Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Girl on the Trapeze

Well here I am back on track for the moment with posts on series 1 of The Avengers. I must just repeat the sensation of loss I've been feeling, as I have posted about series 1, because once I have stopped to think about all of the episodes that's it, there really will never be any new Avengers for me. The fiction on the internet just doesn't mostly cut it because people are so preoccupied with getting Steed and Mrs Peel into bed, and for me much of the point of their relationship is that they never actually do go to bed.
This first series Avengers is of course one in which Steed doesn't feature at all - Dr Keel does it all on his own - and so we are in genuinely different territory from the one we know so well from later Avengers seasons. That said, my very first impression of this episode is how very 'Avengers' it actually manages to be right from the start. What I mean by this is that it one of the first things the viewer sees is a scene behind the scenes of a circus, which visually places the episode in a setting of leisure, childhood and pleasure. This is a classic Avengers visual trick of the later series, and it is subverted in classic Avengers style here, by having a clown committing a murder. I suppose the point here is the original bottom line of The Avengers - that Dr Keel has been jolted out of his comfortable middle class existence by the murder of his fiancee, which turns him into an avenger and plunges him into the underworld. This is a permanent change in his world which can never be undone.
I speak of the 'original' bottom line, and of course it is impossible to deny that the exit of Dr Keel caused a change in the way the series developed. However I have been trying to think what it is about this episode that reminds me so forcefully of later Avengers episodes, and I have had to come to the conclusion that it is because the image of the clown is used (or subverted) so often in The Avengers. In fact it is already subverted in this one, and I like the apparently sneaky way the clown is rapidly taking off his make-up in the screen capture I have used to illustrate this post. Translated into the pictorial language of The Avengers, I suppose this would mean that things are often not what they seem, and that masks can be used to hide real personalities. The clown figure repeats in later series of The Avengers - the obvious one is the murderous disgruntled vaudeville artistes in Look Stop Me If Youve Heard This One..., but in a broader sense The Avengers gets into the habit of subverting safe childhood imagery (Something Nasty in the Nursery) and then restoring it or at least eliminating those who would upset our comfortable world. Seen in this light, Girl on the Trapeze can be seen as an early example of The Avengers using traditional safe imagery to create a dangerous setting.
I am reminded by this episode particularly of the major changes in technology and society that have occurred in the intervening fifty years. The doctor's house is apparently heated by a gas fire. He is seen smoking. While the secretary has a television set, the radio seen in Keel's room is huge and I suspect powered by valves. A search to identify a dead woman involves a lengthy hand search through the magazines and newspapers in the house. The fire precautions in the theatre consist of buckets hanging off the wall, which I don't remember seeing for years and would certainly get you closed down now. The tickets for the circus cost sixteen shillings (77 and a half pence) each, and the circus includes animals in its acts. For me the extent of change also provides a sense of loss, just because while the world of The Avengers is supposed never to have existed, there is enough detail in this episode to mean that these shows could only ever be remade as 'period dramas', which would change the dynamic dramatically.
Given all the above, my main feeling is that this Avengers episode is under serious pressure to perform,  yet in another sense can't fail, between its status of being one of the few recovered series 1 episodes and the tendency of the fans to pick over it to experience series 1. Leave these things out of it, and I have one major problem with this episode, which is that it has a serious plot failing. You know that the clown did it all along, which means that if you want to work it out (rather than watch Keel and Carol work it out) this one will always disappoint.
I have one other difficulty with this show: I know I keep harping on about it but these old TV shows will not take the kind of criticism they are required to take on repeated viewings, certainly not the kind of criticism I subject them to. I have deliberately focussed on my own preoccupations with this one, because you can find detailed analyses of plot, characters, acting, and even bloopers, elsewhere on the internet, and I feel that that is also to do this one an injustice. It is unfortunate that it has wound up being the object of such scrutiny, because it would have been intended for a one-off viewing with no pausing or repeats available.
Viewed in that light, it is an excellent drama for the time. The pace is faster than a lot of old TV (certainly faster than the Dixon of Dock Green episodes from a decade later I have been watching). The characterisation apart from Carol and Keel is rather impressionistic, but of course that it is intended to portray the way we view circus characters. The fact that much of the action takes place behind the scenes of the circus is an indication of the way the Avengers of necessity has to go behind the scenes and find society's murky underbelly.
My personal conclusion on Girl on the Trapeze is that it has to bear an unenviably great reputation as one of the few recovered series 1 Avengers episodes, which leads it to be examined too closely. If you want to watch a whole series 1 episode, then obviously this and The Frighteners are your only options and if you want to see an Avengers without Steed, this is literally your only option. As a drama, my opnion is that it is probably a lot better than a lot of the drama of the time, in pacing and 'edginess'. However as a crime drama, my opinion is that if you don't want to know who the baddie is, you will be bitterly disappointed. Watch it by all means, but remember what it was meant to be and be kind to it.

Friday, 26 August 2016

In Which The Sweeney Takes on The Professionals

I have been watching The Sweeney again. I posted specifically about the movie on this blog, but I don’t think I posted about the TV series as such. One of the things I have in mind to do is series of posts around different actors (capitalizing on the frequent recurrence of actors in 1960s TV, which usually annoys me so much, I know) and one of the things I had in mind was to focus on Ian Hendry, and he had a role in the first episode of the first series. I realized that I hadn’t felt inspired to watch the series again for about six months, and so I popped a disc in and pressed play.
I had previously watched through all four seasons quite happily, and if you had asked me to place The Sweeney in a map of my televisual world, I would probably have put the show as coming out of the same stable as The Professionals and The New Avengers. This is despite one of my old neighbours’ attempts to put me off it by telling me how very old-fashioned it was. On the surface The Sweeney can well be equated to The Professionals (I only put The New Avengers in there, because I prefer to approach it as if it The Professionals rather than as if it is The Avengers). The two protagonists are distinctly mavericks working in an already difficult world. They often operate outside the strict rules of what they should be doing and often get rapped over the knuckles for it. The Sweeney was one of the shows which exposed to the general public how desperate the struggle to keep Britain’s streets safe was becoming by the 1970s, and also exposed the extent to which the police was buckling under the pressure and coming under internal threat from corruption and so on. The Sweeney showed us what ‘real’ policing was like at the time, and must have come as a shock to the aficionados of Dixon of Dock Green.
Yet I found that I was disappointed on re-watching the series. I am now re-watching The Professionals, just to tempt fate, and am finding it much better, and the purpose of this post is to reflect on why. If I reflect on what disappointed me about The Sweeney on rewatching it, I feel that it felt as if it was lacking something in comparison to The Professionals. As I was watching it, I felt that it was the lack of the somewhat combative relationship between Bodie and Doyle. Rather than Bodie and Doyle’s relationship without a rank, which ironically causes them to be more competitive with each other, the hierarchy between Regan and Carter is always apparent. I suppose The Sweeney intended to be about the real world of (admittedly Flying Squad) policing rather than the luxurious world of Special Branch, and you all know how little I like Real TV compared to Unreal TV, but I feel that Sweeney has missed a trick.
I find on rewatching The Professionals that the contrast seems to be much more of a visual one. I have written here before repeatedly about the muted pallet of colours used in so much 1970s TV, but the first thing to strike me on watching The Professionals is that it seems much more colourful and therefore visually interesting. This may highlight again the different worlds the two programmes are about. If you google ‘1970s d├ęcor’ much of what you get in the results are the latest fashions of the 1970s, and of course not many people would have had the money to afford those interiors. If The Professionals is about the world inhabited by The New Avengers, then The Sweeney is about the world of Rising Damp! Perhaps there’s also a question of the length of time which has passed. Many people nowadays escape into the ‘real’ world of soaps. As it happens I prefer to escape into the unreal world of exotic TV of fifty years ago. The high-flying world of The Professionals probably makes a better escape than the real(er) world of the 1970s depicted in The Sweeney.
Additionally I feel that The Professionals’ plots and scripts are better, just because I’m finding myself drawn in as I’m watching them. To be frank, I kept looking up at The Sweeney and wondering what was going on!
Yet I have watched both The Sweeney films repeatedly, liking them again each time. Perhaps both the Sweeney films and The Professionals were made with more big screen values, which makes them a different viewing experience…I’m just surmising here. Perhaps the characters are more able to shine in a film setting as well, I see the two Sweeney films are 18 certificate, which while it may merely imply sex, violence, swearing, and the odd glimpse of tits, to me it also suggests that the world depicted in the films is far more colourful than the one depicted in the TV series. So the films aside, I feel that The Professionals is superior to The Sweeney in visuals, characterization, plot, and the world that is depicted. I think I may be selling my Sweeney DVDs!

Monday, 15 August 2016

Man At The Top

It is rather strange that this programme has never drifted into my orbit before, since there was what we would now call a whole franchise around the 'at the top' series of films, book and TV programme. The top part of the title is actually a metaphor for the protagonist's ambitions to better himself:
' Joe Lampton, recently demobilised from the armed forces of late 1940s Britain, is starting in a new job with the Municipal Treasury in the town of Warley. He was a">POW
 who spent his captivity studying to pass his">accountancy examinations. He is an">orphanwhose parents were killed in an">air raidagainst his home town. He is determined to make something of himself, targeting a high-paid job with a thousand a year salary. He notices, shortly after arriving, a young man with an expensive car and a pretty girl friend and he realises that this lifestyle and appearance is what he aspires to. The book centres on Joe's efforts to secure a future he can take pride in.
'In Warley, he takes lodgings with the Thompsons, a middle-class couple living in the better part of town, known locally as "T'top". Lampton is delighted to find himself already socially advantaged by taking, quite literally, a "Room at the top", and this serves as a metaphor for his ambition to better himself and to leave behind any vestige of his former life and acquaintances, many of whom he characterises as "zombies", lacking any trace of genuine life and character. Everything about Warley is an improvement on his former life in Dufton.' (
The 'at the top' franchise is of course very much of its time, part of the movement towards realism in theatre and other media (my preference for unreal TV is probably the reason this series has never grabbed me before), and depicting the tension brought by the upward mobility of the post-war years. And here, right at the start of my own actualy writing in this post, I've already fallen out with this show in a big way.
The phrase 'Northern anti-hero' has kept popping into my head while I have been watching it. It's nothing to me, after all in the great division between the North and the South of England, I'm from the Midlands, and both sides of the great divide place the Midlands in the other camp anyway, but I feel that this show's target audience can only really be Southerners. In addition to the ambition element, there is also an element in which this show is about the interaction of the North and the South. Don't ask me how I know, it just comes across as clear as a bell with the accents of the characters. Lampton, the protagonist, is in a sense alienated from both sides of the divide: his accent alienates him from one and his aspirations from the other. What I'm trying to say is that I feel he may be a character calculated to attract a lack of sympathy in his audience, although I'm consciously trying to avoid prejudging both sides' reactions to him. If I have to come down on one side or the other, since this was produced by Thames Television, I would think that this was calculated to be seen by Southern eyes. Just for the record, speaking as a Brummie, Haigh's accent goes through me, and the posh people's reactions to him also go through me.
On the other hand, I suppose this programme is about human aspirations in the broader sense, things such as relationships, money, identity, and security. More to the point they are about these things in a very specific moment in time, which is where this series makes a much better impression on me. If ever there was a person for whom the word aspirations was invented, it must be Lampton. I suppose it is important to remember my own repeated point that we must at least make an attempt to view these TV shows with the eyes of the time, to enable the issues to be put into their true context. Since this is a 1970s TV series, it must be seen against the back drop of unrest, conflict and crisis, accompanied by great luxury for some. These were of course the events which led up to the values of Thatcher's Britain, which embodied an aspirational value system. I feel that Lampton's relative prosperity would be seen as completely alien by many of this show's original viewers, and of course there is the uneasy tension that his aspirations would alienate him from his working-class roots. If I have to give my jaundiced opinion on this tension, I feel that Man At The Top actually holds this tension very well, and this show is genuinely one which deserves thinking about. It is not an easy evening view after work.
For the modern viewer, especially one of - ahem - my age, one of the greatest things about this show is its perfect 1970s setting. The wardrobe Lampton wears is so similar to that worn by my dad in the 1970s as to be uncanny. The contrast between the rich people and the poorer people when Lampton briefly goes home, is perfectly done and since this show is not trying to be anything other than contemporary, once again rushes me back to the scenes of my youth. My usual advisory notes to anyone who may prefer the faster pace of modern television apply: expect to have to pay closer attention to this show than modern ones. This is before the age of the sound bite. The show's production values are of the time. There are occasionally times when a set is a little too obviously a set, or you catch a glimpse of studio lighting, but I don't personally mind that. Another prominent way in which this show is of its time is in Lampton's attitude to women, and perhaps there is a subtext in which the show's title of *Man* At The Top is very suitable.
I would recommend this show to anyone wanting a challenging sociological view. I would just warn that there is an uneasy tension at its heart built on the famous British North/South divide and post-War aspirations, which tends to militate against this show being relaxing viewing.
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Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Dixon of Dock Green: First Impressions

In case anyone had spotted that I have ground to a halt with my posts on Avengers Series 1 episodes (and in fact the ones I have done are amongst the most popular posts on this blog), have no fear. I retain a sense that I want to approach Series 1 slowly and with respect, because I know for a fact that at the end of that series of posts there simply won't ever be any more. Another worry of the cult tv fan which I have written about at length here, is that one day the supply of quality TV to be found or published will simply run out, and at that point my library of DVDs will be it for the rest of my life. This fear has once again been assuaged by my discovering a couple of series which I have never seen.
One is Dixon of Dock Green. Obviously I'm not that great an old TV aficionado, since I have never yet seen a single episode of it, until today I saw one of Acorn's anthology sets for sale and thought I would give it a go. Dixon is so woven into the British imagination (surely no real policeman ever has actually said 'Evening, all' except as a joke) that I can't think how I've managed to miss it. It also has a local connection to me personally, since theseries creator went to school at George Dixon School here in the second city, which provided the inspiration for Dixon's name.
Let's get the nitty gritty over first, before I get distracted into one of my little wanderings around a subject. The episodes I've got are in colour. By that I mean the characteristic 1970s palette of muted colours. The restoration is mainly superb, with just the odd spot where the picture betrays the fact that it is forty years old. The plots move at the pace one would expect of the era: given that these late episodes were in the same era as The Sweeney, Dixon of Dock Green comes across as a bit of an anachronism, frankly. As is usually the case with seventies TV, the cars are major stars for me. I love that the police always seem to be in a Rover and I've just spotted a woman driving an Austin Maxi. Can't remember the last time I saw one of those in reality.
A few criticisms, most of which won't come as any surprise to regular visitors here. One is that far too many of the actors are familiar faces, to the extent that they distract from the show. My real complaint here though, is that they are tending to make me think how young these jobbing actors are, which is terribly ageing. I think probably in purely technical terms my main ciriticism is that Jack Warner is visibly far too old to be a working policeman. He was in his seventies at the time these episodes were made, well beyond retirement age, and was looking visibly elderly. Unfortunately his presence prevents the show having any real credence at all.
What I am about to say is more in the nature of a comment than a criticism, but Dixon of Dock Green portrays a very interesting view of policing and of Britain. For a start, I haven't seen a single ethnic minority person yet. The closest it's got is that the baddie in the one I am watching at the moment is Italian! For me this puts Dixon of Dock Green into my 'unreal' category of TV (as opposed to the gritty 'realism' of many other 1970s shows. The unreality is maximised in the portrayal of the police, and I would repeat that this isn't really a criticism, since there's nothing wrong to my mind with escapist television. I have a feeling that that was a hangover from the view of public servants which pertained when the show started in the 1950s. To illustrate this post I have deliberately chosen some parodies of a Ladybird book about 'The Policeman' in the series 'People at Work'. To my twenty-first-century mind it is so obvious that if you are a corrupt wheeler and dealer, the police is the obvious profession to go into. If you are a paedophile you'll tend to become a clergyman, teacher, or social worker, and if you like inflicting death or suffering, then medicine or nursing is the way to go. If not your actual dentistry. At the time the episodes I am watching were made, the sheer extent of police corruption was coming to public attention in some very high-profile ways, and any sense of that is completely missing from Dixon of Dock Green. The figure of the policeman is very much the solid figure of respectability featured in the real Ladybird book about the police, rather than the parody which illustrates this post.
I would certainly recommend you to watch Dixon of Dock Green if you want escapist television with a police theme. I have a feeling it would especially appeal to Anglophiles as an image of an Britain which didn't really exist even then. It is the sort of show which reminds me how exotic my own choice in television really is, though. A diet of The Avengers, The Prisoner, and The X-Files have left me somewhat unsatisfied by such an unpretentious, solid series. But if that's what you're looking for, go for it.
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