Friday, 30 September 2016

Knight Errant

Following my last post about secrets, lies, and my resignation without notice from my employers, I am delighted to move on to a post about adventure and to announce that a mere nine days after leaving my job I have been offered another one. With a better employer, slightly less money but then you can't have everything. In fact my friends who still work for my last employer are all green with envy. And since my claim for a large amount of money for constructive dismissal and disability discrimination is with the arbitration and conciliation service which is the first step towards an employment tribunal, I doubt they will be ill-advised enough as to try to give me a dodgy reference.
Anyway, Knight Errant as it stands is the remaining two episodes of two slightly different shows with the same theme. Long before Midsomer Murders, it managed to continue into a second series with the loss of the lead actor.
It is mainly of interest as far as this blog is concerned, as a possible precursor of The Avengers. By that I don't mean in terms of plot - while there is some avenging going on, the main premise is more one of adventure and service - but I mean in terms of atmosphere. This is very much the world in which the early Avengers takes place, which as usual is best seen against the backdrop of the tatty world of 1960s Britain, albeit this show was filmed at the end of the 1950s.
The main problem with this show is that while the favourable reviews on the internet are truly glowing, the unfavourable reviews are truly awful, largely for the reason that no more of this show remains than the two episodes on this disc. My personal opinion is that the criticisms of slow pace, poor production, wobbly scenery should be ignored, since the production values and so on are not abnormal for television of this age. This show only appears an also-ran if seen next to later TV. My real criticism is that it is only possible to see these two episodes, which provide a tantalising taste only.
My verdict on this show is that it is quality TV, a worthy predecessor to The Avengers and an interesting taste of what creative television was like in the time just before most other shows on this blog were broadcast. Sadly because there only remain two episodes, it is not possible to get more than a taste, and I feel this fact means that the disc, while not expensive, is relatively overpriced. I'm actually going to sell the disc since I have given in to the lure of Ghost Squad at long last.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Game

As usual there is a reason for a hiatus in posts here. I am delighted to announce my resignation without notice from my shitty employers on Monday and that I already have an interview this coming week. They asked me in today to ask me to go back but they’re going to have to do much better than that, and I am pursuing their treatment of me into an employment tribunal. Anyway, my current personal issue provides the perfect setting for watching The Game (a BBC series first broadcast on BBC America in 2014 then over here on BBC2), because it is all about intrigue and lies. It also has the unusual distinction of being the newest TV show I have ever written about here, so it must be good.

The Game is set in 1972 and it has achieved a remarkable success for me. Normally I hate period dramas of all sorts because of the feeling of unreality in comparison to the actual period TV I more usually watch. That said, 1972 is bang in the middle of my period, and The Game does a remarkable job of not getting on my nerves. There are some possible criticisms that it is slightly too squeaky clean for 1970s Britain, but I personally don’t find that too distracting. I more tend to get distracted by the ambivalent figure of the protagonist Joe, but I feel that that is probably intentional. Again, I think he is probably rather too squeaky clean in a modern way for the period, but again that is a matter of personal taste. I would say, however that there are times when his accent sounds Irish, which doesn’t sound right for an MI5 agent at the time, and what is completely wrong for an MI5 agent is that he is way too closely involved in the matter at hand.
There are Avengers echoes in the fact that the boss in MI5 is called Daddy. The show actually does a very good job of creating a sense of creating the authentic 1970s espionage milieu. I note that the scores on sites such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are high, and reflect probably a better public opinion of this show than the rather dodgy reviews given by the professionals. It also places me in the rather unusual position of writing a more positive review than most of the ones on t’internet!
On a completely personal note there is one real star of this show which is not credited. Much of the location filming was around Birmingham city centre where I live, and the real star is the former Central Library which plays the part of the MI5 headquarters. To cut a very long story short, the library was part of one of the council’s ambitious but short-sighted redevelopment schemes, and has been an embarrassment to them ever since. Cheapening of materials, an unfortunate placement, a lack of maintenance, the fact that the land it was on is prime redevelopment ground, phenomenal energy bills, and the passing from fashion of the library’s architectural style, mean that the council has been hell-bent on its demolition since the 1980s. A prolonged battle between the council and the brutalist architectural lobby resulted in the government granting an Immunity from Listing, and I have just been up there now and watched the last bit of it being demolished.

The Game is literally the last opportunity to see inside the library and it is a pity that it actually shows how good it could have looked if the council had ever been bothered to look after it properly, clean it, light it, and so on. The library actually looks much better in The Game than it did in reality, and a major reason is that it is better lit, demonstrating that it was built before the 1970s oil crisis and so it would have been impossible to read in there by natural light. Mark my words, in, ooh, ten years when the uninspired buildings they are going to build there are being criticized, this show will be one of the things brought in a criticism of the library’s demolition. Personally I was for the proposed scheme of keeping the central ‘inverted ziggurat’ bit and using it as something else while demolishing the peripheral clutter and replanning the traffic around it. If you like architecture, you will like this show just for the library. I particularly like the way the setting in Birmingham is slightly manipulated to make it look more metropolitan.
I recommend The Game as essential viewing for Cold War geeks, Brummies, and brutalist architecture fans.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Avengers DVD Releases Compared

Yes, I know I'm coming to this incredibly late, but I feel the need to give an opinion.
Some years ago when I started watching all the way through the remaining Avengers episodes I bought the series box sets released by Optimum Home Entertainment (the ones released as whole series in boxes with swirly patterns). These are of course the definitive releases and you can get them in a whole box set with loads of extras. The extras include PDFs of the scripts, commentaries, galleries of production stills, and so on. The shows have been cleaned up within an inch of their lives. These are without a doubt the definitive releases.
There are just a few failings with them. The major one of course is the complete absence of subtitles. And there is another one which I do see mentioned on the internet reviews, which is that the way the discs are stored in the complete set makes them difficult to take out and return without damaging them. I have found that with my individual series box sets: for some reason the spiky things holding the discs in break off. I look after my stuff and this has happened under normal wear and tear.
Then this week I found myself unable to resist buying one of the releases by Contender. I wanted to see if it was any different, but haven’t yet opened one of these up or seen what they're like. First impressions were good, that the set seem robust and the boxes holding the discs seem strong.
There is a subtle difference in how the episodes look on this set. I find myself referring repeatedly here to the colours of these old TV shows. Yes, the optimum releases are as cleaned up as they're ever going to be but the Contender discs remind me more of what the Avengers looked like when I originally saw them on Channel 4. I wouldn't like to commit myself too much but I have a feeling that that is more like the colour palette they would have had originally.
The Contender releases of course lack the PDF extras, commentaries and reconstructed episodes. Instead, you get subtitles and the opportunity to watch The Avengers in French!
I'm afraid that my conclusion has to be that both sets offer different things. Obviously if you need subtitles the decision is made for you. Personally I prefer the colours and more robust packaging of the Contender sets, but prefer the extras of the Optimum sets. Oh dear, I can picture a lot of money being spent again by yours truly...

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Vampire Over London

It literally hasn't stopped raining here for most of today, and so I have perforces remained at home for much of it. A rainy day turns my mind to the fact that when I was a child I had something called a 'rainy day' box, which was actually an old coal scuttle, in which lived toys which I didn't use at other times. I was allowed to put things in it when it wasn't aa rainy day, but not take things out of it. I find that I still actually do this with a small heap of books waiting to be read, in the back of the wardrobe.
Similarly old TV is a classic occupation of rainy days. I was going to comment that this post was not about TV at all, but I realise that actually it is. I started off looking on Amazon to see if any new-old TV shows are around which I haven't heard of, and ended up reading reviews of old films starring Arthur Askey, Will Hay, and Old Mother Riley. I realised that many of the Amazon reviewers had the same memories as me of what TV was like in the 1970s. I think it was probably much lower budget than it is now (although of course TV now finds endless excuses to recycle old TV programmes), but what was recycled in the 1970s was old films, and the reason this post is actually about TV is that while those old films were certainly not made for TV, it was on daytime TV that I first saw them, and remember them as a staple of TV programming when I was a child. I actually have many of the films I first met at that time, downoladed from and kept on my hard drive. Reading the reviews made me remember that I had saved this film because I used to love watching Old Mother Riley films, although never seen this one. I found myself lying in bed watching this film through, four times, before eventually I had to get up and brave the weather for some food.
I'm afraid that by and large this film gets absolutely slated on the internet. It has a very low rating on IMDB, and the word I find most applied to it is 'bizarre'. Well, so be it. If you are unaware of it, it marries Arthur Lucan (in drag) with Bela Lugosi (in evening dress). If this is a mixture you find unpatable, I don't think you will ever like this film! If, however, you like films such as What A Carve Up! and Carry On Screaming, I think you will like the strange mixture that is this film. Major criticism out of the way: this film's major failing will always be the way in which it marries two stars of disparate genres and thus tries to marry those genres together.
That said I would venture to say that this film is not that far divorced from some of the staples of the cult British television world. I was amazed to realise that it was made in 1952, since I would have put it much earlier, and thus the world which created it was the post-war world of both optimism and fear which is the background of much of the cult TV I like. Fear is personified in the fact that Lugosi's character is of course Foreign, in a generic sort of way. There is expressed a fear of communism when the beautiful young foreign visitor to these shores is snatched by a suspicious foreigner. Lugosi's character is furthermore described as a scientist, that figure of both confidence and fear in much TV up to the 1970s. When you consider that this film has a strong element of the eccentric scientist whose plan goes awry, you can immediately see how Avengers-esque this film is. Of course, when you allow for the fact that Lugosi's character otherwise fulfils most of the characterisation of the horror film vampire, this film goes well beyond any of the odder things The Avengers ever attempted!
Don't expect too much of the plot, since this film makes no effort to be either a straightforward horror or comedy film: it's been a long time since I saw any of Old Mother Riley's other films, but I remember them as much more straightforward comedies than this. In fact, the plot is really only a foil for the oddly-matched characters of Old Mother Riley and The Vampire. Again, I personally don't mind that. I feel that you can literally turn this film on anywhere and enjoy it as a sort of collection of tableaux, but hoping for a plot is to misunderstand it.
Approach it as a series of tableaux for the characters and Vampire Over London's endearing features come to the fore. I love the way Old Mother Riley keeps a crowbar in the piano (where else?). I love that The Vampire sleeps in a coffin, and the policeman (played by Richard Wattis who looks different without his glasses but still sounds only like himself) merely comments that that is a personal preference. I love that The Vampire wants Old Mother Riley to eat liver but she would rather have a bottle of stout. Of course The Vampire is building her up to be one of the beautiful girls who are knocked off, and the whole film hinges on the fact that Old Mother Riley can hardly be described as a beautiful young girl (and in fact Lucan was in his seventies when this film was made), and in fact is a bloke in a frock. It's dated, and both popular entertainment and drag acts have moved on since 1952, but if you suspend your disbelief this film is a joy. I particularly love the scene where Old Mother Riley sings 'I lift up my finger and I say tweet tweet' at her landlord.
My verdict on this film is that it is better than its low scoring in many reviews would suggest. It is of course an acquired taste, and if the main premise of it is distasteful to you, the film will also be distasteful. From a cult TV point of view, it is reminiscent both of the tastes of the immediate post-war generation, has some of the major concerns of later cult TV, and is also redolent of the sort of films repeated on 1970s British television.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Seventies TV: Sesame Street

As an adult, tell people you are watching Sesame Street and you get mixed reactions. Firstly people make fun of you, then they tell you how much they used to love it, and then they will end up singing a song to you. The more filthy minded will of course make a point of telling you what C really stands for, but we needn't let them delay us at this point. The point is that while it was conceived as a children's TV show it is one which is fondly remembered by people my age and younger, and I'm going to post about it here because this is my blog and so I wll. I'm calling it seventies TV because that was the age in which I first watched it, I'm rewatching some episodes which have been released as 'Old School Sesame Street' on region 2 DVDs and don't intend to watch beyond that one decade.
The first thing I have to say about Sesame Street was that when I was a child I perhaps didn't benefit from it as well as those who produced it would wish me to. Given that it was intended for pre=school children I was probably older than intended when I first saw it and slightly too old for its educational messages. In fact I didn't realise until I read round the subject, just how educational Sesame Street was intended to be, to the extent that it was actually government-funded and intended to have measurable curricular outcomes. Yes you read that right, that's the fun taken out of Sesame Street in one stroke! Don't worry, just focus on the fun bits like I did.
Another way I didn't understand Sesame Street the way its creators probably saw it is of course that I am British, not American. In the 1970s, this was enough to make Sesame Street seem fairly foreign, probably more so than it would nowadays. I have just been watching the pilot episode, in which it showed cows being milked and the process through to the cartons of milk being sold in the shops. This would have seemed very sophisticated to me, since at that time our milk came in bottles and was left on the doorstep by a man who left it there in the morning.
Another thing which seemed foreign to me at the time was the racial mix of Sesame Street. I remember that there were black people in it, and again found that very sophisticated because there were no black people where we lived at the time (in fact in the Black Country village I grew up in people had been out of it so rarely that a trip to the next village was seen as a major undertaking and the buses stopped running around 8pm). The existence of black people wasn't a problem for me, because I had met them in Kenya when we went to visit my aunt, they just didn't live where we did! I see that the early episodes were criticised for not including any characters of any other ethnicities, such as Hispanic, and if they were present in the ones I watched, I didn't even notice these other ethnicities, but that must say something about my own perceptions. Probably locally if exposed to them I could have found large populations of Afro-Caribbean, East Asian, and South-East Asian people. On the other hand, I doubt that the Greek Cypriots up the road would have ever appeared in Sesame Street. For me, the world of Sesame Street was always going to be foreign and remain so.
A further way in which I have just noticed the foreignness of it, is that I have forgotten how much of the show was around nature or at least outdoors. I remember thinking Sesame Street very sophisticated because the children played out in the street (we weren't allowed to in case we got stolen or something). Watching the show again after all these years, I am surprised to see how so many segments, particularly those around animals, are set out in the country. I had sussed as a child that Sesame Street was a more urban area than we lived in, though.
Something which is familiar from the 1970s, is the happiness which I consider characteristic of the 1970s. I'm not being completely fair obviously, comparing a children's TV show with real life, but my recollection of being a child in the 1970s, was that it was a wonderful happy time of freedom and bright colours. In retrospect I think that this was probably because we were all off our heads on the additives in the food. In fact at work the other day we had a retro picnic, eating only things we could remember from the 1970s, and I certainly didn't get the rush I used to years ago!
My happy recollections mean that Sesame Street is in a somewhat different category from the other 1970s TV series I have posted about here. I notice a distinct pattern when I talk about how I remember a show, then realise the show and its context are completely abysmal and finally discover that the case are mostly in prison for paedophilia. In this case, I see that the actor playing Elmo has been accused of sex with an underage boy, accusations which were then withdrawn. This puts Sesame Street in a totally different place from the majority of the 1970s shows I post about here. It also puts it in a different place from the majority of shows I remember from my childhood. It is just as well that Jimmy Savile never replied to my letter asking him to fix it for me, Stuart Hall, the presenter of It's a Knockout, was of course jailed, and Blue Peter presenters were notorious for going off the rails.
I'm feeling my way towards a conclusion with this list of differences from the world I knew - it is the obvious one that the world which gave birth to Sesame Street was not only different to the one I was living in, but it benefited from a strong dose of unreality. I have just read now that the state senate of Mississippi voted in 1970 not to broadcast Sesame Street because of its racially integrated cast. No seriously. The world depicted by Sesame Street was a happy, racially integrated, pleasant one, but still wasn't quite the world it was being made in. This is the one shade hanging over Sesame Street, that it was set in a world in many ways as awful as the world many other 1970s shows inhabited, but its distance from the world known to me made it appear a better world. Naturally I can only attribute that to the influence of the American dream (and would simultaneously have to cough and turn a blind eye to the simple fact that we are so prosperous in Britain as a direct result of invading most of the world and owning slaves).
My conclusion on Sesame Street is that it brings back many happy memories but unfortunately doesn't really take the pressure of being viewed by adult eyes, particularly when you discover its overtly didactic aims and some of the 'controversy' behind the scenes. It is mainly a disappointing trip down memory lane for someone of my age because it is not possible to watch this show in the way a child would. Show it to children, by all means, I'm sure the educational system on both sides of the Atlantic is no longer up to what it was in the 1970s and Sesame Street can provide some remedial early learning.