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.