entrances to buildings, queues, you name it. The 'rights' of the white minority were vigorously protected, with employment quotas: you had to employ a certain number of white people, at significantly higher wages than black people doing the same jobs. By the 1960s, which is the period of apartheid which would have influenced The Prisoner, if it did, the white population of South Africa was experiencing unprecedented wealth, privilege, and leisure.
It was apparent that all was not well, of course. From 1960 onwards a series of States of Emergency, declared in most states in wartime, were declared, in which the press could be completely gagged and people could be imprisoned without trial for no better reason than that the policeman literally didn't like the look of you. Incidentally there were stringent laws as to who could arrest whom. Seriously. By the early 1970s it was becoming apparent to commentators who didn't buy the apartheid ideology that it was an unsustainable system. The legislation of how the country's economy should run ultimately strangled it, and increased disinvestment by foreign nations ultimately meant that by the 1980s South Africa was more or less completely alone. From the point of view of The Prisoner, and with the benefit of hindsight, the 1960s milieu was one where the system was being propped up, already beginning to fail, subject to dissent from within and without, yet somehow managed to continue.
Perhaps the best parallel with The Prisoner is found in the obvious question: how on earth did this manage to continue? 'By force' is the obvious answer, but this was underpinned by the complete control of the press, arbitrary legal powers, and no doubt the tacit approval of the whites who were frightened of losing their privilege. It is human nature to ignore others' misfortunes as long as you're alright yourself, and one of the most interesting things to me is that the whingeing on the internet about the present state of South Africa is exactly the reverse of what happened in apartheid era. If you do a search about white people in South Africa you don't immediately find the huge houses with swimming pools behind gates and run by a staff, you find complaints of farm murders (which are interpreted as genocide, but are plainly not because genocide has to be deliberately aimed at one race and simple fact is that you're far more likely to be murdered in South Africa if you are black), and complaints that Black Economic Empowerment has engineered privilege for a minority of blacks, ignored the people who would formerly have been classified as coloured, and doomed the Afrikaner to penury. This is almost exactly what apartheid aimed to do, only doing it for a different racial group. Nor has the ideology underlying apartheid died (Opening Pandora's Apartheid Box is a good, and superficially convincing, account of the ideology, built on the traditional lies that blacks can't think straight and that the Afrikaners are the indigenous population of South Africa. Seriously.), but continues to be hawked around, using any justification it can find. And here's the other wonder for me personally. I come from Birmingham, a city with an accent which notoriously you either love or which sets your teeth on edge. If you don't like the Brummie accent, it therefore seems to me obvious that you wouldn't choose to live in Birmingham. It is apparent to me that many of the whites in South Africa do not like black people. They consider them inferior, they fear and hate them, wouldn't trust them to run a bath (for example the apartheid-era instructions for making a sandwich in South African railways run to pages including finding a loaf of bread), yet bizarrely rely on them for their own quality of life, and resent them if they perceive black people having a better quality of life than themselves.
I feel that probably this subject is better approached by theme, rather than by episode, which is how I've previously treated The Prisoner. Naturally this plan is subject to change, but I would identify themes underlying both apartheid and The Prisoner as: legislating reality, propaganda, differentiation, ostracisation, fear and loathing, pretending. I intend to examine the series under these headings, or ones that will come to me and will probably bear a passing resemblance to them, and draw parallels with apartheid in South Africa. As I say, I haven't actually watched through the series with a view to this series of posts yet. I have come up with the headings from reading about apartheid, and will post this as a spur to myself to get on with it.