Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Public Eye: Welcome to Brighton?

Back to the 1960s, 1969 to be precise, for this episode of Public Eye. I am reminded that it is actually the first episode of the fourth series, although you wouldn't immediately know that on the basis of what is currently available. Virtually the whole of the series up to this point has been wiped, leaving only a few episodes of the ABC series remaining from the run up to this point.

What this means for us now is that to all intents and purposes Frank Marker's career begins with him getting out of an open prison. Of course there are hints of his previous career as a private investigator and the mistake which caused him to be incarcerated. The mistake has obviously left him with a legacy of bitterness, which spills out periodically for the rest of the series.

This series is usually considered an odd one out in the run of Public Eye, because it concentrates far more on Marker himself than on his actual work. The fact that Marker is taken from his life in prison to the rather controlled life of a man out on probation is psychologically very revealing, or rather it is revealing to the viewer in that Marker reveals little of himself to most of the people he meets.

This begins with the prison governor, who actually comments to Marker that he thinks he is the convict he knows least about. Personally I get the impression that that isn't strictly true: I think the prison staff and other convicts actually do know about Marker, but find it difficult to believe what they are seeing. What they are seeing is a man who seems to have no family, no friends, no sexual interest… To the rest of the world this makes Marker a complete mystery! It is also revealing of the ways in which people measure other people: by their relationships with still other people. The fact that Marker can only be measured by his apparent lack of relationships makes him a mystery man.

On the surface this episode is about Marker's release from prison and rehabilitation in Brighton, but on a deeper level it is actually about how people relate to each other, make choices, gain redemption from past mistakes, and being alone and thus forced to face your own reality. It is telling that Marker's encounter with a woman goes horribly wrong and he ends up feeling angry towards her for screwing him over and having to assert himself. If you read this scene in the context of his probation officer pointedly asking him in the same episode whether he is 'queer' and it is obvious that Marker is not, then this scene points out that Marker's relationships with women, in fact other people, are far from conventional. This scene is the bedroom scene with a woman, involving alcohol, and actually only gets as far as sitting on the bed, which is really not very far at all. Because the woman takes advantage of him, Marker's distrust of other people and aloneness is reinforced, both for him and also for us in understanding his personality.

In fact Marker says this himself in his recounting a story about a widow to the probation officer. He says that the widow was seen by her doctor who gave her some medication to take, but also could only give the advice not to live alone. Marker half-jokes that the only way the old lady could not live alone would be to get into the coffin with her deceased husband, but the real point of his story is not about choice, it is about aloneness. The whole point of this episode is indicated by the question mark after the title – Welcome in Brighton? Means Not Welcome in Brighton, and I feel that Marker both expects not to be welcome and also prefers it that way really.

Marker is given work in a building firm, but there are hints here that he will find his way back into his own occupation, because he uses his detection skills to track down the wife of another convict by means of seeing where her butcher delivers to her. Incidentally that was an aspect of this episode that I find interesting in economic terms: the meat he orders for a wife of a man in prison would now be very expensive and probably not something she would be able to afford at the drop of a hat. I do love that it is delivered by bicycle immediately: something which is definitely not bettered nowadays.

There is however some human redemption in this story: Marker is obliged to meet a former solicitor who has also come out of prison, and it is apparent that actually the solicitor's position is worse than his own. Not only professionally, because the solicitor can never return to his work but it is also made excruciatingly plain by the solicitor commenting that Marker's room is better than his and various other comments in that vein. He is forced to encounter the result for a solicitor fallen  from grace, at first hand, rather than merely wallowing in his own anger and misery about the results for him.

There is also a progression in Marker's human condition throughout the episode. He begins it pointedly in prison uniform and therefore one of many in the same position in the prison. Nonetheless he manages to be the odd one out even there. He ends the episode in a much better position, as one who has made his own decisions and determined his own future. He has been screwed by the system and has the anger which goes with that, but he ends the episode relatively free from that and with his self-respect intact. The fact that he lives by himself is a complete mystery to the many men who see him in this episode, but by living by himself and for himself he attains a level of safety and self-determination which cannot be matched by other people in this episode.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Acorn Antiques

I have written about a number of funny programmes here, following my usual policy that since this is a blog it will be about what I am watching and also will not include programmes which I do not like. Obviously Acorn Antiques makes it onto here because it is a programme I like very much, although I am finding it very difficult to write about it because of the complex nature of the programme and also my reaction to it.
For a start, Acorn Antiques was never intended to be a show in its own right, although you can now get it in its entirety on a DVD. It was intended to be a segment in the show Victoria Wood as Seen on TV. I see that this ran from 1985 to 1987 and I remember it with great fondness. The wonderful Wood also unfortunately died of cancer earlier this year, which gives an extra sadness to the fact that I have found Victoria Wood as Seen on TV very difficult to watch at this length of time. I found that it had not worn well over the years. This is not however truse of Acorn Antiques, strangely.
Victoria Wood as Seen on TV was definitely intended to be funny, and of course I referred to funny TV in the first part of this piece, and true enough Acorn Antiques makes me laugh out loud. However there is another element to it which is of particular interest to the cult TV fan. I see that Wikipedia categorises Acorn Antiques as a parodic soap opera, of which there can't be that many about.
Acorn Antiques is a deliberate parody and comment on some of the most famous British TV shows of all time. The obvious contender is the wonderful Crossroads, broadcast originally from 1964 to 1988, and made at the recently-demolished Broad Street studios up the road from here. This is the reason for Mrs Overall's exaggerated Birmingham accent. It is also the reason for the parodic poor production values, since Crossroads was notorious at the time for wobbly sets and so on. Crossroads was immensely popular at the time, and its lengthy run and complicated relations between the characters are referenced repeatedly in Acorn Antiques.
Reference was also made to the radio series Waggoner's Walk, which I am afraid I had not heard of until I started reading around for this post. Contemporary TV soaps such as Eastenders were also parodied. In a very post-modern way, Acorn Antiques is in a sense the formula of every soap opera ever written. In Acorn Antiques, the medium truly satirises itself and becomes truly reflexive. All of the devices used by popular long-running TV shows are used, such as tours of costumes, a release of a record, and a behind the scenes documentary.
The wobbly credits don't detract from the fact that Acorn Antiques is actually played by some of the cream of TV comedy. Julie Walters (incidentally I see that she was born in Edgbaston so that would explain why her Brummie accent is so good) has of course had many 'straight' roles, but performs wonderfully in the uncharacteristic role of Mrs Overall. I have a bit of a thing for Celia Imrie, and her rather superior mein suits the character of Babs down to the ground. I am surprised to rea, though, that she was treated for anorexia nervosa at the age of fourteen by the contemporary treatments of ECT and Largactil, and the doctor concerned still features in her nightmares.
At this stage of a post like this I would normally comment on the production values and reproduction of the show. Acorn Antiques of course has terrible production values, and that is the whole point. The camera angles are all wrong. Cues are missed. The edges of sets are visible. What can I say... As usual none of these things is a criticism!
I would recommend Acorn Antiques as viewing to any of the readers of this blog. And if you happen to be from Abroad, it will acquaint you with some of the televisual treats you luckily missed in the 1970s and 1980s by parodying them.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

No Hiding Place

Legend. Tthat is the only word for this series. It is the stuff of which cult TV legend is made. A phenomenally popular series in the 1950s and 1960s, and for the most part wiped by its makers Associated Rediffusion. It is right up there with the one remaining episode of Police Surgeon, the first series of The Avengers, and I gather that there are enthusiasts out there who have made it their life's work to locate more episodes. I gather there are people on the internet selling the available episodes on DVD but there are also episodes available to be watched and/or downloaded in all the usual places in cyberspace, so there isn't really that much  need to pay for a DVD.
Personally I have downloaded the five available episodes on and watched them in an order which is probably out of synch with the order they were broadcast. I'm not sure that really matters, since it seems they are far divorced in original running order, and so there isn't any continuity in arc development to be had.
The experience has been a rather disorientating one because I am watching one of the all time great TV series with *no* idea of who is who, their character development, or what has happened in the series before I have wandered in. I am also particularly wary of generalisations about TV of the time based on the limited selection I have seen of the limited selection which remains, but I am very interested that crime was apparently of such interest to the public at the time. I am basing this purely on the fact that this show was so popular, and that another of the legendary TV series, Dixon of Dock Green, was of course also about crime.
I have a feeling that there may have been something in the air at the time which made this so. Again I may be leaping to conclusions, but I wonder whether the seismic shifts in society which took place in the 1960s may have been responsible for that, by setting up an apposition between the safe established world which went before and the demi-mondaine world of the young, with their free love and loud clothes. Parallel to this is of course the attitude to progress of the time, which made it fine to sweep away the past and power on into the future. I wonder how these two opposing movements of the time could ever be kept in a safe relationship and whether the disjoint between fear of revolution and the yearning for the brave future would cause a yearning for the relatively safe world of the police procedural?
Again I am risking generalisations based on very little evidence, but No Hiding Place is worlds away from the world of policing depicted in The Sweeney, only a decade later than its later episodes. No Hiding Place is, after all dealing with the same age as The Avengers, which very often deals with the theme of the solid establishment figure (or institution) who goes off the rails and goes to the bad. I think that if you put that theme  together with the solid world of the police procedural, and then add social unrest and the revelations of police corruption from the 1970s onwards, you end up with the world of The Sweeney.
With the benefit of this hindsight, it is apparent that No Hiding Place is dealing with a world which was about to vanish, and even with this knowledge, it is a more cosy and secure world than the one we have lived in since. One of the things I like best about old TV is the way it shows the lives and artifacts of the past, and this distance is very apparent in No Hiding Place. Evening dress, for example. I'm obviously mixing with the wrong sort of person, but I have never worn evening dress in my life. In fact when I look at the clothing in No Hiding Place it is apparent that it is real quality made to last, not the rubbish we have nowadays, which is literally designed to fall apart after being worn a few times.
Naturally the show's writing and production are completely of their time. The pacing of the stories is very interesting, in that it seems to alternate straightforward procedural with some scenes of 'human interest', and alternates the pace slightly. At no point is the pace the sort of snail's pace you find in some 1970s shows, it is always rather faster! This is a show which would require attention, though, and suggests that the viewer is intended to watch along and think about what is happening. The show is almost completely studio-based, of course. The shows I have downloaded are not terribly good quality, but they are fifty years old and in an unrestored state, and apart from anything else were free, so this is a comment and not a criticism.
I looked up this show because of a number of pre-sixties shows I have seen remaining episodes of lately, thinking that it was earlier than it was. No Hiding Place certainly represents an earlier age of television than most of the sixties shows I have written about here, and I would have to characterise it as a solid but not stodgy stalwart of the television of the time. If you like old TV and have not seen No Hiding Place, I would certainly suggest you look it up and have a watch.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Spitting Image

The rest of the classic TV blogosphere is gearing up for Christmas, so in true form, I am going to write about Spitting Image. In fact I can't think how I have never written about it here before, but I am watching my way through all the series of Spitting Image, now that I am feeling the need to give Are You Being Served a rest. Oh - perhaps I had better mention that the paucity of posts here has been because my new job is taking up quite a lot of my energy, but I am glad I jumped ship and should have done so years ago.
My perception is that this most cult of all cult TV shows has been rather ignored by we who write about these things on the internet. This is surprising, because it was prominent throughout its run from 1984 to 1996. Even I, never a political animal, tuned in regualrly and enjoyed its ridicule of the great and the good who run this country, and in fact the world. Perhaps it has rather been ignored because it was so much of its time, and it naturally loses much of its humour if you don't remember the characters and events it satirises.
That said, some of the figures are so well-known that Spitting Image has matured to provide a particular historical take on the news stories of the time. I suppose the classic example of that is the show's treatment of the royal family. I love the way the Queen Mother walks with a Birmingham accent. Incidentally, on the subject of Birmingham, the show was initially made at the Central TV studios here in the Second City. In case any non-Birmingham readers wonder why Brummies are so keen on calling their city the Second one, is not because we want to be Second, but it is because Manchester thinks it is the Second City of England. They are of course wrong, and the point is actually that every time we say it, we are also saying that Manchester is not the Second City. So there.
Spitting Image was actually an incredibly brave programme at the time. Literally nothing was safe from its parody. I remember an illustration of Prince Andrew in the spin-off book of the series, which showed him in the nude with a sausage covering his notional genitals. The Queen was not impressed and sought legal advice. Luck and Flaw, the company responsible for Spitting Image, made it clear that they would happily turn up to court with the puppet and the sausage and heard no more. As I am writing this I am watching an episode from the ninth series which shows the Queen rapping!
Mrs Thatcher was of course a natural target for Spitting Image. She is portrayed variously as a school marm, a dangerous lunatic in a strait jacket, and a butcher. Of course none of these portrayals would be slanderous, since they were simple depictions of Mrs Thatcher as she was.

One thing which does cast a shadow over the show at this length of time is that some of the hints Spitting Image gives that people in public life weren't right, have been proved right beyond most people's wildest dreams. Of course Spitting Image was an ITV production, but as we now know, the BBC at the time was a cess pit of corruption and paedophilia. The irony of this is shown in Spitting Image's portrayal of Jimmy Savile. In the light of the subsequent revelations about his prolific paedophilia, Spitting Image's portrayal of him as a danger to others who should be locked up, becomes frankly chilling. The way he talks about 'my friend Mr Cigar' makes me laugh out loud to this day. Lucky he never replied to my letter asking him to fix it for me, isn't it?
I would be very interested to hear from non-UK readers who have seen the show, what they make of it, because I think that the problem for Spitting Image in retaining a presence in the cult TV blogosphere, is that if you are not British and do not remember the events parodied, the show's impact on you would naturally be much different. That said, I would recommend this show to, well, anyone, really. My favourite parts are the sketches about apartheid South Africa, especially the one where PW Botha turns black overnight and rushes off to his independent homeland!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Redcap: First Impressions

A fortnight into my new job, which is much better than my last one, I have got enough energy to think about a blog post. I have repeatedly put off buying this series although it comes up regularly as a recommendation for me on Amazon, largely based on the reminiscences of army life often found in online reviews. My own interest in cult TV was first raised by the repeats of The Avengers screened in the early days of the UK's Channel Four and can only approach the shows I write about here with any reminiscence once we hit the 1970s. I do not find reminiscence for national service or the glorification of armed service sympathetic and can tend to be put off by the attitudes it engenders.
Yet yesterday I found myself in the Entertainment Exchange Leamington Spa and read the blurb on the back of the box. I have a feeling there is somebody in Leamington with very good taste in television indeed, because that shop has introduced me to many a new TV series. I was surprised to find on the basis of the episode summaries that I was interested in this series and that the episodes gave the impression that they were more about detection and the sort of human problems which interest me, than about the army life which some of this show's fans so appreciate.
First things first. I was surprised to see that this show was originally broadcast in 1964. I think it may be my lack of attention to the small print but the show is in black and white, which of course isn't a problem for me, but I was fully expecting it to be in colour, on the basis of the stills on the box. Naturally the box says the show is in black and white and given that fact I suppose it isn't really naughty to put colour stills on the box, but nonetheless it came as a surprise. Each episode opens with the Cathy Gale-era- Avengers ABC jingle. In fact, this show is in sound terms surprisingly like the early Avengers, because it uses some of the same sound effects. As is the case with all of the ABC series of that era, the titles are vibrant and effective in a way which naturally looks old-fashioned now, but was probably high-quality graphic design at the time.
I suspect another reason I've put off buying this series is that it stars John Thaw, and everyone knows that I don't like actors re-appearing over and over in shows. 'Did you watch that thing with Benedict Cumberbatch last night,' people say, and of course the answer is no because Benedict Cumberbatch is always Benedict Cumberbatch. I am relieved to find though that John Thaw isn't that unwelcome to me in this show. I suppose this was made before he became a National Institution and Much Loved Figure, plus of course he younger and playing a younger character, but he comes across rather differently in this show. His presence and energy are different, it is not just a matter of him playing a different role from the rather acerbic senior roles he became known for. Perhaps it is genuinely that he hadn't matured into his later acting persona, and so can seem quite different. His role here is not lacking in depth, though, and in particular there is an undercurrent of anger to his character which I find interesting: this is exactly the short of character I like, one who recognises when there is something wrong and won't shut up about it.
In addition to Thaw, this show has a cast of differing guest stars each episode, which can only be described as star-studded, although probably the Names only became well-known afterwards. The Names would include Tenniel Evans, Yootha Joyce, Leonard Rossiter, Ian McShane, Mike Pratt, Warren Mitchell, Hywel Bennett, and Colin Blakely. Since at the point of writing this I am just nearing the end of the first disc of four, this list of stars has had the unusual effect on me of making me want to see the roles that these actors play in their respective episodes, since they are sure to be very different roles from those they are best-known for.
There is also a broad spectrum of 'issues' dealt with by the various episodes, including rape, colonialism and racism, black market trading, and the ongoing effects of Britain's relationship with Germany in the Second World War. Naturally all of these are within the context of the army, but personally I don't find that distracting from the actual subjects under investigation. This is far more a human interest show than one about army life, and so I am finding that I take to it.
As usual at the time, the episodes, at least the ones I have seen so far, are almost completely studio-based. Naturally coming from me that is not a criticism. The episodes take the form of three 'acts', familiar from The Avengers. I see that the producer was John Bryce, who unbeknown to me was a producer on The Avengers until he got the push. I feel the episodes have probably had extensive restoration: except when you pause it the picture is as crisp as it is ever going to get in TV of this age. It would be churlish to be over-critical of the odd patch where the sound is a little noisy. Perfectionists should avoid fifty-year-old television.
All in all, Redcap is a series which I am looking forward to delving in to further, and I may even splash out for series 2.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Two Children's Programmes: The Owl Service and The Flockton Flyer

Reflections on some 1970s children's TV programmes today, which I'm putting in a single post because I don't think my jaundiced meanderings on each are substantial enough for one post. It's a funny thing, because even though I am a 70s baby, I almost never remember the children's programmes of the 70s which are eulogised in the reviews on Amazon. I periodically watch one of them and have posted here about the ones which take my fancy.
The first of the two I have in mind today is The Owl Service, adapted for screen from his own novel by Alan Garner. If there is one thing that can truthfully be said about The Owl Service, it is that it is guaranteed to leave its viewer uncomfortable. For a start, the book it is based on wasn't intended for children originally. And of course on adaptation the book doesn't really make a convincing children's programme, since to adult eyes it is quite incredibly sexy. I mean real, proper, all but showing it, young sexy stuff. I see that it is a 12 certificate, but frankly it is the sort of television which most twelve year olds would watch later in life and suddenly understand what was going on.
Apart from the sexiness The Owl Service is some heavy-duty television. It is based on an ancient Welsh myth, and is the sort of high-quality drama which would attract rave reviews from the critics if aimed at adults. What is just plain bizarre but never explained is that you never actually see the mother of the family, although she is referred to often and so has a role in the drama. Until you realise that that is what is happening it makes the cast very confusing indeed. Something which is perhaps not commented on enough in the blogosphere is that the three main young people are dressed in signature colours which at the time were the colours of UK domestic wiring, although no longer, of red (Neutral), green (Earth) and black (neutral), which gives a certain ready relatedness to their characters. Where it falls down somewhat was that the actors playing teenagers were actually in their early twenties, which makes it look a bit wrong.
I see from the reviews on the internet that Alan Garner himself seems to have an ambivalent impact on people. On reviewer (I'm afraid I cannot now for the life of me find this again) commented that after watching the extra about Garner which is included on the DVD, he decided to take no interest in Garner or anything he had done ever again. He didn't give a reason apart from taking a dislike to him. I like the extra about Garner, actually, it shows his own home, which is a classic of 1970s interior design a la Terence Conran's House Book. What I would say about that documentary is that you would get the impression from it that Garner was a complete loner and lived alone. I was surprised to find after watching it that he has been married twice and has five children!
The main thing which is 'wrong' with the Owl Service is that in a sense it is outside its time. It is a heavy-duty drama, which would require heavy work to appreciate it. It is the work of a man who is obviously very intelligent and educated to a level which just doesn't exist for most people nowadays. Certainly I would doubt that today's children would have the patience to deal with The Own Service, although I see his books are still in print. The series is paced probably rather slowly and is probably two too many episodes: if it were fewer with less recapping, it would seem snappier but not overly hurried. Since this is actually my only real criticism of this show, I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in magic, supernatural, mythology, and what have you.
Of quite a different sort is The Flockton Flyer, which is another one I didn't see at the time despite being alive, and which I am still watching so it may be that I have to revise this post after I have seen the whole thing. I see that at the time it was broadcast it was very popular (although of course we only had three stations at the time so popular was as popular did), making it to a second series. This is the stuff of which dream childhood television is made of. Who wouldn't have dreamt at the time of having parents cool enough, when dad was made redundant from his mechanic's job, to take up his interest of the railways full time by moving into the local abandoned railway station?
There is a sense in which while The Owl Service draws upon a very specific literary myth (which wouldn't have been readily available to all viewers) The Flockton Flyer taps into major themes in everyone's psyche. Apart from having parents cool enough to move to a whole new life on the railway, what's not to love about being around trains in and of itself? What child watching this in the depressing days of 1978 wouldn't have been jealous of the children's relatively care-free lives? There is also a sense in which all of the cultural references invoked in the railways, for example ghosts, are brought into play.
I suppose youcould say that what The Good Life is to adult television, The Flockton Flyer is to children's television, at least as far as giving up the rat race for something you love is concerned. The 1970s was also relatively early in the preservationists' battle to prevent the wholesale destruction of our past, and that is part of the zeitgeist of the time which The Flockton Flyer perfectly plugs into. There is also a sense in which it is a more classically-plotted story than The Owl Service, because while obviously there are stresses and strains along the way, this show has a much more comfortable feeling, and you have a sensation that everything is going to be OK.
The Flockton Flyer has a slightly different story each episode, so that it doesn't require the sort of extended attention which The Owl Service does. It is also much more straightforward with none of the complex subtexts in the other piece. The story moves rather faster, and it manages to feel more modern. I keep wanting to say that (in UK schooling language) it feels more as if it is at a CSE level than at an O Level, but I don't mean by that that it is dumbed down at all. There are complx issues of adult motivation and decisions discussed in this show, and yet it wears this discussion much more lightly than the complex relationships of The Owl Service. I think one of the things I like best about it is that the Commander's patrician tones are voiced by Anthony Sharp, one of my all-time favourite actors, and I do not extend my usual criticism of familiar faces to him. Arbitrary, I know, but this is my blog and I reserve the right to be consistent or not.
I'm actually finding it very difficult to find a criticism of this show! And so I would recommend both of these shows to my readers, just for slightly different reasons and probably to different groups of people with different expectations! Certainly if asked to choose between them I would find it very difficult because they are such different creatures.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Francis Durbridge Presents... The Desperate People

Mitchell Hadley at It's About TV commented on my post about Doctor Who: The Invasion that that was the first disc he bought on an international basis to circumvent high US prices and to play on his multi-region DVD player. It is a funny thing that the modern world of interational commerce and the internet mean that we cult TV fans are better served than we ever would have been in the days of the TV series we like to watch! I personally bought my set of The Man from UNCLE from Canadian Amazon. It was remarkably inexpensive and was couriered over to me and arrived two days after I ordered it. In the bad old days we would probably have been forced to belong to clubs and subscribe to magazines to get the TV programmes we like. This is also how I have managed to obtain the first of two volumes of Francis Durbridge Presents.
I wrote some time ago, when I bought the region 2 DVDs of A Game of Murder that I was confused about whether or how the whole remaining series had been released on DVD. Well, they have been. In region 2 you have the option of buying some of the individual mysteries on German-released DVDs. I haven't clapped eyes on them but they are rumoured to be in English as well as German. I then found on UK amazon that Francis Durbridge Presents has been released in Australia in two vlumes, both branded BBC. They are advertised on Amazon as being region 0 discs, so I was rather worried to find when volume 1 arrived that the boxes were marked region 4. I have however found that they play OK on both of my laptops (ironically I don't actually own a TV, my dear, there's never anything on). Of course I am not giving any guarantee here that these discs will play on all or any DVD equipment, merely commenting that I am relieved to find that despite being marked region 4 they play on my own laptops.
Volume 1 includes four mysteries, including A Game of Murder. I had never seen the other three, and Durbridge is best known to me as the author of the Paul Temple series of mysteries. He was a fantastically prolific mystery author, known for his wildly convoluted plots which made it very difficult to work out the culprit. This series of his adventures written for television were apparently wildly popular at the time, although there is relatively little about them on the internet, I assume because they haven't been available.
The Desperate People, which I will focus on here because it is the only one I have seen several times at this point, is the first adventure and incorporates the classic settings of a Durbridge adventure: London flat world, English eccentrics, country house hotels and the usual desperate hero. The plot of this one is frankly rather reminiscent of A Game of Murder. It isn't really a criticism but I found the plot of this one so convoluted that it was at times difficult to follow. On the other hand this means that this adventures avoids the weakness of many a whodunnit: this one will take repeated viewing and much spotting of clues.
There is a disclaimer thingy at the beginning of the DVD commenting that the age of the footage means there will be variations in sound and visual quality. My one criticism of this realease is that I just don't believe the sound couldn't have been cleaned up more than it was: there is often a fluttering sound running along with the action. I don't find the picture quality unacceptable.
It is probably an indication of the exact moment in history when this show was made that there is much usage of outside filming, and very good quality it is too. It is then very apparent when the inside shots switch over to sets. This is not a criticism, merely a statement of fact. In fact one of my favourite aspects of this show is the external shots. I love the views of sixties London, I love the cars, I love the vision of an England which doesn't really exist any more. Oh - I also love the way everyone lights up a cigarette at natural points in the action. This is the real smoking of the time, not the pointed, conscious, smoking of Mad Men. Even though this is a mystery there is a very real sense in which this is comfort viewing because it shows a world which doesn't exist any more, and of course we all like a nice murder which isn't going to intrude on our own safety.
Apart from some quibbles about the sound quality, I welcome this release of a long-lost classic which will be a welcome addition to the library of any classic TV buff.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Dick Barton Special Agent

My policy on this blog is not to write about shows which are complete duds; of course it also means that if a show does not appear on this blog it may mean I think it is a dud or I may just not have got round to writing about it. Nonetheless I think it is better to use this blog to write about quality TV than to publish a list of shows which should be avoided. The point of this preamble is that this post is intended to rehabilitate a show which is unfairly neglected in my opinion. The reviews online seem either to be outstandingly positive or absolutely terrible. This show is real Marmite, and it is the 1979 Southern TV series Dick Barton Special Agent.
The original Dick Barton series was a radio series broadcast from 1946 to 1951on the Light Programme, and the eponymous hero undertook a series of adventures, driven by his boredom after being demobbed after the war. The series is redolent of a Britain long-gone, and many of the attitudes it shows are redolent of a dream Britain which probably never really existed. To put Dick Barton into the world so often discussed on this blog, he is definitely one of us, a real Englishman and defender of what is right. He is out of the same stable as Bulldog Drummond - a stable which later would give birth to John Steed and John Drake, that is after they felt the need to earn their livings. Barton was a hero of the time, and also an interesting model for a generation which had been amputated from the cosy comfort of pre-War Britain. Dick Barton was a hugely successful franchise of the time, including films as well as radio, and has become emblematic of that time and the attitudes which characterised it.
And it is at this point that I would have to introduce a slight problem into this show. The reason for going into the original Dick Barton was to delineate exactly what was being transferred onto 1970s TV: a 1940s hero in a very particular time with a bunch of attitudes which were largely superseded by that point. And this series, while consisting of new adventures, would be almost slavish in its reminiscences of the time and original series, to the extent of being broadcast by Southern Television in the same 15-minute slot that the original radio series broadcast in. and it was played completely straight; to quote the 'viewing notes' which come with the boxed set:
'Southern took as much as they could from the original format. The result would be so engagingly straight-faced that many critics and viewers would interpret the whole series as an extended parody.'
And that is the problem. Dick Barton is a re-creation in a different medium, with slavish adherence to elements of the original radio show, transplanted to a very different era, yet not advertised as a parody. This means that it is a bit difficult to know how to approach this show: either as a reminiscence or a parody. It is a TV show and cannot be viewed as if it were an old film, and I notice that the show's rave reviews on the internet tend to be from people who love the original series or like that genre of adventure hero literature.
I'm going to have to be upfront about my opinion that I think the format is a terrible mistake because it ties this show in too much to its radio background. I think it may work very well if you were going to do the thing of watching one episode an evening, but in the sort of continuous viewing a boxed set invites, the theme tune becomes exhausting. I find it interesting that while Southern broadcast the show in its evening slots as it wanted, the other networks broadcast the episodes two at a time at weekends; I'm left with the impression that this was an individual exercise in reminiscence and parody which backfired because no other enthusiasts could be found to follow into Barton-land.
There is another sense in which Dick Barton works really well. I wanted to write here about the sense of comfort viewing a show set in a world where we know who everyone is and the foeigner is either subservient or the baddie. Of course some of Our Sort of People go off the rails as well. And then I wanted to write about how ridiculous Dick Barton makes these attitudes look. I particularly wanted to write about the way the show's heavy-handed gallantry and obvious compliments to women are absolutely hilarious. And then I wanted to write about despite their comments about women the partnership between Barton and Snowey White is susceptinle of a sexual interpretation (I mean only in the way the dynamic between them is a rather Holmes and Watson couple dynamic, I wouldn't like to suggest that anything would be - hushed voice - going on), a question which no other Dick Barton adaptation has ever raised in my mind! Far from interpreting the whole series as an extended parody, I'm finding it raises question upon question and is far from the simplistic hero-fest that the early Barton films are.
I think that this show produces such a mixed effect on me is an indication of its quality. Its slavish adherence to the format of a 1940s radio show, but transplanting it to 1970s TV, means that it requires a sort of attention which the other shows of the time don't. Perhaps this was another reason for its lack of success.
Otherwise I frankly can't see why this show gets such a critical hammering on the internet. I have read repeatedly, for example, not only that it was plagued by budgetary problems, which is a mere statement of fact, but that these budgetary restrictions show in the actual finished product. Personally I can't see it, I really can't. The period setting of the show is done as well as pre-CGI TV will allow. I would maintain that there is a sense in which this show is set in a fantasy world, as sort of 1970s reconstruction of a previous world, rather in the same vein as the world later inhabited by the young fogies of the 1980s. If you look closely you will see things in the background of shots which couldn't have been there in the 1940s, but that is my pernickerty nature coming out. After all this show was made in the real world (and benefits from that) rather than in a studio. It escapes that dreadful 1970s colour palette of browns and greys by virtue of being set earlier. Rooms are decorated in relatively stronger colours, I love the motor cars and clothes.
I have read it questioned why this show would get a 12 rating in the UK rather than a Parental Guidance, given the relatively safe content and low-level fighting. I suspect that that was influenced by the traumatic subjects touched upon in this show. Every episode ends with a cliffhanger and there are multiple attempts on Barton's life, some of them being in a quite twisted way, such as being buried in the sand on a beach to be drowned by the incoming tide, being locked in a refrigerated container to freeze to death or another one where Jock is locked in a gas-filled room to be killed in a detonation set off by a telephone call. For younger children I think these methods of killing would be the stuff of nightmares and would verge on torture if used in reality, which I think may explain the 12 certificate. Any fighting scenes are nonetheless fairly low-key, and there is no bad language of any sort.
I have commented on the pacing, which is strange by any standards. The picture is strong and clear, with no apparent deterioration of the recording, if it has not been restored. The sound, similarly is strong and clear. The visuals throughout are naguralistic with naturally no CGI of any kind or even any special effects. People who like the sort of television I write about here will feel quite at home with this series, and I would recommend it to anyone, with just the proviso that the format can take some getting used to. It may best be watched one episode at a time over a number of weeks, but I feel that this show is far too addictive to do that, and the repeated cliffhangers will have the viewers wanting to know what happens next.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Doctor Who: The Invasion Again

I see that I have blogged about this Doctor Who adventure here before (, and was surprised to see that what I focussed on was comparing Doctor Who with Sapphire and Steel, and that on re-watching this adventure, it makes quite a different impression on me.
The subject of The Invasion, put very simply, is fear and loathing of The Machine, and the ambivalence towards technology which was so characteristic of the time provides a number of ironic twists to this adventure. The first of these is obviously that ironically, despite the Doctor's repeated statements that he hates computers (which I am taking as representative of technology as a whole) this adventure does not survive in its entirety. The irony is that the technology of the time, and the television companies' attitudes to it, resulted in this cry against the dominance of technology not surviving. This irony becomes even more twisted when it comes to the simple fact that people have gone to endless trouble to recreate the missing episodes as animations, and very successfully so, too. It is at this point that the plot beomes so postmodern I'm having difficulty getting my head around it: the alien Time Lord, brought to our planet by alien technology (whose failure is responsible for his being stuck here), hates our puny technology as being too dominant, yet he is doing so in a technologically up-to-date TV show, which then doesn't survive because the technology is both ridiculously expensive and considered in the light of a previous enterntainment medium (the theatre, and one-off performances), only to be recreated decades later because there is such a fan base for the show. Phew!
There is another irony of time in this show. The landmark Millbank Tower was used as the offices in International Electromatic. Although at the time the tower would have been an icon of modernity and thus would have plugged into exactly the 1960s fear of the future, which was yet matched with a yearning for modernity and an attitude that progress was the way ahead. The irony here is that buildings such as Millbank were built in a positive orgy of destruction of the past at the time, which was seen as fully desirable in the age before the preservationists really got into their stride, and yet Millbank is itself now listed so will have to be preserved within very strict constraints for all time:
'Millbank Tower was built as the Vickers Tower for the Legal and General Assurance Society, in conjunction with the British engineering firm, the Vickers Group, from which it took its original name and whose boardroom was on the 30th floor. It was designed by Ronald Ward & Partners (Douglas Marriott, job architect) which began designs in 1956, with planning permission granted the following year, and endorsed by the Royal Fine Art Commission in 1958. At 387 feet (118 metres) and 32 storeys, it was briefly the tallest building in London, until 1965 when it was surpassed by the GPO tower. The River Thames had been identified as a suitable location for tall buildings early on in post-war planning policy, although there was concern that the Vickers Tower might dominate the Houses of Parliament. However, later it was its appearance in views down St. James's Street that were the cause of criticism, as well as its relationship with the river. However, Ian Nairn described it in his Modern Buildings in London (1964) as 'the only London skyscraper to have the clean zest and élan, literally sky-reaching and skyscraping, of the best in New York.' It has latterly been more universally praised for the successful shape and composition of the tower (with its concave and convex shapes) and the effective way that the curtain walling and Britain's first use of projecting stainless steel mullions reflect playfully on the adjacent Thames and vice versa. The curved butterfly or diabolo form was derived from the original plan for the lifts, and later retained after this arrangement was modified. The design was also of interest for its early experimentation of entasis (the deliberate swelling of form, to preserve the visual impression of straightness) in the tower, as also at Centre Point and Britannic House.' ( which see for a truly orgasmic description of the building's architecture)
It seems that despite managing to keep away from Sapphire and Steel I have still wound up talking about time at length, but then perhaps it isn't very realistic to try to avoid it with Doctor Who! There is also an undercurrent to this one of modernity's relationship to authority. I love the climax to the fifth episode where the policeman goes down into the sewer and tells the 'kids' (in an interesting presentiment of Scooby Doo) to get out. Naturally he represents authority against the kids in their up-to-date clothes representing the vulnerability of impulsive rebellious youth. The authority figure of course meets his match in the shape of the cybermen, thus referring back to the way in which the brave and frightening new world of the future will not be constrained by the authority of the past. That this world will be a frightening one is indicated by the way in which UNIT have to resort to grenades to fight against the cybermen, and that the technology of the future may not be controllable by humans is indicated by the way one cyberman is left standing after a blast which would have killed humans.
I like this Doctor Who adventure a lot. I like the fact that it speaks so loudly of the mid-sixties, which is of course one of my favourite times in history. I like these early Doctor Who adventures as a rule, and I particularly like the mixture of earth-bound things and alien life and technology in this one. I think what I like about the cybermen adventures is that the cybermen do not look ridiculous, as the monsters in many of the early Doctor Who adventures can, giving an impression of being just plain funny years afterwards. If I have one criticism of this one I think it is probably that its plot can be rather difficult to follow. This is made up for by the fact that you can actually jump in randomly with this one (in my humble opinion). I have read that this Doctor Who experienced several revisions in production and I think that can show. Of course it may also be an anachronism but I feel that this adventure could have been adequately done with fewer episodes.
The moral of this show, as so often with TV of this era, is that humanity must remain the priority, and master of the emerging technology; trusting in the technology will leave humans at the mercy of its false promises. This is of course why the baddie is so often a deranged megalomaniac, whose ambitions explode in his face: these people have put their own ambitions, rather than humanity, at the centre of their world, and they are a terrible warning to all of us as to what can happen if we do that. Of course once again there was no way the script writers of the 1960s could have foreseen, as they hammered away at their typewriters, the brave new world of IT failures and a world which really does need to be turned off and started again. For that reason these 1960s TV shows with a moral (while the Avengers often deals with these heavy subjects, the lightness of its treatment means that it doesn't come across as having a a moral, so I wouldn't include it among them) can seem like they are warning about something which never came to pass. Perhaps this is the reason I like TV of this era: the fears of the past generation always seem quaint to future generations, and TV of this era allows time travel to what seems like a safer era. And yet...the sheer timey-wimey-sliminess of this time travel also leaves us at the mercy of time and if we are not careful we travel full circle and are confronted with some fairly confusing ironies of time.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016


I've had this series for some time and actually started writing a post about it at one point, which although I make a point of keeping everything (while not being what I would call a hoarder) I can't find it so will begin again.
Plot-wise, we are in totally familiar territory with Undermind. Well, I say totally familiar, it is in the sense that technology, some kind of signal, is being used to get inside people and undermine society. The use of technology is very apparent from the very beginning of the series, and of course that is a characteristic subject of the 1960s television I write about here. The only different from the short of shows I watch normally is that the enemy here is an alien force, which I suppose places us with one foot in the sort of horror films of the 1950s when an all-American town is taken over by an alien force, only in this case of course it is set in Britain.
In the case of Undermind the fear is placed in a very specific period of time. It is not for nothing that Heriot's profession is given as a personnel selection manager, and he has just come back from working abroad. Rather than the earlier welfare officer and manager dealing with pay disputes and bonuses, the 1960s was the time when personnel took off as a profession, and so Heriot is part of an up and coming profession. They also pioneered the use of psychological tests for selection and I feel it is important when watching Undermind to remember that Heriot would have been seen at the time very much as the Business Efficiency Bureau in The Avengers episode The Fear Merchants. To many members of the contemporary audience, Heriot would have seemed almost a magician; he would have known the questions to ask to find out very specific psychological answers. It is therefore very pointed that a member of his profession is up against the forces of psychological invasion.
There would also have been an ambivalence about Heriot and his profession among the contemporary audience of Undermind, since one of the things in the zeitgeist of the time was the way in which advertising was actually being used to get inside people; exactly the way the signal is being used to make people behave in very uncharacteristic ways. In fact there is hardly a popular fear of the time which is not exploited at some point in Undermind. Think of most plot arcs of the last three series of The Avengers, cross them with Doomwatch, The Champions and Adam Adamant Lives, and you have pretty much a plot summary of Undermind.
Otherwise there is a sense in which the plot of Undermind is a very conventional example of the little people against a great force, with no resources and in this case no real knowledge of what they are up against. Undermind very successfully paints the scenario of paranoia by placing the invasion in all levels of society, from the high to the low. That is the basic premise, and the show also draws on virtually every premise used in science fiction and the culture of the time. One of the things I notice about the reviews of this show on the internet are the frequency with which it is compared to other shows. I've already done it myself.
But there is something wrong with Undermind. There is a conflict at the heart of the show, and which I am feeling even as I write that there is something wrong with it. I actually don't want to, because I have a sensation of being in the presence of Great Television. For a start many of the reviews deal with the episodes as individual story arcs, as indeed they are with different writers, and the episodes are often not seen in a very good light. I think this is the start of Undermind going awry for me: I have read that there is a very clear single story ard through the entire series. I'm sure there is, but if I pause to think about it during any particular episode I find I can't, which I think is a result of patchy writing rather than a lack of concentration on my part. It is a personal opinion but while I see that other reviewers are appreciative that the sense of the opponent is deliberately left nebulous, that drives me nuts, and contributes to the sense of the series not really having a single clear plotline, because there isn't a clear enemy. This is my one largest criticism of this show, and this is a criticism which has compromised my enjoyment of watching this show.
I think Undermind also suffers because it doesn't stand up well to some of our modern sensibilities - such things as how Irish people are portrayed and the insensitivity of this depiction in the run up to the Troubles in Northern Ireland are of course unacceptable to modern eyes but I think are apt to detract from the actual show. My personal opinion is that Undermind is best watched as a compendium of all sorts of ideas present in the cult TV and thus psyche of the 1960s, a snapshot of a particular time's treatment of these ideas, and a vehicle for the various Big Name guest stars.
A particular way in which Undermind is open to criticism is that even for the time - it was broadcast in 1965 - it seems quite old-fashioned. This was Emma Peel-era Avengers time, and that show looks much more modern than Undermind, and a criticism I have read repeatedly is that it is almost completely studio-bound. Personally that isn't a problem for me, since I quite like the reflection that television at the time was much closer to the theatre than to the film industry. Interestingly, the sets use much of the visual language that I like so much in the Avengers. I particularly like the way modern office settings (such as the picture which illustrates this post) are used to indicate modernity and futurism. More domestic settings are used to indicate solid middle England, although of course in this case it is infiltrated by a mysterious power rather than populated by ruthless megalomaniacs. Production values are very much of the time. The pacing is, as you would expect, slow by modern standards. To my mind there is a drawback with the DVD release that I wouldn't like to guess at how much work has gone into restoration. I can't believe it is none, but there rae points at which the picture is quite grainy or unstable. I personallt don't have any difficulty with hearing the soundtrack, but I have read that some people do.
There are some familiar faces in this show, chief amongst them being Jeremy Wilkin playing Drew Heriot. It took me ages to work out where he was familiar from (see, these reappearing actors, do distract you from the actual show itself) and realise that he is more familiar to me personally wearing a string vest uniform in the Gerry Anderson show UFO. Since I'm not actually planning on posting about UFO here I will just weigh in on the debate raging on the internet over what the female cast of UFO wear under their string uniforms. A sort of skin coloured bra-thing. Easy. The only thing that's wrong there is that Sylvia Anderson should have done something to hide the men's chest hair and nipples, to create a futuristic look and a mystery that will rage for decades to come. But back to Undermind. The fact that it took me a long time to work out where I had seen Wilkin before indicates his acting ability, and his role in this show is quite different from his more senior role in UFO. Of course Rosemary Nichols is instantly recognisable to someone of my televisual interests as the IT expert in Department S, although once again her role is very different here, and it is the sound of her voice which makes her familiar. I'm torn at this point, frankly: there is an irony that so many of the shows I like are ITC ones when so many of the actors in those shows were recycled round all the other shows, and that drives me crazy! That said, in this case the fact that I had to spend some minutes thinking who the key actors were didn't seem too distracting from the actual show. I am indebted to the blog for the insight that this technique of using familiar facse is actually used to advantage here by casting the actor Jeremy Kemp, who would have been known to audiences at the time from Z Cars, in a completely uncharacteristic role, to reinforce the feeling that there is something very wrong.
Yet despite its weaknesses, my opinion is that Undermind manages to have an extraordinary effect on the viewer, no doubt intentional, and done with remarkably little razzamataz. It has been some time since I first watched it but I have been watching episodes several times over the past few days to write this blog post, and I find that they are different to what I remember. I don't just mean that I had forgotten them, but the music (which is used very sparingly indeed) manages to get inside your head. I remembered it being used much more than it actually is. I have found the music going through my head while I have been out and about, and yet if you asked me to hum it to you I would be unable to. The show has actually managed to invade me in a very real sense, which is surely an achievement for any TV show, especially one which has rather been forgotten about for sixty years.
I suspect that the audience for this show is very much the same as the audience for this blog, namely hard core classic and cult TV fans. There will no doubt be some people who remember the show from when it was first broadcast, and others like myself who prefer old TV to modern TV. I would very much recommend this show to the dedicated cult TV fan, just simply as a showcase for many of the great names (both writers and actors) of the time, and also as a vehicle for so many of the common plot arcs which were prominent at the time. If you watch this with a mindset of setting out to be reminded of other shows and plots of the time, you will find it a great success. Its studio-bound setting does not really provide much in the way of reminiscence of the time, if that is what you are looking for. If you are a sci-fi fan, you will also like it as a lengthier and slower example of ge dating from the 1960s.
I would not like to suggest that this show's weaknesses are such as would prevent people watching it. In fact I think people should watch it. But then I've seen it, and you don't know whether I'm an undermind as a result...
Image credit:

Monday, 17 October 2016

French and Saunders Parody the New Avengers

The Avengers: Mister Jerico

Today a post about one of two films I have been meaning toblog about here which are related to The Avengers in one way or another; the other one is Q Planes, which is thought to be a possible inspiration for the character of Steed, and I wil blog about it at some point, although I have never managed to watch it all the way through yet! I make no bones about tagging Mister Jerico with 'The Avengers'. Mister Jerico I believe was intended to be the pilot for another series starring Patrick Macnee. Just reading the box, the names are so familiar: written by Philip Levene, original music by Laurie Johnson, produced by Julian Wintle... This, kids, is what the team behind The Avengers went on to do before they went even further on to the New Avengers.
And in fact the film is so very much like The Avengers in some ways. The font used for the titles was also used for The Avengers titles. It has Patrick Macnee in it, playing the sort of ambivalent figure he played in the earlier series of The Avengers before he became the grand old man of series 6. The trouble is that he talks as if he is Steed. Macnee's character sounds so like Steed, that if you close your eyes you can see Steed in front of you. In fact the sound track uses so many of the sound effects used in The Avengers that this film is in audio terms an extension of series 6 of The Avengers.
I was going to write that I felt this film was partly influenced by the James Bond series of films, and in fact it may well have been. However I have recently been rewatching the series of Pink Panther films and feel that they may well have been more influential. Certainly the obsession with the diamond in this film is more in line with the original Pink Panther film of 1963 than the larger concerns of James Bond. The fact that this film co-stars Herbert Lom was what made me think of the connection, although of course the characters in this film are quite different. Nonetheless, to my mind there is something of the atmosphere of the Pink Panther films rather than that of the James Bond films.
This morning I watched Live and Let Die, and was disappointed that what I inaccurately remembered as a mysterious film about voodoo and tarot cards was actually a James Bond film! I bring this up merely to make another comparison with Mr Jerico. While the clothes in Live and Let Die are obviously of their period (flairs feature highly and the many black characters are played more as caricatures) Live and Let Die does not seem as dated as Mr Jerico. The clothes in Mr Jerico are so very much of their time that they really hit you in the face and cannot be ignored. This is one of the problems with this film for me, that Patrick Macnee doesn't act that much differently to John Steed, but is so obviously not John Steed that it just seems wrong. This is of course an entirely personal viewpoint of this. I have no doubt that some people would like to see the frilly shirts and synthetic fibres of the time on his character. In addition, while I commented above that Macnee plays an ambivalent figure similar to his early Steed, in fact I think the ambivalence is that he is likeable. In reality he is a rogue, pure and unalloyed.
Production values are also more like the Pink Panther films than the Bond films. Definitely a smaller budget, so no wholesale destruction of luxury cars and what have you. Pacing is series 6-era Avengers. This film would be incredibly likeable if it didn't have so many overtones for a dyed in the wool Avengers fan like me! Perhaps it is best seen as a supporting feature - I see that it was originally billed as the supporting feature to Carry on up the Jungle, which dates it to a T. I certainly wouldn't tell anyone not to watch this film, I would just advise you not to be surprised when the conflicting emotions well up.
The final question which this film raises for me personally is whether the Avengers formula would have have been better going in a Mister Jerico direction or a New Avengers direction. My preference would have to be for a New Avengers direction, having never had any of the dislike for that series that some Avengers fans have. That said, I like to approach the New Avengers as if I am watching any 1970s series (The Professionals, say), so perhaps I had better approach Mr Jerico as if it is a Pink Panther film!

Seventies TV: Steptoe and Son the Film

Back to the 1970s today, and while I will grant you that Steptoe and Son was a series which spanned the 1960s and 1970s, I am mainly interested in the first of the two spin off films here, which is also called Steptoe and Son, and as so often on this blog, not really for a very obvious reason, but we will come to that.
I had better begin by making a disclosure that I have never really taken to Steptoe and Son. If I'm frank it is because Steptoe senior is way too much like my own mother; unfortunately for this reason I can never find entertaining his continual manoeuvring to keep his son under his thumb. It is far too near the bone, and in this film he actually does something which my own mother would do, namely pretend to be ill to get his own way, having prevailed on his own son to take him on honeymoon! Personal concerns apart, the subject of this film is really a domineering father who will not let his son, who is nearly forty, grow up or get away from him.
There is a wildly Fruedian irony that while the father isn't above going to see the stripper himself and actually leers over her, it is actually the drag queen he falls for! I love that the underlying sexuality of this is actually so conflicted and while Steptoe senior has obviously at some point been married to Mrs Steptoe, it is actually a man he falls for, and he doesn't like it when his son marries the stripper, who is at least very obviously a woman!
What made me watch the film was that the drag queen is played by Patrick Fyffe, billed as Perri St Claire, who with George Logan was part of the drag act Hinge and Bracket, whom I have always loved and can't believe I have never blogged about here. Fyffe started his work life as a hairdresser and appeared in the local amateur theatricals before making the move to rep. I feel that this film actually shows Fyffe's worth as an actor, since the role is quite different from Dame Hilda Bracket. 'Arthur' is a much more obviously gay character than Dame Hilda, and to me this is apparent from his very first appearance (in drag but speaking as a man) when Steptoe senior falls for him, which underlines the irony of this and the underlying sexual ambivalence.
The plot of the film is predictable. I mean, we know from the initial lines with father and son bickering about the failed marriage that there is no way son is ever going to get away from father. Nonetheless this film does have a charm, and I find the charm in a series of little tableaux. I love that when Steptoe is bathing in the sink there is a box of Omo on the draining board (which it is still sold in some parts of the world Omo is a long-defunct brand here). I love the touch of Son going to Arthur's flat to see if he has any rags. I love the scenes in clubs of strippers and brawling. I love that Zita has the baby hidden away in the dressing room while she is performing. This film is not without charm, although I was mainly interested in seeing it for one character only!
Reading the other reviews on the internet, it seems that this film is a firm favourite with the fans of the show. It is also a firm favourite with the fans of Hinge and Bracket. Just be careful watching it if you have a clingy parent!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Colonel March of Scotland Yard/Colonel March Investigates

In a recent post about Knight Errant, I passed out of my usual time frame, i.e. beyond the beginning of the 1960s. In recent weeks I have also passed beyond my most recent date, previously the 1990s, when I posted about The Game. This has caused me to reflect on what TV was like before television executives began smoking copious amounts of weed in the 1960s and came up with the weird shows I post about here. I think probably Knight Errant was an atypical example, since it definitely has Avengers overtones. I'm not sure whether this is accurate but I have a mental picture of a snobbish division between the worthy broadcasting of the BBC and the more ephemeral broadcasting of the independent channels - in fact exactly the sort of programmes I blog about here. I'm sure the BBC's output required close attention and could not be reduced to background, although I suspect the picture in my mind's eye of people in evening dress (both viewers and broadcasters) is much further back in time!
I am ashamed to announce that up until last week I had never even heard of Colonel March of Scotland Yard, and only discovered him as a recommendation for my viewing by Amazon. It was a TV programme broadcast in 1955 - 6, of which a number of episodes are available to view or download on various sites on t'internet. You can buy DVDs of some episodes. I am unable to comment on the legal or licensing status of these DVDs. Since reviews are wildly mixed, I am also unable to comment on the quality of these DVDs. Certainly the episodes I have downloaded so far are rather low quality, but I would consider it churlish to complain about that because they are free. Obviously everyone reading this will have access to a computer at some point, and presumably could burn the episodes to a DVD if it was so wished.
Before I viewed the remaining episodes which I have downloaded I did actually buy a DVD of a film called Colonel March Investigates, and here we are in slightly different territory. The only thing I would say about that film is that (in Man From UNCLE films style) it is actually three episodes of the TV programme stitched together. I personally don't have any difficulty with that, but if you are expecting a single protracted plot for the whole hour, obviously you are going to be disappointed. I think it well worth buying this DVD because while obviously being sixty years old, the quality is much better than the episodes I have downloaded off t'internet.
I think it important to remember (especially given that I have watched the film three times on the trot this morning while thinking over what to say in this post) that that cinema release of the TV show would have been the only time people would have seen a repeat of the TV show at the time. Since TV sets were very much rarer, it would also have been the only time a lot more people ever saw this show at all. These facts combined with the approach to television as if it was theatre (each broadcast was a one-off 'performance' which would never be repeated) right up until the 1970s conbine to make 1950s TV very much different from now. You see I have managed to get back to the point I started off making. Whether on TV or at the cinema, people would have had to view these shows as if they were a theatre performance - you would have to turn up when the performance was on and if you didn't you would miss it, and probably never get the chance to see it again. The only pity is that I doubt there was time for a gin in the interval. There is a very real sense in which earlier TV was a much more demanding medium than in todays world of replaying and continual repeats.
These reflections on the differences in the medium are  rather by the way in the case of Colonel March. Regular readers will be well acquainted with my dislike of familiar actors who reappear in so many things, to the extent that you notice the actor not the character. In this case there are two actors who are shown in such unusal roles that one at least of them is almost unrecognisable. I am talking of course about Boris Karloff, who plays the kindly detective of the Department of Queer Complaints, in a much different vein from most of his more familiar horror roles. He confirms my opinion that the really great actors do not allow their own personalities to intrude on their roles: it is easy to forget that this is the great Boris Karloff. There is also a very uncharacteristic role for Richard Wattis as a villain rather than the establishment figures he is better known for. His urbane nature and the simple fact that he comes across as the sort of reliable figure who should be respectable, makes him excellent in this role, because of course you don't expect him to be the villain!
The episodes are based on short stories by John Dixon Carr, one of the 'Golden Age' detective writers who was renowned for his 'locked room' mysteries. They are therefore not written by a hack by any manner of means. My only criticism, and it is a completely personal one, is that I feel that while a short story is in itself a sort of 'locked room' in which to consider a mystery, the ones chosen here were perhaps not rich enough to be turned into whole TV shows. This is a completely personal view, and I wouldn't go to the stake for it by any manner of means: my personal opinion is that these shows are better watched for the atmosphere and the personality of Colonel March. 
Production values are more cinematic than televisual, which may be why the three episodes made into a film work so well. That said, I can certainly name TV shows made twenty years later which have much less developed production values than these shows. I particularly like that Colonel March periodically breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the viewer, which reinforces a sense of involvement.  I haven't really watched enough episodes to come to a conclusion about the sort of world and underlying asuumptions references in this TV show, so I will probably come back to it in another post.
Colonel March is a show which has made me think further on what 1950s TV would have been like. I like the atmosphere of this show very much, and in fact it has made me wonder whether I like all of the shows I do because of their atmosphere (The sixth-series Avengers episode called Fog being a prime example)! This show breaks through some of my assumptions about returning actors, and also provides surprising roles for some well-known actors of the time. I consider it a little-known gem. If you want to buy DVDs I can recommend the SimplyMedia release of Colonel March Investigates, but as I say I cannot speak for the quality of the DVD releases of the single TV episodes, which are anyway available for free download on the internet.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Lost Episode Tunnel of Fear Recovered!!!

I'm wrong. I'm wrong wrong wrong wrong.
Never has it given me so much pleasure to say these words. After my confidently stating that no more Avengers Series 1 episodes would be found, behold Tunnel of Fear has turned up. You can read about it and other recovered shows at
I don't need to tell readers how delighted I am and it is one of the episodes I have always wanted to see. My only sorrow is that the first screening next month is sold out!
Image credit:

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Toy Trap

There is something disheartening about watching old TV, in that it reinforces that human nature does not really change, and that the ambivalence about progress which I write about so often here, is a wise way to approach the treatment we humans mete out to each other. This series 1 Avengers episode is incredibly topical - for me at least - since recently in my city three brothels were busted in three separate operations on three successive days. The police were supposed to have reason to believe they were brothels. Well with the best will in the world, apart from the tea rooms in Sutton Coldfield, I knew all along that the other two were brothels and fail to see how they could have been anything else. I also used to live round the corner from the notorious Cuddles, where a major legal concern was that the girls were foreign nationals who had their passports taken off them. Even without that danger, the takings at the other brothels were phenomenal - in the millions - and it is very plain that sex remains a roaring trade from which staggering amounts of money are to be made.
All that is merely a preamble to saying that this Avengers is a series one episode where Steed and Keel enter into the shadowy world of prostitution and break a vice ring. They come literally to blows at the end of the episode over their differing ethical approaches and the tactics used by Steed. I find it particularly interesting that a department store and hostel are used as fronts for the vice ring. Again there is nothing different there: last year when a snooker club in Digbeth was closed down for  violations including drug dealing, blocked fire exits, and allowing rooms to be used for underage sex, personally I wasn't at all surprised since I had walked past it in the evening and decided it had dodgy written all over it. The difference is that I personally can't think of a single snooker club locally which doesn't look iffy, but this Avengers uses an apparently more respectable front to cover up the vice ring.
No doubt the sleazy milieu of this and other series 1 Avengers episodes was intended to be shocking to many viewers of the time, just as the revelations that the world's oldest trade continues to be plied among us are still shocking to some. This episode is poised on a very interesting ethical knife edge: our heroes the Avengers have to enter the sleazy world to avenge the injustices committed against the girls in the sex trade, and of course Steed as usual does the sleazy old man act to perfection. On the other hand, there is another aspect of the world of the 1960s underlying the sleaze of this episode. In reality it would have been difficult to attain anything like the life style we see on the television programmes I write about here. Of the three girls we see at the opening of this episode, the only one who can afford her own place is the one who is working as a prostitute and who as a result is covered in bruises. The other two girls have to make do with living in a hostel, which of course is the front for the vice ring. The irony here is that the entry into the vice ring is what allows the girls' lifestyle even to get close to that of Steed and Keel, and yet they are rescued from sex work by Steed and Keel, which ironically would doom them to a life of poorly-paid shop work and presumably reliance on marriage to improve their lot.
There is the ethical matter between Steed and Keel to provide most of the interest through the last two acts of this Avengers. This is something into which Keel's standing as a physician is brought to play: and which is expertly subverted by having Steed pretending to be a doctor as a 'door-opener' and having Keel disapproving of this. Steed's interest is the bigger one of preventing the whole vice network, operated from the Continent, from working at all, and thus saving many girls from their claws. Keel gets drawn into personal concern for one of the girls, who Steed wants to use as a trap for the big boys of the vice ring. This reinforces the interaction between Steed and Keel which pertains throughout this season: Keel is driven by personal motives, and while Steed is portrayed as a rather sinister figure, it is very plain that he really has higher motives in mind.
With my usual proviso that these old TV shows don't stand up very well to the sort of grilling I give them on this blog, since they were intended to be seen once with no pausing, I would have to say that I actually find this episode rather unsatisfying. I think it would be best seen once only, and not be someone as jaundiced and world-weary as me! The shock factor of the look into the sleazy world of Soho granted by this episode was clearly intended to carry it through the ethical dilemma of the second two acts, and as such it works very well. It has a plot weakness in that the vice ring can only possibly be operated from a setting introduced in the first act and so it can only really be from the department store or from the hostel. It is interesting as developing the relationship between Steed and Keel.
My conclusion on this Avengers series 1 episode is that I would still love it to be discovered so that I could see it. I feel that I am probably too jaundiced and world-weary to be shocked by its revelations of sleaziness, but that is just me. I would particularly like to see it as a elaboration of the poverty trap suffered by so many young people, and to see how it explores that in a 1960s context.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Avengers: The House that Jack Built

Another day of non-stop rain here in Blighty, so I'm going to get my head down to a fairly analytical post on an Avengers episode I have always found difficult. To be frank, and to get the criticism out of the way at the beginning, the big downfall of this episode is that the sequences of Mrs Peel running through the house are way too repetitious, and rather mar what proves to be a seminal episode when considered in a more analytical way. That said, I was unsurprised to find my one big criticism echoed elsewhere on the internet, but was very surprised to discover that this episode has been sold for years in bootleg editions by S and M studios. No, I don't get it either, but this discovery was one of the things that have reinforced for me how differently a show can be understood.
There is a very real sense in which the key concern of this episode is one of the major ones of so much 1960s TV: the fear of the machine, and in fact the absorption of Mrs Peel into the machine is the highest embodiment of this fear. Mrs Peel's opposition to automation to the utmost degree, is here placed in contrast with the former Professor Keller's plan to use the machine to absorb her and ultimately kill her.
This direct confrontation between the worlds of humanity and automation is emphasised in true Avengers fashion by the use of the visual language used throughout the last three series of The Avengers and so I intend to go through the show and examine the meaning of what we see in detail.
The episode begins with an image and sound suggestive of conflict, with an alarm which would have indicated an air raid to anyone aged over about twenty-five-ish at the time this episode was made. The chase and dogs already indicate that somebody or something is being hunted, and the uniform of the pursuer indicates that the man who is being hunted is a fugitive from justice, the system, or at any rate some authority figure. This is not the world of secret espionage here. The hounds used in the chase are suggestive of fox hunting, particularly as the land the chase goes through is countryside. As usual The Avengers places the situation visually in the Avengersland world of England, a world it is about to turn on its head by the simple insertion of a diabolical mastermind.
The pursued man manages to escape his pursuers with a gun and cartridges, symbolic of taking their authority and power with him. I think the clothes he is wearing are intended to be prison clothes, indicating that the kindly state has already punished him for some infringement of the law, and placing him firmly in the camp of the baddie from the start. It is ironic that his escape from his captors is achieved by climbing over a high wall, indicative of enclosure again, into a country house, where the stone lions which 'guard' the entrance and the taxidermy owls and mounted butterflies in the room he breaks into, are in stark contrast to the live lion which attacks him. Thevisual language of the country house indicates the reliability of Our Sort of Person, the animals indicate the traditional pursuit of hunting, fishing and shooting, which is yet placed in contrast with the prison warders' pursuit of the man, and the dust on the chair indicates neglect and abandonment. This episode therefore starts by setting the episode in the sort of solid world the eccentrics of Avengersland inhabit, and yet confusing the world completely.
Another immediate contrast is provided by Mrs Peel's entry into the comparative safety of Steed's flat. The idea of technology is introduced at once by the fact that Steed is developing holiday pictures in an improvised dark room. Perhaps it is superfluous to comment at this point that there is a further irony that these technology-based 1960s shows don't wear that well because the technology of the time looks incredibly dated and cumbersome to us now. Only the aficionados of film would go to all that trouble for their holiday pictures nowadays, and the big drawback of the house is that well before its projected millenium-long lifespan, it would have needed to be rewired. Anyone living in a house with the rubber-insulated wiring of the time could tell you that it would have burned down well before a thousand years was up! I have also read that for Mrs Peel's key to do what it does, it would have had to be radioactive, but I'm no great scientist myself.
Concerned at the imprint of the key on his photographic paper, Steed rings the solicitor, and of course visually the view of the elderly man in the panelled room, melting sealing was with a candle, speels the quintessence of secure, solid tradition. Of course the scenery Mrs Peel drives through to get to the house is classic Avengersland, which in the visual language of the show is intended to make a similar impression to that made by the solicitor. An eccentric aspect is introduced by the grown man dressed as a boy scout. I think at the time this would have indicated something different to the dodgy sexual connotation that it would tend to have today. At any rate, we don't know that he is Steed's man at this point, but the scout uniform suggests a kindly authority figure, albeit one to whom Mrs Peel takes an instant dislike. That he is on Mrs Peel's side is very well hidden by his behaviour in the car: his expression and behaviour indicate a completely ambivalent figure.
The fact that the place signs change as Mrs Peel drives past are a major visual indicator that the real subject of this episode is technology, rather than a mere confrontation between the establishment and a diabolical mastermind. Instead of the impression of neglect given by the house to the excaped convict, because Mrs Peel has the key she is granted admission to the 'reception' areas of the house, giving a far grander impression. Again, the visual impression is one of rather dated opulence, possibly old money (as old as the nineteenth century, anyway).
From here on, the whole visual point is that we have been set up to expect the gentility of an old family, and just as in so many other episodes where the gentry have deteriorated so far as to go over to the other side, in this one the house is itself the genteel setting for the hatred and corruption of Dr Kelling's obsession with technology and hatred for Mrs Peel. Around fifteen minutes in, Mrs Peel leaves the genteel world of old England and enters the machine, to be trapped for most of the rest of the episode.
Steed is the only person concerned for her in the outside world, and the fact that he remains outside of the machine in Avengersland, turns on its head the setting of pursuit that we saw at the beginning of the episode. The outside world can be jailor is you are a criminal, but it can also be the saviour if you are trapped in the machine. There is also an irony that the prisoner would have been safer to stay outside and give himself up to his pursuers, since his entry to the machine ultimately causes his death.
There are just a few things about the house and Mrs Peel's working out of its secret. It is the fact that she keeps one foot in the outside world of reality which enables her to work out the machine's secret. Personally I find this a weakness in this one, in contrast say, to Joker, where I think no real clue is given at all. Once Mrs Peel has worked out, about half way through, that the illusion is worked by machinery, the cast is out of the bag once and for all. Of course we see the contrast of Steed breaking through the literal barriers set up for him by the machine, in stark contrast to the welcome given by the machine to Mrs Peel. I also don't find the real control room very satisfying, since it is necessary that Mrs Peel discovers it relatively easily, rather than just sitting down and going off her head. The putative control box thingy in the psychedelic trap scene is much more effective and is echoed later in the decade by the effect of the lava lamp in The Prisoner. That would have spoken much better to the fear of technology of the time: as I find myself commenting here repeatedly, the more 'intelligent' computers get, we lose our fear of them because we know that they can't actually keep up with us. The final point of this episode is of course that Professor Keller has quite literally given Mrs Peel the 'key' to destroy his machine, albeit with the lucky chance of the convict intruding into the machine.
On the whole, it feels terribly mean to be criticising this Avengers for any visual effects, when on the whole it is superb. I find it interesting that the actual colours of the set were blue and gold, presumably to look better in black and white, because the appearance of Mrs Peel and the set is superb. Hand-held camera angles are used extensively to indicate confusion. Apart from my one criticism (although objectively it doesn't take up as much of the episode as I would have thought) that too much time is spent with Mrs Peel running through the mechanical maze, the episode moves at exactly the right pace to maintain the suspense perfectly.
Mrs Peel returns to the secure world of Blighty and cycles off with Steed into the scenery of Avengersland. My conclusion on this Avengers episode is that while it has tended to be one that I have let play in the background, it benefits greatly from more attentive viewing.
Image source: Production still from the Optimum DVD box set.