Friday, 24 July 2015

Strange Report: Second Impressions

These are my second impressions because I have actually owned the boxed set of this show before and sold it. I found myself thinking about one of the plots, and this turned into one of the rare occasions when I regret getting rid of something, so I bought it again, fortunately much more cheaply this time, on EBay.
I'd better start off by saying that I don't find anything terribly objectionable in this show. Regular readers of this blog will know that that is how I usually preface tearing apart a poor defenceless old TV series, and I really don't want to tear this one apart but I realise now the things that made me uncomfortable with it the first time round. The first thing is the name. Just to be completely clear, this is a series of crime 'reports' investigated by a chap called Strange. You would therefore expect it to be called The Strange Report; I have a feeling that it may not have been because that would be too obvious a parody of late 60s and early 70s TV reportage. And this series notoriously plays everything very straight and resists spilling over into campness. The fact remains, however, that The Strange Report can more easily be understood to mean a report by a man called Strange (and in fact, reading around on the internet, that is exactly what people often call it), but Strange Report without the definite article more easily sets up the reader to expect a report which is strange, or about something strange. Speaking as an amateur of many of the strangest TV series ever (and have no fear, when I can get my head round it I will gladly write about Gurney Slade), this isn't that strange. And that is what lets it down. I wasn't around at the time, but I'm quite sure that expectations of strangeness at the end of the 1960s could have been very difficult to meet: Department S this ain't, which is why that comparison fails. In fact the strangest episode I've seen so far I'm watching as I write, and it's about witchcraft. I don't yet know how it ends, but I have a feeling that the cold scientific approach of Strange's team will reveal a plain crime behind the apparent magic. Oh – and there's another name thing. If you have a name which is in any way odd, particularly if it is an adjective, you don't walk into a room and say, for example, 'I'm Jolly.' You walk into a room and say, 'My name's Jolly.' And this is much more the case for Strange as a name. The only reason you would walk into a room and say, 'I'm Strange,' is for laughs, and in a series which otherwise is completely straight, this can only be an example of how there is a slight lack of identity.
I know it must seem like I'm nit-picking, and indeed I am, but this point (the 'I'm Strange' line doesn't appear frequently by any means) leads me nicely to the point that this is a series with multiple writers, and it shows in a certain patchiness of approach. You may say that that is to be expected, but I would maintain that it is a production problem – with multiple writers you have to lay down some very clear rules as to how the show goes, and there is the odd hint that different ideas were fighting behind the scenes. Some of the episodes are definitely of a genre that would provoke my taste for anything offbeat, others are more straightforward detection, others have regrettable elements of politics and ideology, which cannot necessarily be assumed to be acceptable to the viewer.
For a change to my usual policy, I don't find familiar actors' faces a distraction in this series. I think this may be because they are usually limited to one or two, are not the same old roll call of actors who appeared in so many independent TV series in the 1960s, and frequently are in roles which show them in a much different light to their typecast, familiar roles. This is therefore a refreshing change from my usual reception of another familiar face.
On the other hand, I would just comment that this is one of those shows where people talk about the star. Just as people nowadays go to work the next day and say, 'Did you see that thing with [invariably] Benedict Cumberbatch?', I have no doubt that at the end of sixties people said the same about Anthony Quayle. For me he is not the star of the show, nor yet Kaz Garas, but Anneke Wills as Evelyn makes this show for me. To start off with I had to keep double-taking to make sure that Joanna Lumley hadn't somehow slipped in as another character. I looove those vowels. She is marvellous as the young gel in Swinging London.
And that is where this show comes into its own. In this it reminds me of Adam Adamant, since it gives wonderful glimpses into the London of the time. This was an age when people went off to London to get into the scene of the time, they became students or got a job as something or other. I don't doubt that at the time they thought they were quite badly off, but I feel that that probably wouldn't compare to the sheer difficulty and expense of surviving in London nowadays!
Strange Report also uses a similar visual language to that found in The Avengers, but with a slightly different sense that the more modern visuals may be intended to suggest youngsters and Swinging London. There is also the same appearance of progress mixing to various degrees with tradition – this may have been related to the admittedly transatlantic ambitions of the show, which were to come to a head in the second series which was never made. Of course the period detail comes with a downside, which the picture illustrating this post is intended to demonstrate, that while the sets were decorated in the height of fashion for the time, it is in retrospective awful. That wallpaper. The clashing curtains. Think Tara King's apartment and you realise that it is not surprising so many murders happened in these shows. And that shirt. I mean, seriously, either it would take hours to iron the frills on the front, or if it didn't need ironing, it would make your hair stand on end. Considering how much I love the TV of this period, I've been a bit slow to realise how awful the taste of the time was, and this show has made me realise it.
This is not something which can be said of the music, which has far higher ambitions than a mere TV series – far from being some light confection for TV, it gives the impression of being much more cinematic.
Incidentally, the ideas of 'witchcraft' – always a word which can be poached by anyone who wants to use it in anyway they want – are clearly poached from the ideas of Gardnerian Wicca of the time, which in turn come from popular ideas of what historical witchcraft was. In reality, it is interesting how Strange engages with the 'witches', since no reputable academic has ever accepted the idea of witchcraft as the Old Religion, or of the religion of the Goddess. The reviews of Margaret Murray's books in the journal of the Folklore Society alone, would indicate to an academic that there was something fictional about the whole thing. And yes, it comes down to a question of superstition, although Strange ends by not committing himself on the question as to whether they are real.
All in all, not an objectionable series, which I shall be keeping this time, marred somewhat by a few flaws which make it unable to stand up to the sort of grilling I give a TV show.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Avengers: You Have Just Been Murdered

This wasn't going to be a post on an Avengers episode at all. It started off life as a post on the Champions Episode, The Iron Man, but since I only have to say that while it is an endearing plot, it is strange how often George Murcell is wheeled out as a random foreign baddie. I was astonished to discover the sheer breadth of his acting career, including frequent appearances on ITV series. This post therefore morphed at that point into an attempt to write a post or series of posts on George Murcell as a character baddie. I was horrified to discover that someone has done it far better than I could ( here), and in fact short of merely copying and pasting that essay, I would refer you there. So I was left thinking about the shows in which I have seen him, and immediately wanted to write about this Avengers episode.
In true Avengers style Murcell plays an evil mastermind with the rather unlikely name of Nathaniel Needle, who hides out in a haystack. The show is peppered with rich bankers, other villains, solid types whom we can trust, many a murder in reality or in token. In the visual language of The Avengers there is an undercurrent of fear of the modern world. The show's characters either live in ultra-modern apartments, indicative of wealth and a lack of background, with the attendant suspiciousness that must come with new money, or else in old country houses. It is clear that some dodgy dealings are going on right from the start, the world is a frightening place, the security of the world has become compromised. The entire point of the sets in this show is to set up a mere illusion of security, which is at threat. Interestingly, Mr Needle first appears in evening dress, so that he is seen to be one of us, and places this as an episode where the rot is within the establishment.
That said, plot-wise this isn't really an outstanding episode for me personally. The Avengers are presented with a threat to national security, personified by Our Sort of People, track the culprit down, who is dealt a death blow by Fate, and we all go home for tea. That said, the rather wooden plot is more than made up for the cast of eccentrics who make up for it. The real fear on the characters' faces as they are 'murdered' is genuinely suspenseful. The repeated 'murders' also play with the conventions of television. We are used to seeing people being murdered on television, but this show reverses what we expect by not completing the action.
Visually, this Avengers is superb. The sets are very effective. The cars are either ridiculously aged or bang up to date for time (incidentally I fell in love with a Reliant Scimitar that a family friend owned, when I was a child: there is a white one in this show. The scenes at 'that' bridge are superb.
Which brings me nicely to one of the most remarkable features of this episode. My post on Castle De'Ath, in which I point out all the possible kinky things in it, is one of the posts on this blog which get the most hits. Never one to avoid difficult subjects, it would be remiss of me not to comment that this is another episode with incredibly kinky undertones. Famously it is the one occasion when Mrs Peel wears leather – and famously the last because it got trashed in the fight scenes. The fight scenes… Many a man in the 1960s would have no doubt given their back teeth to be involved in those fight scenes with Mrs Peel. Of course she wins. That's the point. That's the dynamic – the man takes her on and loses, and that is the kinkiness. This dynamic is then reversed for a bit when the baddies take Mrs Peel prisoner. There is something strangely sexy about the way she forces Needle's henchman to take her to his leader. This changing of the power balance, while we know in reality that it's going to be OK (retaining control in reality, that is) is surely the most sexual aspect of The Avengers. Incidentally, I've put a wider selection of photos from this episode, on my Flickr, starting here.
All this fear, power struggle, and fighting, is amply leavened by a touch of Avengers unreality. If it was merely that a crazed megalomaniac arose in the English countryside, this show could be fearful. Place it in a village, script it by Agatha Christie, and it would be terrifying. However it is clear that this is still a world that never existed. Channel B has never existed on British TV. Everyone just knows where Bridge Farm is. A group of rich men all just happen to invite Steed to a party. It's unreal. And a million pounds in cash? This episode is made into cosy viewing by the mere fact that it could never have happened. The effect is surely to make the viewer feel secure while showing fear and trembling. It is of course also going to be most popular with those who want to see Mrs Peel wet or in leather, or fighting (incidentally nobody seems to have noticed the whacking continuity disaster that straight after coming out of the water, she and her opponent are both dry and well-kempt immediately). All in all, this is definitely stonking good television.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Steed’s Library: My detective work has finally paid off

For many years I have wanted to know what the books were in Steed’s flat at 3 Stable Mews. I mean specifically the collection of uniformly-bound leather volumes, one of which he is seen reading in only one episode. It is evident that they are not just a random collection of brown-back books, because of the uniform binding. They are clearly a set, they were either bound all together or one at a time in imitation of the others, maybe even by the same binder. The number of them mean that they are unlikely to be a set of encyclopaedias or even a set of one of the English writers. I had always theorised that they could be court reports, bound magazines of a previous age, or a set of books uniformly bound; standard authors, type of thing.
Because these books have a very distinctive red and black band a little down the spine, I have taken the liberty of assuming they were the same set of books when I have seen something that looked like them appear in other TV series of the 1960s. If you want to see all the times I think I’ve glimpsed them you can click on the labels Steed’s Library on the web version of the blog. Sometimes they appear clearly as a set in other shows, and sometimes they appear mixed up with other leather-bound books in a representation of great literature. I cannot claim that I know they are the same books, this is merely a theory. I would also theorise that this particular set of leather-bound books belonged to a 1960s theatre or TV set prop firm, since they appear in both ABC and ITC shows, so were not specific to either of those companies.
One of the less popular shows I talk about here, judging by the page hits counter, is The Champions. I was very gratified to find when one watching one episode the other day that I could finally read the title on the spine, having tried to over and over again. I see that the title is Bibliotheca Classica Latina, and the volume of which I show the title is devoted to the Roman letter-writer Pliny. Although there are only two volumes shown in that episode of The Champions, they are clearly part of a much larger set, since the title describes them as a ‘library’ of Latin authors, and one of the volumes contains only Pliny, they must be part of a much larger set. They are also bound in the right way. Of course the evidence isn’t 100%, but in the absence of other evidence I conclude that I have found Steed’s library. Of course, even though you can’t ever see the titles in The Avengers, these Latin authors are exactly the sort of thing you would expect to find in Steed’s library. I’m even more delighted to discover, if you google the title, they are still in print (in publish on demand paperbacks) and can be downloaded volume by volume from the internet archive.

Columbo: Identity Crisis

I find that this is only the second episode of Columbo I’ve blogged about here, and for the same reason I wrote about the first: for the sake of the guest villain, in this case Patrick McGoohan. I realised I hadn’t seen any of the Columbo episodes in which McGoohan guest stars, and found the box set for a song. In case I should be seen to damn with faint praise, perhaps I had better just observe that I rarely watch Columbo, so the fact that I have made a point of writing about two episodes for the sake of the guest stars, isn’t really an indictment of the series, more an indication of my interests.
I am very interested to see how McGoohan – notorious for being temperamental, overpowering and difficult – plays his part in this episode. I started off thinking that he would be overpowering, just by his sheer presence in the opening scenes in comparison to Leslie Nielsen, himself no bit-part actor. As the episode goes on I was relieved to find McGoohan becoming more subtle in his portrayal and even taking a back seat in comparison to Peter Falk. I would be interested to know how an American would see McGoohan’s accent in this show. As an Irish-American he was of course capable of speaking English with a number of different accents, and to me as a British English speaker, his accent here sounds to become more transatlantic as the show goes on. At the beginning he sounds like Number 6, and ends up sounding like John Drake in the more American-leaning Danger Man episodes. Of course this is only how it sounds to me, which is why I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions.
He even says ‘Be seeing you’ once. I find it interesting that I have found several references to the Prisoner-esque overtones of this show. To me they are confined to that one phrase, McGoohan’s accent at the beginning, and the mere fact of him being in this. Perhaps by this time he was so heartily sick of people chewing over The Prisoner ad nauseam that he willingly agreed to this act which is almost saying, ‘Look! We’ve got The Prisoner character playing a baddie!’
Plot-wise, I would say avoid this or don’t watch the first few minutes if you want to work out who did it yourself. If you’re a fan of police procedurals you may like this, although given the show’s premise that the audience knows who did the murder, I think it will be fairly obvious who did it. The things which ultimately give the game away are to my mind plot weaknesses in actual fact. An intelligent man setting up a crime should not leave the obvious clues which give it away: in fact there is no clear reason given why he should have murdered his colleague at all. I like the way McGoohan plays a powerful character, who tries to intimidate Columbo with his connections and overtly tells him that his reasonable detective work is harassment. Obviously these attempts at intimidation are not going to work!
So all in all, an interesting take on McGoohan’s ability as an actor, and an opportunity to see him in a very different role from the angry Prisoner character, but to my mind one for the real Columbo fans.