Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Public Eye: Welcome to Brighton?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 26 December 2016

Acorn Antiques

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

Sunday, 18 December 2016

No Hiding Place

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

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Spitting Image

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

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

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Redcap: First Impressions

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