Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Man from UNCLE: Parodies

I only just discovered that these parodies existed, and of course they may only be peripheral to the subject of this blog, but they're so funny that I think they fit.
Incidentally they probably speak of the zeitgeist of the time, since I've been watching Confessions of a Window Cleaner, the highest grossing film of 1974, which is very much out of the same stable.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Avengers Series 1: The Radioactive Man

This is a very interesting Avengers episode, because on the one hand it deals with so many perennial human concerns: rules, identity, conformity, suspicion and trust, and yet it is also very much of its time, and forms as it were a time-bound expression of the more permanent subjects its raises.
I think it is probably important for this one not to forget that whether or not Eastern Europeans were illegal immigrants at the time, they were always the inhabitants of the mysterious land behind the Iron Curtain. We are therefore talking about people who would always be aliens of one sort or another here, and who in addition to the traumas of their own countries and stories of immigration to Britain, would be forced into an identification with their own people, and always looked on with suspicion by the natives. This is far different from the very nuanced, yet more integrated multicultural population we have nowadays, despite a current wave of feeling against Europe. This therefore places the eternal question of identity in a specifically Cold War framework.
The other main issue dealt with here is rather secondary to identity and it is about conformity, nonconformity and people’s attitude to external rules and pressures. What really kicks off the action in this one is a scientist (yes, that’s right, one of those intelligent types who in 1960s TV are notorious for going off the rails with disastrous consequences) who casually breaks a major security rule in his research establishment, resulting in radioactive material being stolen by a man who is in a rather ambivalent position, not least because of being an illegal immigrant. That people’s attitude to authority and external pressures is the real subject of this piece is shown by the fact that the ongoing action depends on people further ignoring rules, going their own way, and generally making life or death decisions, with conflicting pressures from groups they belong to or their own values.
Some time ago I posted about a DVD of British safety films from the 1970s, and it was in the decade after this show was made that safety in industry became a great legal concern in Britain, culminating in the rationalisation of many industry-specific laws into the formation of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. I remember commenting that you would think from that DVD that Britain was a country in which people customarily played in quarries, went swimming in canals, crossed railway lines, and fished around overhead lines, and of course that is true. The legal side apart, the perennial question is here is how dangerously can you expect humans to behave? The doctor who caused the security breach in the first place was clearly under stress as his wife was expecting a baby, but it is clear that the security of the research establishment was wholly dependent on fallible humans respecting rules made for safety, with nothing to stop them breaking the rules. The question naturally arises as to whether this situation could arise again today. I suspect that it would be much more difficult to bring a dangerous substance out of an institution nowadays, but you always get some jack the lad who manages to find a way. The most depressing thing about this episode is actually this aspect of it, that it shows up human behaviour and attitude to danger specifically, in a very bad light indeed.
Into the middle of this human drama, of course Keel steps in as the man most likely to sort this mess out. In epic terms, I suppose you would see him as the hero who happens to be in the right place and time and also have the wit to sort this. Once again, though, it shows a different time in that the situation is saved by a talented amateur, despite the involvement of the police. I have a feeling that nowadays this incident would result in large-scale evacuation of the area and the total exclusion of non-officials.
I find Steed’s role in this interesting, since it personifies his series 1 character as a person who just appears and disappears and it is never very clear where he comes from or who he is. Yet it is clear that he is involved in intelligence here: that can be his only possible role. I also like that his flippant personality is already developing, seen in his comment to Keel that he always finds a visit to Keel’s surgery ‘always seems to affect my health’, and Keel replies by thanking Steed and telling him that he always tries to do his best. A further Avengers theme which appears early on here, is that while there are issues around the immigrants’ political sympathies and the legality of Milan’s immigration, these things are trumped in jolly old Blighty for a humane concern for his health. Despite not being One of Us, we wouldn’t like to be like Them, and so Milan is not treated as the dodgy character he may well be. Perhaps he is intended to elicit sympathy or be shown as someone who needs to be cared for, despite being Foreign, although personally at times I felt like shouting ‘Don’t be such an idiot’ at him as I was reading through the synopsis of the show.
Obviously I haven’t seen this show and don’t believe I ever will, but it is clearly very much of its time. The very fact that much of it takes place in a radio shop is immediately reminiscent of a past age. It is also reminiscent of an age of lodgings, bed-sitters, cafes run by the proprietors, and in short, a world quite different from today. I would genuinely love to see this episode if it was ever recovered. I am not really in a position to criticise it and wouldn’t dare, since it is clearly a well-written play capable of standing on its own, and is also an episode of The Avengers whose like we will not see again.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Tightrope: First Impressions

Once again I veer off from posting about The Avengers series 1 to write about a series which is completely new to me, and which I bought from Amazon on the offchance. Mitchell Hadley of itsabouttv.com will be very pleased to hear that this definitely comes into the category of ‘Our Sort of Television’, despite not having the right pedigree at all on the surface. For a start it is a 1970s show, but seems to have escaped the slough of hopelessness I found myself wading through when I did a series of posts on 1970s television a few years ago. This is 1970s television, but of a quite different quality from what we expect. I would go so far as to say that I am formulating a theory that on the whole the better-preserved 1970s TV shows are the lesser-quality. Tightrope, like Spyder’s Web, is one which survives only in black and white recordings despite having originally been broadcast in colour, and the junking of the masters seems to be a sign of quality. Watching the show in black and white also gives it a much more 1960s vibe (more on the milieu of this show below, in which I will lavish uncharacteristically high praise on this show) than 1970s. It is nonetheless of its time completely, and certainly those unaccustomed to vintage TV would think it required too much work and was overly slow.
Like so many of the shows I write about here, Tightrope was never designed for the sort of scrutiny I subject these programmes to. Rather, they were intended for the sort of viewing of schools TV featured here – you turned on the TV at the time the show was on and if you missed it, tough. This is by no means a criticism but there are a number of ways in which this show requires the suspension of disbelief if you are to watch it repeatedly. A comprehensive school in a village, for a start. What is depicted is actually a tiny community, and I don’t believe that this community could ever have sustained a comprehensive school. I also don’t believe that a largely agricultural community (since bizarrely, none of the children of people employed at the American air base nearby go to the school) could have provided a school with enough pupils with the luxury of studying A-levels. I have a feeling that at this time those new-fangled CSEs would have been the height of achievement, since conflict between staff of a previous grammar school which became comprehensive, with the trendy staff, is mentioned.
Of course I am only talking about the somewhat incredible background to the story as a warm-up to talking about the incredible story. Once again, I must stress that this is in no way a criticism, although it may put anyone off who likes their TV to be realistic. Personally, while I do watch some shows renowned for their gritty realism, my favourite designators for TV are real and unreal, and there is a very real sense in which this show is unreal. In fact, fantastic. Even in the 1970s, it would be fantastically unlikely that the sort of goings-on shown in this school. High-level espionage, high-level policing, government interest in things going on, plunging a sixth-former into the world of espionage (not even allowing for the school for spies which Mr Forrester is running in a rather shoestring way in the village)… All of it is frankly incredible, and this is this show’s great strength. Not forgetting that Tightrope started off life as a children’s show, what is depicted here is in many ways the material of teenagers’ dreams. It contains the ultimate act of rebellion – a dream of being taken on as a spy (so that your parents can’t be told) and deliberately failing A-levels (which is guaranteed to have them foaming at the mouth). Combine that and the unreality with the setting of Cold War-era espionage, and we know exactly where this show is set. Still in any doubt? The illustration to this post gives it away – the simple fact of *that* bridge appearing in the show indicates to the cult TV fan that this show takes place in Avengerland.
The plot is worthy of The Avengers as well. Since Tightrope consists of thirteen episodes I was expecting there to be episodes where nothing much happened, but no such thing. It is so tautly plotted that it starts straight in with none of that ridiculous scene-setting some shows do. It also manages to maintain interest throughout the thirteen episodes, not least because it is impossible to tell who is on which side at various points. This may seem like a positively antique plot device, but as used in Tightrope it manages to maintain interest to the end. My only criticism of the plot is that the end is rather predictable: anyone familiar with the visual language of The Avengers will be familiar with the sort of role played by John Savident, and the role these English eccentrics always play. At this point I have either given away the ending or if you are not familiar with The Avengers you will be scratching your head still! In fact the very situation (English village, population 250) already spells a hotbed of intrigue in Avengers terms. The eccentrics, while not perhaps as numerous as in the final series of The Avengers, come think and fast, and I am particularly impressed with the publican’s moustache, very reminiscent of the fake Piggy Warren in The Town of No Return. I thought at the beginning of the first episode that there was going to be a conflict between the trendy teachers (in patterned shirts and kipper ties) and the more conservative teachers, but of course that was a cunning red herring, or more likely a possible plot device which was not used. In fact the whole series and the village itself feels very like Town of No Return, which I would nominate as one possible influence on the writing of this show.
I am frankly racking my brain to find valid criticisms about this show. It is very obviously studio-bound, and I feel that the apparent cheapness of the sets and fewness of the cast show up at various points. John Savident presents a certain problem for me because whenever I see him and think of his name, toothpaste comes to mind first and foremost, but of course this is a purely personal idiosyncrasy. He is of course wonderful as the outrageously flamboyant (considering he’s supposed to be a secret…) agent, and I cannot fault Spencer Banks in the role of Martin Clifford. All in all I would recommend this show to anyone who likes Our Sort of Television, with the one proviso that if you like realism you are in for having your credulity stretched beyond breaking point, but if you like your television on the unreal side, this will suit you down to the ground.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Diamond Cut Diamond

Another series 1 Avengers episode of which very little remains, and so I must do my opining on the basis of reconstructions and theory, and so must begin with a ‘disclaimer’ that this post will be a short one, but still longer than much that is written about this episode on the internet. First things first: what strikes me as most important about this story is the setting (no pun intended) in the world of diamond smuggling and air flight. Of course I am having to use my imagination here, but I would think that this setting places this Avengers episode in the worlds of luxury and high living right from the word go, since at this time cheap air flight would have still been a dream for many people. Similarly, diamonds have at all times automatically spelled a world of luxury and privilege.
My second thoughts are the fact that every synopsis of this show I have read includes the very specific fact that Steed is set up in a bungalow near an airfield. I have tried to rack my mind for any significance in this and failed to find any, but I still think it interesting that the nature of the home has somehow survived into the synopsis. Once again attempting to read this show through the eyes of the time as far as I can, the fact of a secret agent being set up in a domestic setting like that would immediately spell the world of Cold Ward espionage, although of course in this case it isn’t about espionage at all. That said, the figure of Steed is interesting here, and his specific role. The fact that he is set up as a fake air steward by his boss One Ten indicates that he is more than a shadowy figure appearing out of the woodwork; he is already developing into a figure with a structure behind him. The fact that this structure is using one of its men to stop a diamond smuggling ring indicates that the Western way of life and privilege is being defended.
Nor is Steed the rather louche figure he can come across in the earlier series. In my opinion he gives this impression right up to Venus Smith era shows, where he can frankly seem a bit of a dirty old man. Obviously no script survives to give an impression of him, but his liaison with a nurse in this episode need not be unsavoury. The fact that she is sometimes described as a pretty young nurse doesn’t really indicate her role in this show or come from the surviving minimal evidence of Steed’s relationship with her. I think her and Dr Collard’s roles as smugglers are actually more interesting, since they invert the literally life-saving role played by Keel in this show, and the medical figures play an interesting counterpoint to the dangerous people Steed is working amongst and the fact that he has been placed in that dangerous position by his own superiors. This is a reversal of the usual role of Steed in the earlier series, where he frequently puts other people in very dangerous positions and scarcely seems bothered about it.
What I hadn’t anticipated when I started this series of posts was that they would have me absolutely itching to see Series 1, if only because of how little remains of some of the episodes! This one helps to fill in what Steed was in the earlier series, and he gets a more important role than the shadowy figure who inspires Keel to avenge, which he was in some of the early Avengers.
Image credit: dissolute.com.au

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Francis Durbridge Presents A Game of Murder

Yes, I know it is not even a fortnight since I blithely sat at this self same table and planned a series of posts on series one of The Avengers. That series of posts will of course be continuing, but I was surprised to find the amount of labour required, when I wrote about Nightmare, as it is a case of reading often contradictory reconstructions of a programme I have never watched and then trying to reach some kind of conclusion. Given that as well as the sense of reverence with which I ‘watch’ the last of the new Avengers programmes I will ever see, has made me think of that series of posts as something that will take longer than I thought. I will therefore give those programmes their own tag and interleave them with others.
Apart from that, I had to rush into print about this show. No, seriously. For ages it has been one of the suggestions that come up on Amazon for people who like Our Sort Of Television and I have been keeping an eye on the price until a copy should come down low enough for me to buy it. In fact since the subject of price has come up let me say right now that that is my only criticism of this set, that even though I am unaware of the complexities of restoration it is not worth the £34.21 Amazon are currently pricing it at, except to the most fanatical Durbridge fan. I would also just say that while it is boxed on three DVDs as if it is a boxed set, it is actually only six episodes, and while it is praiseworthy that subtitles are included (they are too often omitted on cult TV releases) there are no other extras at all. I find it difficult to believe that this series could not have been released on a single DVD, and I would also think the viewing experience would be improved by the potential to put the disc in and press ‘play all’.
In fact I’m getting more confused about this release the more I read about it. The adventure I’m reviewing here was part of a long-running series, and that this was released in a first collection in Australia with two other adventures, earlier this year, on a region 4 set. I see from the madman.com.au site that that collection is already out of stock, as is a second volume. I have managed to find some of these for sale on Ebay, and while I keep one of my laptops set to region 1 (mainly to watch I Love Lucy) I do not have the means to play region 4 so will see what happens. Given that my set, as well as the Australian-released ones all have ‘BBC’ emblazoned all over them, I gather it has become complicated. On the basis of this I would welcome the opportunity to watch the remaining series.
I have of course blogged here about Francis Durbridge in the past: he is perhaps most famous for his creation of Paul Temple (best known in the UK as a radio series) but was a prolific author of mystery novels over many decades, and frequently film and television adaptations of those novels. His repute for complex, subtle plotting is borne out in this adventure to the full. If you want to watch this as a convention whodunit, you can do. However, I realise, since blogging about the TV adaptation of Paul Temple, that Durbridge was not at all limited to the gin and jag milieu of the Paul Temple radio series, and that while fans of that Paul Temple may well be disappointed by his transplantation to the 1970s, A Game of Murder is Durbridge fully plugged in to the 1960s.
My price criticism is actually my only one, since I was hooked on the show from the instant the first episode started. A Game of Murder has exactly the sixties vibe I like so much. I love the opening scenes of the man opening up the sports shop in the morning, itself a very dated scene, since shop fronts don’t tend to look like that any more, being magnets for vandalism and burglary. The theme music is plainly real music, and creates a foot-tapping jazz vibe from the start. The street scenes do not quite blend seamlessly with the obviously studio-bound interiors, but I feel for the time that wouldn’t be too big a criticism. Certainly there isn’t the huge jump from externals to sets that you find in, say, series 2 of The Avengers. Jack Kerry’s flat is also dead sixties. Strangely, I notice that it has exactly the same kind of wood panelling on the wall that Steed’s flat at Stable Mews had, and wonder whether it would have been as colourful in reality!
Gerald Harper is superlative as the lead, Jack Kerry. While he obviously appears in a lot of sixties TV shows in various roles of varying prominence, he is best known to me as Adam Adamant. Given this it is a little strange at first apparently hearing Adamant’s voice coming from a 1960s character. Kerry is a very different character from Adamant, naturally as a ‘straight’ policeman he lacks Adamant’s more fantastic features completely and also recognises a prostitute in a photograph when he sees one, something Adamant would have shied away from! There is a real sense in which this show uses a very well-worn plot – that of the wronged hero avenging his wrong by finding out the truth – but it doesn’t come across as hackneyed in any way.
The restoration is also superlative: there are no evident problems with the picture. I have read comments on the internet that the first two episodes seem rather short in comparison to the others, suggesting that they were originally heavily edited or parts are missing, but I haven’t timed the episodes myself. Sound quality is excellent. The cast has many well-known names of the time in it, but not distractingly so, and you will agree it is unusual for me not to criticise return faces.
In summary, if you like the kind of TV I like, I think you will like this show. I would welcome region 2 releases of the other adventures in this series but would wish the prices were more reasonable.